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‘We are woefully behind’: A queer designer’s visual plea for more diversity in architecture

Adam Nathaniel Furman and Joshua Mardell’s new book, ‘Queer Spaces,’ makes the case for bringing queer designers into the fold.

‘We are woefully behind’: A queer designer’s visual plea for more diversity in architecture
Victorian Pride Center [Photo: John Gollings/courtesy RIBA Publishing]

There’s a park in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka that serves two very different functions, depending on the time of day: leisure by day, cruising by night. This is a common refrain in cities around the world: when parks and buildings and cities aren’t designed for queer people, queer people will do whatever it takes to make them their own. But what if they didn’t have to?

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[Image: courtesy RIBA Publishing]
A new book paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of gay-friendly spaces around the world. Titled Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories, the book is a collection of bars, clubs, public parks, community centers, theaters, and private houses that have nothing in common but the queerness of their occupants. Some, like the Bangladeshi park, have been subverted by the queer community; others, like the Victorian Pride Center in Melbourne, were created to give LGBTQIA+ a space to come together. But for all the diversity highlighted in the book, Queer Spaces makes one thing very clear: You cannot design queer spaces if you’re not queer. But if you want everyone to feel included, you can—and should—hire queer designers.

Alan Buchsbaum’s Apartment, New York [Photo: Norman McGrath/courtesy RIBA Publishing]
Queer Spaces was edited by Adam Nathaniel Furman, a London-based architect-turned-artist-and-designer known for their brightly colored, unapologetic-ally bold public sculptures; and Joshua Mardell, a British architectural historian. Together, they corralled more than 50 contributors ranging from researchers to urban planners to filmmakers, each of whom chose one or several queer spaces that mean something to them.

Examples hail from all four corners of the world: a book club in Bangkok; a public square in Amsterdam; a beach kiosk in Perth, Australia; a club in Puerto Rico. Many of the spaces featured in the book lead double lives. In Dakha, for example, a city that’s described as “homophobic, transphobic, and misogynist,” the above-mentioned park is a testament to the universal desire for gay, bisexual, or even closeted men to have their own space. “The idea of cruising in a city like Dhaka may seem absurd, considering the risk of violence, but it has been happening in XXX, one of the most beautiful parks,” writes Ruhul Abdin. (The actual name and location of the park were left out of the book to protect the contributor.)

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South City Beach Kiosk, Perth [Photo: John Tanner/courtesy RIBA Publishing]
For a book on architecture (one that’s published by the Royal Institute of British Architects, no less), Queer Spaces features more people than actual buildings. Perhaps that’s because what makes a building “queer” isn’t the aesthetic or the layout, or even the intention. It’s the people. “You can have a really boring piece of architecture be appropriated by a queer community and made queer, or you can have a piece of architecture that is consciously designed through the vector of someone’s queer identity as a designer,” says Furman.

Victorian Pride Center, Melbourne [Photo: John Gollings/courtesy RIBA Publishing]
The problem, says Furman, is that cis architects often design buildings as “abstract containers” that make Furman feel exposed. These “highly efficient, extremely mechanical” spaces are designed by and for cis men and women who see themselves reflected everywhere they go; but they are often vast, they lack enclosures and intimate spaces, and they are devoid of art. “As someone who exists in small hidden spaces, you go into giant minimalist spaces and you don’t feel comfortable,” says Furman, citing London’s brand new subway line as an example. “There’s not a single piece of art anywhere, and maybe a couple of the escalators have something that is supposedly art, but it looks like the lobby from a horrible corporate tower,” they say.

The Kloset Yuri Book Club, Bangkok [Photo: Nichapat Sanunsilp/courtesy RIBA Publishing]
Judging from the examples in the book, it can be hard to define the queer aesthetic, but for Furman, it starts with adding art, craft, decoration, and ornament to public space. “That’s an easy way of introducing different cultures, so people feel surrounded and see themselves around them,” they say. A diverse number of spaces is also important: Smaller nooks for people who want to be alone, and larger spaces for those who want to congregate. “This goes beyond queer people,” they say. “Anybody who doesn’t fit in can benefit from these places.”

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Glorieta de los Insurgentes, Mexico City [Photo: Eusebio Peña Godínez/courtesy RIBA Publishing]
In many ways, then, designing queer spaces means designing diverse spaces—just let queer designers take the lead. “Rather than creating generic containers for queerness, it’s about empowering the queer community to produce work themselves,” says Furman. “Queerness in the profession is the most important question, and that’s something we are woefully behind.”

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