Taking Pride into Architecture

Co-authors of a new book discuss navigating the profession as LGBTQIA+ designers.

What does it mean to be a queer architect—and how does it affect the teams they lead, or the buildings they design, or the people who will ultimately occupy those buildings? Perkins Eastman hosted a robust panel discussion in its New York studio to explore these questions in honor of Pride Month.

Perkins Eastman designer Mwanzaa Brown led the June 11 panel, which included three contributors to the recently published anthology of essays called Out in Architecture, which represents 24 authors and editors from across the AEC industry and the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. They write about overcoming marginalization, reimagining instilled paradigms, and using a “queer tool kit” to approach their professional practice.

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The authors and editors of Out in Architecture. Graphic courtesy Paloma Rdz and A.L. Hu

The Perkins Eastman panelists included Gustavo Rodriguez, a cisgendered male, gay, Latino, immigrant, and design director at FX Collaborative; A.L. Hu, a nonbinary registered architect who serves as design director at Ascendant Neighborhood Development, an affordable housing non-profit, where they translate information between architects and the public; and Landry Bado, a gay Black designer at Damon Liss Design and a West African immigrant. The panelists touched on many different topics about how they’ve forged a path toward being comfortable in the workplace—because if one is constantly focusing on how they’re perceived or is worried that they won’t be accepted, it’s difficult to show up fully to do their job.

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Left to right: Perkins Eastman designer and panel moderator Mwanzaa Brown, A.L. Hu, Landry Bado, and Gustavo Rodriguez. All panel discussion photographs courtesy Perkins Eastman PEople Culture Manager Emily Pierson-Brown

Rodriguez, who’s been practicing for 20 years, said there was a time when he felt pressure to suppress some of his identities, but he ultimately began to view his intersectionality as a boon to his professional practice. “The intersection between my identity and design had less to do with what I design but how I designed,” he said. “Because I had spent so much time hiding, I felt that it was my responsibility to integrate, and to bring out, and to not continue those practices. My design process is extremely inclusive. It is not something that happens organically—you have to go out of your way to make sure people feel included…dramatically so.”

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Rodriguez speaks during the panel discussion.

In addition to championing the inclusion of design ideas, Rodriguez noted that he’s become nimble in social situations as a result of worrying about how he’ll be perceived in spaces that might be inhospitable to him; this ability also allows him to “read the room” in a professional setting. Understanding how a client or stakeholder will relate to you, around your identity or personality, can allow for careful calibrations to help move projects forward, he said.

Hu, both a contributor to and editor of Out in Architecture, described the project as one of increasing representation. Coming out as nonbinary during their graduate studies affected their understanding of how architecture can be practiced and how it can affect the world around them. This emergence led them to want to include community stakeholders as part of the design process—voices that are often ignored or pushed aside in design.

“There isn’t just one way to be an architect or one way to do design. It’s always very specific to the context, specific to the time, and I can always bring myself to the project,” Hu said, “and that should be celebrated. Being out and proud can lead to better, more inclusive, more accessible design.”

At Ascendant Neighborhood Development, Hu can take often hard-to-understand design ideas, zoning requirements, and code regulations expressed in traditional architectural drawings and translate them into more digestible materials that can be used in formal community board meetings and also in public design charettes. In each case, they take the ideas presented by the public and distill them into suggestions and possible design solutions for the architectural teams they work with. In this respect, Hu said it’s important to explore “ways that our design could maybe respond a little bit, even if it’s not like solving the entire problem” of the social and community challenges facing the neighborhoods where new buildings and renovations are being designed and built.

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Bado speaks as Hu looks on.

Bado, in turn, spoke about the personal link that exists between his architecture and his queerness. Having grown up in West Africa, Bado said he used his desire to pursue an architecture degree in the US as a steppingstone away from a place, physically and mentally, that didn’t allow him to imagine a queer future. As he then imagined building a new world, physically and mentally, he said he was also able to see himself as a fully-fledged person. For him there was a natural progression between learning how to be an advocate for himself and his own future and learning to advocate for and include the voices of others in his architectural practice. “It also comes from you yourself wanting to belong. You can recognize that in other people and you want do something about it,” Bado said.

Bado also noted that a lack of representation in the profession has made him more aware of how he’s perceived, and his desire to be represented authentically means that he shows up to work with the intention of presenting himself as he wishes to be seen. That means being confident about himself and his queerness so he can be confident about presenting his architectural ideas. It also means carving out space for those like him so they don’t have to continue worrying about whether they belong, thus freeing up the intellectual and creative space to focus on their work.

During the discussion’s Q&A, an audience member asked about the panelists’ relationship to their families. Hu, Bado, and Rodriguez all expressed anxiety about how their families would respond to the release of the book. And while their families were mostly accepting, the book still led to many uncomfortable conversations about their personal lives and their individual identities. But each panelist was clear that releasing a book like this and sharing it with their colleagues was still important to them. Being open about their identities and bringing the full spectrum of their experiences to their jobs, they all agreed, allows them to thrive as individuals and enrich their workplaces with unique perspectives.