Queer Theory

Olivier Vallerand

Poster of  Queer Space  exhibition, 1994, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York. Courtesy Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Poster of Queer Space exhibition, 1994, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York. Courtesy Storefront for Art and Architecture.

The emergence of queer theory and its challenges to normative understandings of sexual and gender categories has changed a wide number of disciplines, but its impact on architecture has been quite limited compared to other fields, such as art, art history, geography, or planning. Most queer scholarship in architecture appeared in the mid-1990s. It emerged from two different streams: feminist histories and critiques of the built environment and a larger interest in theory across architecture, including post-structuralist French theory, an important source in the development of queer theory. Building on these diverging sources, queer scholarship in architecture approached different themes with varying objectives.

An important number of these works focused on the issue of visibility, be it in contemporary representations or in architectural history. Aaron Betsky, in one of the most well-known books on the topic, presented a history of spaces designed or used by queer people—mostly gay white men—that he connected with his personal experience of clubs.1 A similar impulse to make gay and lesbian people visible—a reclaiming of history that is also present in other disciplines—sustained, for example, Alice Friedman’s discussion of Philip Johnson’s Glass House or Katarina Bonnevier and Justine Rault’s analysis of Eileen Gray’s E.1027.2 While most of these projects focused on domestic spaces, Maxine Wolfe’s article on lesbian bars, “Invisible Women in Invisible Places,” made clear that the issue of visibility also applied to spaces considered public. Other thinkers looked at how queer people were represented in the profession or in architecture magazines—in one instance, Henry Urbach showed how magazines such as Architectural Digest at once reveal and conceal queer couples by insisting on showing two separate bedrooms in their photographic features, among other strategies.3 Discussions of both historical and contemporary examples, however, often fell into the trap of focusing on privileged gay white males at the expense of more marginalized people (women, transgender people, and people of color being among them) or of trying to identify a “queer design aesthetic,” to use Jonathan Boorstein’s terms.4

The focus on visibility of much queer scholarship in architecture aligns itself more with earlier gay and lesbian studies than with the political challenge to categories that underlines queer theory, even if making marginalized people visible is itself a political endeavor. Some architects have, however, built on this political aspect. By the mid-1990s, feminist thinkers had already begun to challenge the gendered assumptions that supported the design and experience of the built environment by focusing on women’s place in it, both as designers and as users. Queer theory pushed for a further rethinking of the ways sexuality and gender intersect with space by questioning the role that architecture plays in the construction of male identity, as exemplified by the essays in the collection Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, edited by Joel Sanders. The political potential of queer space theory has also developed from the shifting focus of architectural history and theory through a discussion of minor architecture, as in John Paul Ricco’s analysis of sex spaces inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of minor literature,5 or more broadly through an analysis of cruising spaces, bathhouses, and sexualized bars and clubs.6 Others have built from the performative aspect of queer theory to suggest that queer space is, in Christopher Reed’s words, “imminent, [. . .] in the process of, literally, taking place, of claiming territory.”7 Similarly, Henry Urbach discussed the ante-closet—the space created by the opening of a closet door—as an ephemeral space where “private and social realms interpenetrate” and as a space where the line between what one hides and what one shows breaks down.8 Bridging between disciplines, including architecture, the edited collection Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance explored the interactions between queer identity, activism, and public spaces, underlining the relationship between physical spaces and the political potential of social visibility.9

In addition to more traditional essays, scholarship on queer space also materialized in exhibitions such as Queer Space, held at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York in 1994. Organized around the question, “What exactly is queer space?” the projects exemplified many of the approaches discussed here—highlighting the complexity of a concept like queer space but also the importance of thinking about space as layered in a way that acknowledges the diverging political and social implications that different people will experience.

Most of the queer scholarship in architecture has focused on gay men and, more marginally, lesbian women. Only recently have trans people become subjects of discussion, as in Joel Sanders and Susan Stryker’s “Stalled.” Issues surrounding trans people have been much more present in planning discussions, such as in the work of Petra Doan,10 but they seem to have triggered a renewed interest in architectural discussions after a period of limited visibility in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Sanders has discussed this shift in his own thinking in a recent article published in a special 2017 issue of Log, one of the few architecture journals to devote special issues to the relation of gender, sexuality, and the built environment.11 This interest also aligns with a similar renewed interest in feminist issues. Like earlier scholarship, these new projects present a broad range of interpretations of what queer space can mean, highlighting its potential for rethinking both the practice and study of architecture. The projects return to a socially informed practice of architecture that had been erased in the early years of the twenty-first century by an overwhelming stream of digital experimentations and formal or projective approaches to design. Hopefully, this renewed interest will be sustained as the complex challenges posed by queer theory to architectural practice—particularly the translation of discursive practices into design and construction—call for a sophisticated understanding of the connection between gender, sexuality, and the built environment—something that can only appear with time and careful experimentation.

1 Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire (New York: William Morrow, 1997).

2 Alice T. Friedman, "People Who Live in Glass Houses: Edith Farnsworth, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and Philip Johnson," in Women and the Making of the Modern House : A Social and Architectural History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998); Katarina Bonnevier, "A Queer Analysis of Eileen Gray's E.1027," in Negotiating Domesticity: Spatial Productions of Gender in Modern Architecture, ed. Hilde Heynen and Gulsum Baydar (London & New York: Routledge, 2005); Jasmine Rault, Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity: Staying In (Farnham, Surrey & Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011).

3 Henry Urbach, "Peeking at Gay Interiors," Design book review: DBR 25 (1992).

4 Jonathan Boorstein, "Queer Space," in Building Bridges: Diversity Connections: American Institute of Architects National Diversity Conference Proceedings (Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects, 1995).

5 John Paul Ricco, "Coming Together: Jack-Off Rooms as Minor Architecture," A/R/C, architecture, research, criticism 1, no. 5 (1994).

6 Henry Urbach, "Spatial Rubbing: The Zone," Sites, no. 25 (1993); Betsky; Ira Tattelman, "The Meaning at the Wall: Tracing the Gay Bathhouse," in Queers in Space: Communities | Public Places | Sites of Resistance, ed. Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter (Seattle: Bay Press, 1997); "Speaking to the Gay Bathhouse: Communicating in Sexually Charged Spaces," in Public Sex/Gay Space, ed. William Leap (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); "Presenting a Queer (Bath)House," in Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations, ed. the Queer Frontiers Editorial Collective, et al. (Madison, WI: The University of Winsconsin Press, 2000); Henry Urbach, "Dark Lights, Contagious Space," in Intersections: Architectural Histories and Critical Theories, ed. Jane Rendell and Ian Borden (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).

7 Christopher Reed, "Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment," Art Journal 55, no. 4 (1996): 64.

8 Henry Urbach, "Closets, Clothes, Disclosure," Assemblage, no. 30 (1996): 70.

9 Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter, eds. Queers in Space: Communities | Public Places | Sites of Resistance (Seattle: Bay Press, 1997).

10 Petra L. Doan, ed. Planning and Lgbtq Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces (New York & London: Routledge, 2015); "Beyond Queer Space: Planning for Diverse and Dispersed Lgbtq Populations," in Planning and Lgbtq Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces, ed. Petra L. Doan (New York & London: Routledge, 2015).

11 See for example Log issue 41 (with a section titled “Working Queer”) or The Funambulist issue 13 (on “Queers, Feminists & Interiors”).