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Binary code: technologies of gender

Studies of masculinity and space by writers such as Joel Sanders and Paul Preciado challenge the borders of gender



Source: Special Collections, US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs

Closet at Cadet Quarters by SOM at US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs. When female recruits were finally admitted they opted to keep ‘Bring Me Men’ as the motto

In Technologies of Gender of 1987, feminist theorist Teresa de Lauretis reminds us of a paradox in Foucault’s theory on sexuality. Religious, legal and scientific prohibitions and regulations have not only constrained sexuality, but have helped to produce it. From there, she indicates, derives the notion of ‘technology of sex’, a series of techniques deployed by the dominant class to regulate, and so produce, sexuality. Borrowing the Foucauldian concept of ‘technology’ as the discursive and material techniques employed in the production of a cultural object, and joining it to the term ‘gender’, which gained its present meaning in the mid 20th century coinciding with new procedures of hormonal and surgical modification of sexual attributes, Lauretis introduces the notion of ‘technology of gender’. She uses cinema as an example, the cinematic construction of woman as an image is a social technology of gender edifying womanliness. 

The concept of ‘technology of gender’ was an operative linguistic instrument to interrogate the epistemology of sexual difference. It immediately found its way into other disciplines, and architecture was no exception. American academia, submerged in the wave of critical theory, would soon incorporate the tropes of feminist and gender studies, if not in the same words, but with the same intentions. If cinema is a technology of gender, shaping subjectivity in relationship to cultural expressions of sex, then architecture could be read as a technology of gender shaping sexuality through discourse and design. At the time Lauretis published her book, architecture and sexuality had already been addressed from a feminist point of view, but not masculinity. Understandably, femininity had initially become a focus of study in an operation of uncovering the sites of the feminine in the male-dominated field of architecture.

‘The question of what masculinity is and how it is produced seems to be superseded by the more urgent question of why we need masculinity’

However, in the 1990s, works by authors such as Beatriz Colomina and Leslie Kaynes Weisman, and the expansion of gender and queer studies, brought a wider debate on architecture and sexuality. Not coincidentally, scholars who identified as queer, such as Aaron Betsky, Henry Urbach and Joel Sanders, opened up a critical inquiry into the production of masculinity. Particularly the work of Sanders extended the question of architectural production of sexual difference beyond the space of queer masculinity in his book Stud: Architectures of Masculinity (1996). Not coincidentally, it was published by Princeton University, to which Colomina was affiliated, and where later Paul (then Beatriz) Preciado would develop a thesis on Playboy architecture and the emergence of techno-capitalist masculinity. 

Sanders’ Stud was specifically influenced by gender ‘performativity’ as explored by gender theorist Judith Butler. Performativity was seen as a compulsory repetition of certain pregiven patterns shaping gender, in this case fostered by particular architectural dispositions. Sanders ‘identified four strategies that enhanced male performance: dressing wall surfaces, demarcating boundaries, distributing objects, and organising gazes’.  These were deduced and extracted from specific spatial types or sites – home, workplace, bathroom, gym and the outdoors – presenting architectural features believed to enhance masculine attributes. The book examined practices, spaces, objects and materials evoking the ‘mystique of the cultural phallus’, dismantled some set ideas on the production of masculinity, and identified the forms in which heterosexual masculinity was subverted and queer masculinities reproduced. It started questioning the masculine opposition to the world of ‘artifice’ that characterises feminine architecture. On the contrary, Sanders says, masculinity is also constructed through the use of supplementary decorative surfaces; a lexicon of materials extracted from building types and objects mostly inhabited by men (monasteries, factories, cars, etc) dress up the walls to recall masculine environments. Yet these same materials are exalted in queer spaces to construct an a priori contradictory, hyper-masculine gay subject. 

Joel saunders stud

Joel saunders stud

The book continues to unveil a series of similar contradictory operations of re-appropriation of the technologies of production of masculinity, like the process of eroticisation of gender-segregated toilets, which both reinforce a binary gender system and provide a space for homosexual encounters. By the end, one finds oneself asking if queer misuses of the technologies of masculine production are actually challenging heterosexual masculinity or if they, emulating the Foucauldian paradox, in fact help to produce it. 

Stud included the Playboy Penthouse Apartment, an anonymous domestic design published in the magazine in 1956. This and all Playboy’s media-architecture at large would become the focus of Preciado’s work. His 2010 thesis, partly published in Pornotopia (2014), theorises the economy of desire that transformed the understanding of masculinity in postwar America. Preciado presents us with a pharmacopornographic theory through which to unveil the process of fabrication of a new hegemonic masculinity or, in his words, a ‘mythical masculinity, able to withstand the heterosexual crisis during the 20th century and to confront the challenges posed by feminine liberation and the transgender utopia’. The media empire of Playboy, says Preciado, frontally attacked the traditional relations between gender, sex and architecture, to produce a new form of masculinity emerging from the juxtaposition of new spatial concepts, communication technologies and the chemical regulation of the self – from the use of the contraceptive pill to amphetamines. 

‘Technologies of gender can be selected à la carte: shifting, juxtaposing, stretching the binary into multiplicity’

In the 1970s Playboy’s circulation was seven million and it developed into an empire including television and clubs. While the magazine presented renowned modern architects and anonymous designs for sophisticated and technologically advanced bachelor lofts, the television allowed the spectator to enter the Playboy mansion, where Hugh Hefner, director of the empire, worked and lived in an exotic multimedia interior of erotic pleasures.These spaces portrayed through photography and film proposed an ‘alternative erotic topos to the suburban family house’ and with that ‘the possibility of a further “revolution”, one that was political and sexual’. Playboy media-architecture fostered a radical transformation of ‘not only ways of seeing, but also ways of segmenting and inhabiting space, along with affects and modes of pleasure production’. The resulting Playboy man that was adapted to post-domestic space, tele-pornography and immaterial labour, threw ‘doubt on both the virile heterosexual spatial order (…) and on the heroic male figure of the modern architect’. 

The work of both Sanders and Preciado has been pivotal to the studies on masculinity and space, and they continue to evolve their theories and practices. Aware of Preciado’s latest work, Sanders has instrumentalised trans theory for architectural investigations and propositions into inclusive architecture. He says, in regard to Stud, that despite bringing insights into the role of architecture in the formation of masculine subjectivities, his work was constrained by a cis-gay male perspective and the presumption that Western, able-bodied, white, cis-gender men are the users by default. Sanders’ observation not only makes evident the lack of inclusivity in architectural discourse and practice, but the polyhedral dimension of gender. The performance of masculinity cannot unfold equally in an abled and disabled person; in a north African and a native American; in a white and a black body. How then can masculinity or femininity be interrogated if not including all these other categories of difference?

Beatriz preciado pornotopia

Beatriz preciado pornotopia

Preciado has gone even further. In Pornotopia, he pointed out that despite technocapitalism transforming the forms of production and the very meaning of masculinity, the pharmacopornographic revolution never challenged its indispensable medium: the gender system itself. Preciado’s work moved from inquiring into the forms of production of femininity/masculinity to focus on identifying and questioning the technologies of production of the whole binary gender regime. In An Apartment on Uranus (2020), he describes his process of transition between genders, and his experience of the ‘process of unfurnishing’. With this poetic spatial metaphor, he suggests how in throwing off the shackles of the ancien régime (sexual but also racial and political), it is necessary to transform the spaces in which its supporting legal, scientific and religious discourses have been inscribed. 

At present, the question of what masculinity is and how it is produced seems to be superseded by the more urgent question of why we need masculinity. In this context, architecture of inclusivity and gender dissidence coexist and reinforce each other: we have architects like Sanders exploring biotechnological design to provide a space where non-normative users can mingle freely; yet we have Preciado transgressing, with his body, one of ‘the most violent political borders’, that of gender, to show us the potential for transformation beyond any fixed identities. The imminent departure from the system of sexual difference seems improbable, but the awareness of the cultural production of gender difference allows us to reinscribe ourselves at any point in this system. Technologies of gender can be selected à la carte: shifting, mutating, juxtaposing, stretching the binary into multiplicity. We need spaces for everyone, but we also need everyone to have a space to foster diversity.

The required operation now goes beyond incorporating the peripheral into the centre of the system, as Lauretis suggested, exploring new forms of spatial production and inhabitation that reproduce the multiplicity of the cosmos. In the words of Preciado: ‘I’m bringing no news from the margins, I bring you a piece of horizon’.

Technologies of Gender, Teresa de Lauretis, Indiana University Press, 1987

Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, ed. Joel Sanders, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996

Pornotopia, Paul B Preciado, MIT Press, 2014

An Apartment on Uranus, Paul B Preciado, MIT Press, 2020

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today