Image courtesy of AILA

Designing for the Future: Evolving Concepts of Gender & Non-Binary Architecture

Sahar Nicolette
Dec 20, 2019 · 5 min read

Dressed head-to-toe in a colorful floral dress, bright orange socks and platform shoes, complete with a full beard — a typical Monday outfit — gender non-conforming activist, writer and performer Alok Vaid-Menon, who goes by the pronouns they/them, is no stranger to feeling like an alien in public spaces. “I rarely feel safe in public spaces. Infrastructure is often so sterile, cold, callous — less vulnerable, intimate, inviting.” Sadly, Alok isn’t alone — a 2013 study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) revealed that out of 93,000 LGBTQ+ individuals half avoided public spaces because of street harassment and noted high levels of fear in locations such as restaurants, public transportation, streets, parking lots and parks.

Image of Alok, courtesy of Subvrt Mag

Society is rapidly evolving, and changing with it are concepts of gender and sexuality. Outdated attitudes are being replaced with increasingly progressive mentalities towards women and the LGBTQIA+ community. “The time for people to not be heard, not be listened to and not be represented well changes now,” shared Sharice Davids in her victory speech as the first Native American and gay woman to be elected into congress in 2018.

With these changes in society, people are slowly realising that the built environment must keep up to ensure that spaces are properly curated for accessibility and safety of the wider community. One concept that reflects this is, “Gender Mainstreaming,” where every gender identity is given the same access to city spaces. The idea that the design of the public space or streetscape is a level plane field for all is a concept previously explored by XYX Lab, a team of designers researching gender-sensitive practices.

Alok welcomes the ‘Gender Mainstreaming’ concept and has ideas about how it can be translated into internal spaces.

“Less of a feeling of surveillance, less corners and hard edges, less sterile/industrial/confined. More open, inviting, warm. More color, prints, art.”

Walk through the doors of Everybody Gym in Los Angeles, a beautiful “radically inclusive” space filled with natural light and plants, devoted to creating a welcoming place for all bodies, regardless of age, sex or gender. The co-founder of the gym, Sam Rypinski created the sleek facility with a gender-neutral space in mind.

Image courtesy of Everybody Gym

“Navigating locker rooms and nudity as a trans person, there’s just a big barrier to entry…but I also recognized that there were a lot of other people who felt left out of big box gym culture,” Rypinski says. To solve this the co-founder created a gender-neutral space in the locker room, where patrons can utilise unlabeled bathrooms in an inviting environment filled with timber joinery and warm tones that create a homely feel.

The gym has also minimised mirrors and electronics to encourage community support and interaction, while a large camo mural acts as a “kind of shield of armour that people put on here to deal with the day-to-day life all of the things that are going on in the world.”

While private spaces are starting to shift public spaces in a larger society can learn by their example. Alok is frequently a victim of unwelcoming public spaces, “I experience a lot of public harassment. I’d love for spaces to be spaces of refuge, comfort, support — but I’m usually made to feel more vulnerable and exposed. I don’t know what it would take, actually, to make me feel more recognized and safe — I suppose that possibility feels so distant and unrecognizable.”

Various organisations around the world are acknowledging the need for change for people like Alok. One example of this is the Gender Equality Map, an app that was implemented by the Victorian Government in Australia between November 2018 and February 2019. The map allowed for people to document the experiences they shared in public spaces and the built environment based on gender equality, the purpose being to generate information surrounding people’s experiences and allow for more mindful urban planning.

“Research that Plan International did back in 2016, which said that 1/3 of young women don’t feel safe in the city at night. So (they) wanted to draw out those experiences,” explains Anthony Aisenberg, director of Crowdspot, who developed the map with Monash University and the Victorian government. The app pilot stage is now complete, with results currently being assessed. “What we think we’re going to get at the end is a range of personal experiences where people will be noting their experiences with gender inequality, but also with access, movement and infrastructure.”

Participants were able to map their experience of equality or inequality in their neighbourhood using locator pins. Image courtesy of Victorian Government.

The app features recommendations from the data being made that will “influence services, programs and facilities that are being delivered in communities from a local government perspective, where they can make changes to streetscapes and community facilities and any programs.” A unique feature of the app is that it’s acknowledging the fact that there’s a need for design modifications beyond the spaces commonly explored in the public arena. Alok is impressed. “So often people only regard bathrooms as the only physical location of “gender neutrality,” but this project is so much more expansive.”

As a society where does this leave us? Reflecting on a civilisation that is halfway between two states of gender acceptance, how will people respond to design in a post-gender society? Rypinski from Everybody is optimistic — “If you create a space where people automatically have to navigate this inclusive environment, they figure out how to do it. You don’t have to give them a handbook, it’s just human nature that they adapt.”

Sahar Nicolette

Written by

Writer and thinker interested in social justice, design and human innovation.

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