Queering the Classroom
Rohan Shivkumar (Dean B.Arch)
(Excerpt from a lecture delivered as a part of the Council of Architecture Online Training Program in collaboration with L. S. Raheja School of Architecture (LSRSOA), Mumbai titled ‘Social Science Approach in Architecture and Urbanism’,
Hello everybody. First of all I would like to thank LSR for the invitation to speak at this Teachers Training Programme. Although I am flattered to be thought of as someone who has the ‘expertise’ to be able to ‘train’ other teachers, I am also terrified of that very idea. After all, as a teacher myself, it is frightening and presumptuous to presume that one knows more than an audience of peers. However, maybe this idea itself, of the ‘teacher’ as one who knows, and the listeners or the students as the one who are to be trained, is itself, in many ways flawed. It constructs expectations from both- an all knowing expertise in the teacher, and a passivity in the learner. A relationship of power is set up, merely by the positions they occupy in the classroom. This is the ‘norm’-or the ‘normal’ classroom.
The title of this lecture is ‘Queering the Classroom’. This would imply that this relationship of power within the classroom and its presumptions would need to be ‘queered’. What does that enable? Does it mean that all hierarchies of power within the classroom disappear? Especially in the field of architecture, with its focus on individual genius and creativity, with its highly competitive environment, what does it mean for the act of teaching? In this lecture I hope to think about these ideas along with you.
When Ninad asked me to speak here, he had given me the topic ‘Queer Geographies’. I assume because he knew I was queer, and as an architect I would speak about the way in which ‘queer’ communities live and make space in the world; or how is it that I, as part of the queer community, navigate the world: the homes, workplaces, the public realm. How does the city offer itself to me to remake in my image?
I started to think about that and wondered what use would that be? Besides providing a voyeuristic view into the way queer identified individuals have been able to claim and craft spaces for pleasure and for community, it would run the danger of exposing these very spaces that have been made with a great amount of care and difficulty to the gaze of ‘Design’. And to Design these would be to institutionalise them- and maybe through that process to erase their ‘queerness’.
I have chosen specifically largely to avoid this narrative in this lecture. Too many times this narrative is hinged on a litany of ways in which queer communities are marginalised in the heteronormative world. We all know, but perhaps are not deeply aware, about the ways in which gender binaries and traditional family structures are so routinely presumed as natural. To be queer is to constantly be told, that one does not belong-that one is somehow occupying a space that is deviant. While this deviance makes for some great victim stories, I am choosing instead to speak of queerness as a strength. To occupy the periphery, to not belong, can also be a powerful tool for critical enquiry. Occupying the edge can allow us to see things with a little distance, or at least in a new light; it can enable new conceptions and release new energies. As teachers of architecture, the ‘queer’ can be a powerful phenomenon for pedagogy. I mean this not only for those of us who self-identify as queer, but for all students and teachers- after all aren’t we all in some way ‘queer’?
What is the Queer?
Let us examine what the word means. ‘Queer’.
The dictionary gives us four different meanings of the word”
The first is “ differing in some way from what is usual or normal : or Odd, Strange, Weird, Eccentric, Unconventional…
Another definition is now perhaps no longer so much in use, but it concerns someone who is Questionable, Suspicious;
A third makes being queer into a sickness- as in “I am feeling queer”
The fourth definition is one that we are speaking of today.
: of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.
Although historically the fourth definition has often been superimposed on the other three- of being strange, questionable and even sick, in todays politically correct climate these seem to have faded away (although the attitude that they represent has definitely not). The primary definition we seem to assume nowadays is the latter.
However, I would suggest that the other three need not be discarded yet. In fact they can become quite powerful to rethink the world we live in. After all even a vaccine typically contains an agent that resembles a sickness-causing microorganism.
The ‘queer’ of the last definition has become popular in our everyday parlance as the ‘lgbtqia+’ community :Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and/or Questioning, and Asexual and/or Ally
The term ‘queer’ has become a catch-all term for all these different identities. This ‘queer’ is framed against the idea of the ‘normal’, heterosexual, cisgender (whose gender identity is the same as they way she appears) ’. The queer is defined in its opposition- the abnormal.
Far from being a term to be ashamed of, the whole hearted embrace of the word ‘queer’ that was once an insult is a reclaiming of a term of disparagement into one of power and pride. This reclaiming is in itself an act of subversion, an act of defiance. There are many far more learned and erudite people who can untangle these identities for us, and that would require perhaps many more lectures.
The Figure Ground
But before we delve further into what ‘queer’ identity means, let us investigate what it is odd, strange, and weird in relationship to. After all, in the figure-ground of the world, the dark ‘figure’ of the queer can only exist because it contrasts with the pristine whiteness of the ‘normal’. In an act of inversion, rather than investigate the ‘queer’ let us instead turn our eyes to breaking open the idea of the ‘norm’ -the normal: the presumably heterosexual, cisgender family upon which it is assumed society is built. This ‘normal’ is assumed to be the building block of the great nation. This is the world of TV serial lives, propaganda posters, and the world of the happy ending in most Hindi films.
The ‘queer’ might be incorporated into the ‘norm’ in a slight blurring of the boundary between white and black, but would have to inhabit the place allotted to them. They cannot dare to demand more, to break into the white space of the norm. This might muddy the clarity of the water, threatening to dissolve the boundary entirely. And then, there is the rather entertaining fear that we will be left with nothing at the end- as if the entire edifice of civilisation will crumble!
The debates around the questions of gay marriage circle around this question. And it is very amusing. Opponents insist that if one allows two people to marry each other regardless of their gender or sexuality, the entire structure of society will collapse. Doesn’t this assume that, if given the chance, most people would choose a non heteronormative relationship? Does that mean that most people are queer? Maybe they are.
The Urge for Purity
The problem is of course that the very existence and morality of society and its mirror the nation-state are mirrored in the structure of the traditional family. Good behaviour, bad behaviour, are all cast within this building block. There is in the making of the nation the white ground within which we are all supposed to assimilate: ’Hum Do Hamare Do’, lineages, ancestries, authenticity, tradition, all of these are held within this norm. Push that a little further, and we can also see the ways in which social structures like caste and class, gender roles of ‘man’ and woman’ are also embedded in this imagination. This is a yearning for purity, to purge everything that might threaten that purity-to excise the deviant-the queer; in sum a deep seated fear of miscegenation.
This urge for purity is one of the defining characteristics of modernity, and modernism. From Gandhi and his search for the ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ and the elaborate way in which he performed a sainthood in his clothes and in the architecture he built, to Adolf Loos’ and his equivalence of the tattoos on a man’s body to the corruption of his soul in ‘Ornament and Crime’. This is the need of the white ground of the normal- to deny the impure, inauthentic, the abnormal, the queer and categorise the world into easily digestible portions.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger was also looking for this truth in purity. Heidegger as you all may know was one of the most important philosophers of Being. For Heidegger the concept of Da-Sein or ‘Being There’ was a fundamental feature of being human, being mortal. It is through and within this very Being that our imaginations emanate. His writings have been extremely influential in shaping the ways in which we think about architecture. His essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ makes an explicit difference between the act of making buildings and the more profound act of dwelling in it.
In summer 1922, Heidegger moved into a small cabin built for him in the Black Forest Mountains. This is a very small building approximately six meters by seven metres. He worked on many of his most famous writings there. The hut was an essay in primordial living. 4 rooms around a fire, a pitched roof, and is centred around the mundane activities of everyday life-cooking, eating, sleeping, thinking and writing.
The hut helped in shaping his thoughts concerning the world. This romantic imagination of the authenticity and genuineness of the provincial against the artifice of the city runs through Heidegger’s philosophical work. However, this has also been seen as the reason why he was sympathetic to the Nazi cause- after all their xenophobic ideologies did emerge from a similar call for purity. This is an embarrassing quotation from a speech he made praising Hitler:
“Let not propositions and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your being (Sein). The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: that from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!”
This complete capitulation to hero-worship by a philosopher can itself be a reason enough for us, to look at least a little sceptically at the essentialisations that lie at the heart of the arguments around the fixedness and purity of identity.
As a queer man, I can only be more than a little suspicious of ideas of an essentialised identity. These imaginations can create violences that can be debilitating and destructive on many that don’t fit easily into the slots that society imagines as the true identity of man/woman/hetero/homo. Identity is not that simple. We inhabit so many at the same time- mother / daughter / sister / woman / lover / friend / architect / Muslim. Our identities spiral into a kaleidoscope of categories that rarely easily overlap. Some of these identities wage a war against the other and we are caught up in that game of oneupmanship. To argue for one essential identity is to deny the other. Each of these identities come with privileges and difficulties, that enable and disable us in the world. All of us in many ways are queer. Some more than others, depending on the way we frame the ‘normal’.
The Urge for Democracy
An identity whose purity is constantly seen as under threat today is that of being “INDIAN”. Who is the authentic citizen? Who belongs? Does not belong? Which history is Our History?
Yet, this nation, India, is one whose identity is determined by the Constitution and its imagination of Freedom. The Preamble to the Constitution projects a Nation- a utopia, perhaps, where “ALL its citizens will have a right to—
Justice. Liberty, Equality. And Fraternity.. or Love
Liberty or Freedom for an individual encompasses the right to choose to live as she wants to and with whom she wants to. I must emphasise here that the focus in the constitution is on the freedom of the individual, as against that of the family or lineage. We are autonomous and equal under the eyes of the State. This liberty for the LGBTQIA+ community was hard won after many years of struggle.
Yet this imagination of a person being free to choose her own destiny is seen by many to be a threat to the very structure of the Nation-State, to society itself by more conservative sections of society. This conflict continues even today, and is even more exacerbated under the strangely hyper-mediated world we live in.
Whatsapp groups spout alternative histories and hatred, trigger us into imagining that the entire structure of society is on the brink of collapse just because two individuals chose to live with each other who belong to different religions or castes, or happen to belong to what is perceived as the same gender.
Architecture and Power
But what about architecture? Architecture is a mirror of the world view of any society. This is its very nature. It gives tangibility to societal and economic structures. Heidegger’s Hut was a vision of the world made tangible. It represented as well as affected the way he saw the world-for better of worse.
Architecture is often the instrument of power- and therefore of the ‘Normal’. It exerts itself upon the world through the boundaries it makes between people, it categories the world into allowed and not allowed, valid and not valid. Architecture can be a tool of oppression. Does that make us as teachers also party to that oppression? Do we teach students on how to participate in these very processes? This is only if we imagine that architecture itself as a passive act. If we assume that within it lie no real possibilities of intervention.
When I speak here of architecture I refuse to submit to this imagination. If indeed architecture is a mirror to the society it is built in, I claim that the mirror is not merely a passive reflection of who we are, but also acts in helping us become who we want to be. We look at ourselves in the mirror and adjust our hair, tuck in our shirts, wear our make up to perform the identity that we would like to be. The mirror helps us become who we want to be. And I would like to see architecture as that kind of mirror. An enabling mirror. Isn’t that after all what all architecture is-we don’t make buildings for who we are, we make buildings for whom we want to be. Architecture enables a becoming-one of the most powerful and important aspects of being human.
Architecture is affected and can effect the world. We have to believe that. We have to claim the agency of architecture to perform in the world, to transform it for the better. We have to hope that architecture can make the world more free. This hope is riddled with democratic ambitions, ecological sensitivity, a sense of time and history, and most importantly love- of the world, of each other. Architecture after all is meant to be generous. Giving. It is a service. This generosity might be in direct contradiction to the strictures that police the Norm. Our desire for transformation.
Just a pause here to examine that word- Trans-Formation. The prefix Trans challenges the fixity of Form. It enables a movement
: on or to the other side of : across : beyond: through: change.
Let us also think about other such words- Trans Gender, Trans Vestitie, Trans Act, Trans Late, Trans Literate, Trans Locate, Trans Mit, Trans Port, Trans Verse.
Later on in the lecture we will be considering how we can deploy this imagination to broaden ideas of architecture too.
One of the most powerful examples of transformation, for me, is the story of Dr Ambedkar and the house he built for himself in Hindu Colony in Dadar, in 1933. While the buildings around all have these symbols of Hindu identity, in his own house he refused to make any such concessions. Using determinedly Western Classical motifs, long white columns, porticos, he writes a new identity for him and through him the way that the castes that were considered untouchable exert themselves in society. The architecture is used as an instrument to forge a new image, claim a new identity. This building powerfully resonates with me even today, as even in 2021, 88 years later, we still have instances in this country where a Dalit man can be killed merely because he grew a moustache. Dr Ambedkar’s choice can be seen as an act of denial and defiance- an act of claiming an identity in an overwhelmingly upper caste society.
Queer individuals all learn to deal with the ‘normal’ or the status quo in their own way. Some dissemble, hide, fight, pretend- all try and come to terms with the constant sense of being the “Other’. Society does not offer them a place at the table- so they make their own, or pretend to belong, or fight for the right to sit, or just simply deny the importance of the table entirely. They evolve family structures, moralities, public spaces that allow them to feel part of communities. Michel Foucault suggests in “Friendship as a way of Life’ that these new institutions need to be built with an ethics of Friendship. Love. These are sometimes mirrors of what exist elsewhere, and sometimes are completely unprecedented. They write their own histories, make art, tell stories to make their own ‘place in the world’. “A Place in the World”-Isn’t that was architecture is meant to create? To take the scaleless unending phenomenon of space and turn it into Place? Giving presence- value to a location.
Queer Production of Space
Henri Lefebvre offered a conceptual triad though which space is produced in the world. The Conceived- or the way space is imagined, the Perceived-the way in space is built (the role of architecture) and the way in which it is Lived. In this diagram, we see the Capitol Complex of Chandigarh as a typical example of the ways in which the Indian subject was to be framed by Architecture. However, in the ways in which we inhabited these spaces we remade the space in a triangular relationship with the other two nodes.
What you see here, of course are some of the images in the Pride parade on Mumbai. Here you see queer communities bring their bodies out into a public realm in an act of claim making, and a joyous display of exuberance- an institution for the expression of identity. As an institution it represents a value system. A right to exist freely in society. This is the society imagined and enabled by the conception of the nation-state, by the preamble to the constitution. Individual subjectivities can be enabled by these institutions. However, individual identities can also claim and create many different conceptions.
Queer productions of space would pay close attention to the lives and performances, and wonder about the conceptual formations that frame them. These formations might challenge Conceived presumptions of that frame and obviously the perceived institutions that articulate them.
To be an architect is an identity that we have to don. Mandated by society with a role to play in the world, there is a worldview, an ethics, there are vanities and presumptions, skills and practices that we have to perform . We have to ‘become- architects’. What is this idea of ‘Becoming’ and what is its relationship to identity – to Being. Can one really separate them. Is the self essentially one thing, and does it have a trajectory of desire of becoming that is so unidirectional? Don’t all our other identities all also participate in shaping of the kind of architect we have to become.
Yet, we seem to be able to navigate these identities usually without any compunction. In fact in many ways we play with and within them. Derrida in his essay ‘Structure Sign and Play’ calls this play ‘the disruption of presence’. He insists that there is no experience consisting of ‘pure’ presence but only a chain of differential marks. In the performance of our lives identities get resolved. If they don’t we could end up as neurotic or psychotic. ‘Playing’ then is an important strategy of staking and reformulating our place in the world.
The philosopher Michel Foucault speaks of this game of identity construction:
“If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity’ and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it has to be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring.”
For queer theorist Judith Butler in “Gender Trouble”, our identities only exist as performances- and we can play with these performances to construct, don, problematise, pretend, reconfigure our selves. Identity construction is political- it allows us to create community, build alliances. Identities therefore are constructed, made, performed.
What if we think of this idea of becoming and identity in the processes through which we ‘become architects’ in the class room? As teachers of architecture, we are interested these trajectories of identity formation as we choreograph individuals towards ‘becoming-architect’. This is a process that is a never ending one. The identity marker of the architect is a direction, a vector that continues endlessly outwards, remaking the self. Or as Derrida puts it – ‘we are (always) (still) to be invented’ As teachers our role seems to be giving a direction to that vector of invention.
Performances / Embodied Learning
Performance is an essential aspect of pedagogy. And in performances the body and mind work together. For a queer person, this is a given. Our knowledge of the world begins with and is affected by the ways in which our bodies and desire intersect with the Other. One cannot ‘Think therefore one Is’. Our bodies also do the feeling and the thinking. To queer the classroom, we have to start problematising the mind-body dualism. To be an architect after all is an act of performing in the world. And in acts of performance the mind and body act as one being. This is acknowledged when we think about ‘Embodied Learning’ practices, like the learning of bicycling or swimming.
We don’t learn either by first learning the concepts of bicycling and then beginning to demonstrate them on the bicycle. We learn by practicing. By getting on the bicycle and failing, falling, over and over again- until we gradually become more confident and also proficient. Through riyaaz we strive towards perfection, even if we never get there.
Embodied Learning is deeply embedded within the structure of architectural pedagogy. The workshop and the studio, are spaces where the student learns through performing the act of architecture itself. The space of the studio becomes a space for rehearsal.
This is for me an important lesson. If one pushes the metaphor further, one then has to examine the relationship between the space of the studio and that of the ‘real world’ and real world consequences. What are the parameters that are set by the studio to enable the student to perform the identity of the architect? And we must remember that this identity is also not singular. It also emerges in acts of play with the other identities one inhabits.
Masks and Masquerades
As Ambedkar’s house shows us, the mask is an extraordinarily powerful machine of becoming. We conceal and we reveal simultaneously. Queer bodies have always known that power. The power of what a mask can do. What masquerade do we choreograph within the studio for the students to play-act future action? What masks do we ask them to wear? I speak so far as if the teacher is a neutral actor in this game. But as we know, the act of teaching is as much a performance. We wear masks too. Our bodies in the classroom are also part of the performance.
It is important to acknowledge that the studio then is a space for collective learning and conversation. bell hooks describes teaching as a performative act and teachers as catalysts that invite everyone to become more engaged and activated. The performative aspects of learning she says “offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements in each classroom.” The studio in other words is the machine that directs desire. Through studios at KRVIA certain tropes or strategies have emerged as possibilities.
If one ‘queers’ the space of the studio, it would need to acknowledge masks and masquerades as teaching tools. Performances after all enable narratives, and it is through narratives that we have always tried to understand the world.
How does one explain the deep affection we have for the characters on screen on a page, how else can we cry tears when a person dies on screen? Narratives enable us to inhabit other selves through mirrorings- through vicariously inhabiting the other partially, we learn about other motivations, other identities, and curiously also learn more about our relationship with them. By trans-lating our lives through theirs.
Narratives can queer questions of Identity, and this can release forces of empathy and understanding. As architects we are always telling stories in the ways we justify our propositions to the world. We frame a problem and offer a solution, sometimes even salvation. These are not the only stories we can tell. In the classroom we can use narrative to understand each other, teacher and student, we can also use it to discover the aspirations, histories, desires of communities.
Queering the Classroom
The space of the design studio is the space for rehearsals. Projects are written as a series of questions within a domain. These form frameworks within which the student scripts her own narrative, bringing not only her own predilections to the table, but also her aspirations and desires. These are shaped by the experience of the world, by encountering the ‘other’ and meditating about the consequences of acting in the world. These consequences will have an impact on the lives of people, on the environment. To queer the space of the studio would be to embrace indeterminacy. To structure it such that the students and the faculty together have to discover a proposition. Rather than relying to given truths, the studio is framed as a struggle between these choices – a dialectic interplay between the poles of Thought and Action, Concept and Resolution, between the Concrete and the Abstract.
The space in between these is kept uncertain, and this can be productive in allowing for a space of discovery.
What is enabled when queerness is placed in relationship with architecture? What happens to architectures’ assumptions of clarity and definitiveness? I place before you the definition of Queer as suggested by Eve Sedgewick:
“the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically”
What is great about this definition is that it refuses to be held tightly within a boundary. It allows for blurred boundaries and overlaps. What if this fluidity was overlaid open the definitive edges of architecture itself?
This can break open architecture itself to other forces, to queer it, to be softer and gentler. The myth of the ego of the architect is shaken. Architecture is forced to become collaborative in nature. Architecture broadens its scope- it does not only become about buildings but about the act of building, the processes through which we engage with the world towards making it better. It also suggests that the roles that we perform to make the world better can be different. Far from the machismo and the egomania of the starchitect, creative genius, we can think of collaborative, gentler, ways of engaging with the field of architecture. Architecture will stop being only the spectacle showpiece object, but rather the process through which it emerges. The boundaries between the self and the other, between disciplines begin to become a domain of negotiation and contestation, rather than a strict line.
To Queer a classroom is to construct a non-judgemental space for individuals to script their own identities, to accept ones fears and find and offer support to others.
To Queer a classroom is to destabilise certainties, to take nothing for granted; nothing as a given truth that must one follow without critical thought.
To Queer a classroom is to allow it a radical freedom. In the performances, the masquerades and play-acting within the studio, it is to be able to release extraordinary forces of creativity and generosity, of compassion and care, that can create new ideas for architecture, and for our role in the world.
The Exquisite Corpse.
Architectural Design Studio – Second Year 2007-2008