by Jincy IypeDec 27, 2022
In reticent wonderment, just hours before the set conversation between two professionals I have recently developed a lot of affinity for within the larger, academic 'queer space', and whose work continues to challenge, explore, upend these notions in architecture and design, I sat wondering post a breezy reading of this writeup’s subject, Queer Spaces. “One must set aside the anchor of the conversation to what defines queer space,” I muttered, mused. Across over 200 spaces that the book lovingly catalogues, there must be certain common spatial factors that would bind the varied selection of spaces – some permanent, some transient, some increasingly intimate, and some massive hollows. How could one not? As architects now transitioned into making basal enquiries into the spaces we write about, the conditioning called for motioning the narrative around referential styles and statements. However, amidst the enlightening conversation between these two immensely reputed London-based practitioners and professionals, artist and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman and Dr. Adam Kaasa of the Royal College of Art and founder of Theatrum Mundi, a talk point initiated by the latter of the two speakers came quick to dismiss the voracity of that question. Dr. Kaasa's observation of how this atlas of LGBTQIA+ spaces began and ended, corroborated as completely intentional narrative bookends by Furman, is what lent clarity to that notion.
The first and final queer spaces presented in the book were not constructed, architectonic spaces at all, in fact. Opening with a train journey between Premià de Mar and Barcelona wherein writer, researcher, and a contributor to the book, Ailo Ribas, recounts her experience of switching appearances to present as a boy in her hometown while in transit; and closing, conversely in scale but parallely in thought with respect to spatial notionality, with Comparsa Drag in Buenos Aires, the book uses a veritable contrast to question and explore the genesis of queer space as not an occurrence, but an embodiment. While a reader’s arrival into the book, something that Furman describes as "putting on the gay VR headset” in the conversation, is marked by something increasingly personal and inward looking - an almost voyeuristic look into a life of transient inhabitation, the finale is an explosion, a celebration by all means, a taking-over of streets, and a nocturnal subversion of widely acceptable urban behaviours.
As the drag performers move around “as a vagrant pack, wandering at queer speeds, under queer time” - another subversion of physical constructs, the book offered me a new perspective on queer space where I was looking for a radical aesthetic or built quality. To quote sparingly from Ribas' wonderful, intimate, beautiful opening chapter, admirably dubbed under the Domestic sphere, "Queer space is simply that which allows us to be in right relationship with change…it is making use of space in a queer way: learning to forage for, assimilate, and wield spaces as prostheses, as tools for personal transformation and social change". Both of these newfound 'spaces' not only bring to light a reclamation, an appropriation of heteronormative space as the book would state, and a search for a refuge, a safe space within them, they also question the primordial 'space’ as something inherited and arrived at, rather than simply created and occupied. That sense of adaptability and resultant adaptation is what lies at the heart of queer spaces, and the underlying narrative of spatial appropriation by the community as a thing of resistance in the world is a reaffirming, resounding victory, and a beacon of hope in a world seemingly moving backwards - a testament to the ready reckoner lifeline the book aspires to be, or as Furman would state, "a gateway drug for their gayness or queerness”.
Apart from these narrative bookends, the bulk of the book devises a unique framework for exploring queer space and spaces that would inherently inspire queer expression. Between its Domestic, Communal, and Public sections, the books brings to light several cruising sites, private residences, clubs, public spaces in the urban realm, bookstores, swanky European castles, educational institutions, hotels, and spaces of art, along with a plethora of unconventional examples of embodied space similar to the Train Journey and Comparsa Drag, that emerge as embodying resilience and resistance, joy and pride, pleasure and growth, an all overcoming beauty in the face of adversity, and a sense of 'found' kinship. Another interesting upending that the book does in listing these spaces and having tales around them narrated from local contributors is around the word 'atlas' that in its academic context seems largely fixated upon a pinpointed geography and history - boundaries and time - both factors that are all but gleefully distorted, diminished, rather, in these queer spaces.
The idea that the book also had to present as a compendium of such spaces wherein juxtapositions in typology and utility could be studied, as opposed to simply an anthological collection, was also essential to the editors, including both Furman and Joshua Mardell. A particular juxtaposition, that of queer spaces for working class queers often extending beyond the residential and increasingly spilling over to the public, the communal, accounts that queer history is notoriously bereft of, is certainly interesting and a pointer to the importance of archiving these spaces sans the rainbow-washing of a number of contemporary spaces and their documentation.
However, apart from juxtaposition and archival bravado, the book’s true triumph comes to fore in its study of the importance of a queer ecosystem as a nurturer of queerness, as a spatial haven under which queerness may come to flourish. The idea is first hinted at in Olivia Laing’s near profound foreword to the book, and then later in several non-residential spaces wherein a sense of community is alluded to, wherein a cyclical concealing from the world and an emancipation is established as a process central to queer identity, exploring "the idea of a hidden self, a mysterious creature that can emerge from its chrysalis, given the right conditions". The "right conditions", a conscious, subconscious, unconscious queering of space, adapted or bequeathed, is the ecosystem that Furman talks about as entirely essential to the queer being as a space where the self comes alive. "The idea that queerness requires an ecosystem to flourish helps clarify the fundamental importance of queer space,” Laing further elucidates in her foreword, while Furman and Dr. Kaasa fervently designate the compendium of spaces and contributors in the book as an alternate universe in itself and a network - a party even - a life-giving/saving/affirming resource that may be tapped into.
On the other hand, Queer Spaces came to me as a curious artefact, a piece that also made grave reflection closer home rather imperative. With all but two examples of queer spaces from India - Kitty Su and the Oddbird Theatre, both in New Delhi - the fact that homosexuality and divergent gender expression, leave alone civil unions being recognised by the state, still remain largely socially unacceptable in this part of the world hits home. In contrast, the vibrant, spirited Hijra Guru Ma’s rooftop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a number of spaces in Thailand particularly among the entire South East Asian echelon (which my recent visit to the beautiful country would affirm), invariably instil much more hope amid undeniably darker times. Furman addressed this too, stating that the very sanctity of some of these spaces in our part of the world was protected through and hinged upon anonymity. Away from the spotlight and public eye, several such queer spaces and their interpretations bloom, celebrate and inspire. Their pride is all but contained, joyful, and quaint, as opposed to vociferous and the kind that could inspire movements. But a resistance and desire brews in each of these beings in each of these spaces - a room shrouded in neon, or the bench of a park, an ice cream flavour even, or an institutional edifice - each a microcosm of visibility and inhibition shedding. This academic parable of hope with a life and appeal that is interestingly much beyond academia, "a legitimate resource, a thing in the world” as Dr. Kaasa would state, proudly exclaims queer history as all history, and queer spaces as all spaces.