The next generation of LGBTQI+ architects are already shaping the conversation

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For the future of the profession, intersectionality is key.

Classmates Alek Tomich and Nelson De Jesus Ubri are co-directors of Queer Students of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (QSAPP), based at Columbia University. The group explores contemporary queer topics in theory and practice alongside university students, faculty, allies and New York City residents. Tomich, originally from Milwaukee, uses his voice to challenge the university and create more spaces for LGBTQI+ students and others.

“Being a queer architect is to question everything,” Tomich says. “It's not just about being more inclusive to queer people. It's [about] being more inclusive to every single marginalized community. For me, as a white queer man, I have a lot of liberties and freedoms that others don't, so [I’m] trying to use that power in a productive way.”

Close to 40 percent of the U.S. youth who experience homelessness are LGBTQI+. QSAPP, in partnership with True Colors United, published a report in 2019 titled “Safe Space: Housing LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness” providing best practices for agencies and drop-in centers servicing queer youth. These younger architects are course-correcting social impact in real-time.

“If we’re responding to the current conversations that are happening in this country about racism and policing, architecture is involved at some point or another,” De Jesus Ubri says. “We’re starting to tap into those conversations, not just be on the side, making a building and then walking away.”

The student group is currently launching an initiative tentatively called “Project Disappearing Queers,” partly inspired by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, which documents currently standing structures for historic preservation. The difference here would be developing an open-source database aimed at capturing the untold historic queer spaces that either have disappeared or are in danger of disappearing, mainly in Columbia University-adjacent neighborhoods in upper Manhattan, Harlem and extending to the Bronx. The co-directors believe this project, which highlights Black LGBTQI+ sites, will expand this canon of queer spaces in the city.

“Because the city has gone through so many renewal phases [and] projects, history is being erased to build up a new tower or a new condo. How are we trying to revive that history and have that connection to it?” That’s what De Jesus Ubri, originally from the Dominican Republic, wants to know. He’s working toward a dual master’s degree in architecture and real estate development. He moved to New York in 2008, living in the Bronx for eight of the twelve years since. “I want to be able to go to a specific site to know what happened here. How did this site, this area, contribute to this history?”

Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion efforts are moving forward across the built world. Renewed passions for racial equity have given voice to individual architects, firms, and advocacy groups in charting new directions. Within this discourse, architecture is grappling with how to best actively create affirming spaces and career pipelines for underrepresented groups from LGBTQI+ individuals, Black people and people of color, and the disabled.

Mark Gardner, AIA, is Director of the Master of Architecture program at Parsons School of Design at The New School, also in New York City. He recognizes the significance of this moment of social upheaval. He encourages students nationwide to seize this time to push their demands upon universities for what they want, whether that be curriculum change or gender-neutral restrooms, or both.

“I think in this generation of students, there’s a real desire to see themselves and the stories that were once invisible be included in the pedagogy,” he says.

Diversity is an action

Gardner holds hope with skepticism. He likens this moment to when students pushed for Black, Latino, and women’s studies after 1960s social unrest. There’s a window of opportunity now, he says, but he senses a limited time before backlash emerges and it’s back to business as usual. Universities and firms may no longer be as receptive to making swift changes to policies, he says. There's no quick solution or answer, and diversity and inclusion have to be more than buzzwords.

“If you want diversity, it’s an action. You actually have to create it,” Gardner says.

Rosa Sheng, AIA, is Director of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and Higher Education Studio Leader for SmithGroup, based in San Francisco. Sheng insists upon an intersectional approach, which takes into account structural oppression based on race, sexual orientation, gender and ethnicity without sacrificing one for the other. This centers justice and disrupts and dismantles the norm while pushing the architectural field to adapt and expand space for more people, she says.

“It goes beyond just identity. It’s a mindset of how we connect things and how we solve problems, and especially for designers and how we solve problems,” Sheng says. “Rather than it being theory and getting people to think this way, it’s also about action and our design work.”

Existing data—a component necessary for gauging architecture’s demographic landscape—does not account for intersecting identities in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. NOMA launched an initiative to increase Black architects from the current two percent to four percent by 2030; however, NOMA does not have specific data about Black LGBTQI+ architects.

Equity by Design—an organization Sheng co-founded—conducted the largest U.S. survey on equity in the architecture field. Its latest survey, from 2018, had 14,360 respondents, with about 7 percent identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. This sample was limited to licensed architects and does not stratify for race.

De Jesus Ubri, slated to graduate fall 2021, is on his way to licensure and remains committed to strengthening architecture’s community engagement.  

“It's extra easy to go on social media and speak your mind and then feel good about it. What are we doing as individuals, as organizations? We have to go beyond voicing what we’re thinking. How are we actually putting our words to action?” he says. “We really have to make sure the voices of queer communities of color, black queer people, don’t get lost in the conversation.”

For more about LGBTQI+ architects in the workplace, read Out in Architecture? from the October 2020 issue of Architect magazine.

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