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Interview with Joel Sanders

We speak to architect, academic and editor Joel Sanders about the construction and performance of gender, and its physically built permutations



It has now been almost 25 years since you published Stud. How much has changed?

My interest in the relationship between gender and space has been an ongoing theme in my work over the past 25 years. The question I was asking – and that I continue to ask – is what role does architecture play in the construction of human embodied identities? When Stud was published in 1996, I was looking at the role of architecture in the construction of masculinity. I was interested in masculinity as a kind of pathology, perpetuated through architecture as a medium that shapes the way bodies interact with one another. Looking back, and being self-critical, I realise that I was looking at gender, and ultimately human identity, in a reductive way: through the narrow lens of a white, able-bodied gay man – a typical point of view during what was the height of the AIDS epidemic. 

Over the years, my perspective has shifted from solely a gay male to a trans-inclusive perspective, that looks intersectionally across what I refer to as ‘non-compliant bodies’. The evolution of my own thinking mirrors changes in the academic and design community as well as the culture at large: we now recognise that identities are shaped by the complex intersections of age, gender, race, class and disability.


What do you mean by ‘non-compliant bodies?’ 

Non-Compliant Bodies was the name of a conference that I co-organised with Susan Stryker, a prominent transgender theorist, activist and historian, in 2018. The premise of the conference is that since antiquity, Western designers have presumed that the default user of architecture is a cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual white man. ‘Non-compliant bodies’ therefore refers to people who fall out of that cultural mainstream, that the discipline of architecture tends to overlook or actively exclude.

The conference interrogated three architectural types: toilets, museums and urban streets. Among these, the toilet has been an ongoing topic of interest for me. Back in 1996, Stud devoted a chapter to men’s toilets, revealing them to be a ‘theatre of heterosexual anxiety’ as well as a space of desire, that facilitated gay interactions through cruising.

Five years ago, national controversies in the United States sparked by the question of transgender access to public toilets led me to form Stalled!, a research-based design project addressing the urgent need to create safe and accessible public toilets, not only for the trans community but for a diverse spectrum of people with different needs. We found that this wasn’t the first time that toilets have been in crisis, that – from women entering the workplace, to racial segregation, to gay men sharing public toilets with straight men during the AIDS crisis – this was just one iteration of many, in which the toilet acts as a crucible that triggers anxieties about marginalised communities wanting to gain access to public space. 

‘There was an idea that masculinity was somehow innate, and doesn’t rely on decor or masquerade: that less is more masculine’

What role does typological assessment have in this?

Stud argued that the performance of human identity takes place within architectural ‘types’, common structures that distribute bodies within formulaic spatial configurations that shape the way humans interact with each other and the world around them. My work is based on the conviction that these types perpetuate the status quo, but architects and users can decide to contest these norms and their ideologies through appropriation and revision.

More recently, I have been investigating the way the protocols of professional practice – design standards, building codes, policies and laws – work in conjunction with building types to reproduce normative conventions. What we do in our work is try to interrogate or unpack these conventions that have been taken for granted. 


In Stud, you write about material codes to do with cladding. How does this factor in the production of gender?

The cladding on buildings, like clothing, is both functional – keeping us warm or keeping the rain out – but it also has cultural connotations that are often associated with masculinity or femininity.

In Stud, I was interested in the way in which gay men in the ’90s appropriated and then exaggerated codes of Western masculinity. For example, not only did gay men in bars dress like cowboys, construction workers or bikers, the interior of gay bars were often clad in materials like wood, leather and metal, associated with hyper-masculine environments like saloons, construction sites or biker bars. The materials that clad our bodies as well as the surface of architecture – whether they’re paint, wall treatments or fabrics – have cultural connotations that facilitate the performance of gender. 


Does wall dressing differ or depart from the spatial in how it produces identity?

Wall surfaces and building types are two different but related strategies that architecture employs to construct identities. Building type is more spatial, whereas cladding tends to be more two-dimensional, and operates at the level of the symbolic. This is an issue that comes up with older universities in the United States, which are grappling with the way their Anglican Gothic buildings have problematic racial and class connotations associated with white privilege. Another situation in which wall dressing comes into play shows that cladding has functional as well as symbolic meanings: we learned while working at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington DC, that in order for deaf signing to be legible, you need to paint the walls a contrasting colour – so at least for a white body, the ubiquity of white walls in architecture creates a problem. 


How do you go about unpacking a type or other convention?

We look at these conventions through a socio-historical context. With the toilet, for example, we began by calling into question two assumptions. First, that they are completely shaped by functionalist concerns: infrastructure, sanitation systems, water technology, the ergonomics of the body, etc. Second, that public toilets obey a need for privacy between the sexes, based on a tacit belief that only two sexes exist. Looking at these assumptions through a socio-historical lens allows us to see that what we think of as purely functional issues are actually cultural. Architectural history shows that binary toilets are an invention of the late 19th century: that until then, in the West, going to the toilet was an inter-generational, inter-sex, community experience. Realising that the sex-segregated toilet is a culturally and historically contingent type also freed us to critique the generally accepted solution for all-gender toilets, that supplements sex-segregated facilities by adding a single-occupancy room, often with wheelchair access, labelled Gender Neutral. 

This approach stigmatises non-conforming individuals – not only trans people but also people with disabilities. Stalled! advocates an alternative model that treats the public toilet as a single open space containing fully enclosed stalls and communal areas for washing. Gender non-conforming people need not choose between options that don’t align with their identities, and by consolidating a greater number of people into one rather than two rooms, there are a greater number of eyes to monitor it, reducing the risk – and fear – of harassment and violence. 

We also teamed up with the American Institute of Architects and the National Center for Transgender Equality and successfully lobbied the International Code Council to amend the existing building code that mandates sex-segregated toilets. Now, in the next iteration of that code, the all-gender, multi-user model we’re advocating will be legal in the United States. 

‘The toilet acts as a crucible that triggers anxieties about marginalised communities wanting to gain access to public space’

To what extent do you think change can be made through design?

It’s an uphill battle. Ultimately it’s about changing people’s minds and about design. When we talk to different facilities management groups, trying to implement an all-gender toilet model they haven’t seen before on college campuses, we talk to them about the fluid nature of gender. Once these things are built and people use them, people see that what they might have feared is fine. 

I’m an optimist in that I believe that architecture has the ability to impact human interactions, and that if we change architecture then hopefully we’ll initiate more productive ways for people to interact in public space. It is reciprocal: architecture both reflects and produces social contracts, but if we can change people’s consciousness, and if we are able to build differently, hopefully this will have positive social effects. Of course, we can never control how people use public spaces, so while they might work as we hoped, they might also work differently – for better or for worse. 


In Stud, you mention a ‘logic of absence’ with regard to masculinity – what did you mean by that? 

What I was thinking about back then was the notion of gender as performance. Stud argued that architecture is a stage that facilitates the performance of gender identities that are more learned than hardwired. One of the inspirations for this was Judith Butler, who wrote about drag queens and the way they enlist culturally prescribed codes of bodily comportment, like tone and gesture, as well as fashion, to demonstrate the way gender is a culturally constructed and learned mode of behaviour. Stud expanded upon that to consider the key role that decor or ornament plays in that performance.

Architects like Adolf Loos or Le Corbusier famously pilloried or disparaged decorated buildings, misogynistically comparing them to prostitutes, women whose appeal relied on deception, costume and make-up. This was opposed to the Modern building which was naked and unadorned like a Greek statue. Back then, there was an idea that masculinity was somehow innate or authentic, and didn’t rely on decor or masquerade – there’s this idea that ‘less is more masculine’; and a false assumption that masculinity is not constructed in the same way. We analysed austere examples like Philip Johnson’s Glass House to show that the fabrication of masculinity is a little more subtle, but nevertheless as constructed as femininity.

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