This is the latest in an ongoing series in which we will be publishing articles from Lunch 11: Domestication. To purchase a hard copy of the issue, please contact the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Domestic” has become a term to broadly describe all things pertaining to the home. Noted linguist and catalyst of structuralist theory Ferdinand de Saussure argues that the meaning of words emerges from their relationship to other words, often forming binary oppositions where meaning is predicated on difference (Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 41-42). When domesticity refers to the physical and conceptual realm of the home, its opposite is “public.” In a global context the opposite of domestic is “foreign.” This double-layered meaning posits domesticity as a descriptor of something much more abstract and intangible, a feeling of home on multiple scales.
The construction of domesticity perpetuates a more insidious binary. The gender binary is an entrenched, dominantly western social and cultural system that designates man and woman as the only two real gender categories. Gender operates within a set of prescribed social practices that set the standard for perceived normalcy. The gender binary is an exclusive framework through which to evaluate and regulate humans, producing a criterion by which gender is a prerequisite to humanness (Sorcha Fogarty, “Binary Oppositions,” The Literary Encyclopedia, published February 15, 2005, accessed January 27, 2016). The prescribed social practices of domesticity reinforce and reproduce this binary system. The danger in such an exclusive pattern is the often violent erasure of genders that fall outside of the binary.
Thus, despite its universality, domesticity is neither neutral nor inclusive. In architectural discourse, is the domestic enough to describe the physical space of the home? Which subjects are written into the dominant domestic narrative, and which identities are excluded? How do we break out of binary oppositions in both language and gender to reframe and reimagine new possibilities for domesticity? I argue that reframing the domestic as archive and shelter rather than home provides the foundations for spaces that are inclusive of all genders, and breaks the binaries embodied within domesticity by revealing its limits. First, I will trace the methods through which culture, architecture, and policies historically produce and reproduce the gender binary in the United States. Second, I will reframe domesticity through analysis of the internet as a visible archive, incubator of identity, and platform for change. Re-reading domesticity as shelter through the lens of virtual space will begin to rupture the boundaries of the gender binary.
In the history of the United States, domesticity is romanticized to the point of myth. After World War II, the economic and geographic landscape of the U.S. gave rise to the domestic ideal, a home-centric manifestation of the American Dream: self-determination, property ownership, and patriotism. During the war, women filled non-traditional positions in all phases of the war effort (Gwendolyn Wright, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983), 242.) Women were then dismissed from or demoted within the workforce to accommodate returning servicemen, and a national effort attempted to re-domesticate women into the traditional role of the housewife. Women’s previous roles—the homemaker/domestic-engineer, the wage-earning Rosie the Riveter—were abandoned in favor of the soft, romantic, and paradoxically hard-working housewife. Women were still caregivers but now faced the added expectation of romantic readiness (by being prettily dressed and ready to greet her husband at the end of the day) while also conveying an impression of ease. Women were urged to be productive in their “free” time at home by participating in activities presented as recreation, not meaningful work: canning food, making curtains, embroidery, or creating recipes, to name a few (ibid., 92-93).
In “A Servantless House,” by William C. Heck for The Ladies Home Journal in 1922, the “norms” of domesticity are designed into the walls of the home. Drawing from tenets of Taylorism, an industrial method of arranging factory layouts for maximum efficiency and productivity, the plans for the house are a showcase of optimized, ideal domesticity—a place for binary gender roles to thrive (Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 213). Adjacencies are designed into the room where the gendered division of labor is most apparent: in the kitchen. Electric appliances and storage cabinets are arranged in close proximity. Not only are the tools for labor within the kitchen close to one another, the room itself has five doors, connecting the threshold of the kitchen with the breakfast room, pantry, back entry, dining room, and stair (separate from the grand stair that leads up to the second floor chambers and down to the basement). Here, the laboring woman is simultaneously separated and connected from the rest of the house. Her work is confined to a service core that seems to prioritize efficiency but ultimately emphasizes isolation and conformity. While the husband and family lives in the spacious and aptly named living room and living room porch, the wife is allocated a relatively cramped space to perform domestic work. Designed as such, these in the inter-war period set a blueprint for the relationship between gender and the domestic realm.
After World War II, the return of tens of millions of veterans caused a housing shortage. The government’s attempts to alleviate the crisis produced an ideal model of suburban domesticity. The 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights charged the Veterans Administration with the creation a mortgage guarantee program, but there were not enough houses being built for the program to be effective. It was not until the Housing Act of 1949 that construction of homes began to pick up. (ibid., 243-4). A direct result of the Act was the proliferation of large-scale suburban housing projects intended for lower-income veterans and their families, a uniquely American phenomenon (Barbara M. Kelly, Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown (New York: State University of New York Press, 1993), 164.). The Act provided developers with incentives for building suburban housing, as suburbs represented the domestic family ideal (Wright, Building the Dream, 248. The FHA set out guidelines for designs of homes and suburban communities, cultivating homogeneity both in design and demographics in an attempt to prevent racial violence and declining property values (ibid., 247).
The American government promoted an economy in which the political identity of a new, landowning middle class was tied to the aesthetics and values of their suburban homes. Heterosexual marriage is made spatial in the design of the Servantless House and suburban housing; such a home makes space for the binary gender roles institutionalized by marriage between man and woman (Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 336-7). The domestic becomes an identity represented by the single family home.
Archives Build Shelter
In “Breaking Ground on a Theory of Transgender Architecture,” Lucas Cassidy Crawford questions the assumption that our bodies are static “homes” in the phrase “feeling at home in one’s skin” as a conception of trans-embodiment. He argues for the use of “archive” to describe the way in which gendered norms are inscribed in thousands of years of architectural memory. Reframing the relationship between built environment, memory, and norms means the “body-as-home” becomes “body-as-archive,” destabilizing notions of permanency and binary stability (Lucas Cassidy Crawford, “Breaking Ground on a Theory of Transgender Architecture,” Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 8, Issue 2, Article 5 (May 2010)). Domestic architecture reconceived as archive provides opportunities to rethink its boundaries, potentials, and relationship to historical narratives.
To understand the potentials of archive, let’s take a closer look at the internet as a visible and literal archive. Though the internet is a purely virtual medium by definition, its function as an archive produces spaces for resistance that affect how information is perceived and acted upon in the physical world. In 2012, The New School initiated an online discourse after designating five restrooms at their East 16th Street building as gender inclusive. An informational article in The New School Free Press documented the logistics of the new facilities (Danielle MacZynski, “Gender Inclusive Bathrooms Arrive at The New School,” published March 30, 2012, accessed January 20, 2016). The article sent the message that change was on the way and that the future was bright for gender inclusive restrooms. Two years later, well after the program’s introduction, an article titled “Battle of the Bathrooms” was published (Shea Carmen Swan, “Battle of the Bathrooms,” March 18, 2014, accessed January 20, 2016). Implementation had not gone as planned: the actual number of gender inclusive restrooms on campus does not match the original announcement. In interviews with students, we learn that only the signs on the doors have changed—the interiors remain the same (ibid.).
Here, the internet as archive is not merely a passive display of information, but a continuous documentation of change over time. The traditional relationships between information/archive, student/administration, and gender/restroom are disrupted through the events that occurred, the archiving of those events, and the responses sparked by the visibility and accessibility of the archive itself. The series of articles function as a platform for an issue that is considered private and domestic—the restroom—despite its ubiquity in the public realm.
Even Humans of New York (HONY), a popular street photography project run by Brandon Stanton, got involved in the archiving of this architectural memory. In 2013, Stanton posted a photo of the new sign (reproduced above) with a caption that details his “awkward” experience in the gender inclusive restroom (Shea Carmen Swan, “I Pee, You Pee, We All Pee in Gender-Inclusive Bathrooms,” published February 14, 2013, accessed January 20, 2016). Backlash against Stanton’s intolerance spawned a passionate opinion piece at The New School Free Press as well as blog posts on Tumblr. Most commenters on the original post disagreed with Stanton, and the original post has since been deleted (ibid.). This exposes one of the flaws of the internet as an archive: documentation is at risk of being deleted if reactions are overwhelmingly negative. Fortunately, images and text survive through commentary. On the popular microblogging service Tumblr, responses to HONY’s post enabled active insertions into the ongoing debate through “reblogging”: the act of reposting the original content augmented with new feedback. (For one instance of reblogging on Tumblr on this topic, see Kat Blaq, “HONY Thinks Gender Neutral Bathrooms Are Scary,” published April 14, 2014, accessed January 20, 2016.) This form of engaging the archive ensures that original text and images live on even if they are no longer available in their original form. Participatory engagement with the archive becomes an enactment of accountability.
The function of the virtual archive is to act as a shelter for information as well as the expression of genders that do not fall within the gender binary. The people who write responses and the people interviewed for the articles are users of gender inclusive restrooms—that is, they possess genders that fall outside of the binary. That they can safely express themselves in the space of the archive means it is also a site of shelter. The sheer volume of online identities across a nearly infinite number of platforms makes identity policing an impossible task. In contrast to physical spaces of appearance, where genders are contingent upon being read as visible and real by others, on the internet genders can be hybridized, customized, personalized, and ultimately expressed at a much lower risk of physical or psychological harm. For instance, in February 2014, the popular social media platform Facebook expanded the list of genders with which people identify from two to fifty-eight, including an option to write-in one’s own gender (Facebook Diversity, Facebook post, February 13, 2014, accessed December 15, 2015). This gender explosion changed the norms of gender, a virtual dissolving of the boundaries of the binary. As one of the primary arbiters of social media, representation of transgender identities on Facebook created a shelter for marginalized identities.
The additive formation of an archive necessitates change and evolution. Even The New York Times added to the archive of the gender neutral restroom debate last year, expanding their range of anecdotes from high schools to city governments (Aimee Lee Ball, “In All-Gender Restrooms, the Signs Reflect the Times,” The New York Times, published November 5, 2015, accessed January 20, 2016). As the archive grows, it gains strength and protection in its volume of knowledge, thus becoming a shelter for what it contains. To reframe domesticity and all that it refers to in architectural discourse as archive is to create a body of knowledge that can be changed and allowed to evolve. It is in this flexible nature of the archive that it gains its sheltering characteristics.
The dominant domestic narrative is designed into the spaces in which we live, reinforcing the norms of the gender binary and excluding genders outside of the binary in the process. It is a term that has resisted evolution despite its obsolete context. Whereas people have come to define “home” for themselves, domesticity refers to an outdated mode of thinking about architectural meaning and memory. Reframing domestic as archive and shelter opens up possibilities for expanding this exclusive architectural discourse. As notions of gender hierarchy and power come into play, the social concept of domesticity comes to encompass so much more than merely the spatial aspects of home. “Archival shelter” shifts the power of domesticity from a static binary toward plurality. Such an archival shelter has already begun to form in virtual spaces, as evidenced by the myriad expressions and debates occurring simultaneously on the internet. Though architecture has yet to break free from the traditions of domesticity, new critical frameworks can prove useful in rethinking domesticity toward more inclusive discourses and designs.
A.L. Hu is a genderqueer first generation person of color who is currently a Master of Architecture student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). Their research, writing, and design work is at the intersection of gender, race, community, and architecture. A.L. is a GSAPP Program Council member; co-founder of GSAPP Students of Color Association; founding member of Queer Students of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; and a GSAPP student representative on Columbia University’s Race, Ethnicity, and Inclusion Task Force. A.L. uses the gender-neutral pronouns they, them, and theirs.