What does a queer architecture look like?

11 October 2016

A night out on the town with friends is a rite of passage for university students, but as Micheal McCabe’s Master of Architecture (Professional) thesis explores, a night out at a club isn’t straight forward for everyone.

As a member of the queer community, Micheal’s thesis topic resonates personally; he is investigating how queer architectures have been constructed, specifically focusing on nightclubs between 1970-1990 in Auckland’s CBD and how might that inform a queer architecture for our current queer landscape. Another concern for his thesis is how nightclubs can be used to destabilise the politics of homonormativity. That is, how can the architecture of these social locations help to critique the undertones of racism, misogyny and transmisogyny within and outside of the community and enable everyone to have the ability to engage with these spaces more equally. “Nightclubs are one of the few spaces we as queer people have which are part of the built environment,” Micheal says. “They are designed to bring our community together, to keep us safe. But I began to wonder if they actually create community, or if it was only for some. They have do have the potential to be problematic, and I felt that was worth exploring.”

Micheal’s research has found that queer nightclubs have generally gone undocumented. “Nightclubs, queer or straight, are transient architectures, and for our community, we aren’t necessarily documented architecture canon either, so it is important to look into the history of our spaces.” He has reviewed known queer areas, such as K Road, but found that produces a trap of creating ‘gay ghettos’. “Essentially, it’s territorialising, saying ‘You’re allowed to express yourselves in this part of the city, but nowhere else. You will be safe here.’ But now we’re seeing the gentrification of K Road, so where might LGBTQ people go to seek out community?” he questions.

Citing the mainstream politics within the queer community, such as assimilative practices, acceptance and more heteronormative ‘respectability’ - monogamous relationships, not displaying overtly sexual or campy behaviours - Micheal questions if by privileging these things, more negative, potentially violent nightclub experiences may be overlooked. “I’m interested in how the nightclub can be a positive, affirmative tool. What happens to people of colour? What happens to trans people? I don’t think my thesis will solve the problem, but it will contribute to the discourse. No one talks about what a queer architecture might be, or how architecture might be able to engage with queer people and if they do, it is still very Euro-centric, cis and male.”

To do this, Micheal is regenerating theories popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, applying intersectionality to his research; where race, gender, class and sexuality are considered together, rather than individual conditions. He also relies on slightly less-academic resources to help guide him. “Academia can often lag behind current narratives which are coming out of channels like blogs, Twitter and websites, purely due to the process of researching, writing and publishing papers,” he laments. “I am trying to have queer personal narratives strengthen theory, rather than the opposite. Theory is good, but applicable theory is much more important.”

It could, in some cases, literally be a case of life and death. In light of the tragedy in Orlando earlier this year, where 49 people were killed in a queer nightclub during Pride month, Micheal’s research grows in significance. “It has unpacked some really interesting politics within the community,” he says. “It also took place on a Latinx night, where a trans woman was headlining, making it such an implicated and gendered problem. It was a result of many failures; gun control, failing to recognise that masculinity isn’t performed in just one way, and most of all, failing to recognise that some people and groups are more prone to violence than others. This is why the intersections are important; race, gender and class.” He believes the site of the tragedy cannot be overlooked.  “Violence has always happened at nightclubs; they are provocative architectures. Queer nightclubs have been torched in Auckland; people have been assaulted in or outside them. Queer nightclubs rupture the heteronormative structure of the city.”

He’s also looking beyond the CBD. “Not all queer histories or issues lie in the city,” he says, recalling his own upbringing as a queer youth in a small town. “We focus too much on the metropolitan, not on queer rural youth, or even what queer spaces might look like in South Auckland.” Fafswag, a voguing house/art collective based in South Auckland, are illustrative of how to create queer spaces that expand queerness through a specifically Polynesian lens. Micheal wants to expand his future research, but for now, his focus remains on the city.

His research has manifested as drawings and an installation. “I’m using different ways of making,” Micheal tells. “A nightclub is a multifaceted thing, engaging the building, lights, sound and bodies, and all of this contributes to an atmosphere. Stories can be told through these graphic conditions, or the building itself, or the music. If architecture is about creating a space, how can you create a space which is so atmospheric and multidisciplinary?” Micheal has been considering everything from furniture, ceramics and animations as part of his practical works. “It’s been a really beneficial exercise, actually. It’s given me the chance to sharpen my practice heading into the professional world, rather than just my ability to draw something.”

He has found great support from his supervisor, Associate Professor Sarah Treadwell. Sarah’s own research has centred around gender, politics and drawing, and Micheal appreciates their evolving relationship now he is at postgraduate level. “Sarah has been exceptionally supportive of this thesis,” he says. “Her background has produced an interesting dialogue between us. She’s addressed me more as a colleague, rather than a student. It feels like we’re equals, and that’s very refreshing.”

Looking forward, Micheal’s ideal career scenario would utilise the many strings in his bow. “The big vision would be to have a multidisciplinary practice; know what it’s like to work in an architectural practice, but also be involved in set building, costuming and freelancing, and potentially a PhD thrown in as well,” he laughs. He is certainly on the right track, juggling his thesis with costume designing for the upcoming Proudly Asian Theatre show, Call of the Sparrows. “The show is in October, which is running very close to Thesis Show, but if I can juggle both for now, it might be possible in practice as well. The plan is to keep my practice fresh and engaging for myself, and fit in things past five o’clock.”

Micheal’s work will be on display as part of the 2016 MArch(Prof) Thesis Show, for which he is on the student collective curating the exhibition. “We’re busy designing the show at the moment,” he says. “It will be held at the Auckland Art Gallery, which provides both challenges and opportunities, but we’re trying to challenge the conventional model of what a thesis show might be, so it’s exciting to be part of.”

For more on the Modos Thesis Show, visit the Creative Arts and Industries website.