London’s queer community needs architects and designers to help them create new social spaces, says Ben Campkin, co-author of a report charting the decline of LGBT+ venues across the city.
Campkin’s research, carried out with Laura Marshall for the UCL Urban Laboratory, found that London’s LGBT+ venues were fast disappearing – down by 58 per cent in just 10 years. This research is the basis of an exhibition on show now at Whitechapel Gallery, Queer Spaces: London, 1980s – today.
Campkin, who is also professor of urban history and theory at The Bartlett, is calling for architects and designers to take a more active role in supporting the city’s queer community, as well as other marginalised groups.
“There’s an opportunity for architecture and design to play a more prominent role in some of these campaigns that are happening around queer space,” he told Dezeen.
“It’s important for any professional in the built environment to think of social inclusion, especially in relation to people who have legally protected minority characteristics, because they’re not necessarily the ones that are benefiting from development,” he continued.
“There’s always a need to proactively address those groups.”
Campaign for new LGBT+ community centre
There have been no non-commercial LGBT+ venues in London since the closure of the London Gay and Lesbian Centre in Farringdon, an initiative by the Greater London Council, which was open from 1985 until the early 1990s.
Meanwhile gay clubs, pubs and bars across the capital have closed as a result of property and rail development.
Campaigners have been trying to address the issue – last year a group raised over £100,000 towards a new LGBT+ community centre in east London. But Campkin believes they need architects to get involved.
“At the moment you have campaigns for new community centres and spaces that could really benefit from architectural knowledge and design, as a way of addressing the challenges of contemporary development,” Campkin said.
“A lot of these activists have been engaging with queer space through writing, architectural-listing applications, as well as these direct-action campaigns,” he explained.
“There’s a role for professionals to share their knowledge of these structures, laws and the planning system, to be able to maximise the potential of these cultural spaces to have a value beyond queer communities.”
Problems facing new LGBT+ venues
Campkin told Dezeen that a lot of the challenges facing the LGBT+ community are different now than when the first community centre opened in 1986.
“A lot of these spaces in London that have been open since the 80s or the 90s are in buildings that would need to be radically retrofitted in order to be accessible for people with disabilities for example,” he said.
“There are different pressures on people now. We are more aware of issues around mental health and how that relates to sexuality and gender. There’s more attention to trans groups and whether or not they’re being provided for.”
Campkin said that, while there are plenty of events being put on for London’s queer community at large, more marginalised groups are finding it difficult to come together.
“A lot of the more formal, licensed premises are owned by white, gay men, whereas if you look at the more marginalised communities, they find it more difficult to establish places,” he stated.
Big development often behind venue closures
The Queer Spaces exhibition brings together archives of past and present LGBT+ venues, to trace how the pattern of closures relates to the wider development of the city, and to measure the impact on the community.
Exhibits include newspaper clippings and fliers from parties, community meetings and events, as well as video interviews with community members.
There is also a rainbow flag from the Joiners Arms, a legendary east London venue that was closed when its building was controversially redeveloped into luxury apartments.
Campkin said that marginalised groups are often the ones that suffer worst from the impact of large-scale development.
He cites the transformation of Tottenham Court Road Station as an example, which led to the closure of at least seven LGBT+ venues.
“There was an equalities impact assessment but it didn’t recognise the loss of all of those spaces to those groups and what the effect would be, perhaps because people don’t understand the multiple roles those spaces play in terms of community life and wellbeing,” he said.
“There are lots of things these places are doing that go beyond their uses as leisure spaces.”
Campkin also references the redevelopment of King’s Cross, now home to the Coal Drops Yard by Heatherwick Studio, as an area where the queer scene has been “gentrified out of existence”.
“People were inhabiting those spaces that were more affordable on ex-industrial land, in places like King’s Cross. And that gradually shifts, so that those spaces become unaffordable to those groups,” he stated.
Efforts to save London’s remaining gay venues
Despite the plethora of venues to close in recent years, there have been strides made to save London’s few remaining queer venues.
London’s first LGBT+ homeless shelter recently opened in a former fire station building in Clerkenwell. The space will also be used as a daytime community centre for the wider community.
One of the UK’s oldest gay pubs, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was granted a heritage listing in 2015, following a campaign to save it from redevelopment. It became the first venue in the UK to be listed for its LGBT+ cultural heritage.
Similarly, in 2017, Tower Hamlets council ordered the developer that bought the Joiners Arms to replace it with a new LGBT+ venue, as a condition of the planning approval.
“That’s a first for London and internationally, that planning is being used to insist that a developer provide such a space,” Campkin said.
“The activism around queer space has made people access what LGBT venues are and what might need to improve about them,” he added. “Greater accessibility is one thing and catering for a wider spectrum of the LGBT community is another, so there are definite design roles there.”
One thing Campkin is reluctant to do is define exactly what queer space is. He believes the definition has changed over the decades and will likely continue to do so in the future – as with any culture.
“A lot of the bars in the 1980s were quite blank and anonymous intentionally because there was a climate of more intense homophobia at that time,” he said.
“In the 90s they become more visible. First Out was one of the first to have more open transparency and to open as a day space that wasn’t just about cruising and sex. It was about community space.”
“So you can see how design reflects cultural and legal shifts over time.”
Recent examples of queer space designed by architects includes a high-rise in Toronto with dedicated events spaces for the city’s LGBT+ community and a new community centre in Los Angeles.
The Queer Spaces exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is on until 25 August 2019.
Portrait of Campkin is by Christa Holka. Exhibition imagery is courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery.
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