World neighbourhoods, or: how contemporary man took over architecture
Column by Mounir Samuel, expressed at the Thursday Night Archive Explorations: Through Queer Eyes. Mounir Samuel, formerly known as Monique Samuel, is a political scientist, opinion maker, publicist and author of Egyptian-Dutch descent.
Looking at architecture through queer eyes. That means looking at impressive heaps of stone, steel and concrete through… well, my eyes. You might think that it can’t get much ‘queerer’ than me. An effeminate man, not a masculine woman, liberated from the trivial binaries (and banalities) of the everyday. Queer. It remains a strange word. Once a term of abuse, today it’s a badge of honour for anyone who doesn’t want to submit to standard definitions of gender: man or woman, or neither.
What do you see if you look at architecture from the perspective of the queer? Buildings in the form of the huge phallus of a white, uncircumcised man? Do you consult the private archive of a gay architect? Go in search of the female form without a corset?
That would be playing safe, stinking of sexual exoticism. But does that pose real questions about architecture today? I doubt it.
For me the whole acronym-alphabet of LHBTQ2 and God knows what more stands for diversity: the Creator’s ode to His own endless creativity.
We can ask much more interesting questions about contemporary design if we consider queer not as a deviation from the norm but as an expression of dynamic, creative fluidity.
The fact is, ladies and gentlemen (and everyone in between), that Dutch architecture may be celebrated, but it’s certainly not progressive. It’s been dominated for centuries by white, heterosexual males whose ideas and conceitedness have been subject to little criticism. We copy the masters of the past. Replicate Vinex neighbourhoods that resemble Amsterdam’s canals. Build a new Batavia. The ordinary people think that’s beautiful. Semi-old. Stately living but with less maintenance.
I don’t want gay-friendly buildings or design that’s appealing to all lesbians.
When I look at the public realm, from streets to squares, from parks to neighbourhoods, my conclusion is: beautiful but respectable. Safe. Reliable. Well maintained. Formless. Friendly. But above all one-dimensional. Spaces are designed functionally: for the functions conceived by white heterosexual men (or what their wives suggest). So, darker toilets for men and lighter toilets for women. Privacy screens between dirty urinals. Changing rooms in dark blue or red. Pink is out of the question.
All these clichéd gender divisions are hell for a queer like me. Always the same angry or outright hostile looks. Pissing in a urinal is not an option for most trans men. So, accompanied by deathly silent stares, we’re banished to the only stall. Give me the cheerful chitchat of the women’s toilets any day, even though we get funny looks there too.
So here’s my first proposal: let’s make an end to the disgusting, discriminatory urinal. The introduction of separate gender-neutral toilets would be the first step outside the heterosexual comfort zone (and maybe also the homosexual dream). That way, men can no longer escape their fatherly duties. And transgender and queer people won’t have to be nervous about using the toilet. And it will immediately take account of the user who, for religious reasons, can’t stand in front of a shared mirror to tuck loose hairs into her headscarf. Clothes shops arranged by colour and style rather than by gender. Light, openness, what men want is what women do, away with all that concrete and steel, apartments exclusively for the white and wealthy, more playfulness, colour, so-called feminine elements, flowers and greenery.
Eye to eye with diversity, because for me queer is more than gender variance: adjustable kitchen counters so that Anne and Aisha (or Arno and Ahmed to go with the times) can both cook at the same level. More single-storey buildings and access ramps for the growing groups who can no longer walk rather than giving so much attention to those who might want to smoke. Lots of glass and light for the visually impaired, like me, or for those who simply want as much daylight as possible.
What many people hate is what I love most about the Netherlands: the endless multi-coloured diversity of the street. The whole world in a single hand, all the peoples of the world in a single land.
We must embrace this richness, make it part of our collective DNA. If I were allowed to design our cities, I would construct neighbourhoods with buildings from Amsterdam to Khartoum. Integrate the colours of Mali with the bricks of stately gentlemen of old. A windmill here, a minaret there. Venetian arches interspersed with Thai stilt constructions. Moorish mosaics and Spanish wall tiles. Subtle elements from all countries and cultures. Not in the kitschy stereotypes of Las Vegas or Disneyland, but dozens of small details, forms and materials so that every building will be as diverse as the inhabitants of the Netherlands.
Samuel publishes in various national newspapers as De Volkskrant, NRC Handelsblad, Trouw and NRC Next. He also works as a fly-in correspondent Middle East and North Africa for De Groene Amsterdammer. For IFFR Samuel wrote the article Trans is het nieuwe gay (Trans is the new gay).