On Friday, Events Editor Julia Tolda attended “Building Solidarities: Trans // Racial Architectures,” the first event in the series of virtual conversations focused on institutions and architecture.
Ezra Furman’s “Body Was Made” played softly as four smiling faces danced along to the beat. It was Friday evening, and moderator Noa Weiss BC’21 was joined by Amora McConnell BC’ 21, and speakers Seb Choe CC’17 and Lucas Crawford. Last semester, Professor Siddiqi curated a group of speakers to address racial justice in the build environment. This semester, “Building Solidarities” has been transformed into a student-run series informed by their personal academic research.
The topic of the night was Weiss’ thesis research on sex-segregated buildings and the legacy of eugenics still present in sexed categories. After thanking everyone who made the conversation possible, and introducing McConnell’s event on April 9th titled “Institutions and Gendered Resistance in Land Justice Movements,” Weiss asked speakers to present themselves and mention a piece of architecture they could not stop thinking about.
Zooming in from Charleston, SC Seb Choe CC’17, is the Associate Director at MIXDesign, a design consultancy focused on creating recommendations and prototypes for the needs of traditionally marginalized individuals. As a result of their own identity, Choe frequently deals with the implications of bathroom design in the lives of gender non-binary folks. The architecture piece they chose was Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa’s “Site of Reversible Destiny,” an experience park in which attendees encounter the unexpected.
Located in Vancouver, Canada “with a KKK,” Lucas Crawford is a poet and Associate Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. His interest in architecture comes from his experience as a trans person “who pees and poos a lot and would have liked to have been more cozy while doing so.” Crawford initially mentioned his grandmother’s house, a site of gender drama and trauma, as his building of choice. But, inspired by Choe, he also referenced Arakawa and Gins’ “Bioscleave House (Lifespan Extending Villa),” an interactive laboratory of everyday life.
Barnard College’s Milbank Hall was Weiss’ building of choice, which they researched in their thesis. Built in the early 1900s, Milbank Hall was designed with sex-segregation in mind, at a time when scientists defined “sex” in a racial context. For them, sex segregation was correlated with a society’s advancement and whiteness. Milbank was originally a “women’s space,” a place female students of Columbia University could inhabit freely, but its context taints its history. Weiss then asked speakers, how fair is it to assign value systems to buildings based on the way they’re constructed?
Crawford’s answer was immediate: “Is architecture an equity project? And if we want it to be, is it reciprocal?” Buildings have not been fair to people: no matter their intent, their outcomes have caused harm. Unconsciously, architects and designers replicate societal norms, implicitly upholding white cis straightness. “If buildings are not fair,” said Crawford “why should my analysis be?” In their answer, Choe echoed Crawford through the discussion of restaurant designs. In restaurants, bathrooms are created with the separation of sexes in mind, considered “standard” by today’s norms. But in the past, “colored restrooms” were also seen as normal. This creation of a third category of bathrooms is intrinsically racist, othering, and oppressive. So can’t we change their purpose? For Choe’s, it is not that simple. “Taking a sledgehammer to the binary wall, hacking the body to aim towards self-determination” requires planning: that’s where the plumbing is! Buildings are slow, heavy, and solid objects. They take time to change, as their entire infrastructure was created to sustain the gender-binary, and white supremacy. Choe’s response to the wait? “Re-appropriate buildings, occupy spaces subversively!”
Interested in the historical work involved with understanding spaces, Weiss questioned speakers about what to do with that inheritance. Do we retrofit? Is having the information enough of a change?
Crawford advocated for “reading against the grain” and “introducing friction.” By questioning what counts as knowledge and rigor, who counts as an architecture critic, one messes with the generic and gender-based expectations of architectural discourse. He drew on his poetry collection The High Line Scavenger Hunt to answer the question. Who reclaimed the High Line, and from whom? To what purpose was it reclaimed? Architecture is historicized in a specific way, to ignore it is to uphold bias.
Choe agreed: architecture is inherently not neutral, as conventions and trends point to changes in history. As we imagine futures, we must not take for granted architecture considered status quo. We will never start over carte blanche, but resistance, direct action, finding joy in the spaces we’ve been given are ways to begin change. “Occupy bathrooms you don’t belong in with your friends and party, make love, cry.” urged Choe, “Go against the code of how they were programmed.”
But how can we push against an administration resistant to renovating school buildings that are ableist, or anti-LGBTQ in their very essence? Weiss spoke to their personal experience, stating that a historically women’s college has been a “great place not to be a woman,” as the issue doesn’t lie within buildings but rather the language used by the college. They begged the question, is it enough to just occupy spaces? The history remains undealt with.
Choe posed the professional strategy: an alternative to the declarative approach, dangling the carrot. Subversively spilling an agenda through compromise, in an incremental way, deals with the administration on their own terms. Crawford regrets the need for such an agenda, as shouldn’t the university care about including their students? He advocated for a more direct approach, refusing to let yourself burn out or exhaust. At Simon Fraser University, after being placed in a committee, Crawford and others realized the admin would only listen to one thing: “public embarrassment and pressure.” By occupying a man’s bathroom and releasing a press statement, the group was able to get the University’s VP to speak publicly by the end of the day. By the end of the month, there was an online form to change one’s name on their ID. By the end of the year, there was a gender-neutral bathroom on campus and several more on the way.
The talk closed with one last question from Weiss: what would a specifically trans space or architecture look like as opposed to gender-neutral? For Choe, transness is not crossing over, but going beyond. It is not switching the coin, but melting it into a fluid. Aesthetically, they mentioned cyberpunk pastiche, post-modern mish-mashing, transparency and the act of looking as radical. “The thing about transition,” Choe said “is that once you do, you keep transitioning.” Crawford defined his poetic career as an attempt to answer the question. Why “gender-neutral?” Why not “gone?” A trans space, then, would be one that reminds us we can feel otherwise. The body can be thrown off guard, and feel in new ways. Body is change!
For Weiss, the discussion also deals with the questions of what is trans and who is trans? It is something that can live inside anyone, found at any time. For them, a trans space is where you process trauma with others who will be gentle as you change.
And as “Restless Year” by Erza Furman played as I closed my laptop, I felt filled with hope. If the future of buildings is as bright as these three, we are in good hands.
Milbank Hall many many many years ago via Bwog Archive.