A Room of One’s Own: Creation of a Queer Space
In both analyzed texts « A Queer Analysis of Eileen Gray’s E.1027“ by Katarina Bonnevier and „Closets, Clothes, disClosure“ by Henry Urbach, the queer space is discussed. In his text, Urbach focusses his attention on the physical built-in closet that lead to the famous expression « Out of the closets ! Into the streets » (Urbach, 1996, 69) or the more commonly act of the « coming out ». He explains the relationship that a closet has to the room it serves and compare it to the relationship homosexuality has with its heterosexual context of our societies.
Bonnevier’s analysis goes further than the physical closet as she tries to understand the house E.1027, built by Eileen Gray in 1929, and its queerness, as
« to insist on the closet limits queer space to a dichotomy of heterosexuality and homosexuality […] To put them in the closet only serves homophobia »
(Bonnevier, 2005, 175)
However, one can wonder why is queerness and homosexuality usually associated with the closet ? What is the relationship between a very common piece of furniture and a sexual preference ? In our heteronormative society, everything is based on a binary system : being heterosexual/homossexual, in/out of the closet, a woman/a man. Are things that easy ? What are the effects of such a simple system on our built environment and on people inhabiting it ?
Those are the questions that I will try to answer in this post, analyzing the articles mentioned above.
The closet: an architecture of opposition
« […] a boundary that is also a threshold, a doorway that undermines their separation while stabilizing their difference »
(Urbach, 1996, 67)
Homosexuality and queerness have always existed and were not always as repressed as they are now. Aaron Betsky in his « Queer Space : Architecture and Same-Sex Desire » goes back in time to classical Greece and its gymnasium ; an open-air sport place for men. Nudity was omnipresent. It was a place of learning, of experiencing one’s body and of exchange, at the margins of the city and its everyday politic (Betsky, 1997, 31-32). How did we pass from an open-air environment to the enclosed and „quite not there“ (Urbach, 1996, 64) space of the built-in closet ?
The built-in closet, in opposition to the freestanding wardrobe, appeared in the USA in the middle of the XIX century. Built directily into the wall of the house, its presence always tended to be more and more discreet, directly opening itself to the room it served but not actually belonging to it.
Plans of clothes storage cupboard, ca. 1940 (Urbach, 1996, 66)
It helped keeping the room in order, putting away everything that may create disorder.
« Holding things at the edge of the room, at once concealing and revealing ist interior, the closet becomes a carrier of abjection, a site of interior exclusion fort hat which has been deemed dirty »
(Urbach, 1996, 66)
Also, during this time in the USA, christian morality was coming back in force. It brought with it an idea of „cleanliness“, not only physical but also moral. As a result, homosexual behavior was not being tolerated in a society where heterosexuality was the only accepted way of life as it lead to procreation.
However, as mentionned in the introduction, this heterosexual society is mainly based on an opposition system. As a matter of fact, in order to assert its own authority, this heterosexual matrix needs its counterpart. You need an “other” to build and justify a norm. Thus, homosexuality becomes like the closet, being “not quite there” (Urbach, 1996, 64)
« A relationship of codependence thus emerges between closet and room »
(Urbach, 1996, 65)
Folding/Unfolding : a constant state of change
Chuck Nanney, 1992 (Link)
In both articles, there is a refusal to accept this simplistic binary division of society. How can someone « take power » of their own environment ? On one hand, Urbach writes about the ante-closet space, created when the doors of the closet are opened and a new space is created inside the room. On the other hand, Bonnevier explains how the whole E.1027 house is an « ante-closet » space as it keeps folding and unfolding itself, creating a permanent space of change. A space that only exists through the action of its inhabitants. Gray goes against the rigid boundaries and the norms.
« The architecture prescribes a behavior where the body is engaged with the building elements »
(Bonnevier, 2005, 167)
The main room of her house is the living room, space that she also called a „boudoir“. She described this space as being
„a multifonctional space for all aspects of life – pleasure, rest, studies, business meetings, and parties“
(Bonnevier, 2005, 166)
A very close description tot he „grand cabinet“ or „royal closet“, that existed between XIV and XIX centuries, made by Urbach as being a
« chamber used for retreat, writing, contemplation, small receptions, and religious activities »
(Urbach, 1996, 70)
E.1027 being a « queer space », the living room is not a « traditional » living room as the main furniture is a bed.
Living room with its bed, E.1027, Eileen Gray
Such a notion of bed as being « a multifonctional space » is also found later with Playboy and its founder Hugh Hefner. Already mentioned in our previous post here.
Bedroom, Playboy Townhouse
The bachelor pad as the queer house is in complete opposition to the heteonormative patterns. The bachelor as the queer is « unreproductive », thus does not fit into the nuclear family life. In E.1027 as in the ante-closet space, it is about performance. In the ante-closet, performance is achieve through the dressing or changing of clothes, as to become someone new. In E.1027,
« Walls provide a second container, after dress, for the body, but the wrapping also constructs the identity of the inhabitants »
(Bonnevier, 2005, 168)
the whole house is a space of performativity, One door can be opened or can be shut and with this simple act of opening, two spaces are created.
« The building as an act is ambiguous, open to interpretation, not confined within normative constrains »
(Bonnevier, 2005, 166)
Inhabiting the interstice or how to take control
« The great secret of safe and confortable living lies in keeping yourself and everything about you in the right place »
(Urbach, 1997, 65 )
Who decides this right place ? As a matter of fact, right or wrong can only exist in a normative and dual society where
« repetition plays a crucial part in the construction of norms and by repetition the norms seems natural, a given truth »
(Bonnevier, 2005, 170)
A built-in closet, due to its repetition became a logical presence in a house, as the living room. However, in both articles, an opposition is presented based on the diversity of people and how they use a space. Urbach starts by presenting this duality of being in or out of the closet, thus, in a sense, accepting the binary division of our society. However, he finishes with the ante-closet, an ephemeral place, different with each user and that accepts the
« possibility of other arrangements »
(Urbach, 1996, 72)
Bonnevier goes litteraly out of the closet by analyzing the house E.1027 built by Eileen Gray. The whole house is seen as an ante-closet as through its multiple folding/unfolding devices, spaces are never permanent. The whole house is an everchanging stage, where
« No simple norm decides what kind of space this is. That which is being performed in the space, with the help of the architecture, decides what space it is »
(Bonnevier, 2005, 166)
Finally, we can say that a built-in closet is a hole in a wall, like a queer crack in an heterosexual society wall. As not everyone is an architect and can afford to build their own E.1027, queer space is often happening in „facilites designed for previous users » (Reed, 1996, 68). Thus, it is a „renovated space“(Reed, 1996, 67), in the sense of a space being transformed to fit its new inhabitant. This fitting creates a constant blurr, becoming the worst nightmare of a society that wishes to impose a precise set of rules, an unique way of living, as it is harder to control. For this reason, while waiting for the wall to crumble, it is important to offer
« A performative challenge to the heterosexual matrix »
(Bonnevier, 2005, 177)
Katarina Bonnevier, “A Queer Analysis of Eileen Gray’s E.1027”, in: Heynen and Baydar, Negotiating Domesticity, 162–180.
Henry Urbach, “Closets, Clothes, disClosure”, Assemblage, no. 30 (1996), 62–73.
Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997).
Michael Moon, Eve Kosofski Sedgwick, Benjamin Gianni and Scott Weir, “Queers in (Single-Family) Space, Assemblage, no. 24 “House Rules”, guest edited by Mark Robbins (August 1994), 30–37.
Christopher Reed, “Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment”, Art Journal, vol. 55, no. 4 “We’re Here: Gay and Lesbian Presence in Art and Art History” (Winter 1996), 64–70.