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s I’m getting ready to write this review, I’m reading news that North Carolina is stepping back on its “bathroom law” targeting trans people. This reminds of how much gender-neutral bathrooms have dominated discussions of the relation between trans bodies and architecture, for good reasons, but also often at the expense of other ways in which spatial structures liberate or oppress trans or queer people.
A few weeks ago, a student asked me if I knew researchers thinking about the relation between architecture and non-gender normative people. Outside of these bathrooms discussions, I could think of very few architectural theorists doing so, even if there is clearly a need to discuss the strong interplay between (trans)gender embodiment and space. Lucas Crawford’s Transgender Architectonics: The Shape of Change in Modernist Space is thus a welcome and much-needed addition to both transgender studies and architectural theory. Taking inspiration from architectural and literary case studies, Crawford challenges popular discussions of trans as a matter of interiority and stability to propose instead a theory of exteriority and movement. Not ignoring the omnipresence of bathrooms’ discussions, he tackles the topic to suggest that merely creating gender-neutral bathrooms will not solve the problem of violence towards trans people and that the relation between architecture and trans identities should instead be approached through architecture’s potential discourse on transing.
The book’s title underlines Crawford’s goal: using architectural space as an entry point to frame a new transgender theory based on movement and change, building more specifically on examples designed by the architectural firm diller scofidio + renfro (DS+R) when they were transitioning from an experimental practice towards a more traditional building-oriented practice. These “neomodernist” examples (in the author’s words) serve as a background for discussions of modernist literary works by Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett, presented as anticipating transgender studies. Working with the idea of “transing” discussed by Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore in their introduction to a 2008 special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly, Crawford uses five characteristics of DS+R’s 2002 temporary Blur Building to define the term and structure his analysis:
1. A focus on “constant transformation for all” instead of “a move from one gender or materiality to another (or one gender to ambiguity)” (14) inspired by the Blur’s “activated, dynamic temporality” (4) through which the building always reperforms itself in response to human and environmental conditions.
2. In DS+R’s project, “changes are produced collaboratively with its unpredictable surroundings” (4), suggesting that transing must be “relocated from the life of the sovereign subject to the acts and collaborations that happen across bodies, buildings, and milieus” (14).
3. Inspired by an architecture that “does away with the idea of a clear inside and outside altogether” (4), Crawford affirms that transing “undoes the demarcation of a body’s inside and its outside” in an “act of folding and refolding rather than containing” (14).
4. The Blur is built with a goal of disorientation, forcing the visitors to “confront (and, by necessity, change) their own bodily habits and comportment” (5). Similarly, “acts of transing […] cannot be owned or claimed like identities” (14).
5. Finally, Crawford notes that the “excessive and anti-functional” fog that is created by and hides the structure of the building “radically minimizes the amount of unchangeable material required to constantly create new shapes and experiences” (5). Challenging modernist views of ornamentation and embodiment, “transing revels in aesthetics of the surface. Transing shows the inherent instability and décor of even the most “foundational” or “inner” architectures (of the self)” (14).
This close linking of architecture and trans theory is a rich way for Crawford to address the rarely discussed relation between the two. When they are discussed together, as Crawford underlines in Chapter 2, they often do in a problematic way: trans theory (with examples cited such as Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives or Jay Prosser’s Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality) seldom addresses the spatiality of architecture, while architectural theory in return rarely addresses its relation to trans body, even when it discusses gender (such as in Aaron Betsky’s Building Sex: Men, Women, Architecture, and the Construction of Sexuality and Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire, Mark Wigley’s White Walls: The Fashioning of Modernist Architecture or the Joel Sanders-edited STUD: Architectures of Masculinity). However, Crawford’s book is sometimes guilty of the same shortcomings, particularly in its analysis of the built environment. Despite an engaging analysis of architecture of the Blur Building in the introduction, the repeated references to it throughout the book at times feel forced and read more like spatial metaphors than engagement with space. For example, Crawford links Judith Butler’s discussion of the “integrity” of the subject with DS+R’s use of tensegrity—a structural concept—and then with an understanding of trans(gender) as a “tensegral body that—through tension and groundless structure—casts off the interior that we mark on the surface of the body as lack, and, with it, the pains and punishments of living with the cell […] of any such interior” (146-147). While intellectually intriguing, such metaphors often seem somewhat contrived.
Furthermore, despite Crawford’s insistence of the importance of architecture, the four chapters that make up the core of the book are mainly concerned with literary “space” as they discuss Woolf’s critique of autobiography as a “disintegration of the (trans)gendered subject” (16) and Beckett’s suggestion of a protagonist whose “orientation to his body, space, and name is premised on forgetfulness, instability, and resistance” (16), leaving us readers with very few connections to spatial considerations. With these examples, Crawford argues that “questions of trans affect and non-subjective modes of 'transing' are […] deeply concrete and therefore practical—despite not being utilitarian or prescriptive” (17). However, he sees himself the need to return to an architectural example to conclude his argument, DS+R’s High Line in New York (designed in collaboration with James Corner Field Operations). This final chapter, in two parts, deals more directly and convincingly with the relation between the architecture of the transformed elevated railway and its neighborhood and the trans people using the space, but also with Crawford’s attempt “to move beyond—while necessarily moving within—the bounds of the gendered subject” (17). By presenting a series of transgender-obsessed reviews of the park, Crawford reminds us once again of the urgency of his project, of bringing forward critical understandings of the place architecture and its discussions play in framing trans people.
As Crawford develops a much-needed bringing together of transgender studies and architectural theory, his decision to exclude images of the spaces is quite frustrating. While Crawford presents convincing descriptions of the sensorial experience of DS+R’s architectural work, photographic representations could add clarity and visual evidence to his argument. Furthermore, his critique of the stability of (trans)gendered bodies could be mirrored in a critical analysis of the stability of representations of architectural projects, particularly as it relates to DS+R’s long-term investigation of architecture’s relation to media. Maybe the book is already doing such a critique by avoiding images, but Crawford’s silence over this decision seems like a missed opportunity. Interestingly, however, the final chapter’s experimentation with poetic writing opens up architectural analysis in a way that echoes the potential of transing suggested by Crawford.
Transgender Architectonics presents a novel way of reading spatiality from a transgender point of view. This reading itself is important and productive, pointing out the ways in which architecture can create both violent dynamics and alternative potentialities for users. Bringing a critique of biographical narratives to this reading highlights the importance of spatiality of the experience of gender, but the challenge stays to translate this reading to the physicality of space. While Crawford productively builds from DS+R’s work, his reference to architect Bernard Tschumi’s concept of cross-programming (36) seems ready to be developed into a theory of architectural transing. Crawford’s book is an important addition to a resurgence of interest in recent years in how gender and sexuality interact with architectural space. Crawford shows how borrowing from other disciplines such as literature (as he does) or geography can help broaden and layer an architecture-focused reading of space, but the book ultimately leaves us waiting for an even deeper engagement with architectural spatiality.