The Spectrum: Exploring the architectural application of nonbinary fashion

Christina Zhu

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Reaching out

The Spectrum desires to disrupt the social construction of the gender binary, dissolving boundaries and hierarchies between the feminine and masculine. Liberated from the confinements of binary classification, The Spectrum embraces those being in-between, being multiple, being neither, being one, being none. The Spectrum does not wish to label those who cannot be defined.

Our built environment is inherently gendered. Spaces we encounter are often designated or associated with a specific gender, which usually goes unnoticed by those who do not experience inconvenience from being in such spaces. For individuals whose gender identity does not correlate with their externally-perceived gender expression, these gendered spaces can be problematic and uncomfortable.

Deconstructionist fashion visionaries, namely Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons [“like boys” in French], Yohji Yamamoto, and Martin Margiela of Maison Margiela create gender fluid, nonbinary garments expressing unconventional representations of femininity and masculinity. These fashion designers reimagine the dialogue between textile and body by implementing unorthodox tailoring methodologies and materials. The critique of pre-established societal perceptions of gender through fashion can be extended into spatial suggestion, where form and space culminate in a “dressing” of architecture.

This makes me wonder, could nonbinary space be constructed using methodologies of nonbinary fashion?

Researching gender theory in conjunction with the methodologies and techniques utilised by these avant-garde fashion designers, this thesis aims to offer a nonbinary spatial experience through architectural installation. This resultant space hopes to establish itself as a precedent for possibilities of nonbinary space, breaking free from societal expectations of gender and providing a comfortable space for all who reside within the spectrum.

Section One introduces feminist and queer theories regarding the social construction of gender. This section explains the problematic issues with binarism and discusses the importance of intersectionality today. Binary oppositions exist in architectural theory and history, and this section will unravel the gender binaries found in Adolf Loos’ architecture.

Section Two critically analyses the works of fashion designers Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Maison Margiela in relation to body, gender and space. Each of these designers has their own philosophies and methodologies, and this section identifies the concepts and techniques they use to play with gender. Test 1 describes my first attempt at nonbinary design, creating a series of objects for the nonbinary body.

Using fashion as a design precedent, fabrics became the main modelling material, with needle and thread as the tools for fastening. In this series of three fabric models, I attempted to incorporate the gender blurring methods and tailoring techniques of the fashion designers into my making. This series intended to create objects for the body rather than garments. The objects have been documented by photography, and these photographs have been intentionally composed to frame the body in a specific way in consideration of gender and fashion. This series of making will be discussed in order of completion.

Section Three discusses the gendering of architecture and reveals the binaries in architectural theory. Addressing body and space, this section expresses the intention to reject hegemonic space and refuses to accept the proportions of the male body as universal. Test 2 illustrates nonbinary sculptural moments inspired by the making in the previous test, proposing a sequence of envisioned scenes of body manipulating space, space manipulating body.

Using the objects for the body made in Test 1 as conceptual models, the sculptures in the drawings derived texture, form, and material qualities from them, interrogating the space between body and surface. These sculptural installations are designed to define space around the body and rethink how bodies interact with surfaces. These sculptural surfaces invite bodies to approach them; the body is able to manipulate the appearance of the sculpture with its touch, and the sculpture offers numerous possibilities of how a body can approach and merge with it. Referring to the Comme des Garçons’ Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body and White Drama collections, abstraction of the body and the sense of immersion were concepts I wanted to articulate in full body scale interaction.



Section Four addresses the binary relationships between ornament and structure, softness and rigidity. Searching for qualities of softness in structure, this section analysed the Inflatables of Ant Farm to find characteristics which highlighted the importance of bodies in architecture. Test 3 brings a scene from the previous test into physical form. This test aims to investigate bodily interaction; how can the body affect form? What body movements or actions will my design encourage?

Drawing inspiration from Ant Farm and one of the illustrated sculpture designs from the previous test, Test 3 transforms the concept sketch into physical form. This test aims to investigate bodily interaction, like how body movement constantly changed the form of Ant Farm’s Inflatables; how can the body affect form? What body movements or actions will my design encourage? The outcome of this test will be an object with an indefinite, evolving form which the body can manipulate on contact. As gender is performed through actions, this test is another step leading to architecture which responds to gender.


Finished Product

Section Five presents full documentation of the process for Test 4. This section clarifies the conceptual thinking for designing and constructing a 1:1 installation. Applying ideas of gender theory, fashion, and reflections from previous tests, this test aims to create a nonbinary spatial experience. The nonbinary space this thesis wishes to create is space which celebrates all bodies.

Beginning the design process within intimate space and then shifting to personal space, this thesis now approaches social space. Moving on from the individual body, the intention of Test 4 is to design a nonbinary spatial experience for multiple bodies. This test is a challenge to synthesise the following: the queer and feminist ideas of gender theory, the nonconformist methodologies and design concepts of fashion, and the critical reflections on my previous experimental design outcomes. The nonbinary space this thesis aspires to achieve is a space which embraces all bodies, provides psychological comfort, and encourages a sense of belonging. The simplest way to describe this space would be the feeling of a warm hug.

This thesis started with the analysis of ideas in gender theory and identifying links to gender and architecture in fashion design. This research is expressed architecturally through a series of tests that gradually increase in scale, each step inches closer to what nonbinary space could be. This thesis believes that traditional gender role expectations and hegemonic masculinity of binarism are problematic, and the prevalence of spaces which separate into two genders only is an issue we must address as architects.


Critic's Text

Supervisors: Peggy Deamer and Lynda Simmons

The Spectrum. Exploring the architectural application of nonbinary fashion is a theory-driven contemplation of gender studies, intersectional feminism, and nonbinary fashion design, and questions if architecture can benefit from the substantial amount of work that has already been undertaken in the fashion industry to de-gender clothing. The starting position for the project is the acceptance that built environments are gendered, and aims to create a non-binary architecture, using lessons from contemporary and historical fashion.

The clearly-structured thesis presents a theory section followed by four ‘Tests’, which interweave additional theory, fashion and architectural precedents with the modelling and drawing at successive scales. Each model is made of fabric, and each drawing is a recorded measured drawing of the model. Deliberately, there are no design concept or development drawings in this thesis, only measured drawings that are a recording of the (soft) object, used as an evaluation tool.

The first test begins at selected sites on the (nonbinary) body – neck, wrists – and each test has an incremental shift in scale, slowly moving outward towards a structure that the body or bodies can inhabit.

The combination of making, testing and analysis with a strong theoretical oversight makes this a strong thesis, and one which contributes to a wide field of study in gender and architecture. There is a refined understanding of the complexities of the social construction of gender displayed, with an awareness of the importance of intersectionality (class, ethnicity, religion, gender identification) in any feminist analysis.

-Lynda Simmons