Transitioning has opened Anna Sullivan’s eyes to new possibilities for architecture
If you accept that life experience influences creative output, then the experience of transition between genders or living non-binary will have an effect. This is more readily recognised in fine art, but an architect in-between can use their formal and informal critique of the structures they encounter in their approach to influencing the built environment. I won’t be the last architect to go through transition, but I desire most sincerely to see and enable a particular experience of this culture to contribute to the making of space.
Being Mark I was expected to hide my sensitive nature, and healed on the weekends. Being Anna I only get the scepticism around my ability that many women experience in the construction industry. There were occasions when the depth of my voice made some at the meeting table uncomfortable, including me. I remain concerned that others’ trust in me or my credibility is undermined by the hint of ‘something different’. Being trans is a deeply personal, a fundamental aspect of identity; it is a unifier and a separator for revealing struggle and drawing sympathy while identifying difference. As an architect this puts pressure on me and my role in the project. I would rather it be a strength.
I see the design process as the most significant source of the value the profession brings. Engaging clients and consultants is enriching and contributes to successful outcomes. The day to day progress of a project revolves around relationships, but I could never fully engage during transition partly because my focus was on staying mentally strong enough to keep going outdoors. Fortunately I have grown beyond that and more often look outward.
There is an opportunity to explore how an architect who is trans designs space when truly liberated. In a culture where the first reaction to a personal awakening is to hide any difference that emerges, the resulting habit of constantly questioning what others may see, think or feel can be directed to the process of designing buildings, and can also help forge good relationships. However, I have yet to go as far as I could in meeting user need as, too often, design concludes with meeting preconceptions or past practice. Moreover I want to encourage others to use this skill. Setting aside creative repression would turn trans experience into a strength – ‘all of me at work’ – and there must be clients out there who would like to participate in an architectural exploration.
In Book IV of his ten volumes Vitruvius relates how the citizens of Ionia, in building a temple to Diana ‘in a new style of beauty’, invented two different kinds of columns. ‘They borrowed manly beauty, naked and unadorned, for the one, for the other the delicacy, adornment and proportions characteristic of women.’ He goes on: ‘Corinthian is an imitation of the slenderness of a maiden’ offering ‘prettier effects in the way of adornment’. It all sounds like a kind of drag, Classical drag, full of theatrical power, joy and exuberance, especially today when structure supports and the envelope is mere garb. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of drag.
Convention suggests masculine space has darker colours than feminine space, that signifiers of weight and strength are more masculine than signifiers of lightness and delicacy, and that it’s ‘either or.’ Transition is to move from being disconnected, insubstantial and ill at ease to being grounded, open and connected with one’s skin. Toward seeking an architectural expression I see similarities to those Victorians learning how to use steel frame construction. In his autobiography Louis Sullivan (no relation) wrote: ‘The social significance of the tall building is in finality its most important phase. The appeal and the inspiration lie, of course, in the element of loftiness, in the suggestion of slenderness and aspiration, the soaring quality as of a thing rising from the earth as a unitary utterance, Dionysian in beauty.’ He had really thought about how to create something new and we can see how he felt it enriched his culture, something new that the culture didn’t know it could have. What might be considered trans aesthetics and form are unexplored, even ascertaining their existence hasn’t happened yet. There is value in research, theories to be developed and experiments tried. Consider a co-housing scheme for trans people. I would suggest it involve reuse of an existing building, would bring together traditional contrasts and enable control of the fabric by the user (hyper-adaptability) and, in experiencing it, a critique of convention. Where are the clients? If we must do this ourselves, where is the financing to facilitate creative expression?
To experience the built environment as inadequate is to have a minority perspective. Aspiring only to cater for average needs denies the power of our profession. Society is changing, architects must recognise and engage with these changes for our designs to be inclusive. It’s not the person that’s wrong, it’s the space and our relationship to it. Architects are in the desirable position between need and provision: we can enable inclusion rather than segregation. We expect our built environment to meet our needs, and our needs are increasingly diverse. Inclusivity is not so much a statement as a mindset.
Anna Sullivan is an associate senior architect at HTA Design