Last week, President Trump rescinded an Obama-era order that had provided protections for transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) students by allowing them to use bathrooms that correlate to their gender identity. Often unnoticed spaces, bathrooms have become the locus point for struggles to secure civil rights for trans and GNC individuals since the passing of exclusionary ‘Bathroom Bills’ in North Carolina and nine other states last year, which, among many other things, force individuals to use bathrooms that correspond to the sex registered on their birth certificate. QSPACE, a “queer architecture research organization” based at the GSAPP Incubator in New York, has been working to expose the complicity of design in this dangerous architecture of normativity: “how laws, codes, and design standards systematically create exclusionary and sometimes violent spaces for members of the LGBTQ community.”
“The language behind HB2 and other bathroom bills defining gender as biological sex is putting transgender and gender non-conforming people into possibly violent situations,” Lauren Johnson, a co-founder of QSPACE, tells me over Skype. With their on-going project, Coded Plumbing, QSPACE juxtaposes the language of these bills with the language of building codes, plumbing codes and best-practice standards, finding that design regulations parallel the binarism of these laws and ordinances—in other words, the assertion of strictly two, distinct and opposite gender identities. In the process, design enforces and materializes this binary in space, creating environments that are hostile to, or potentially unsafe for, certain bodies. But it doesn’t have to.
design can and should play an active role in responding to social change
“Central to our practice is the belief that design can and should play an active role in responding to social change,” Johnson continues. “It seems obvious that your designs have implications for the people that occupy them but, for most people before the bathroom bill came to light, these places were seen as really standard and banal. We’re trying to unravel that.”
The exhibitions engage the way gender norms are structured into seemingly apolitical building codes. For example, section P104.0 of the New York building code mandates: “Facilities for each sex where public toilets or bathing facilities are designed for use by more than one person at a time, separate facilities shall be installed for each sex.” In other words, gender segregation is mandated by law, so even if you want to include a gender-neutral bathroom in your restaurant, you might not be allowed to. Meanwhile, the existence of people who conform to neither a normative female or male identity is entirely erased in the eyes of the law.
Then you get to a place like North Carolina, where conservative politicians have whipped up fear and prejudice in the name of protecting ciswomen and children from, assumedly, cismale pedophiles disguised as transwomen. In fact, more Republican lawmakers have been convicted of sexual misconduct in bathrooms than trans people. Laws like HB2 force trans and GNC people to use bathrooms that don’t correspond to their gender identity or appearance, exposing them to tremendous risk of violence, while they are already disproportionately targeted, attacked, and murdered.
where you put a bathroom door has implications
QSPACE is, according to Johnson and her design partner Ryan Day, a fundamentally pragmatic organization. Coded Plumbing is not just an exposition of research, it’s also a toolkit. So, alongside two exhibitions (and another on the way), QSPACE is working to create a free online resource that architects can use to both engage their coworkers in a conversation about the role of design in enforcing gender norms and also to come up with more inclusive plans.
“It quite often falls on the young architects to produce these spaces within larger plans and to figure out the smaller details at the beginning of the project,” Day explains. “So when they’re looking for resources online and doing their research, we’re supplying an alternative design for them to plug into the plans.” The duo described the importance of sightlines as an example. While one might imagine that the more private the bathroom entrance the better, QSPACE found that, in fact, many GNC people prefer more public viewpoints. “We really [realized] that where you put a bathroom door has implications,” Johnson states.
Following the release of their toolkit, the publication of a book and the final exhibition, QSPACE hopes to shift towards other urgent design issues affecting the LGBTQ community. “Housing is a political issue that architects have a lot of presence in, yet there’s not specifically anyone in the architecture community, as far as I’m aware, concerned with the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth and really advocating for that,” Johnson says. “That’s something that, once we have Coded Plumbing more complete, we hope to start working on.”We would like to be a space for queer architects, anywhere, to have a place to come and be able to produce resources and projects
Currently, QSPACE is supported by Columbia University, where Johnson and Day studied and founded QSAPP, a student-run organization with which they continue to maintain a relationship (and collaborated with for Coded Plumbing). In the future, Johnson and Day hope QSPACE will grow into a stable entity to support LGBTQ architects and students. Both Day and Johnson noted the striking paucity of visibility—and mentors—for queer architects in both the profession and academic discipline. “There is a lack of LGBTQ architects at the national level,” says Johnson. “We would like to be able to have a funding structure that would enable us to fund young, small projects like the one we got started with.”
“We would like to be a space for queer architects, anywhere, to have a place to come and be able to produce resources and projects,” states Johnson.
Find out more about QSPACE here.
Writer and fake architect, among other feints. Principal at Adjustments Agency. Co-founder of Encyclopedia Inc. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org