What defines a queer space? Architecture historian Joshua Mardell and artist and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman’s anthology refuses to say outright — and that’s part of the point. Rather, the dozens of narratives that make up Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQ+ Places and Stories (Riba Publishing, 2022) open a window into alternative conceptions of what it means to design and build a space.
The professional field of architecture is notorious for fostering racist and sexist work environments — and there is ample data to show that those workplaces are often homophobic and transphobic as well. A 2018 Architects’ Journal survey showed that 73% of queer architects were open about their sexual orientation in the United Kingdom, down from 80% in 2016. Outside of London, that number falls to 62%. In a 2021 study of queer architects and designers in the United States, only 50% of employees responded that their workplace was accepting of queer identities.
Furman’s own designs are purposefully colorful and ornamental in a manner that they have related to queer aesthetics. They have spoken out about how in today’s field, “you can be a gay architect, but you can’t do queer architecture.” This lack of acceptance begins in school. Furman noted that it’s common for queer architecture students to face humiliation by peers and tutors. “They’re othered, they’re bullied verbally, there are ad hominem attacks through their work, and any form of expression of their identity through their work is immediately pushed out of them to the point where most people I know left.”
In architecture, new ideas often rest on the precedent of previous designs. But how do you find a precedent when there’s no archive? This is what makes Queer Spaces into an enormous achievement in terms of queer history. “I’ve already had about five or six photos sent to me by tutors of students presenting their final project,” Furman told Hyperallergic. “It’s always on the table with drawings and the models. And there’s our book open to a certain page with notes and an arrow. It’s being used in that way already.”
Rather than remaining mired in theory-heavy language, the book’s 55 contributors provide a collection of accessibly written case studies and personal stories of places that they consider to be fundamentally queer. The following are just a few of the themes that jumped out to me, but I’m positive you’ll encounter many more.
Privacy and Interiors
Many queer spaces are formed by the need for safety from homophobic violence. New Sazae is a pocket-sized bar in Tokyo, tucked away out of sight on the second floor of a mixed-use zakkyo building. Bars in the queer Shinjuku Ni-chome neighborhood were often investigated by police enforcing Public Morals Regulation law, or fūeihō, in postwar Japan. As contributor Takeshi Dylan Sadachi writes, walls adorned with graffiti, glossy fake plants, and a mirror ball make the hidden space a final “bastion of disco culture in Tokyo.”
From rural cottages to island hideaways, the first section, titled “Domestic,” explores “little queer worlds that catered to those whose lifestyles were disallowed in the public sphere.” In a joint publication with the Royal Institute of British Architects, the editors’ very inclusion of interior design is a statement that such decoration is not only on par with the design of a building’s frame, but is in fact a fundamental part of that architecture and has an effect on it.
Professionals in the field know that interior design has very often been othered as a more frivolous, feminine, and queer pursuit. And in fact, Furman noted that many of their colleagues who experienced architecture’s anti-queer abuses found a home in interior design.
Political Exaggeration and Extravagance
Comparsa Drag is a group of artists, activists, and drag performers who, as Gustavo Bianchi and Facundo Revuelta describe, make up a “diverse flock” proudly stomping the avenues of Buenos Aires: “Their queer wandering and excessive behavior is the radical disruption of normative city manners, an urban practice that explores territories of sensuality and passion within ordinary spaces.” From Argentina’s city streets to nightclubs in Manila, political demonstrations can blur with performance and dance. Brightly colored “party” aesthetics cut through the oppressive dullness of conservative city walls. Here, “queer” refers not just to sexual orientation, but to a rejection of standard definitions of what is “normal.”
Queer Archives and Community Spaces
While the stories of many wealthier icons are well recorded, it’s often community librarians who have archived ephemera from marginalized communities. In doing so, they save memories that would otherwise be lost. Facundo Revuelta writes that Argentina’s Archivo de la Memoria Trans is “a room full of bags with photos and letters waiting to be digitized,” already containing over 10,000 documents. Some of these photos capture moments from the royal blue halls of Hotel Gondolín, a three-story townhouse that has been home to generations of travesti women since the early 1990s. From police records to party flyers to polaroids, these archivists (who are creating spaces themselves) are safeguarding the necessary materials to trace how, through these homes, a lineage of home mothers created a queer architecture of community, belonging, and safety.
With rare exceptions, such as the Victorian Pride Centre in Melbourne, Queer Spaces includes very few standing buildings designed by queer architects for queer purposes. Most are rented community centers, public cruising areas, drag parades and protests, club and bar interiors, traveling pop-up parties, and train cars. Many are homes created within conventional pre-existing architecture, their walls since inscribed with the memory of queer presence. This broadened definition of architecture throws into relief what a remarkably straight privilege it has been to design buildings in many of these cities throughout the history of professional architecture.
“There are cities around the world that are so accepting of queerness that it’s even become institutionalized,” says Furman. “I think that, frankly, these islands of liberalism are being snuffed out.” Growing oppression has been on full display in the United States, where Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hinted at overturning LGBTQ+ protections after recently attacking abortion rights by reversing Roe v. Wade, and every day seems to bring a new anti-trans bill into law. But this is nothing new. This anthology records how generations of queer communities have persisted and created familial oases around the world. I hope it can serve as a blueprint as we continue to build spaces and fight for our future.
Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQ+ Places and Stories (2022), edited by Adam Nathaniel Furman and Joshua Mardell, is published by Riba Publishing and is available online and in bookstores.