On the surface ‘coming out’ need not be the existential convulsion it once was. These days children are introduced to the modern notion of a ‘family’ from an early age. Two mummies or two daddies will soon be as commonplace as mummy and daddy. Normalised too are the gay or lesbian couples who, despite not having kids, spend their downtime doing just what straight couples do – going to Heal’s on a Saturday and Columbia Road Flower Market the next day. Their leisure time may be more Gogglebox than rave.
Normalisation of gender variance has allowed non-heteronormative households to emerge into the civic domain, winning professional respect and fully participating in society across the board. But hasn’t something of the cutting edge of gay life been lost along the way? Gay was never meant to be average, or end up in the stasis of marriage, however hard it has been to achieve this privilege. Indeed, the whole thrust of gay culture has been to exploit its outsider status. In London we take the multicultural outlook as a given. We are inclusive, and find it hard to fathom why, thanks to Brexit, the rest of England lurches to the right. If you are a young, confused and possibly gay man, where will you be heading? To the big city, of course, where your dreams can be shaped, made real, no matter what the risk. Peeling away skin after skin, the adolescent metamorphosis has no limits. Freedom and respect are the promises.
As for parents, who often believe their offspring to be more privileged than them, an undercurrent of resentment for gay and lesbian rights may colour their approach. The gays are out in the open; their rights match ours; what more do they want?
Associated throughout history and by every major religion as sinners, gay people have been regarded as a menace. ‘Why do homosexual people, historically marked as sinful, inverted or mentally ill, ask to be able to adopt that very family order that has contributed so much to their misfortune?’ asks Vittorio Lingiardi. In social terms, should we celebrate the new norms of citizenship to a lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans member of society, or is it fair to say that our essential identity, our ‘otherness’, has been lost? Peter Ackroyd believes so.2 ‘With the right to marry and adopt, gay people seem less involved with the rush and roll of cruising and carousing than they were thirty years ago and more concerned with settling down within a domestic environment … With the opportunities for marriage beckoning, the need for an aggressive counter-culture has dwindled.’ Perhaps this counterculture has not so much dwindled as changed.
This essay explores this conundrum in terms of the normalisation of gay citizenship and its contribution to society. While the often closed nature of gay culture may be on the wane, a more fluid outlook might yield a blueprint for a more adventurous and experimental way of being citizens and shaping our cities. Which is where the term ‘queer’ comes in: both distinct and highly specific it requires a certain awareness of gender fluidity, or as Nikki Sullivan put it so aptly, ‘Queer means to fuck with gender’.3 Would it be possible to be both an upstanding member of society and to indulge in the hedonistic activities that cast gayness as a seditious force?
The letter Q has recently been added to the acronymic string, LGBTQ. An insult reclaimed, the term queer has been adopted as a political signifier that can act as a broader catch-all. Arguably Q embraces all the other letters in the list. I won’t include the I (inquisitive) in the banner, but imagine it’s there too, LGBTIQ+ etc). When I write LGBT I mean it in its historical sense, and it implies a ring-fence around same-sex interests that has largely become obsolete. Now LGBTQ signals an approach to the city with an access-all-areas confidence. People want to embrace broader social values and not hide away; they want to be and be seen as fully paid-up members of society. It follows that citizenship among the LGBTQ community rests on passing on tolerance to others and enacting mentorship to those who need it. Young men emerging on the scene are often ill-equipped to handle relationships of any kind, despite having been taught to have a tolerant outlook towards LGBTQ people.
In Ancient Greece, where gay relationships had a central sociocultural role, the training of the adolescent male was one of the duties of the older man; the older man would mentor the minor on adulthood as well as sexual practice. Now, not every young gay man wants to learn from an older man, but many do. As an occasional ‘daddy’ I know, and mentorship is part of the role.
If you are young, confused and possibly gay, where will you be heading? To the city, of course
In turn the potential for LGBTQ people to contribute to society at large is in its infancy. In terms of sexual identity, gay people are as different as other social minorities, but perhaps we have a head start in terms of freedom of outlook, and that frames a new kind of power.
The mutation of homophobia
Like a stubborn stain, homophobia mars our society. It’s just that it’s retreated underground. Ackroyd once more: ‘Coming out is still a right of passage, frequently characterised by trauma. Where sixty years ago homosexuality itself was a crime, homophobia has taken its place, and the very expression “coming out” testifies to lingering social prejudice.’ LGBTQ people may feel confident that their rights and freedoms are safe enough, but as every gay person knows, knocks can come from the most unexpected places, the workplace, the family or just walking along the road. Much as homophobia cannot be spoken, it is often couched in institutional decorum; there is always an opaque excuse for a rejection – lack of experience, being overqualified, insufficient diversity.
In her experience, Princess Julia,4 DJ, commentator and mentor for young fashion designers and drag queens, sees inadequate mentoring in the family. ‘I meet young people with parents younger than us and you’d think they would be enlightened. But alas no. Often they’ve abandoned their children. It’s tragic that there are generations of ignorant parents out there who continue with outdated ideas and notions without ever questioning them.’ No wonder ‘coming out’ is traumatic.This hate of the other manifested most recently when parents protesting at LGBTQ issues being part of sex education, claimed contravention of their religious beliefs, with placards reading, ‘We’re not Homophobic’ and ‘Let Kids Be Kids’. The church has a get-out from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and cannot be forced to marry same sex couples. Society treads a tightrope between the right of inclusivity and protecting religious beliefs even if they are discriminatory.
Hatred can accumulate in silence, and turn on the gay or lesbian as readily as on the apocryphal immigrant. But the most numbing responses are reserved for the trans woman, who is frequently met with a mix of pity and ostracisation. Hampstead’s bathing ponds have been the latest arena for a gladiatorial clash between trans women and feminists. Stonewall said the Equality Act 2010 protects trans people who identify as female from being discriminated against when accessing services such as Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. But feminist campaigner Amy Desir, who uses the Ladies’ Pond, calls the policy ‘absolutely disgusting’. ‘In recent years I’ve seen first-hand aggression towards LGBTQ people in the more diverse communities in east and south London,’ says Wayne Shires, the club impresario who has helped shape gay life in the capital. ‘It’s a gentrification thing as well, so not only homophobic, but “gentriphobic”.’5 Illegality has also tended to push homophobia out of sight, yet it pervades society covertly. No one admits as much, but all gay people know it’s there.
In praise of shadows
In the old days you had to act straight to avoid attention. Gay and lesbian venues would deliberately be invisible to anyone other than their customers. You had to be in the know. The clientele liked it that way, even if you sometimes got mugged on the way out. Before legalisation in 1967, the gay scene operated in the shadows. Like hermit crabs, gay venues would nestle into cheap, offbeat property that wouldn’t attract attention – in abandoned warehouses, railway arches and failed pubs. The last thing anyone wanted was to be on display – except on the dance floor.
Famously Francis Bacon and his mates would hang out in the legendary Colony Room Club on Dean Street in Soho. They would go to Wheelers on Old Compton Street for lunch and then transfer to the Colony where, under the imperious gaze and sharp tongue of the owner Muriel, they could drink on uninterrupted behind closed doors through the afternoon until chucking out time at 11pm. Alcoholic behaviour was encouraged and behind a highly protected membership policy, ‘decent’ codes of behaviour could be disregarded relatively risk-free.
So it was for many of the gay basements across Soho and in a small neck of Earl’s Court where misbehaviour would begin with a warm up in the Coleherne pub and move on into the surrounding streets and Holland Walk. Shady corners were at a premium. Nocturnal cruising persists on Hampstead Heath and the Rose Garden in Hyde Park, but it’s on the retreat. My own formative gay experiences unfolded in El Sombrero in Kensington High Street and the Catacombs where I first met Derek Jarman. Derek was a born mentor, gregarious matchmaker for friends and collaborators alike, and a fervent advocate of cruising on Hampstead Heath.
Ranging from the hardcore sex and cruising clubs through to theatricalised arenas like the Blitz, there were a host of other clubs too numerous to mention here. They would operate mostly on a single night of the week, transforming what were normally tawdry commercial failures into rocking successes as long as attendees kept coming. The wildest was Taboo every Thursday, started by Leigh Bowery and Tony Gordon in the cheesy basement of the Maximus club in Leicester Square. Bowery encouraged the crowd to push their looks and their behaviour to legendary heights of invention and camp. Bowery himself would appear each week in a new outfit more outrageous than the last, and turned nightclubbing into an art form.
Early on I learned that the sacred space of the dance floor worked well alongside the dimly lit corridors of men-only clubs such as Heaven. With no performers as such, clubbers would build on the general atmosphere of delirium induced chemically or musically in the performance of the pickup; essentially there were two roles, the one of the statue or the one of the stroller. Like fishing, you’d wait for your catch.
As Ackroyd observes, the vital excitement of living in the shadows would not last forever. ‘The substantial lesson of the past decade is that queerness, with all its panache and ferocity, is in elegant retreat … Bars no longer have back rooms that remain open after the public rooms have closed … A dichotomy has emerged between those venues that bellow and those that whisper, those that are openly gay and those that are merely “gay-friendly”.’2 In fact many gay bars and clubs have become de rigueur for straight people, singularly or in coupledom. People say they have the best time; the music is better and the crowd more inclined to let go.
London’s LGBT world has been evolving over so many years, there have been campaigns to historicise it, with the aim of enshrining some of its key ‘monuments’ and traditions, whether in the form of gay institutions like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT) or the erstwhile behaviours of men on the prowl in the shadows of the city’s parks and squares. A successful campaign was raised to protect the RVT from development. Both the building and its use as a gay venue are now listed, a unique achievement.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s left the gay world in tatters, which makes charting gay histories all the more important. Architectural academics Ben Campkin and Laura Marshall are documenting how much has changed, from the lost iconic venues to the way gay men used the city’s parks and squares. Their essay ‘London’s Nocturnal Queer Geographies’ analyses the changing landscape of the queer community. In 2017 they masterminded an outdoor performance intended to draw attention to lost landmarks including the Black Cap, the Joiners Arms, the Glass Bar and the Lesbian and Gay Centre. Referencing the 1931 New York Beaux Arts Ball, performers wore headgear based on these buildings. They chose the resonant setting of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, just behind the RVT and the village green for a host of gay venues in the nearby railway arches. In 2019 they made a repeat performance at the Whitechapel Gallery’s show Queer Spaces: London, 1980s –Today.
In 2018 London artist Prem Sahib erected 500 sq ft on Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a steel labyrinth not unlike the inside of a gay sauna. Typically he takes what is normally hidden and puts it in full view, using gay places and behaviours to draw out meanings. ‘I identify with the disco movement because I feel that its politics were its pleasure principle … Disco had a social efficacy despite its superficial veneer and that’s how I like to think about my own art making.’6 His photo series of the Chariots gay sauna in Shoreditch, which closed in 2016, dwells on the absence of the action. His Helix IV isolates one of the kitsch Classical reliefs that originally hung around the pool and jacuzzi, and pierces it with metal studs and rings, as though it was the body of one of the patrons.
The lesson of the past decade is that queerness, with all its panache and ferocity, is in elegant retreat
Gay histories are being charted on Instagram by @_molly_house_ who archives ‘The UK’s LGBTIQA+ Subculture. We have always been here, and we have always been Queer’. This squares with the tardy deification of Alan Turing and other gay martyrs such as Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp and Derek Jarman. Of interest too in this regard is the Instagram account @theaidsmemorial, a contributor-driven inventory of those lost during the AIDS crisis, and the Queerseum (Twitter handle @queerseum), which aims to ‘create positive links to our history to shape better futures’.
A new kind of interior
It seemed that unlike most performance spaces, gay men were finding new ways of using interior space. By the mid-’80s NATØ manifestos would visualise city life and its architecture in a continuous state of flux. Derelict buildings would be corralled as hosts for a liberalised form of citizenship based on freedom and role play. Instead of an occupant you could be an activist, and shape your own life. One line of attack for the architect would be large-scale interventionist furniture that could upset the use of existing buildings. ‘Think of an intermediary architecture on that edge between people’s lives and the given city, city furniture poised to refurbish rather than rebuild.’7 In the mid ’80s, a new stream of creativity emerged, based on making furniture out of scrap, part artwork and part design, and very much on the protagonist’s terms. The loose collective Creative Salvage acted as a kindergarten for Tom Dixon, André Dubreuil and the NATØ architecture group. We were making experiences, things and places on our own terms, and for me, this captured the invincibility I’d discovered in gay clubs. For the first time I felt that my own sexual identity and what I wanted to be professionally were coming together. I could see a parallel between the behaviour of my peers in club environments, from what we wore to how we danced and picked each other up in a meteoric swirl of bodies, glances and poses. I wanted to inject this energy into design; the mood was artefacts in motion, things with character and attitude.
There was a lifestyle subscript to behaving as a designer and as a teacher, with a bunch of talented students. We wanted to reshape the world locally, immediately, and were energised enough to take to the streets, armed with newfangled video cameras and the determination to make the environmental version of our tastes in music. In a 1988 essay entitled ‘Street Signs’,8 I advocated a fusion of punk expressionism with nascent digital technology, or what at the time we called ‘software’: ‘Space now synthesises form, information and perception … It relies on hidden information at every level.’ The street, I argued, was the space that was bringing contemporary phenomena together as never before.
Our friends and wider circle could feel the energy. In some ways my assertions seem naïve, and yet they anticipate equivocal switching between the virtual and the physical, the fixed and the dynamic. At the time I thought the plethora of messages bouncing in the street, from window displays to the people using the street as catwalk, was more significant than the architecture itself, which at that time was predominantly Victorian. In ‘Street Signs’, I flagged how technological communication was about to radically reshape our lives.
‘Since we live in a software world, the challenge for architecture is completely new … Real-life architecture must dismantle its finite stance, by simultaneously aggregating and disintegrating. It must learn to deal with process as well as products.’
I now realise that the model for this stance was undoubtedly the gay club, and how it empowered its participants into a form of democratic behaviour that overrode class or difference. ‘Life itself is the real architecture, so let’s use it.’
London as a queer city
As in every field, the mood of the moment always dictates to each subset in the LGBTQ community. Gay geography ebbs and flows, occupying ever more inventive and offbeat locations, such as Vogue Fabrics (in an ex shop of the same name), or the Dalston Superstore. Shoreditch and Hackney tend to best reach the queer end of hipster. In the hinterland between them, Bistrotheque has cultivated its own brand of drag vaudeville while maintaining a very good restaurant upstairs. London is always said to be a city of villages, and here in Hackney, the Bistrotheque doubles as the village hall, while half a mile away, The Glory, a rehabilitated pub next to the canal in Hoxton, hosts a gruelling programme of drag performance featuring the legendary Jonny Woo, Princess Julia on the decks and a revolving door of new drag acts fresh in from the provinces. Drag is an ever-evolving art form in queerland, and according to Julia, the current era will be remembered for bringing drag into public consciousness.
Soho has cornered the more mainstream, and mixes in the tourists. But readers of the latest issue of QX, the gay weekly online magazine, can choose from a menu of events catering to every shade. Its gaudy ads for special nights, gay superstores, saunas, bars and sex clubs will take the curious punter to all corners of the city. Traditional gay venues continue to flourish in Vauxhall, Soho and latterly Tottenham. Although hidden from the public gaze, many nestle discreetly in high streets where Starbucks is the norm. In Shires’ experience, ‘younger LGBTQ people don’t identify with the classic LGBT venue and almost see it as old-fashioned … they would rather visit more “mixed” events and venues’.5 Meanwhile queer nights flourish at the Glory and the Cock, and at marginal pop-ups and one-nighters in Dalston. As Julia says of her manor, ‘there’re always new venues opening; it’s part of the dynamic’.4
But LGBT venues are under pressure from the double pincer movement of luxury developments and the internet. The iconic Gucci GG belt comes into view, its GG now standing for Gentrification and Grindr. Pre-Brexit, real estate rocketed all over London and any remaining sliver of land was being turned into luxury living probably in offshore ownership or if the owners do exist, they come once a year for Halloween and Christmas shopping. The life of the city is being squeezed out in favour of absent residents; the lights are on but no one’s home.
Except gay people are using their homes for sex. While the privatisation of public space has excluded many dark corners that once favoured casual sexual encounters, geosocial apps such as Grindr or Tinder mean it’s open season. Despite no chance of pheremonal attraction, people have learnt to flirt online and enjoy the rapid availability of sex like drugs, or pizza.
Which is not to say that the queers have disappeared. Far from it, people on the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum live all over London, often moving to the outer orbits to make ends meet. Their arena is anywhere they happen to be, at work, at a friend’s, on the Tube or in a bar. Except they are on their smartphones, cruising with one eye on Grindr. Straight people too are attuned to the open people marketplace. Apart from the happy families, everyone within broadly adult age bands is open to an opportunity.
Queerness is bringing all sorts of positive qualities to cities. In many ways the fight for acceptance has been at the forefront of diversity. In the colonial/industrial era, gay people hid their true identity for fear of victimisation, and prison. Now gay values reach into every aspect of society. Heterosexual men have adopted the homosexual’s care for his body and what he wears, spending liberally on ‘grooming’ products and engaging in body culture every bit as much as the average gay man. So what began as hidden codes for the purposes of surreptitious identification and encounter have queered the pitch. A gay man often looks straight and the straight man might pass for gay.
So what of LGBTQ space in the contemporary city? In some ways the entire city is available to the queer citizen. On the face of it, the gay world and the straight world can happily coexist and occupy pretty much the same spaces. But if a straight person wanders into a gay bar, the chances are they will feel like a pork sausage at a Jewish wedding; they’ll get a taste of what a gay man feels like walking into a country pub.
Gay geography ebbs and flows, occupying ever more inventive and offbeat locations
Multiple LGBTQ identities
Architecture cannot guarantee freedom. Space is not in itself political, but exists at the intersection of matrices of power – of economy, politics, economics and social mores. Architects are programmed to avoid the ‘other’, and default to the heterosexual matrix. Indeed, in the queer chapter in his book Sex and Buildings, Richard J Williams claims there is no hard evidence of a queer architecture. ‘They are occasional at best.’9 But I do agree that queer spaces are most often found in repurposed buildings, and therefore in among the derelict or overlooked spaces available for appropriation, and in direct opposition to the tenets of modernism, which tend to replace the unhealthy and outdated rather than retrofit the otherwise worn out.
As Julius Gavroche says, modernism persistently views the provision of architecture for the ‘standardised’ human, and not those on the margins like the blacks, gays, bisexuals, nomads or criminals.10 Modernism is still the default ethical position behind many architects’ work, despite the rapid adoption of gender diversity in society at large. With multifarious sexual identity as a rainbow-coloured umbrella, I’ve always advocated architectural space that is ambivalent both in meaning and function. I assign full-on new build to the conventions of heteronormality, and therefore to the retrogressive and the unimaginative.
The real queer space is the protagonist’s body and the pursuit of erotic gratification. In Aaron Betsky’s words,11 queer space engenders the 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’. On the other hand, 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.12
A queer space usually has a parasitic interventionist relationship with the existing, but the very confusion of the city, with all its layers and counter forces, pre-empts the essence of the queer spatial condition at whatever scale. Curiously the ever-increasing complexity of LGBTIQ+ reaches into the entire contemporary city and its vast and often confusing array of identities. But this urban scaled queerness is only visible if you choose to see it, or if the architect helps focus new spaces and places with queer intentionality. Ironically, as culture itself has learnt to turn inside out, and to adopt the strategies of the avant-garde, queerness is all around us. As modernism wanes, ‘queerism’ comes into focus, and it has come to pass in unlikely quarters.
Magic realism might broaden the goal of design, itself a paradigm for queer space. It reaches first for the existing with the potential to be transformed, and opening it up to a design process that engages nuance and rupture, permitting the power of desire to overwhelm the power of politics, community, economy or sustainability, important as all these are. Queerism is essentially a subversive, parasitic kind of power that can exploit the conventions it seeks to overcome.
Meanwhile, many young architectural practices, populated presumably by a smattering of gay professionals, continue to suppress the possibilities of queer freedom, and underplay camp in favour of archetypal forms such as the shed or the tower. They masquerade as heteronormative, a stance way behind society at large. Their sexuality aside, proponents of ‘shedchitecture’ purvey a pragmatic bottom line that minimises the risk of losing the job. Shires observes that: ‘queer culture is felt in all the creative fields of the city including fashion, furniture design, art, performance, food … I think architects have always been a bit “straight-laced” due to the formality of the business. But I do know a lot of new practices run and owned by LGBTQ architects, so there’s hope’.5
Living in light and dark
Citing the Situationists, Gavroche reminds us that, ‘the means for this transformation (towards a global civilisation) would be the dérive, the movement through organised space with the aim of opening up to and engendering ludic constructive behaviour; détournement, the subversive appropriation of spaces, movements, gestures and comportments; the construction of situations’.10 Like the Situationists, grasping and elaborating the ‘situation’ is key. The situation roots the transformation in the physical world and in the present, avoiding the risk of Utopian unachievable goals.
Meanwhile, the city itself, its trains, streets, stores, professional clubs and restaurants, perform as soft queer venues where LGBTQ people can curate their lives in an air of normality, where assertion of identity takes prominence over the search for opportunities for sex. Encounter can happen at any time – no wonder that LGBTQ people have such trouble stabilising any new relationship.
Queer students are likely to feel perfectly comfortable in expressing their sexuality in everyday environments, often dressing as they would at the weekend for the average day at college. But many kids are ill-prepared for the freedom of gay lifestyles. Through lack of insightful parenting, newcomers to the scene must navigate a minefield of contradictions, on the one hand promising the pleasures of love and kinship unlike any they’ve had before, but mixed in with drugs, deception and disappointment. Very soon Snapchat or Instagram has led to one of the dating apps. And as the smartphone habit for delivering sex has become the norm, chemsex is but four or five contacts away.
Queer culture is felt in all creative fields including fashion, food, furniture, design, art and performance
Gay world is facing the threat of the newest form of addiction, crystal meth. Victims caught up in the throttling lifestyle of chemsex become aware that, ‘The gay scene can be such a lonely, alienating place’.13 Cross the line to the perfect storm, and never come back. Gay men in search of sex head to afterparties and have drug-fuelled sex sessions that last for days. Loss of control is the aim, so normal morality or safeguards go out of the window. An abandonment of any notion of citizenship, wasting all the battles of the last 50 years. This affects a minority of gay men, but it’s a big problem. Many gay men use prep as a way of avoiding traditional safe sex. At ‘prick parties’ you’re tested for HIV at the door, and turned away if you’re positive. Unmitigated sexual adventure is abandoning its historic exploitation of public space, and going indoors, where the public norms of modesty can be abandoned without fear. According to Shires,5 chemsex parties have played a part in the downfall of the ‘men only’ clubs such as The Hoist, Backstreet and the Eagle.
Drugs have always been as much a part of gay life as the rapid turnover of partners and situations. According to fashion and availability, the drugs themselves have changed, but they have always been used to heighten club delirium or the gratification of sex. With chemsex comes consensual abandonment conformity. These parties are reputed to last for days, encourage multiple partners and an exhibitionist compulsion to share the experience ‘live’ on social media.
Queerness of straight architecture
Despite its risks, it’s never been easier to live the queer lifestyle. Who’s up for an LGBT M&S sandwich – lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato? And then there’s the rainbow version of IKEA’s Frakta shopping bag. And a father teaches his transgender son to use a Gillette razor for the first time. In the wake of the ’90s boom of the pink pound, big business wants a bite of the multicoloured apple.
Queer architecture manifests in relation to a given architecture, metamorphosing the existing to make a place that’s vital and new. Radical adaptation relies on disrupting the intended usage and user. Shops and clubs frequently adopt this strategy, renting a ready-made space ripe for a suitable makeover. Vivienne Westwood’s legendary Seditionaries and fetish stores such as Expectations both hide in and exploit their otherwise banal settings. Dover Street Market creates worlds within worlds, a ludic environment that amplifies its gender ambivalent concept; its clothes, and the uncertainty of how they should be worn, builds to the generally ambivalent effect of the environment. If there is no existing condition to transform, then the architect needs to make a ‘history’, a narrative that gives the design something to push against. I have used this strategy in every one of my buildings, like the Wall in Tokyo and the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch.
So shall the battle continue, not only played out on your smartphone, but in the streets of London
LGBT codes access all aspects of contemporary life and coincide with the fashion strategy, which embraces gender conventions as part of its push for the new. A trip to Dover Street Market will shock some resistant to change, but excite people who thrive on the spirit of experimentation in clothing. Clothes are deliberately organised, or disorganised, to undo the conventional codification of product divisions. Coats, jackets and trousers are merchandised in with dresses and T-shirts, pressing the shopper into unravelling another set of codes based on thedesigner or the look. Appropriately the decor scrambles conventions of display; garments might be hung inside a shed, or a set of Victorian vitrines, or a pop-up installation. The pleasure of shopping rests on discovery, unlike M&S that sticks to traditional supermarket geography.
Which with a leap of the imagination translates into a city that scrambles codes and celebrates the inversion of usability, the city as a network of diversions can be said to be queer, both in the modern sense and in the sense of ‘strange’ or ‘odd’. But one tenet of architecture is that it should present itself with clarity, with the kind of legibility that leads you to the entrance. Architectural space should reinforce your preconceptions, or should it? Can we see this ambivalence as an objective for the contemporary city? The queerness is there for the looking; it’s just that most architects can’t see it.
As modernism in architecture has declined, and the proliferation of other signs in among the buildings, queerness has infiltrated without architects noticing. Only the relatively sophisticated architectural designer attuned to mutations in modern culture is able to make something of the maelstrom of the urban condition. While ever more powerful capital forces tend to rebuild London at ever increasing scale, the fluid and quixotic spirit of queerness tends to pop up in the oddest places.
Keen to retain his practice’s leading edge, Norman Foster’s projects move ever closer to the architecture of the body – though the output of his office rarely slides into camp. High-tech’s harshness and frank industrial structures coincided inadvertently with the caged aesthetic of leather clubs like the Backstreet and the Hoist. Today its proponents frequently adopt signifiers derived from the body, even the queer gender-fluid body, such as the labial stadium designs of ZHA or the twisted proto-phallic towers by Foster with the Gherkin, Jean Nouvel with the Agbar Tower in Barcelona or Gensler’s Shanghai Tower. The work of Chinese studio MAD captures fluidity and injects it into the ‘body’ of the city, as if to add neurological responsiveness to its surroundings.
Once more to Ackroyd.2 ‘Here is where the notion of queer “spectrum” has proved unhelpful: when the meaning, if any, of a term is uncertain, it will be fought over.’ But perhaps the fight cannot be avoided, but indeed embraced. ‘The increasing preference for a notion of gender “fluidity” itself accounts not only for the almost bewildering array of terms now approved within debates about gender identity, but also for the remarkable ad hominem or ad feminam sparring that takes place in social media.’ And so shall the battle continue, not only to be played out on your smartphone, but in the streets and squares of London until in a softened form, this very complexity and capricious uncertainty comes to signify all that is positive in our society.
1. Vittorio Lingiardi, Citizen Gay. Affetti e Diritti, Il Saggiatore, 2016, Tom McDonough (ed), The Situationists and the City, Verso, 2009.
2. Peter Ackroyd, Queer City, Chatto & Windus, 2017.
3. Nikki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
4. Princess Julia: interview with the author, 2019.
5. Wayne Shires: interview with the author, 2019.
6. Prem Sahib: interviewed with Frieze, no 163, 2014.
7. Editorial, NATØ 3, 1985.
8. Nigel Coates, ‘Street Signs’, in Design After Modernism, John Thackara (ed), Thames & Hudson, 1988.
9. Richard J Williams, Sex and Buildings, Reaktion Books, 2013.
10. Julius Gavroche, ‘Queering Straight Space: Thinking towards a Queer Architecture’, Autonomies online magazine, 3 October 2016.
11. Aaron Betsky, Queer Space, William Morrow, 1997.
12. Christopher Reed, ‘Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment’, Art Journal, vol 55, no 4, 1996.
13. Interview within Laura Harvey, Meg-John Barker, and Rosalind Gill, Mediated Intimacy: Sex Advice in Media Culture, Polity Press, 2018.