We meet Adam Nathaniel Furman, who, starting from his experience as a Queer architect, tells us what it means to have political discussions through architecture today.
L: Your book “Queer Spaces an Atlas of LGBTQIA of Places and Stories” was recently published. It is very important to talk about queer spaces right now, it is a tough and demanding challenge both from a design and a critical point of view. Starting from the book, I would like you to talk about why you did it, what it means to be an architect, and to make political discussions through architecture. A: The book ‘Queer space’ is co-edited with Joshua Mardell, an architect and historian, and is published by the Royal Institute of British Architects. It has 55 contributors, so there are a multitude of authors in the book. It has been quite an epic undertaking over the last three years. The reason it came about is that I am queer, like many other designers who are queer but never talked about it, hid it, or kept it as a private aspect of their lives without carrying it into their design work. I was in high school in the 90s in London. I had been out; I came out at an early age, I think 15. I came out and was outed to the school and the rest of my local area in my part of London. The context was section 28, a law of Margaret Thatcher’s government that obliged local authorities not to intentionally promote homosexuality and that defined much of my generation’s experience of growing up gay or queer. I was badly bullied and was saved by gay spaces, as they were called at the time. I studied for my A-levels in a gay pub and studied during the day drinking tea and sitting at the table near the kitchen. People there taught me that I was not disgusting and that I didn’t deserve to be beaten up. The gay scene was very expressive, and very angry with constant protests because of Section 28. In 1990 there was even a bombing, and some people were killed. But at the same time, there was also an incredibly vibrant scene of nightclubs, shops, parties, and restaurants that were all being planned. Aesthetics were a very strong and powerful part of this desire to exist in space. The visual aesthetic of this kind of identity was very important to me. Then I enrolled in architecture school. I fought very hard against the narrow and racist view of architecture, where my ideas were considered ridiculous or superficial, and therefore rejected. Then in 2017, I was invited to give a queer symposium in architecture and design at Berkeley University in California. For the first time in my life, I was in a room of people from an architectural background, and we were all respectful towards each other. It was the most liberating experience of my life, I no longer had to fight for the right to be there. Later I was invited to Harvard for a similar symposium, and shortly afterwards I wrote “Outrage: the Prejudice Against Queer Aesthetics” for The Architectural Review, a column on queer aesthetics. Then the opportunity of this book on the queer canon of architecture over the last 250 years came about. This project is very significant, also for the students because it gives them the opportunity to have a history of their interictal desire to work with queer themes. It means being taken seriously and being able to use this book as a reference.
L: Reading your text I thought how necessary any form of intelligent subversion is today, a way of changing points of view. We are living through one of the most boring periods in the history of contemporary architecture. A: And one of the most exciting and crazy!
L: I completely agree with you. The world is producing intense and radical questions and we are living an extraordinary period in our history, but in the meantime, architecture is the least interesting part of this story, something seems to be wrong. Your work is therefore fundamental because it is challenging, strong and vibrant. I would like you to explain what it means for you to connect queer to architecture and space, that it is not just about being post promo or the use of colours or shapes. A: That is a certain context, color and shape is an integral part of that.
L: So how do you explain the founding idea of queer architecture to a large audience? I think it is important to define the context to share and discuss, to get out of cultural and mental ghettos. From a lateral, marginal situation we move to a central position: no longer to talk about the table next to the kitchen but to be in the center of the pub, or to leave the room. A: I just applied to become one of the mayor’s design supporters, but it didn’t happen, and I received an email saying it was a difficult decision. My application was a consequence of wanting to be on the decision makers’ tables, to be part of that discussion and help engender serious change at the metropolitan and institutional level. Regarding the question on the definition of queer architecture, I usually avoid using the word queer architecture specifically. The question is not how we can design spaces for queer people but how to control the form of an architectural perspective for a space that is good for all users. The book tries to demonstrate in an anti-Venturi and anti-traditional key that it is important to use a multitude of voices.
L: Of course, it is not a manifesto A: It is, but it is not one, it is a multitude of manifestos. I admit that I adore a kind of western bourgeois strand that includes the creation of alternative worlds. The first desire, from the 1850s onwards, is the desire to escape from a world that wants to kill you or simply does not allow you to be as you are. There is a tradition of creating hidden, alternative worlds through space, design, and ornament, culminating in figures such as Ludwig II of Bavaria. Unlike the racial group that is born into something that has a history, to be queer is to be like rhizomes, it is difficult to relate to the past or to have a past. What people do is create their own stories within themselves, it’s a construction of languages, and very often, especially for gay men, the inspiration was the diva icons. From Marie Antoinette to Versace. Ornaments, objects, and decorations were the representation of an aesthetic world in which to feel safe. No matter how powerful you become, there is always something about you because you can never really be out of the group with everyone else, so you create these worlds that protect yourself.
L: You create your worlds… A: Yes. There is a brilliant book called ‘Bachelors of a Different Sort: Queer Aesthetics, Material Culture and the Modern Interior’ by John Potvin which is a surprising exploration of four or five examples in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. The surprise is the appropriation of monuments. What we discover is that they have the same symbolism as patriarchal power, i.e., embodiments of things that oppress people of different gender identities. For example, the Coppelia in Havana, the iconic ice-cream shop during the Castro period, where ice-cream colours were used as symbols for different sexual desires. Or the Lenin Museum in Moscow, a figure who did not criticise sexual emancipation, which was the site of cruising for years. Here the theme of the re-appropriation of public space is triggered: the most obvious places become the queer places to meet outside unhealthy hours. Darkness is very often a place to happen.
L: In queer aestheticians using colors is also a kind of reaction to the darkness. A: There is a text by Johanna Hedenskog on queer architecture and she dissects color as an aesthetic that depends on a place and time to react to. Queerness breaks down contingency and cultural specificity.
L: What struck me was the series of installations that have become a way of working with the idea of freedom, using color to redefine the identities of space that are losing centrality to provoke something that is a new kind of social centrality. Beyond the world of interiors and design that is part of your daily research and narrative, of installations that are symbols of identity, I was thinking about the Boudoir Babylonia project you designed in Australia. A: I try to be impactful; it was nice to have these temporary commissions because it’s nice to be able to start a conversation with people. People don’t like online contact, they like real physical contact with where they are. That is why I have been pushing a lot within larger contract structures, both for government projects and private development so that they can incorporate symbolism, the art of identity and representation. Our kind of urban space is not a uniform expression of a tiny part of our wider culture. With the building boom in London and handcrafted decoration, the art of ornamentation has become an important way to instill culture into what we build; to get people to relate symbolically to the architecture of the city. But the production of good quality contemporary architecture defined by a small number of people is no longer sufficient. Hanah Aaron always talked about how the city was a symbolic space and that you build what you think is important. But I am positive that change is afoot here in the UK, the culture especially amongst the younger generation is very vocal and brilliant. They’re pushing very hard on all the buttons, with regards to both education and what they’re discovering when they go out into their profession. I believe in the love and vital energy that goes into making something that is permanently in the public environment, it is wonderful because people feel it.
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