Making space for the LGBTQIA+ community
A young architect describes how a collaborative design competition is pushing forward an LGBTQIA+ community center for Austin.
Community spaces for LGBTQIA+ people are imperative and can be life changing and lifesaving. Equally important is the process through which we create those spaces. Employing inclusive and participatory design processes gives agency and decision-making power to the public. As architects, we have a responsibility to be champions for creating inclusive spaces, meeting our community’s needs and involving them as key stakeholders in the design process so they have a meaningful and clear way of shaping their built environment.
My adopted hometown of Austin—where I found myself as a new graduate student in the process of coming out as gay in 2009—is home to the nation’s third-largest per-capita LGBTQ+ population, estimated at over 112,000 people. While other large cities have developed “gayborhoods” and nearby LGBTQIA+ centers, Austin’s geographically dispersed queer population has likely contributed to the absence of both. There are gay bars for social gatherings and non-profits like Out Youth doing great work in their areas of expertise, but there is still a need for inclusive spaces to connect queer people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds and provide opportunities for building community.
An Austin community in need
QWELL Community Foundation, a non-profit organization working to better serve Austin’s LGBTQIA+ community, recently conducted the first research study of LGBTQIA+ wellbeing in Central Texas in collaboration with Dell Medical School. The survey indicated that only 17% of respondents feel like valued members of the LGBTQIA+ community while over half did not feel like part of the community at all. 20% of respondents do not see friends or family more than two days a month. Further, the results “revealed the harm caused by this extreme disconnection,” according to Clayton Gibson, QWELL’s founder. “Many people tell us they cannot find affirming, queer-competent health care even though they have a chronic medical condition,” he said. “Most alarmingly, 26% report suicidal thoughts within the week preceding the survey. We have to do a better job building community and connecting people with affirming resources.”
"We have to do a better job building community and connecting people with affirming resources." - Clayton Gibson
QWELL’s long-term goals include building LGBTQIA+ Community Centers in Austin and through research, discovered that a single LGBTQIA+ community center was not the best solution due to a geographically dispersed population that lives in a region with high traffic congestion and limited public transit.
The main reason I started my firm, Activate Architecture, was to work on community-based and social impact design projects. After participating in the AIA’s Design Justice Summit last year and learning the principles of New Orleans-based organization Colloqate, I was inspired to expand my work to include more LGBTQIA+ initiatives and partnerships. The research study led by QWELL compelled me to help find a solution and contribute to developing the concept for a Pop-Up LGBTQIA+ Community Center that can travel to different neighborhoods directly engaging the community, increasing visibility, and mapping queer-friendly businesses and wellbeing providers. Relying on a grant we received from AIA to take our ideas from the Design Justice Summit forward as well as generous support from the Texas Society of Architects and Austin Foundation for Architecture, a vision for the Austin Outpost started to come together.
A pop-up idea gains ground
The Austin Outpost pop-up model will connect LGBTQIA+ residents with services, resources, and opportunities to participate in community building activities. Services will be provided by QWELL's partner organizations that specialize in working with homeless youth, individuals with mental health needs, mobility and financial resource issues, and HIV prevention. Ultimately, the pop-up will travel to all ten districts of Austin, engaging residents and giving them the opportunity to uniquely shape future permanent and localized Austin Outposts that will serve each district’s LGBTQIA+ population through a decentralized model of community centers.
To realize this vision, we assembled a diverse team of LGBTQIA+ designers, architects, and other professionals to organize a community engagement and design opportunity for the pop-up Austin Outpost. The team developed a plan for a design competition and charrette to engage architecture and design professionals as well as the broader Austin community through a participatory design process. Community engagements included surveys and an interactive needs analysis activity during QueerBomb, Austin’s alternative Pride festival.
At the design charrette, held during national Pride month in June, teams developed Austin Outpost designs and presented them to the jury and community members for feedback. “The design charrette brought together over 30 architects, planners, architecture students, and community members who came up with 5 different innovative concepts for the Austin Outpost,” says Danté Holmes, one of the lead competition organizers who also works in engineering at Rosendin. “It was powerful to see a room full of LGBTQIA+ people, from students to seniors, all passionate about designing this space for our community,” says Shane Whalley, one of the advisors for the project and owner of Daring Dialogues Consulting.
Design teams had a month to finalize their conceptual designs and submit them along with a preliminary budget and project narrative. Concepts ranged from stand-alone reconfigurable containers to more integrated designs that would “pop-up” as a kit of parts in an existing retail space. We showcased the top five submissions at multiple events during the summer, culminating at Austin’s Pride in August. A jury of LGBTQIA+ leaders in Austin then considered the community input and selected a winner.
The winning design, called "Dynamic Paths," envisions the Austin Outpost popping up in vacant tenant spaces that can be found in all parts of the city. Winning design team members James Garza, associate principal at Antenora Architects and Rick Sanchez, senior marketing manager at ZACH Theatre, describe their concept as “individual structures used to organize the overall plan into different zones while creating multifunctional spaces and seating area nooks.” One prominent design element is a rainbow ribbon that provides colorful, energetic lines that the designers created to “represent the dynamic and unique backgrounds of the community members who will use the space.” The rainbow ribbon also extends outside and is a symbolic gesture that reaches out to into the community.
“The jury was unanimous in our praise for the generosity and creativity of all of the inspired participants, and it did not take long for us to focus on certain aspects of our favorite designs that had them sing louder and clearer than the others,” says jury member and architect Kimberly Kohlhaas. She says "Dynamic Paths" stands out as “a space that is fun, inviting, and identifiable as it moves from district to district.” Next, fundraising through online campaigns and a series of community events, will support the construction of the project.
Broadening the conversation in architecture
The challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community are reflected not just in cities like Austin, but in the architecture profession as well. The 2018 Equity in Architecture survey included gay, lesbian and bisexual demographic questions for the first time. The survey showed that around 7% of respondents identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and while over 80% of them indicated they felt comfortable sharing their identity with their friends and family, on average only 45% felt comfortable sharing this with company leadership, and less than 30% felt comfortable sharing this with clients and contractors. This signals there is much work to be done to make our workplaces and profession fully inclusive and supportive for LGBTQIA+ people. Firms can look to AIA for guidance and use resources like the Guides for Equitable Practice. The Guides and recent AIA efforts, like events at the Conference on Architecture 2019 and the “Out in Architecture” event held in collaboration with AIA Chicago’s LGBTQI+ Alliance, are positive indicators of progress for the profession as a whole.
Making space for the LGBTQIA+ community that is equitably created, accessible, and supports community building requires the work of diverse teams committed to participatory design. As architects, we are uniquely situated to advocate that these processes become incorporated into our projects so we may better serve the public. As members of our communities, we have an obligation to our fellow neighbors to design with them and not just for them.
As Audre Lorde says, “without community, there is no liberation.” It is through liberating the traditional design process and embracing an inclusive and participatory model that our buildings and public spaces will truly become representative and meaningful places, not just for the LGBTQIA+ community, but for all.
LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual, plus other sexual and gender minorities.
Beau Frail, AIA, is a leader of public interest design and founder and principal of Activate Architecture in Austin, Texas.
James Garza and Rick Sanchez