Struggles for space: Queering straight space: Thinking towards a queer architecture (4)

We share an essay below by Carlos Jacques, a friend of Autonomies.  The essay, entitled “Queering straight space: Thinking towards a queer architecture” was presented as a paper at the conference, Matrices: 2nd International Congress on Architecture and Gender, Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, Lisbon, March 18-21, 2015 and latter published in the University’s journal, Lusófona Journal of Architecture and Education: 2nd Congress on Architecture and Gender: Matrices, N.º 12/13, Architectural Lab of the Universidade Lusófona, Lisbon, 2015.  It appears here with the permission of the publishers.

The essay explores the possibility of queering architecture in the folds that imbricate matrices formative of space, to which architectural practice directly contributes and to which it belongs and matrices of sex-gender-sexuality construction, where architecture’s presence is much more opaque.  The thesis defended is that architecture moves between and within these two matrices, having a hand in the constitution of patriarchal space, but that may also subvert its role, through a queering practice.

Utopian Play

To speak of queering space or architecture is to speak of a utopian gesture, of what Henri Lefebvre once described as experimenting with utopia: “the exploration of human possibilities, with the help of the image and the imagination, accompanied by a ceaseless criticism and a ceaseless reference to the given problematic in the “real”.” (McDonough, 2009, p. 106)  To experiment with utopia is to play with “imaginary variations on themes and exigencies defined by the real as understood in the broadest sense; it is to see problems posed by reality and to see the “virtualities held within it”.” (2009, p. 105)

The aim in this instance then will be to imaginatively explore the possibilities of queering space/architecture at the confluence of three concerns: the significance of queer thought and practice, as a response to sexism; architecture as a practice of creating spaces that contributes to the construction of repressive identities of sex, gender and sexuality; the meaning and possibility of a liberatory queered and queering architecture.  The concept that will serve to unify these three concerns will be that of matrice, the matrices of gender and space.  Our question then is can we imagine architectural space in such manner that the queering of our lives becomes possible?

Space Invaders

It was Walter Gropius who wrote that “architecture implies the mastery of space.” (Gropius, 1965, p. 24)  Yet mastery requires not only rule, government; it demands equally the shaping and moulding of what is governed, in this instance, space.  Such an idea assumes in turn that space is not an absolute, fixed and indifferent reality, a mere container of agencies and events.  Space is rather conceived of as existing in and through events; events that are themselves composite, complex and plural.  Architecture, as a practice, is one such agency and its creations, buildings and structures, of an enormous diversity of kinds, are its events.  Buildings and structures are mobile in that they generate effects, among which, spatial effects that resonate in human relations.  Space, in other words, is produced, though as Karl Marx said of history, under conditions which are not of our choosing.

Any form of mastery of conditions or characteristics of human life poses necessarily ethical and political questions.  The innocence or neutrality that pretends to hide behind any technical mastery is illusory.  The illusion is sustained, in part, at least within a great deal of modern architecture, by the ambition to ground and legitimate its creations in some kind of trans-historical and/or extra-architectural principle.  If Le Corbusier could strip architecture to the art, to the techne, of “the masterful, correct, and significant play of volumes brought together in light”,(Le Corbusier, 2008, p. 102) it was because he saw modern architecture, with its central concern in the house, as responding to natural human functions intuitively aspired to by all. (2008, p. 83)  Le Corbusier’s house was “the ordinary and common house for normal and common men.”  It was to be rooted in the human: “the human scale, the typical need, the typical function, the typical emotion.”  No mere arbitrarily assembled shelter, the new architecture was to conceive of and build houses on the foundation that all men have the same organism, an organism with common functions and needs, at the heart of which is the biological family. (2008, p. 84)  The failure to so ground architecture is to confine the practice to the realm of the arbitrary, to condemn it to mere construction, to kill it as an art; a failure that can only lead, on one reading of Le Corbusier’s Toward an Architecture, to revolution.

If Le Corbusier’s ambitions cannot be generalised to all of modern architecture, they are wide spread enough, even if expressed differently, to suggest a common feature of what can be called the politics of this architecture: the relations of complementarity and of expression between a kind of human subjectivity and the space or dwelling which contains or enables that subjectivity. (Grosz, 2001, p. 59)  To the question, why call such relations political, the answer is because, first, they assume a binary reality (subjectivity and space) that, secondly, through architecture, can be harmonised.  Indeed, it is only with this last that architecture comes into its own as an art.  But the art here masks the constructed nature of its point of departure: the harmony aspired to, architecture’s “mastery”, depends upon the construction of the type of human being that is to be sheltered, along with the space made.  Contrary to naturalising and historicising fictions that the human is a given that must be provided for with adequate spaces for the fulfilment of needs, the human is made.  And the government of space that is architecture’s end calls for, with other agencies, the shaping of the human fit for that space.

But which human is at issue?  Le Corbusier pretends to a universal architecture (an ideal again widely shared by modern architects), responsive to the human being as such.  Yet just as state sovereignty establishes a legal order by excluding those outside the law, and thus defining who are the legal subjects of the sovereign, and as it also stands both inside and outside the law so as to be able to call upon exceptional powers to assure its authority, should the need arise, (Schmitt, 2006) so too does modern architecture exclude while it includes.  Le Corbusier’s “normal and common men” are not women, working class, lumpen-proletariat, blacks, gays and bisexuals, nomads and criminals: all of these kinds of people, and there are many more, are marginal to the production of the “family”.  And if architecture does not have the power of a sovereign state authority, it nevertheless can and does, with other agencies, constitute spaces of inclusion and exclusion; what may be called the political matrices of space.  These matrices are both the consequence of architectural practices and the domain within which architecture and its creations act.  The idea then that it is architecture’s goal to bring together what is initially distinct, subjectivities and spaces, is false, for what architecture accomplishes (and I must emphasis again, never by itself) is the making of a single reality, of subjectivities-in-space or spaces subjectivised; a task that presupposes relations of power understood as “strategies by which individuals attempt to conduct, to determine the conduct of others.” (Foucault, 1984a, p. 1546)  It is this that renders architecture political.  And any critical engagement with it cannot merely appeal to a different transcendent ground (e.g., a different conception of “man”), for to do so would be to repeat the political gesture of modern architecture, which is precisely what is in question.  All thought of a critical architecture, of a potentially radical political architecture, must position itself immanently with regards to its practice and to a wider way of life, of which it is a part.

Architects in search of subjects

If architecture can be compromised by politics of exclusion, or even oppression, the temptation is strong among those who would favour more just practices within the domain to conceive of inclusive forms of practice and of spatial design and construction.  As regards sexist architecture (of which Le Corbusier’s house is an example), the endeavour here could be interpreted modestly as calling for a greater number of women architects, with the assumption that this will produce the desired effects in the practices of architecture, or perhaps more radically, energies could be dedicated to imagining, constructing women sensitive, women centred or feminist spaces.

The first proposal is by no means irrelevant, but it sadly offers no assurances that a greater number of women architects, a purely quantitative affair, will significantly alter the ways of architecture.  More importantly, the presumably radical suggestion of women centred spaces shares the mistake of modern architecture of continuing to conceive of architecture’s task as that of spatially framing a pre-given human type, now extended to women, when no such type exists.

If we take seriously Simone de Beauvoir’s contention that one “is not born, but rather becomes a woman”, then female identity is constructed. (1986, p. 13)  And a great deal of work within feminist and gender studies has been dedicated to exploring precisely this thesis.  The literature is obviously far too vast to summarise here, but we can adventure the following.  Dominant categories of sex, gender and sexuality are part of broader matrices of sexist, patriarchal power that deploy apparatuses of productive control of human beings, creating human types through the sexing and gendering of individuals.  The female-feminine/male-masculine divide consequently appears as natural, when in fact it is the effect of power that employs sex-gender-sexuality identities as instruments of control.  “Woman” and “man” are not givens, facts, to be ordered justly or unjustly, but rather concepts used in the constitution of male, heterosexual domination.  To then refer to “woman” as the object of patriarchal oppression and to appeal to “woman” as the subject of liberation from sexism, is to postulate a subjectivity that somehow lies outside and remains pure of sexist power relations, when “woman” is produced in those very relations.  Political opposition to sexism thus cannot arise in the form of “women’s” liberation, but rather in the subversion of the norms, practices and institutions of oppressive sex-gender-sexuality matrices, what Judith Butler calls the heterosexual matrix.

If the positioning within this political opposition varies (e.g., Luce Irigaray’s (1985) endeavour to outline a feminine interiority or subjectivity against the erasure of woman; Monique Wittig’s (1987) defence of a gender free lesbianism; Judith Butler’s (1990) queering of gender identification), it nonetheless shares one common notion, namely that “woman” is not a foundational truth.

To return to the concern with a “woman’s” architecture, it follows from what has been said that a more politically just or liberating architectural practice, as regards sexism, cannot be conceived along the lines of particular kinds of buildings that are more attuned to the needs of women.  For what needs are these if they are the result of the very same relations of power that oppress women?  And will not an architecture that gives shape to them contribute to the maintenance of those very same relations?  What perhaps needs to be thought through is not so much a woman’s feminist architecture, but instead the ways in which the matrices of space to which architecture contributes in constructing cross with and sustain matrices of patriarchy and heteronormativity.  The relations here will be invariably complex, for the matrices in question are not monolithic, nor fixed, nor necessarily internally consistent.  They may therefore produce a great variety of kinds of effects.  Whatever can be imagined though of a radical anti-sexist politics of architecture will have to follow on this reflection.

Radical buildings or building radically

It was Michel Foucault who once argued that no building or structure produces intrinsically and exclusively effects of freedom, however much architects have thought otherwise. (Foucault, 1982a, pp. 1094-5)  This is not to affirm that architecture is without effects, but it constitutes but one element of support in the moulding of human space.  It “assumes a certain distribution of people in space, a channelling of their circulation, as well as a codification of the relations sustained between them”. (1982a, p. 1102)  It however effects these movements from within a larger field of social relations which it cannot radically change or contest by itself.  “There may in fact always exist a certain number of projects that aim to modify certain constraints, so as to render them more supple, or even break them, but no project can, simply due to its nature, guarantee that people will be automatically free.” (1982a, p. 1094)

What underlies Foucault’s scepticism with regards to the possibility of a radical architecture, beyond what he explicitly states, is the tacit understanding that architecture is not the expression, failed or successful, of some profound human nature, and this because there is no such nature.  To the extent that what we are is constructed and re-constructed, through matrices of power relations, then the ideal of a liberating architecture that gives expression to and is harmonious with human nature and freedom is illusory.  Architecture is itself complicit in this making, such that whatever complementarity may exist between “man” and “dwellings” is in turn accomplished partly through architecture.

In opposition to the utopian ideals of modern architecture, between subjectivities and buildings there is as much dissonance as there is consonance.  And it is perhaps here, in this in-between, that rupture must be sought.  Elizabeth Grosz has criticised utopian inspired architecture for ignoring the temporal dimensions of human life and space.  Obsessed, as it has been, with ideal spatial arrangements, it has forgotten that human beings and space become, as much as they are.  What contributions then architecture can make to addressing social and political issues will not be of a formal, structural sort.  It will display itself rather at the level of ongoing exploration and invention, with “solutions” that emerge of how to live and inhabit space with others being fundamentally provisional. (Grosz, 2001) Stated differently, this will not be an architecture that shelters and protects natural desires, but one through which desires are fabricated to the greatest degree possible.

Space can be queer

“Queer means to fuck with gender.” (Cited in Sullivan, 2003, p. 44)  Perhaps no better definition can be offered of the concept queer, for it places the body at the centre of a critique of gender.  If once uniquely associated with gay men, negatively or positively, the concept today is increasingly deployed from the margins of gender to undermine and contest its naturalness, its political innocence or utility.  It refers to no identity (that is, there are no queer people, as there are women and men).  Some have called it a position vis-à-vis what is gender normative, “an identity without an essence.” (Halperin, 1995, p. 62)  But perhaps its most radical possibilities lie in seeing it as a way of being, a way to do, to act bodily, that endeavours to subvert the production of sex-gender-sexual identities.

Judith Butler’s reading of gender as performative pushes towards its queering.  Gender, in this perspective, can in no be seen as “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed.”  It is instead “an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.” (Butler, 1988, p. 519)  What is stylised is fundamentally, though not exclusively, the body, and thus gender “must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” (1988, p. 519)  What stability there is then in gender identity is but an appearance, “a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” (1988, p. 520)

The idea of gender as performed must be assumed cautiously, so as to avoid misinterpretation.  The performance is here not be understood by analogy to its theatrical equivalent, as something that is assumed and discarded at will.  The repetition of performances or stylisation “is not performed by a subject”; it is rather “what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject.” (Butler, 1993, p. 95)  The repetition is also a “ritualized production”, “reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance.” (1993, p. 95)  What constrains, and constrains normatively, in this instance, is the heterosexual matrix.  The constraint however is never total, for the repetition occurs through time, and at any particular moment, the performance may be dissonant with the matrix.

A liberationist model of women’s freedom is hereby abandoned for a subversion of gender identity through everyday acts, a subversion that is captured by the notion of queering gender.  The former ideal presupposes a self-identical female subject as a fixed entity or being; but such a subject “is no more.” (1993, p. 230)  Queering then is the differing, incongruous bodily performance of a non-identity politics that contests the controlling effects of heterosexual binary sex and gender, and straight sexuality.  The matrix that underlies these effects is accordingly strained by resonances of disturbance that force shifts, changes, metamorphoses in its structure.  And as the heterosexual matrix is imbricated in other matrices of power, for example spatial matrices, to queer gender is to possibly queer other parallel and overlapping forms of control.

Queering space thus involves a potentially extraordinary variety of events of appropriation and transformation of straight, hierarchical spaces and the creation of counter, queer, horizontal, autonomous spaces in the interstices/margins of dominant space for the proliferation of new pleasures, desires, subjectivities.   As possible examples, one may cite Aaron Betsky’s deformation of locations through temporary appropriation, making possible “useless, amoral, and sensual space that lives only in and for experience.”  For Betsky, “the goal of queer space is orgasm.” (1997, pp. 5-7)  And Christopher Reed imagines queer spaces as a more stable claiming of space against the dominant heterosexual matrix, exemplified in gay bars, lesbian archives, student groups, sex toy stores, social services, political organisations, and the like. (1996)

A risk however haunts these and other examples, the risk that they fall back upon a notion of queer space that refers to a queer identity, which would be to empty the concept of queered space of its radical potential.  But this is not to be entirely dismissive, especially if these efforts at imagining queer space are taken as utopian experiments.  They may be seen to echo Foucault’s heterotopic spaces, counter-spaces of deviation which function as effective utopian possibilities within existing dominant power relations.  And however much heterotopias assume a system of openness and closure, an outside and an inside, this line of separation is not rooted in some stable or fixed identity, sexual or otherwise. (Foucault, 1984b)  As Foucault says of gay sexuality, the task is not to create a gay culture, but a culture, an ethos. (Foucault, 1982b)  Queer space is not the equivalent of queering space, with the former somehow reduced to a kind of product of architectural design (e.g., Philip Johnson’s Glass House as a gay house).  It has instead to do with the formation of a way of life, of a way of being in the world that is at once the position from which experience is lived and a matrice of experience.


The queering of architecture is not a formal or aesthetic response to architecture’s role in the constitution of repressive sex-gender-sexuality norms and habits, for there is no intrinsically queer house, dwelling or building.  A queered architecture begins in the assumption that nothing lies beyond it as its source of legitimacy; that whatever justification it possesses is immanent to its practice.  And yet it does not act alone; architecture as a means of expressing and effecting spatial-temporal experience works at the confluence of multiple agencies in-forming and shaping bodies, lives, desires, dreams.  The queering of this process of modulation thus embeds architectural practice in the deeper creative activity of animating an ethos, a way of life, an activity therefore not exclusive to architects.

There are echoes in all of this of an earlier radical architectural project: the Situationists unitary urbanism.  Understanding the architectural and urban ordering of space as productive of affects, behaviour, ways of being (the psycho-geography of ordered space) and rejecting the formal and alienated division of the arts, the Situationists proposed and endeavoured to develop theoretically and practically a global and total intervention in social relations capable of generating a new civilisation. (McDonough, 2009)  The means for this transformation would be the derive, the movement through organised space with the aim of opening up to and engendering ludic-constructive behaviour; détournement, the subversive appropriation of spaces and movements, gestures and comportments; the construction of situations, “the concrete construction of temporary settings of life and their transformation into a higher passionate nature.”  (2009, p. 94)  These strategies were by no means intended to be exhaustive or final, but they all, together, point to the Situationist’s unitary urbanism, held to be the “indispensable basis for the development of the construction – both joyful and solemn – of situations of a freer society.” (2009, p. 104)

Matrices and monsters

The etymology of the word “matrice” takes us back to the womb and acts of birth.  It is that which engenders, brings life into being.  It also variously denotes wealth, the mineral wealth held in the earth’s stone, immaterial structures which shape, the simple colours that are at the basis of all colour.  Equally, it denotes authority, the markings of coins.  A matrice both gives life and frames it, it both enables and disables.  Matrices cannot be disassociated from power, a power that “lives on our incapacity to live; it maintains infinitely multiplied splits and separations at the same time that it plans almost as it likes allowable encounters.” (McDonough, 2009, p. 210)  But as givers of life, they are the source of agencies that transgress divisions, bringing together, unifying, what was formerly separate.  Perhaps then to queer, to be queering, is to be at this threshold between order and disorder, the liminal point-moment of freedom, formed and formless, in permanent metamorphosis.  Against the architectural guardians of our lives, to follow George Bataille, a path opens towards “bestial monstrosity.” (Bataille, 1970, p. 172)


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