If anyone wants an origin story for the queer gender of my weird girlhood, they need only to imagine my bedroom carpet. There were three bedrooms in our split-level house in rural Nova Scotia — one with beige carpet for my parents, a smaller one with deep pink carpet for my older sister, and another small room, with blue-hued turf, for me. 1 Though this part of Canada remains economically depressed, the house we moved into had been designed with the expectations of the aspirational suburbs; two children (a daughter and son) were foreseen by someone. 2 Did this laying out of the nuclear family underfoot enmesh gender between the toes of my young fat body? Did its light blue shag anticipate my heavy genderfuck? It’s not an origin story — but call it a tonal and textural foreshadowing; call it a premonition of magical proportions. My house gave me blue carpet before I — well, before what?
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I have no interest in determining a point at which my gender began its ongoing unfolding; I am, as theorist Susan Stryker puts it, “agnostic as to [the] origin” of my capacities to become other.3 But in what follows — a meditation on texture as a vector for genderqueer experience — I do not forget that my blue room was incredibly important to me. I hung plus-sized quasi-butch women’s shirts in the closet (which I would come out of at age fifteen). I slammed its hollow-core door after fighting with my parents about the lust that did dare, sometimes, to speak its name in our village.
Texture is as political as color, as thoroughly imbricated in gender and sexual norms.
Yet it wasn’t a purely “masculine” room, a “boy’s” room, or otherwise homogeneous in the implications of its surfaces. The blue carpet was soft and fuzzy; the posters (first of athletes, then of the Spice Girls, then of the Dave Matthews Band) were glossy and reflective; the heads of the eighteen or so nails on which I hung my baseball caps were sharp when empty but supported a delicate (if butch) cloth sculpture when all were occupied. My youth-bowling-league shirt was stitched with campy embroidered badges, and the pillow on which I sat at night to write tortured poems was downy (if not as fragile as my young queer heart).
Could the room’s textures be as gender-charged as the color of its carpet?
Consider how easy it is for us to recognize ways in which color is gender-coded and sexualized: pastels are innocent; a hunter-green hanky worn in the back right pocket means “daddy”; parents use pink and blue onesies (as the designers of our subdivision used bedroom décor) to communicate the status of their child’s genitals to onlookers. 4 And when Janelle Monáe was illuminated by blue, pink, and purple rays in her 2018 video “Make Me Feel,” the idea of “bisexual lighting” took off in earnest. 5
We know that color also marks other registers of the body and its experiences. You may get a pink slip at your blue-collar job, park in the blue parking spot, and be compared to a food with a colored outside and a white interior if you’re a racialized person with a putative aspiration to assimilate. Pantone is political. We have favorite colors, and we identify as colors: white collar; red state; owner of a green business avoiding morally gray areas; wearer of those rose-colored glasses that represent enforced optimism — yes, believer in the heteronormative playbook of the silver lining. 6
My opening premise, then: texture is every bit as political as color, as thoroughly imbricated in gender and sexual norms. It slides, if slyly, into our designs, vocabularies, and tastes. Texture and gender are mutually defining.
Consider the gendered, racialized, and class-based connotations of textural metaphors for bodies and behaviors.
Consider the gendered, racialized, and class-based connotations of textural metaphors for bodies and behaviors. Boys are “rough” and “tough,” while girls are “flaky” or “featherbrained”; one who shirks manual labor is a “tenderfoot”; a newly gentrifying area is marketed as “gritty” while working-class manners might be described as “coarse”; all the while, women’s legs and hair ought to be “silky.” Heteronormative judgements about the importance of staying “hard,” of being “too loose,” or of being “really tight” probably sound familiar. The “velvet” voices of Bing Crosby and his ilk stand in sharp contrast to tones that “grate” on us, an insult usually reserved for higher registers — “gravelly” voices are okay, though. Boys and men are seldom “bubbly.” Sexualized notions of social class unfold in almost onomatopoetic fashion: marble counters are “sleek”; car salesmen are “slick”; pick-up artists are “smooth.”
Such textural gendering goes beyond sneakily coercive colloquialisms. Witness Architectural Digest’s 2015 account of Caitlyn Jenner’s redecorated Malibu home. 7 In the words of designer Lori Margolis, who directed the makeover, Jenner “wanted something soft and feminine but also something that has strength.” Observe that while “soft” and “feminine” are presented as near-synonyms, they are forced to contrast with “strength.” While many of us would want to counter that equation, it remains compelling that the ostensible femininity of the updated house has primarily to do with texture rather than with color. 8
The neutral color palette and supposedly feminine textures are not the only terms with which Architectural Digest links gender to Margolis’s design. Indeed, this puff-piece about architectural transition follows an increasingly mainstream transgender life-narrative: a before-and-after motif in which the present requires a past against which to hype the shock of difference. An inner change, we are told, is reflected at last through an outer one; we are encouraged to believe that a material transition is merely the outcome of some preexisting mental or transcendental shift. 9 The magazine draws what it calls “a natural parallel between the design of [Jenner’s] home and the transformation of her life.” Margolis says that Jenner “wanted her home to reflect not just her sense of style but her journey.”
Does one type of transformation merely “reflect” the other?
I would argue that descriptions of textures like those in Architectural Digest — say, Jenner’s loungers draped in Tibetan lamb’s wool — are effects of gender. Or, rather, cultural understandings of such textures affect ideas and experiences of gender. Otherwise, design (and all art) would be only mementos of real life — not parts of it.
If a rug ever made your apartment feel homey or flannel pajamas made you cozy, then you know that textured aesthetics do not just reflect feeling but also generate it. Sara Ahmed implies this with her ominous remark that “while you furnish a house … it is the house that furnishes you.” 10 Similarly, Mark Wigley asserts that marriage as we know it would be impossible without the built form of the nuclear-family home: “the physical house is the possibility of the patriarchal order that appears to be applied to it.” 11
It is well-accepted that we observe (and intervene in) the gendering and sexualizing of the visual through the symbolism of color. We must add: we can observe the gendering and sexualizing of the haptic via the symbolism of texture.
Texture does not “cause” us to identify in certain ways; my blue carpet did not make me transgender. But texture is the condition of possibility through which our bodies meet our environments. We learn to feel “at home” with ourselves via such textural encounters: the familiar fuzz of a treasured blanket, the stretch and stiffness of freshly washed clothes, or the stubble of a guardian’s face. As Sara Ahmed explains in Queer Phenomenology, being able to feel like ourselves means being able to locate ourselves in space. 12 We can elaborate: this ability to locate ourselves hinges on touch — and therefore, texture — rather than on mental imaging or inner equilibrium exclusively (both of which require us to draw upon textural memories).
Texture is the condition of possibility through which our bodies meet our environments. Texture is an activity, not a state of being.
I emphasize touch because texture is an activity, not a state of being. While color is a realm of light, sight, and distance, texture and touch are proximate, requiring engagement in time. They change depending on speed, angle of approach, temperature, and other variables. 13 A move from color to texture entails a sensual shift too, from visual to haptic — a reorientation that is overdue in our hyper-visual culture.
Yes, Einstein’s theory of relativity has popped up in a study of gender and design. The theory holds that our felt experiences depend in part on movement. My blue carpet felt plush and inviting if I ran my hand over it while counting hockey cards, but I could get a rug burn if I slid across it too fast. Water seems harder the higher the board from which we dive; it is not hard a priori. Texture cannot be fixed. Like gender in its relationality, texture is palpable only in becoming.
We don’t know what texture “is,” only what texture does. And from Judith Butler onwards, many of us think of gender as precisely this kind of relational, active proposition.
Research by critic and curator Jeanne Vaccaro further motivates this aspect of my argument. Her analysis of textile art and transgender “privileg[es] the labor of texture and touch” in order to “dislodge … transgender from the singular ‘event’ of its diagnosis.” That is, rather than staging transgender primarily as an issue for medical authority, Vaccaro “foreground[s] the fleshy, fibrous seams of transformation.” 14 Her focus on craft and “the handmade” — “too frequently dismissed as low art, [un]skilled labor, or ‘women’s work’” — is crucial to her scholarship. Instead of looking to sexological or psychiatric metanarratives about origins of transgender life, Vaccaro “privilege[s] the politics of the hand, that which is worked on, and the sensory feelings and textures of crafting transgender identity.” 15
Responding to architecture in textural terms is an intentionally abrasive pursuit, reintroducing emotion and touch to critical discourse.
Architecture is typically represented as the rigorous, consequential, and implicitly cis-masculine opposite of feminized craft. 16 But, for Vaccaro, “the handmade … is a frictional offering of transgender as experiment, provocation, potential.” 17 For me, by extension, responding to architecture in textural terms is an intentionally abrasive pursuit, one that aims to get crafty with architectural criticism by reintroducing emotion and touch to its discourses.
Taking my cue from Vaccaro’s emphasis on the felt, frictional aspects of transgender aesthetics, my method in what follows is to read some tropes of recent architectural writing closely, in order to tease out the emotional patterns of gendered discomfort that cis architectural critics perform — if unintentionally — in their analyses. If this sounds overly exacting, I can only suggest that the discomfort I aim to introduce to critics of architecture could probably never reach the intensity of the material pains inflicted by normative spatial designs (and designers) onto trans, queer, and other non-normative bodies. Trans people hold in waste to avoid sex-segregated washrooms; sore people strain to climb stairs; people are surveilled in panoptic architectures of control. Can designers and design critics endure the unease of being questioned — and questioning themselves — regarding how and why they too feel architecture?
A Further Word About Words
Texture describes bodies’ close encounters with surfaces and each other. Texture in design allows apparently gender-neutral spaces to encode gendered histories. Texture-words in daily speech carry perniciously gendered ideologies. For better or worse, texture makes no sense without a suggestion of contact — that is, relation.
Neither does texture inhere in my descriptive language here. As a poet, however, I believe that language acts; it allows us to “move” an audience. Language is textural because a writer must make visual and auditory signs (that is, words) resound through a reader’s other senses; to write well is to induce readerly synesthesia. As a hyperbolic example, consider erotica: the reader holds a book in their hands but likely feels it elsewhere; the movement from book-in-hand to increased-blood-flow-in-pants shows the textural quality of textual interpretation. The medium of text, when animated by and with us, may affect how the fabric of our underwear feels or how thick the air seems.
Synaesthesia is at work in any act of interpretation, and tactile metaphors do more than mark the sensory limits of textuality. Such terms signify an ineffable striving to overcome the limits of text as a visual medium. Interpretations of architecture and texts — including the textural metaphors analyzed below — have physical ramifications. When texture is invoked through verbal description, we can feel it, not as the mere representation of “actual” (in this case, architectural) texture, but, as haptic stimulus in its own right.
I admit my leap of faith: I believe that changing words — say, crafting new architectural similes and metaphors for trans and queer embodiments — can alter our perceptions. It is vital to consider the language in which we discuss the design of built space, because whether or not they realize it, architecture critics generally build a body into their writings — a body whose experiences, feelings, and values are presumed to be widely, if not universally, shared by readers. We must allow ourselves, and others, to write bodies other than cis, straight, white, able ones into the affect of our analyses. Imagining different bodies means staging different encounters. And this in turn implies a textural shift.
Changing words — say, crafting new architectural metaphors for trans and queer embodiments — can alter perceptions.
Since not all share this faith in the power of words to shape experience, let me emphasize that we already employ sexual and gendered metaphors in architectural criticism. We just expect them to be understood via heteronormative frameworks. Consider a few ways in which critics have described the work of Zaha Hadid Architects. Oliver Wainwright of The Guardian has written that the Heydar Aliyev Centre (2013) in Baku looks “like sinuous whirls of whipped cream.” 18 When that same structure won the London Design Museum’s Design of Year prize in 2014, jury-member Piers Gough described it as “swooning fluid,” “intoxicatingly beautiful,” “a sweet love letter,” and “as pure and sexy as Marilyn’s blown skirt.” 19 Most famously, multiple commentators — including Cosmopolitan, The Daily Show, The Guardian, and various online outlets — have compared Hadid’s Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar, completed in 2019, to a vagina. 20 The firm itself describes its 2016 ferry terminal in Salerno, Italy, as looking “like an oyster.” 21
Such descriptions couch Hadid’s projects in a rhetoric of seduction; metaphors of aphrodisiacs, body parts, movie stars, and extreme emotions instruct us to perceive her buildings as sexualized and gendered objects to be looked at and possessed by the viewer. In this formula, architectural pleasure inheres in the voyeuristic pursuit of an (alluring, feminine, and/or sexy) object.
So, you’ll understand why I permit myself to experiment with trans and queer metaphors in architectural discourse.
If we transform texture — including how we talk about texture — we could change gender in both minute and brash ways.
Archi-Texture #1: The Crumple
Best read surrounded by wastebaskets from which overflow hundreds of crumpled pieces of paper, those relics of discarded thought, traces of creative process and proof that one can simply begin again.
Best read surrounded by archival documents, crumpled because they are old; because they have been touched by so many hands; because they have survived.
Best read while wearing a crumpled blouse with saliva-scrubbed spots of last Tuesday’s stew, paired with pants recouped from a bedside pile.
Best read while flattening out the reams of crumpled brainstorming notes you’ve now fished out of your trashcan after a second thought. And then crumpling them back up again.
Best read with a realistic comprehension of collapse, with the concurrent humility and persistence of recycling soda cans while [somewhere] burns. Best read, or heard, or dismissed, through a hermeneutics of salvage. Or, more simply, with the question: what does it take to try again with a piece of trash or the detritus of this world — ?
As a verb, “to crumple” means “to crook, bend together, contort” (OED). To crumple something, transitively, is to put pressure on its straightness and smoothness; to crumple oneself, intransitively, is to cast off, with relief and exhaustion, the illusion of rigidly upright form. To crumple is to reshape according to external pressures, sometimes with all the effort and pain implied by the word “contort.” To be crumpled is to bear the marks of those pressures, yet to survive. To crumple is to make “crooked,” a descriptor that resounds with physical, legal, and moral connotations.
Trans and queer people are experienced practitioners of the crumple; we “bend together” and try not to break. 22 As Jack Halberstam points out, transgender life rarely proceeds along neatly predetermined lines, but rather “by hook or by crook.” 23
We can understand crumpling as metaphorically trans or queer.
But the relation is tangible too; several obsolete usages show how thoroughly the crumple has been queerly embodied throughout history. In Robert Forby’s Vocabulary of East Anglia, published in 1830, the noun “crumpling” is attested for the first time as a “crooked … diminutive and deformed person.” In the mid-1600s, gardening texts spoke of crumplins and crumplings as small or stunted apples. Both definitions — human and fruit — could be said to correspond to recent efforts in queer theory to reclaim the “stretched-out adolescence” of queer life, queer youths’ ability to “grow sideways” rather than to “grow up” in undeviating order towards maturity. 24 Another obsolete form, “croumpe,” refers equally to a hunch or hump or crook or knob on the body, and also to that crooked person per se. 25 From the mid-1500s to the late 1700s, dictionaries and other sources describe figures as “croumpe-shouldered,” “Crumpe-footed,” and crumpe-back’d.” 26 To be a crumpling, then, is to flout expectations regarding size, shape, and reproductive capacities; to fail to grow in the prescribed manner; to be disabled or to grow differently than others of the species. The crumpling is an apple that does fall far from its tree.
To crumple is to make ‘crooked,’ a descriptor that resounds with physical, legal, and moral connotations.
In Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (2006), Robert McRuer examines the liberal pretense that we are all free to feel however we like about any given body, when, in reality, the supposedly “natural” superiority of able bodies is everywhere enforced. “A system of compulsory able-bodiedness repeatedly demands that people with disabilities embody for others an affirmative answer to the unspoken question, Yes, but in the end, wouldn’t you rather be more like me?” 27 Queer embodiment and disability, we see, are adjacent folds in the crumpling up of normative social demands. This is not only because queerness and transgender are embodied oppressions and pleasures, but also because, as McRuer points out, to contextualize is to texturize: “The Latin root for contextualize denotes the act of weaving together, interweaving, joining together, or composing.” 28 A texturally nuanced genderqueerness bonds to other bodies, works to disable the visceral entitlements of the able body politic.
The crumpling body does not do what it is “supposed” to do.
The Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building, designed by Frank Gehry at the University of Technology in Sydney, opened in 2015. It quickly became known as the “Crumpled Paper-Bag Building,” praised by the Governor General of Australia as “the most beautiful squashed brown paper bag I’ve ever seen.” 29 Who cares if this building is crumpled, especially given the conditions of its creation? Gehry is a “star-chitect”; the building was part of a billion-dollar plan for campus upgrades at UTS; its postmodern whimsies may well prove exasperating for custodial staff to clean.
Yet, in addition to these worthy concerns, the building signifies (maybe even induces) disorientation, and presents itself as a crumpled object. Its aesthetics can frame new conditions for gendered subjectivity.
When a building crumples, materials that are by definition rectilinear, inflexible — in this case, bricks — are made to convey movement. Gehry’s building undulates, its 320,000 bricks making curves in what typically stands straight — an exterior wall, an academic bastion. The structure does not quite cohere in visual terms; its brick skin resembles folds and irregularities that seem to have been inflicted by external stress. There is no longer a clear front, side, or back. Needless to say, the design required months of effort, as did the construction process. 30 But the paper-bag-like crumple makes this architecture appear affected by pressures beyond its boundaries — touched by invisible forces whose vectors we must deduce from the building’s shape.
Architecture here is sovereign, a product of computer-assisted design that can defy even the rules of traditional engineering. At the same time, it represents itself as not sovereign — as being touched, or crumpled, by something else. This disjuncture captures tensions between the building’s socially situated reality and its potential for queer aesthetic reinterpretation. The successful white cis male architect caters to the institutional machine of a university by making architecture bend beyond normative notions of gravity — but, in so doing, creates an architectural body that thematizes physical and affective vulnerability. What is at stake, then, are neither Gehry’s intentions nor any inherent meaning in the building as such. 31 What concerns me, rather, is the encounter between interpreter and building — the moment at which a built structure affects those who occupy it or otherwise perceive it.
In his complaints about postmodern design, Frederic Jameson sees less potential in muddying this relation between building and body; in his estimation, postmodern architecture disorients people, but is not politically effective in transforming neoliberal subjects and their relations to space. In his words, “there has been a mutation in the object unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject.” 32 But cannot our encounters with buildings play a role in bringing about just such mutations? Might some subjects simply be better equipped than Jameson to viscerally grasp the stakes of postmodern design? 33
When a building crumples, materials that are by definition rectilinear, inflexible, are made to convey movement.
Gehry’s crumpled building cites — however unwittingly — a trans ethic of creativity. Its shape gestures towards the brainstorming process and its pile of rejected, balled-up drafts; towards the process of trying things out and then abandoning them, or perhaps not. As Vaccaro argues, the “work of a transgender body” can be understood as championing just such material “repurposing.” 34 Thus the idea of crumpled paper as the waste product of thought is recycled to present an enterable, habitable piece of trash. Someone coercively assigned female at birth can recycle bodily parts and traits, as well as the meanings imputed to them, and live inside or as a body that aims not to conceal its own transformation. (This is but one of many philosophies and styles of trans or queer gender — my own). This building, and perhaps some bodies, can say together: “It is possible to take ‘garbage’ materials, rewrite them large and loud, give them new ‘form,’ and live in/as that form.”
Once again, the building per se does none of this. Its (tenuous, variable) meanings arise in the textured encounter between a subjectivity (here, trans-inflected) and the architectural object.
In Gehry’s building, what appears from a distance to be a smoothly rippling shape is actually jagged. Bricks jut out, disrupting the unity of the façade. These “broken” surfaces recall the “croumpe” in a foot that seems to exceed bodily integrity — kinks or lumps that might, alternatively, be read as subverting the cultural demand for corporeal asceticism and perfection, embracing the fear of plural or contradictory meanings. The undulating brick façade nods to surrealist histories, from painting (e.g. Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks) to fashion (e.g. “The Tears Dress,” Elsa Schiaparelli’s collaboration with Dalí, which seems to breach the boundary between skin and fabric, subject and object). 35 Inside the building, a stairway framed by mirrored panels reflects its surroundings dramatically, and when viewed from a distance resembles a sculptural installation. Treating stairs as a bizarre focal point certainly doesn’t undo their complicity in ableism. But the choice to highlight stairs as a stylized feature (rather than tuck them out of sight as a utilitarian necessity in a closed stairwell) does, I hope, make us consider them anew. We are invited to acknowledge their centrality to our understandings of public space. Hiding flights of stairs as mere infrastructure does the opposite; through such spatial marginalization, most buildings underplay the importance of this persistent practice in exclusionary design. 36 Moreover, Gehry’s mirrored stairs literalize the very idea of skewed senses, of perception’s tendency to work in ways we don’t expect. The mirrored stairs cast back to stair-climbers broken and distorted images. 37 A kind of funhouse mirror, this crumpled cladding produces an image of crumpled bodies.
I’m being generous here, of course: in a world where accessibility is still stymied by the persistent design norms of stairs, maybe it’s not possible to queer the body on the stairs. But even my stair-hating self has hopeful moments.
Moreover, this enfolding of the seemingly singular building into multiple aesthetic contexts reminds us that to crumple is always to demand to be interpreted anew. A building can seek to be woven into histories of textile, paint, and art; a crumpling body can (seemingly suddenly) collapse and call for a new frame through which to be understood. In my experience, for instance, coming out as transgender — which seemed to me mainly a speech act (as I didn’t take hormones or pursue other medically regulated modes of transition) — seemed to actually alter the capacities of other people’s senses. Preexisting facial hair suddenly became visible to some; my voice sounded lower to others. Their perceptions about physicality changed, though my body had not. This was often disturbing, but no more so than the reactions of those who had noticed and detested my girlhood hirsutism.
A Building in Tights
I interpret features of Gehry’s building in a manner that presumes and trusts the presence of genderqueer embodiment, experience, and thought. And I reiterate why doing so matters: namely, because highly gender-coded ideas already operate, unchecked, in common understandings of many architectures, including this one.
Let us turn to several reviews, the first by the pseudonymous “Angry Architect” in Architizer. It is a mundane piece of writing. Its implicit transphobia is ordinary; it indicates a broader condition in contemporary architectural criticism.
The Angry Architect employs a series of loaded terms and metaphors to describe the appearance of the UTS project and its supposedly correlated moral implications. The Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building is called “outlandish,” an instance of “architectural theatrics”; it is, we are told, an example of Gehry’s “typically flamboyant” manner, prioritizing “formal gymnastics over function.” 38 Outlandish; theatrical; flamboyant; gymnastic: To be blunt: The Angry Architect implies that this building is Too Gay. Such descriptors accuse the building of not being itself, and of flaunting it. To be outlandish is to be zany, eccentric, or otherwise not normal; in the theater, one plays a role, in costume; flamboyance seeks attention for style rather than substance; gymnastics recall the contortions of the crumple. According to this critic, Gehry’s design is guilty of a stylized dishonesty, dependent on performance and distortion. Whether acting “theatrical” or performing “gymnastics,” somebody is wearing tights. Another piece by the Angry Architect characterizes Gehry as having a “reputation for grand pageantry.” Tights and pageantry? Flamboyance and theatrics? Yes, the building is accused of architectural drag. 39
These reviewers conflate the visual and potentially tactile gratifications of architecture with gendered and sexualized indulgence.
These reviews express a marked discomfort with pleasure. Moreover, they conflate the visual and potentially tactile gratifications of architecture with gendered and sexualized indulgence. Both maneuvers are on display in seemingly simple judgments, as when the Angry Architect opines that the crumpled UTS building is “delightful to the eye, perhaps, but a devil to polish up each day.” It’s certainly believable that these interiors might cause difficulty for custodians. But it is suspicious that the Angry Architect contrasts the blameless labors of hardworking staff against visual pleasure, as if to better underline the flagrant, even decadent, faggotry of the design. Juxtaposition accomplishes much here. Delightfulness — crumpled queer beauty, lazy hedonism— is akin to trickery; the building may seduce aesthetically, but a devilish (immoral) reality lurks within. Note too that the reviewer’s point is contradictory: they attribute virtuous honesty to those buildings that take care to conceal their constructedness, to maintain the illusion that modes of display and presentation — be they architectural or bodily — are sui-generis, not performative, unmoved by fashion.
It is not the case that Gehry underlines the building’s performativity in some perfectly honest or open way (surely not a relevant or achievable goal anyhow). Rather, my point is that this review — and the broader trend of gendering-and-moralizing it reflects — uses metaphor to express disgust for queer embodiment, aesthetics, and gratification.
Other examples are myriad, even if we limit our survey to just this building. The Angry Architect calls out theatrics; Phillip Drew, writing for the Sydney Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, goes further. “All those squiggles and indecipherable scribbles [Gehry] is so fond of,” he suggests, “are features of the costume worn by mannerists … [who] resort to affected gestures.” 40 Once again, disgust with the building emerges via metaphors about acting, clothes, and superficiality.
Dishonest queer aesthetics attract and then betray us; we are entrapped by a beauty that conceals its “real” parts underneath. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it coincides exactly with one of the most popular mainstream models of transgender, in which “trap,” as a noun, is used to describe binary transgender people who “pass” so well as cis that even straight members of the “opposite sex” might (at least initially) be interested. 41
In the tropes of “trans as trap” and “building as trap,” a false and troubling set of dichotomies is at work, which might be described as decoration vs. infrastructure, surface vs. depth, or appearance vs. reality. 42 The two “traps” are more than alike. They rely on each other, in that sexualized architectural discourse is especially charged when questions of décor or ornament are at issue. As Mark Wigley reminds us, Le Corbusier likens architects who overuse color to “those who do not resist dangerous caresses.” 43 To be tempted towards crumpled ornament is to be trapped by a queer allure that will deceive us with the “structure” beneath its “clothes.”
To be tempted towards crumpled ornament is to be trapped by a queer allure that will deceive us with the ‘structure’ beneath its ‘clothes.’
Drew’s near-revulsion fixates on moral judgments about ornament, a matter that, historically, has often been dismissed in architectural criticism not only as girlishly and queerly superficial, 44 but also as uncivilized, with all the racial connotations of the term. 45 (Here we encounter another odd contradiction: while the Angry Architect et al. imply that concealing construction earns a designer or a building a sense of honesty, here the supposed over-acculturation of feyness signifies lack of culture, or ignorance.) Drew cites, approvingly, another critic who has called Gehry “the Kim Kardashian of architecture.” Then he ends a dramatic paragraph about Gehry’s unearned fandom by complaining that, in Sydney, “one of the brickies [bricklayers] was filmed having a tattoo of the brickwork on his arm” — as though a tattoo of undulating bricks (ornament of ornament) needs no elaboration as a damning proof regarding Gehry’s lack of substance. 46 Finally, in discussing the architect’s “mannerism,” Drew derides his supposed “imposition of a Hollywood narcissism.”
To critique Gehry by linking him to Kim Kardashian is to summon norms of gender and sexuality; Drew presumes to share with his reader an implicit belief that this highly-sexualized, ultra-feminine celebrity is famous because she’s shallow but pretty to look at. The further juxtaposition of Kardashian with a bricklayer deploys ideas of social class too: even this regular bloke has fallen victim to Gehry’s architectural sophistry, his cult of ornament. And how better to enforce disdain for visual pleasure than to disparage “Hollywood” and even Narcissus, a figure whose acts of looking spelled (homoerotic) danger?
This suspicion of surfaces — this performed association of visual pleasure with danger — just isn’t that deep.
Yet anxieties about depth are at play here too. Drew does not want to have to read deeply; he wants what he “sees” to be what he “gets.” Gehry’s building invites a variety of interpretations, and that indeterminacy seems to make Drew angry. To return the writer’s rhetoric to him, we could say that he worries the building is hiding something; he fears something “coming out.” Implicitly, this viewer is asking to enjoy an interpretive passivity. Drew lets us see his desire to be told by the building precisely what to do — to be dominated by it.
For Drew, surfaces are scary because depths can be surprising, or perhaps because the division between surface and depth never holds as cleanly as some would like.
The Angry Architect expresses something similar. Even when they bestow faint praise on Gehry, the boundary between inside and outside is valorized: “The oval-shaped classrooms — designed by one of Gehry’s interns, no less — are a satisfyingly solid intervention amidst the formal turbulence.” Solidity: a promise of stability, dependability, order, and, perhaps most importantly, impenetrability.
The division between surface and depth never holds as cleanly as some would like.
To recap: in these examples of architecture’s gender-coded and sexualized critical lexicon, the Angry Architect is indeed angry — about pageantry, flamboyance, turbulence. Drew wants, as a reader of architecture, to submit to the building’s (clear) meanings, but seems afraid that the building will get fucked. If you’ll indulge the metaphor (but it’s not just metaphor), we could say that Drew wants the building to dominate him, but worries that the brutal top he so admires might be bottoming for someone else. Or is it that Drew identifies with the dominant building and thus requires its impenetrability as a reinforcement of his own?
These are the kinds of interpretations that critics produce when they cannot engage with the trans and queer aesthetic histories from and into which new buildings — and interpretations — come and go.
Specifically, these critics’ readings derive from ignorance about the vitality of camp. In her crucial “Notes on Camp” (1964), Susan Sontag posits the existence of “camp … buildings” and describes camp aesthetics as “emphasizing texture [and] sensuous surface,” as “outlandish,” “flamboyant,” “full of duplicity,” and as “a solvent for morality.” 47 This solvent, of course, was “more or less invented” by queers; camp is “the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” 48 Though Drew and the Angry Architect parrot Sontag’s vocabulary nearly verbatim, neither can recognize camp as a reference. They lack the interpretive tools required to situate their (gender-charged) emotions — to say, simply, this is a camp building, and I’m not campy.
But that would require noticing and naming one’s own tastes as tastes — ones that, whoever these critics might enjoy fucking, are inclined heterosexually and cis-normatively.
Can critics attain a new level of gendered and sexual self-awareness? A glance at the persistence of such tropes in discussions of Gehry’s work suggests that not much has changed in the last decades. An October 1997 “Notes and Comments” piece in The New Criterion, commenting on the launch of Gehry’s most famous building, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, supplies a third example of implicit transphobia in criticism of the architect. 49 The unsigned article again links Gehry to a stylistics of camp, this time explicitly. The first paragraph reads in its entirety:
In her famous “Notes on ‘Camp’” from 1964, Susan Sontag observed that “many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch.” (A “‘serious’ point of view”? As Sontag notes, the camp sensibility “sees everything in quotation marks,” i.e., regards nothing as serious.) We had occasion to think back to that grim and prescient essay when the September 7 issue of The New York Times Magazine brought us “The Miracle in Bilbao,” a stunningly unctuous paean to Frank Gehry’s new building for the Guggenheim Museum in northeastern Spain.
Camp, Sontag suggests, “sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’” 50 Yet the New Criterion writer or writers misunderstand the potential of quotation marks, and hence misunderstand Sontag. It’s a mistake to gloss her statement that camp “sees everything in quotation marks” by asserting that camp “regards nothing as serious.” Seriousness is not the only tone through which knowledge can be produced or emphasis conveyed; more importantly, quotation marks serve more than one purpose. Quotation marks cite others (they help us spark dialogue and provide context); quotation marks call veracity into question (they allow us to express a non-essentialist approach to bodies and language — every man is a “man”); quotation marks let us denote a multiplicity of voices (they make a text heterogeneous and enable us to try on the voice or opinion of another — a prelude to changed attitudes or aptitudes).
I propose that we understand Gehry’s campiness as follows: his crumpling building asks beholders to consider not just texture, but “texture” as it is framed for us to interpret via multiple senses. This subtle synergy between the haptic and the visual or the imaginary is important to note — since, of course, more people will see this building from afar, in photographs (as we are doing now) than will visit it. “Texture” in the camp mode thematizes proximate feeling even via such distance.
Gehry’s crumpling building asks beholders to consider not just texture, but ‘texture’ as it is framed for us to interpret via multiple senses.
We do not tend to associate love and hunger with architectural criticism. However, in considering Gehry’s camp aesthetic, The New Criterion staff entertain precisely these sensual matters. Curiously, rather than addressing the Bilbao building itself, they focus on an intermediary: Herbert Muschamp, who was, at the time, chief architectural critic of The New York Times Magazine. Muschamp, we read, “shamelessly praised, flattered, extolled, and all but deified” the Guggenheim Bilbao; the New Criterion piece describes Muschamp’s review of the project as “smarmy, mendacious, and self-indulgent, with a sugar content that will make diabetics tremble,” a “love letter to Frank Gehry” and a “panting encomium to Frank Gehry.” 51 The writers more than imply that Muschamp is sweet on Gehry by recasting architectural praise as (panting, indiscreet, man-on-man) desire. “Readers of the Times will remember [that] Mr. Muschamp … not so long ago compared a Calvin Klein advertisement for men’s underwear in Times Square to Michelangelo’s David.” The subtext is a warning: don’t send a gay man to interpret architecture for you — he’ll probably get distracted by dick.
Critiques like these employ visceral metaphors to do their dirty work: in The New Criterion, sexual temptation is overwritten with aesthetic temptation, as if forgoing the male/female binary and rejecting the high/low cultural divide are one in the same. Muschamp’s pleasure gives these other critics a lot of feelings; as they advise, “anyone attempting to wade through it is advised to stock up on Dramamine and air-sickness bags.” 52 If the piece recruits air-sickness, diabetes, and “unctuous” (oily, fatty, servile) texture to make its case, then the pleasures that disgust these authors are not only queer but also gustatory: hunger for the wrong “foods” makes them queasy. Indeed, the body of the Gehry-lover is built, trait by trait, across this review. It is that of a sweaty, greasy, ravenous, candy-loving, effete, gay diabetic. (How do they know me so well?)
By taking to task a fellow reviewer instead of the building or architect, the writers assume an oddly oblique critique of Gehry: what’s wrong with the Guggenheim Bilbao would seem to be the kind of desire it inspires, and in whom. 53
The substance of the complaint is: who did you think you would attract, dressed like that?
In sum: the Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building is crumpled — a texture that resonates with queerly disabled histories, etymologies, and experiences. The building has been derided using terms burdened with (implicitly anti-queer) suspicions of beauty; (implicitly anti-trans) accusations of duplicity; (obviously homophobic) rejections of flamboyance; and (anti-historical) ignorance of camp aesthetics.
This building sure ruffles some feathers.
Another etymological root of “to crumpe” is, in fact, “to ruffle” — a verb that brings to mind emotional turbulence and genderqueer fashion: the frill on the dandy’s shirt or the feathers on a destined-for-drag boa. 54 The critics get ruffled in their distaste for the crumple, get bent out of shape due to shape. This slide — directly into the matters/textures against which they seem to argue — is a testament to the power of the crumple: beware the undulating, irregular building, for critiquing its flamboyance may bring out your own inner diva, and she has not yet fully mourned the prohibition of ornament (and/as queerness), that prohibition on which you seem to have staked your sense of (gendered/sexual) identity as honest, integral, substantial, and serious.
It is not possible to gain total command over the enigmatic and synaesthetic act of interpretation.
Criticisms like these betray a normative desire for closure and containment. As feminist philosopher Cressida Heyes argues, each of us is expected to be the “sovereign ruler” of a unitary corporeal self — an expectation that not only depends on the mind/body split, but implies that bodies can be reified as territories or properties. 55 To crumple, conversely, is to accept, or be forced to accept, the reality of external duress. The moment of crumpling is a moment of surrender; a moment at which we choose otherwise, or at which choice collapses.
Rejection of this mythic sovereignty is vital to trans and queer conceptions of materiality, because we live with others’ persistent beliefs that we should be able simply to desire as they do. An architect may relish control, as a transgender person might desire complete authority over how they are understood. But it is not possible to gain total command over the enigmatic and synaesthetic act of interpretation (of a text, or a body, or a building). And that impossibility, at least for (many) poets like myself, is what makes life painful and pleasurable, agential and anarchic.
Still, the aesthetic of crumpling reasserts the power of the body to refuse.
The crumpling building dramatizes the force with which material can refuse to do what we want, as well as the force with which our bodies can (for better and/or worse) refuse to become what others may want.
Some of us admit our crumplings, our own unwillingness or incapacity to comply, and embrace our paradoxical inabilities to obey even our own thoughts. We refuse to hide our seams and collapses, and are called dishonest for it.
When we crumple, we show we are affected. When we crumple, we ruffle others. We take on new dimensions. We contort. We bounce back, with marks to show where we have been touched.
When we crumple, we scrape by.
Archi-Texture #2: The Scrape
Best read while scraping dirt from under your fingernails, while flush with the optimism of scratch-off lotto tickets, or while scraping the last smears of pudding from the bottom of the plastic cup.
Best read after applying Polysporin to a knee bloodied on the gravel of a rural cruising spot.
Best read with a soundtrack of nails inching down a chalkboard, or a looped recording of the foot of my weaker leg dragging across a September-fresh waxed classroom floor to the front.
Read this while contemplating the racial politics of Band-Aids and of every other aggression that feels not-so-micro.
I write remembering the scrappy/scrape-y hoarseness of my throat after a protest about the closure of my city’s one abortion (and gender-affirming care) clinic.
Juxtapose the scabs of the freshly bris’d baby against the scrapes from my annual biopsy and the looks on the faces of my fellow gynecology patients in the waiting room when they see bearded-ladylike me.
Remember the hunger that lasts when the spoon is licked clean, the small-town impossibility of ever feeling too full — of self, of cells, of seldom-understood tastes.
Best read while getting or giving a jagged little manicure or while wondering: when I scrape my nails down someone else’s back, who feels it — ?
Scraping By with Metaphor
I propose that the archi-textural companion to the crumple is the scrape.
If to crumple is to show that one is affected by the world, then to scrape by is both to survive and to bear the marks or traces of that survival on/in/as one’s body — and perhaps to scrape back. Scrapes are physical, but they also bear an especially resonant relationship to metaphors of the trans and the queer.
To scrape is “to remove … by drawing across the surface the edge of some instrument held nearly perpendicularly” (OED). To (literally) scrape is therefore to (figuratively) approach obliquely, to gather the last shreds or add via removal, to alter a surface by wearing it away. Queer and trans people may scrape together money for rent or medical care — though we can exclude most tenure-track professors from this one. We might get into a scrape when we’ve accidentally or purposely crashed a cowboy bar on the Canadian prairies; we might scrape the names off our IDs and use a cheap label-maker to amend them (a tactic I recommend to students when school policies don’t support name changes without legal sanction).
A totalizing valuation of the scrape would be silly, because the verb pulls us in opposite directions: scraping can both create smoothness and ruin it. It can remove rough edges or introduce them. This paradox could play out in a number of ways. Online, a corporation may employ data-scraping to gather information and maximize profit, but you might scrape away your internet-browser history to retain (or feign) some sense of privacy. In front of the mirror or in a practitioner’s office, you could scrape away the body’s “imperfections” in the name of upholding norms, or you could choose to scrape into flesh your felt deviations from said norms.
We could clarify the scrape’s double gesture by positing the following: there is a huge difference between scraping by — as the capacity to survive with little — and scraping clean — the imposition of normative hygiene both literal and metaphorical.
Scrapes are physical, but they also bear an especially resonant relationship to metaphors of the trans and queer.
In what follows, I bear such differences in mind. But not even this taxonomy can hold together long, in that scraping clean can be what allows one to scrape by. Scraping something off can be what allows one to scrape on in life. For one person, scraping away a previous self may enable a viable future; for another, such attempted erasures may be intensely painful.
Since texture is about relation — movement, encounter — and not about static states of being, the scrape’s implication in both progressive and conservative gestures, its tension between literal and metaphorical, remains irresolvable.
The power of the scrape inheres in its resistance to being neatly sorted into any binary of good/bad, woke/ignorant, or literal/metaphorical. While defying binaries is not radical in and of itself, the scrape’s slippage in and out of metaphor symbolizes to me the need for trans and queer people to toggle continuously between ordinary and fantastical worlds and words in order to survive and thrive.
Another cognate of the “scrape” speaks directly to the tenor of trans and queer history; this one, derived from the Middle High German schrepfen, means “to scarify.”
The negativity of this scarring image cuts against today’s at times oppressively positive mainstream LGBTQ movement. 56 But recall the contention of cultural critic Heather Love that queer people ought to “cling … to ruined identities and to histories of injury.” 57 Why hold on to scrapes? Because “the emphasis on injury in queer studies has made critics in this field more willing to investigate the darker aspects of queer representation and experience and to attend to the social, psychic, and corporeal effects of [transphobia and] homophobia.” 58 Love locates the constitutive negativity of that which is “queer” in the “confrontational, stigma-inflected activism of groups like ACT UP.” 59
Scrapes break the skin, breaching bodily boundaries and thereby signaling the risk of contagion both literal — in the stigma of blood-borne conditions — and ostensibly moral. If queer politics as we know it has in this way always been a politics of blood, then it has also been a politics that knows too well how much depends on scrapes. 60
There is a huge difference between scraping by — as the capacity to survive with little — and scraping clean — the imposition of normative hygiene.
Thinking about scraping in tangible terms reminds us that the injuries experienced (sometimes, and variously) by trans and queer people are not exclusively metaphorical. “Scars,” Vaccaro observes, “speak a history of transmasculine identities, but also of breast cancer, a C-section, or any number of other vulnerable cuts into the body.” 61 Indeed, another definition for “scrape” is “a dilation of the cervix and curettage of the womb,” or an induced abortion (OED). The scrape lands us directly in gendered and sexualized scenes of bodily transformation, agency, and vitality, or the denial of same. The movement to render safe abortion impossible in the United States (and in some regions of Canada, notably the “have-not” maritime provinces and the largely Indigenous-populated Northern territories) could be described, for instance, as a group of cis men scraping onto paper what they believe can and cannot be scraped into or out of a person’s body. Such examples emphasize the scrape’s crucial ambivalence: it might signify the agential removal of tissue from the uterus, or the controlling removal of reproductive rights from the law.
As always, much depends on who is doing the scraping, and why.
A less common definition of scraping is “to get on terms of acquaintance by careful effort and insinuation” (OED). In this obsolete usage, to scrape an acquaintance would not mean to hurt someone, but rather, to get to know them using double entendres, hints, or allusions. Trans and queer people are well positioned to understand why “scraping” makes sense as a name for such flirtation, as we have long lived in a multi-layered, multi-textured world in which ciphers, symbols, and winks are powerful modes for getting acquainted and finding kin. The oblique approaches of queer intimacy codes challenge the rules of signification, as does the scrape itself: a hint can seem entirely revealing and a double entendre absolutely explicit and outrageous. Perhaps metaphor is already concrete to us in a special way.
As with the crumple, the scrape already shapes feminist, trans, and queer histories and bodies — literally (through injury and its bodily scars), metaphorically (via the need for disenfranchised peoples to scrape by or rub along), and perhaps most powerfully in ways that disallow any smooth division between the literal and the figurative (as in the intense frictional relations between emotion, scalpel, and tissue).
How we each define the uneasy and fragile division between scraping clean and scraping by will vary drastically. You may experience as a disciplinary scraping clean the mainstream’s desire to slot transgender embodiment into respectable modes (marriage, military inclusion, class mobility, etc.). Or you may very well experience that change as precisely what lets you scrape by.
Scraping the Bottom of the Canon
In the canon of English literature, scraping often lands on the less inspiring side of the idea: on the side of scraping clean (enforcement of bodily norms and the hygiene of the body politic) and scraping data (profiteering and surveillance), rather than on what I have called the side of scraping by (responding to injury with resourceful persistence). A survey of three key textual moments will show how the scrape has functioned to forcibly yoke together matters of gender, sexuality, violence, vocabulary, and archi-text. I do not cite these examples in order to shore up the Anglophone canon. On the contrary, I want to examine how our scrapings-by occur against this powerful archive — an archive that, while literary, is already spatial (and not only because so much of the canon was written in the context of colonialism). Indeed, each textual moment depicts sexuality as an inherently public performance of morality; making the scrape do this work of publicly “fixing” sexuality already implies a spatial, if not architectural, reading of these texts. These literary passages visit brothels and places of worship, and seem obsessed not only with words as such but also with the mutability and materiality of text, the design and redesign of text.
The first citation is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604), a “problem play” about sexual coercion and the de-sexualization of the public sphere. The play has two plots, concerning: 1) the forced closure of Vienna’s brothels and displacement of sex workers, and 2) the demand by Angelo, the deputy, for sex from would-be nun Isabella, in exchange for pardoning her fornicating brother. When Isabella warns Angelo that she will expose his coercion, he demands, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” (II, iv, 167) — precisely the state of many a contemporary Isabella who seeks justice against sexual predators. 62
The scrape has forcibly yoked together matters of gender, sexuality, violence, vocabulary, and archi-text.
Another character, Lucio, nodding to the brothel keeper Mistress Overdone, jokes that he has “purchased … many diseases under her roof” (I, ii, 42-3). But he also admonishes his companions for their own moral rationalizations: “Thou concludest like the sanctimonious pirate, / that went to sea with the ten commandments, but scraped / one out of the table” (I, ii, 6-9). Here the “scrape” marks a site of moral hypocrisy, figuring not only textual erasure, but erasure more generally. The erasure of sex work from the city, and the threatened erasure of Isabella’s experience, lay out the moral backdrop for the play: the real sexual crime is perpetrated by those in power, the “sanctimonious pirate[s]” of Vienna — the very people who try to eradicate public sexuality in order to enable their private transgressions.
A double scraping — of sex work from the public, and of morals from the “set in stone” Ten Commandments — accentuates the hypocrisy of Angelo’s coercion. “Scraping by” occurs here, but not in a triumphant way: Isabella persists, tricks Angelo, escapes rape-by-blackmail, and helps to save her brother. She ends up silently consenting to marry the Duke — another relationship she may or may not have chosen, and a fraught plot resolution at best (hence the characterization of Measure for Measure as a problem play). 63
“Scraping by” does not always carry the sense of triumph, or narrative closure, we would like it to.
Chaucer too shows us the “rape” inherent in “scrape,” even if his 14th century poem, Wordes unto Adam, connotes the then-more-general usage of “rape” as haste, recklessness, or the taking of anything by force. In Wordes unto Adam, God addresses Adam: “So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe, / It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape, / And al is through thy negligence and rape.” (“So often I redo your work. I correct it. I rub and scrape it. And everything is ruined through your negligence and rape.”) Again, “the scape” stands in for a collision of material friction, carelessness, violation, and textual erasure, along with a sense that this cycle of scraping will continue. God does not describe an isolated incident, but a habitual, necessary correction of Adam’s recurring imperfect acts. The scrape, apparently, has to do with repetition — despite, or because of, persistent material/textural/textual trespass.
Whether you relate to “God” as a lofty moral authority, or to Adam as an imperfect human, there is a sense here of the painfulness of resilience, the exhaustion of persistence — of how hard it is to scrape by in a world of repeated “rape,” whether that means sexual assault or generalized negligence aimed at marginalized people. Of course, “God” in this narrative is hardly “marginalized”; if I appropriate the deity’s experience of frustration for queerer ends, it’s frankly because I think queers deserve to do so. My bossy orientation to the source text here — my insistence that God can stand in for queer struggle, even — could be understood as an appeal to genderqueer “divinity.” 64 To appropriate God’s boy troubles does something more, too: as Sontag reminds us, queer camp is meant as a solvent for morality. So yes, in a culture where many followers of the Christian tradition still define morality in reciprocal relation to queerness, queers ought to reinterpret and relate to God’s problems with men if we feel so inclined.
My third literary example is from The Chester Plays, a cycle of 25 mystery plays performed in the north of England in the 14th century, which shows that sexual and textual “purities” often fuse in the textured figure of the scrape. 65 In one episode of the cycle, a character named Simeon reads a text prophesying the miracle of Christ’s birth and exclaims in disbelief: “He that wrote this was a fon [a fool] / to write ‘a virgin’ hereupon / that should conceive without help of a man! This writing marvels me! / I will scrape this away anon; thereas ‘a virgin’ is written on / I will write ‘a good woman’ — for so it should be!” (11, 33-40). A stage direction then instructs Simeon to “scrape the book” as if he were deleting the word “virgin,” and to place the book on an altar, after which an angel arrives and takes the book. The volume reappears, however, and the next time Simeon opens it, the word “virgin” has reappeared too; Simeon scrapes it away again, and again it reappears. The textual virginity of this hypothetical woman is manually expunged, only to reassert itself. 66
What do these three textual moments, early ones in the Anglophone literary history of the scrape, have in common?
They focus on scraping clean — on authority figures reinscribing their gendered and sexualized morals onto disempowered, imperfect others — rather than on scraping by. Yet, scraping by occurs, and the subordinated characters (and our divine cross-identifications) find ways to assert their intentions, if with less justice than we’d like.
The figural scraping of a text has consequences in the physical world.
I began this section by insisting on the scrape’s slippage between literalness and metaphor, and this slippage occurs across these texts, where moral scrapings-clean are simultaneously metaphorical (used as figures of speech) and literal (the figures of speech focus on the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, on Adam’s life as writing that needs to be erased, and on a woman’s virginity as a word in a book). In each textual moment, the figural scraping of a text has consequences in the physical world.
I propose, then, that texture, text, sex, and gender all collude in “the scrape.” After all, these literary scrapes signify three intertwined oppressions that trans, queer, and other marginalized people still fight today: patriarchal notions of virginity and sexual coercion; the erasure of sex work; and the repeated reinstatement of punitive moral and governmental authority. Despite the familiarity of these struggles to many of us, “God,” Simeon the hymen-scraper, and Lucio in Measure for Measure are not our forebears, even if we divinely recast their stories as queerly as we like.
Rather, these passages speak to one influential literary reading of “the scrape” — the scraping-clean of moral/sexual disobedience.
With divine hope, though, we can find, create, and prioritize other ways of reading scraped experience.
The Brut, Brut Heart of a (Béton) Brut Like You
Scraping as a mode of textural encounter can symbolize the enforcement of sexual and moral norms, and the emphasis on materiality in my trio of literary figurations — metaphors of stone and chisel, paper and “eraser” — suggest that the governing of unruly sexualities requires blunt force. In a related mood of textural starkness, I turn now to a particular kind of architectural scrapedness, the use of unfinished concrete known as béton brut. What is at stake in such a search? We will see that (as with reviews of Gehry) architectural critics speaking about raw-concrete buildings sometimes recruit gendered and sexualized dictions in order to establish their own modes of scraping-clean as natural and neutral. Nevertheless, if we put pressure on this history, we may arrive at encounters that are less moralistic and more imaginative.
Béton brut — cast-concrete architecture — is rough on the hand, or striated to the eye, because it is left unpolished or otherwise unfinished. Yet béton brut’s “scrape” as I interpret it does not inhere in a literal scraping of wet concrete by tradesperson, but precisely in those textural encounters made possible between unfinished rough surface and body parts that may touch it. As ever, the scrape does not “belong” to the building, but to the activity of contact. This material seems ripe for a genderqueer riff: béton brut does not aim to conceal its processes of construction and refutes the need to be perfectly finished; makes an aesthetic out of incompletion; allows its materials to age and be affected by weather rather than feign timelessness.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that notions of honesty and disclosure — the very tropes that haunt the closeted queer subject, the “stealth” trans subject, or the “trap” trans subject, not to mention the discussion of Gehry’s crumpled buildings — appear conspicuously in discourses of béton brut. 67
If we put pressure on the history of béton brut, we may arrive at encounters that are less moralistic and more imaginative.
Le Corbusier, who coined the term and remains the most famous proponent of béton brut, prefigures the precise anxieties we heard from the Angry Architect, Drew, and The New Criterion, all of whom express their distrust of architectural caprice by associating it with queered gender and desire. “I have used béton brut,” Corbusier declares in regard to his famous chapel at Ronchamp (1955). “The result: total fidelity to the model, a perfect reproduction of the mold; concrete is a material that does not cheat; it replaces, it cuts out the need for that trickster — coating. Béton brut says: I am concrete.” 68 Corbusier goes on to describe the whitewash that links the chapel’s interior and exterior as “frank” and “loyal”; as exhibiting “candor.” 69
While Wigley points out that Le Corbusier’s abjections of cosmetic “coating” are implicitly anti-woman and anti-queer, I’d argue that Corbusier here is not just “anti.” His remarks also illustrate an attraction in the affirmative: a desire for naked cis masculinity via architectural nudity. (Yes, I am saying that, in the very act of rejecting feyness, Corbusier is pleasured by cis-male-butch buildings.)
In his strictures against decorative surfaces, Corbusier seeks pure structure without décor, function without style — an impossibility that gender essentialists seek as well. Every type of matter appears in some way; no architecture exists entirely beyond style. 70 In Butler’s famous phrasing, gender too is “corporeal style.” 71 So if the desire for unstylized materiality is as unrealizable in architecture as it is in bodies, then for Corbusier, béton brut is a coping mechanism through which he wards off cis-masculine insecurity, a fear of being “cheated on,” a disdain for “mere” surfaces.
Just as the trio of literary scrapings operated more as “scraping clean” than as “scraping by,” so too does Corbusier infuse the textural scrape of raw concrete with the establishment of sexual norms and hygiene. The three literary passages emphasize the scrape’s materiality, and Corbusier follows suit, but in reverse: his desires slip out via his reliance on literary figures such as metaphor and simile, whose very indirectness implicates him in precisely the kind of “masking” against which he preaches. Put differently, he requires ornamental literary figures to critique ornament in architecture. In a sense, Le Corbusier doesn’t scrape away architectural ornamentation, but merely displaces it into language. Even when he talks about concrete architecture in a way that aims to scrape its body clean, repressed ornamentation returns to mar the supposedly pure structure he desires.
Corbusier seeks pure structure without décor, function without style — an impossibility that gender essentialists seek as well.
Like Gehry’s critics, Corbusier accomplishes much of his (failed) abjection of surface coating with literary figuration and coded word-choice. So in the spirit of promoting a counter-infusion of genderqueerness into architectural discourse and figurations, here is a response tactic. I propose that we linguistically subvert béton brut’s imbrication in cis-masculinist anxieties about depth and appearance, by re-figuring béton brut as a compelling metaphor for a genderqueer acceptance of fragmentation or a transgender pursuit of transformation. Brutalist concrete architecture is sometimes smooth, sometimes rusticated. But, either way, it presents itself as unfinished. It does not conceal the process of its becoming; a distinguishing feature of béton brut is that patterns and seams impressed on the wet concrete by its formwork remain when the concrete sets. “Unfinished” here is not a metaphor, though it sounds like one; the idea of a “finish” is both temporal (ending or closure) and architectural (in the sense of sanding and sealing). Only when we refuse to “finish” — when we resist signifying a certain temporal closure in our designs — does the textural encounter of the scrape become possible.
What does this look like in practice? I submit an example, provided by Zaha Hadid Architects, whose Maritime Terminal in Salerno, Italy, was completed in 2016. The béton brut of the Maritime Terminal rejects, even mocks, the cis-masculinist legacies of this famously scraped and scarred material. Hadid employs béton brut to create precisely the kind of fanciful and of-its-time architecture against which Le Corbusier writes.
Hadid’s firm describes the building’s “smooth surfaces of exposed concrete,” asserting that the overall form “operates, both functionally and visually, as a smooth transition between land and sea, a coastal land formation that mediates between solid and liquid.” 72 Her equation of “smooth surfaces” with “exposed concrete” indicates the dual movement of the scrape as something that makes smooth but leaves exposed (and is thus “rough” relative to, say, marble). The terminal enacts a transition, and it is the swooping scraped-smoothness of its material that makes legible this mediation between one place or condition and another. The structure’s concrete planes and curves are meant to ease passengers along in their travels. This is not béton brut as noble and honest, in Corbusier’s mode; ZHA’s béton brut is affective, alluding to the changing phases of matter; the building could be called “structure-fluid” in the sense that we use the term “gender-fluid” to capture the phase-shifts of matter in a body, or the presentation of that body through clothing and other stylistics.
Hadid creates precisely the kind of fanciful and of-its-time architecture against which Le Corbusier writes.
For Le Corbusier, concrete is a triumph of function over décor, and scraping it is a “scraping clean” of ostensibly feminine superficiality. It’s in this context that Hadid scrapes back. Hadid’s concrete scrapes away at the fantasy of style-free style by molding the modernist giant’s “frank and loyal” material into a playful “transitional” form. Hadid helps us see concrete in reverse; it does not announce “I am concrete,” but rather admits, “I have been fashioned. I have been shaped. Look at the traces of the process.”
Corbusier imbues béton brut with (self-defined) candor and utter lack of ornamentation. But Hadid uses this material for inverse purposes: to luxuriate in surfaces and style, to offer architectural pleasure in an exaggerated, fanciful way, and to engage in effortful performance that does anything but feign fidelity to preexisting form. By using béton brut to create a postmodern building that rejects Corbusier’s ethos of timeless and “honest” architecture, Zaha Hadid Architects restage béton brut, allowing ornament and whimsy to coexist with “raw” materiality. Though Hadid’s work is not conventionally (if ever) understood in terms of camp aesthetics, her use of béton brut is indeed a “solvent” for Corbusier’s moral program — if, that is, we reverse commonsense hygienic-medical logics, in order to understand moral priggishness as a scourge and self-aware, eccentric sexiness as the antidote.
We need more buildings that admit, welcome, invite, honor, host, or otherwise expect our presences.
The structure-fluid body of Hadid’s terminal seems to lean, undulating, towards the water, as if affected by an outside force (like Gehry’s crumpled building). This melting away of structure occurs, of course, in quotation marks: the building is functional and stable. It represents transformation more than it actively transforms. But its form asserts itself as form, and not as simply given structure; it signifies the mutability of form, makes that mutability a theme, and so Hadid’s building liberates our architectural pleasures from the mythic permanence of form.
For Le Corbusier, form was a matter of mimesis and fidelity; for Hadid, form becomes, if paradoxically, a way to signify and guide change.
And that, in the end, is the meaning of the verb trans-form.
We too transform, or signify the vitality of transformation in our styles. And we too require a certain level of structure — cells, bones, muscles — to survive. Some of us experience the form or genre of gender as one such piece of integral structure. Many of us do not. Or you might experience gender as pure ornament, but central to survival nonetheless.
Whichever way we each scrape, we need more buildings that admit, welcome, invite, honor, host, or otherwise expect our presences, not only in the most literal terms of access to public spaces, institutions, and safe washrooms, but also in the less obvious but still concrete terms of public conversations about architecture, design education, and aesthetics.
If you scrape me, I might scrape back. Even if I don’t, you’ll have some of my organic material under your fingernails. Texture is the word we devote to the reality of bodies touching; texture is not an attribute, but an act. Textural modes entail encounter, and encounter goes both ways.
As I write in the winter of 2019, I think of the tough military vet in my woodcarving class, who loves floral liqueurs, asks me about poetry, and sands his work so skillfully that he turns out the smoothest and most beautiful wooden mugs imaginable. I’ve never felt so fey as when wielding an axe above a slab of wood, but that’s why I took the course: to do something at which I would be terrible (I was), and to enjoy myself (I did). His rough hands fashion the finest things, while my small delicate ones create jagged queer failures. Insert joke here about the trans guy not having wood, not knowing how to cut with the grain.
My partner is in the hospital. I spend evenings after visiting hours sanding my projects while half-re-watching the Twilight pentalogy. A vampire perks up at the smell of blood from a papercut. My whittling knife slips a bit, and I think about the peculiar truth that the safest knives are sharp.
The posters from my childhood room could never feel right in another space; my partner is a Toronto Blue Jays fan, but my 1992 World Series posters lie crumpled in a landfill somewhere. In 2007, when the soft boy from the grocery store walked me home, he couldn’t understand why a guy in his 20s would have a Spice Girls poster, and I couldn’t understand why he would choose me, a scruffy neck-bearded person of indeterminate gender who liked to walk in -30 degrees (Celsius!) temperatures, and then, in the store’s vestibule, fold myself into a relieving stretch for my strong sore legs. Why pursue me, whose cart was full of crinkling chip bags and an economy-sized package of the toilet paper brand-named Cashmere? My un-suave ass couldn’t find a way to believe in his desire then, and perhaps didn’t respect the extent to which the textural elements of desire are neither transparent nor rational. But I remember our brief coffee-date and the fact that he offered to smooth out my unruly eyebrows with his plucking prowess, free of charge.
I’ve crumpled regularly since living in my soft, sharp, glossy, fuzzy, blue room in Kingston, Nova Scotia. I’ve fulfilled the image of the scholarship-kid-made-good. I chose a bright blue paint for my professorial office, which I have decorated with postcards from former students, foamcore-mounted posters for fat-themed events I’ve organized, a caricature of John Waters in a 99-cent frame, and a painting of a sexy trans-guy werewolf tugging at his boxers. 73 The crumple and the scrape offer me a queer aesthetics of matter, modes through which I can understand the passage from my childhood bedroom to my current milieus. Via the figures of the crumple and the scrape, I can trace the felt memories that punctuate the path from there to here. Through this “con-texturizing,” I may better appreciate the beauty in the painful moments of that history of scraping by, scraping back, and being scraped clean by the world. This “better appreciation” does not, even on my most cheerful days, make the transition from blue carpet to blue office walls the stuff of Bildungsroman. The unfinished, rough edges of me remain all too evident and, I suspect, take on new textures daily.
These analyses imply other potential praxes.
First: We, as trans and queer people, often describe our experiences of gender and sex through terms both textured and spatial: “soft butch,” “rough sex,” “hard times,” even Caitlyn Jenner’s Tibetan lamb’s wool as an outer “reflection” of her inner transition. Texture stands in for something unsayable in our discourse. We turn to texture — to sensations, affects, vectors of movement — when more literal or rational vocabulary fails. In what ways do gender and sexuality defy rationality, require aesthetic figuration, or refuse to adhere to strictly visual modes of perception? We seem to understand the basics of color politics; many of us are so very tired of every trans-themed book being dressed up in pink and blue!
Can we summon that combination of confidence and self-negation required to trace out our archi-genders, and experiment with building otherwise?
But do trans and queer people also have coded beliefs about texture that we take for granted? What do I really mean when I say gritty, smooth, or kinky? Can we summon that combination of confidence and self-negation required to trace out our archi-genders, and then experiment with building otherwise — or decide, with intention, not to? I offer this as a creative possibility, not as an ethical imperative or political program that I expect to resonate with each and every one of you.
A second outcome: We, as practitioners or critics, are summoned to imagine the field of architecture as responding to — as responsible to — a wider set of contexts than architectural discourse commonly admits. What body, and what desires, do you build into your designs or your criticism?
The biggest shift suggested here is to realize that architecture is built and discussed in the context of literary history and the history of language (and the present article makes only one small intervention in the Anglophone discourse). When writers describe architecture as flamboyant, outlandish, pure, superficial, cosmetic, honest, frank, loyal, or intoxicating, they convey beliefs about gender and sexuality (and race, class, and ability). Why assign the dirty work to some moody literary part of your persona, by coding your discomfort in metaphor and simile? This is not a request to somehow be emotionless, or to not be literary. Rather: know that you are emotionally invested and engaged in gendered, sexualized, and racialized modes of expression. Be more interestingly moody. Know the literary and discursive modes on which you rely. It’s a task neither finite nor easy. Though I’ve tried very hard, I’m sure there are ways this article itself does not know itself, bodies it somehow writes out of the tenuous “we” I gently posit here and there.
What body, and what desires, do you build into your designs or your criticism?
This is not a call to develop an architecturally-focused list of verboten terminology. It is to propose a higher standard of writerly self-awareness. When you turn to a metaphor (Gehry is a Kardashian) or to hyperbolic diction (theatrical, gymnastic), ask yourself: what do I really want to say? Moreover, why do I want to say it without quite saying it? What conflations or refusals am I permitting myself with this … coyness?
Cis and straight architects and critics: Could you realize that when you look at and write about buildings, you too experience, and reveal, gender-charged and sexualized emotions regarding spaces and the kinds of bodies and desires they invite?
Do you wonder why a frill angers you, why ornament feels frivolous, why sleekness seems sexy, why concrete seems like a truth-teller, or why “naked” structure turns you on?
Designers, architects, and critics of all genders, pleasures, desires, and styles: whatever your other politics, are you heterotextural? What is your textural orientation?
If you follow such questions far enough, might your tastes — your desires — change?
Do you have what it takes to crumple and then scrape by, doing things otherwise?