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Queer Gothic: Architecture, gender and desire

Through a historical study of the connections between architecture, gender and desire, Ayla Lepine reveals the invisibility and marginalisation of queer history

Osbert Lancaster’s Pillar to Post, published in 1938, lampoons the mania for categorising culture through interpreting style, from Egyptian pyramids to ‘Twentieth-Century Functional’. Lancaster is particularly inclined to let rip about the revival of medieval architecture, with the blame squarely placed on John Ruskin: ‘by introducing the British public to the beauties of Giotto’s campanile he must be judged as being largely responsible for a monstrous union that begot the Albert Memorial’.

For Lancaster’s generation, the ‘monstrous union’ stood for an age too recently passed, its striped brick masses crowding out a new set of architectural and social possibilities. The Albert Memorial became shorthand for all that was unfortunate about Victorian taste. The ’20s especially was a time of ‘witty bricolage’ when, as Paul Nash put it in Room and Book, ‘the adjective “amusing” started on its endless flight from lip to lip’. In Vogue’s article on ‘Unity in Diversity’ co-authored by Sacheverell and Osbert Sitwell, the manifesto was loud and clear: ‘There are two ways of furnishing a house, the grimly historical and the purely whimsical.’ Only collect. And do so with an eye for absurd juxtapositions to demonstrate one’s capacity for Amusement. Could this ever include the horrors of Victoriana? When Vogue reviewed Edith Sitwell’s Façade in 1923, dour Victorians were contrasted with ‘us of a younger generation’. ‘Not even now,’ the author said, ‘are we tired of being very rude to the Albert Memorial.’

Would the Victorian joke ever get old? Every generation has its queer medievalisms, and an enormous, gleamingly gilded, remarkably informal Prince Consort holding an exhibition catalogue and surrounded by angels might not stand as an emblem of glum Victorian taste for long. Look at it with fresh eyes, as was done for its restoration, and it is as playfully camp as it is staunchly serious in its imperial and monumental purpose. Towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, queerly medievalist designs by Cecil Hare and Ninian Comper − the latter’s muscular alabasters responding to the New Sculpture with homoerotic holiness − took their cue from the Middle Ages, just like their Victorian predecessors.

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Ninian Comper’s alabaster St Sebastian for Downside Abbey

Is there really such a thing as ‘queer Gothic’? And if so, is it a phenomenon that can be pinned down? Timothy Brittain-Catlin’s Bleak Houses has opened our eyes to a world of architectural underdogs and melancholia. He consistently identifies the energetic Victorian Gothic Revival with a virile and even violent, bullying masculinity that tore down every lovely fragile thing in its path. Within Brittain-Catlin’s mapping of triumph and failure in modern architecture, there is much to learn, yet perhaps limited room to manoeuvre. Were the Gothic Revivalists all rampantly normative, stamping their stained-glass butch powerhouses across the empire?

For theorists like Christopher Reed, ‘no space is totally queer or completely unqueerable, but some spaces are queerer than others’. Reed suggests that queer space is imminent, drawing on the associations of the Latin imminere − to loom or to threaten − to note that queer space is about space claimed defiantly, proudly even, for that which is deemed to be deviant.

Deviance can take an infinite number of forms, and its boundaries are always shifting. In the 1840s, for example, a strong activist support system for the promotion of Gothic architecture joined with a new quest for immersive, sensual religious practices. Anti-popery riots of the 1850s and harsh legislation of the 1870s (which led to priests being imprisoned) were as bound up with anxiety about gender and desire as they were with religion and architecture, as historians Dominic Janes and Patrick O’Malley show.

‘This sudden pause in the laughter signalled the most outrageously camp gesture of all: taking Gothic seriously’

Collections including Beatriz Colomina’s groundbreaking Sexuality and Space (1992) and Gender, Space, Architecture, edited by Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner and Iain Borden in 1999, have connected architecture and desire in exciting new ways. What is it that makes spaces queer? Is it the people who design them, inhabit them, discuss them, or deplore them? Surely it’s a combination of these, and the very idea that one building is queer and another is not presents us with an unhelpful binary.

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Derek Jarman on the set of his 1991 film Edward II

It is rarely a case of either/or. In 1933, John Betjeman published Ghastly Good Taste, in which he suggested that queer medievalism’s 18th-century enfants terribles were to blame for architectural decay: ‘an incipient Romanticism that was started by Horace Walpole writing scandal from his Gothick palace at Strawberry Hill, furthered by the mysterious doings of William Beckford in his miraculous Fonthill Abbey, no doubt started the trouble’. Betjeman mocks the Gothic Revival’s earnestness and then, just when we get comfortable in our smug revulsion, he chides its detractors for choosing such an easy target: ‘it is tiresome to laugh at Victorian solecisms. It has been done too often’. The tide was turning, and this sudden pause in the laughter signalled the most outrageously camp gesture of all: taking Gothic seriously. This had been done all along, as the style oscillated − depending on who was asking −between the very definition of establishment (Houses of Parliament) and the extravagance of queer historicist pleasure (Lord Berners’ Faringdon Folly).

However, although laughter is less likely now − not least because of the activism of the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society − another dismissive phenomenon persists. The British Library’s current Gothic exhibition, Terror and Wonder, begins with Walpole and Georgian Gothic splendour, and moves on to Beckford and Fonthill. The catalogue observes that ‘the parallels between Horace Walpole and William Beckford … are too striking to ignore. Both were Members of Parliament, collectors of curiosities, Francophiles, architects and linguists’. Anything else? No? This omission perpetuates queer history’s invisibility and marginalisation; queerness is legible in the exhibition’s displays for those in the know. For those who aren’t, it remains hidden in plain sight.

Who’s afraid of queer Gothic? In Edward II, Derek Jarman used Gothic forms for a purpose no less political than to draw attention to queer struggles in post-Thatcherite England. With towering stone walls dwarfing the characters, the sets suggest that in Jarman’s own time, liberated queer space was a distant dream. When the script was published it included the statement, ‘Queer Edward II, dedicated to the repeal of all anti-gay laws, particularly Section 28’. Why take up Edward II and rework it as queer manifesto in Gothic mode? For Jarman, modern Gothic revivalism effectively constituted spaces of activism. He instructed: ‘How to make a film of a gay love affair and get it commissioned. Find a dusty old play and violate it.’ In 2015, beyond the constricting censorship of Section 28, a new queer utopia is emerging. Grayson Perry and FAT’s A House for Essex is both folly and ‘pilgrimage chapel’. The bold jewel box takes its cues from architecture’s queer sensibility and the devotional practices of the Middle Ages. Blaringly camp, a bibelot for Britain, it couldn’t be more serious.

 

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