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What I find amazing about architecture is its innate ability to crystallize, in built form, the intangible ideals of an entire society. It can encapsulate constructed sociocultural narratives that imagine a unique way of being in the world—an existential art form of the highest calibre that can serve as a mirror to our collective consciousness.
But if architecture is generated from a series of decisions made by actual human beings (at least for now), then is it not especially vulnerable to the biases of its authors?
Perhaps architecture’s greatest power lies in rendering visible to us our own shortcomings as human beings: the unconscious biases of our society, exposing the paradoxes and inequities that we build into our public and private spaces every day. It is only through identifying and confronting our biases that we may hope to affect positive change and to evolve toward more inclusionary practices. An empathetic architecture listens and anticipates the use by every member of a diverse society.
Diversity comes in many forms, but one common example of exclusionary practice is evident in the duplication of spaces that serve the very same function, yet are segregated to reinforce a status quo definition of gender. Public restrooms and change rooms are two great examples. These unnecessarily gendered spaces are a cultural production of a heteronormative society that separates physical spaces solely based on physical genitalia—male or female—and reduces a rich spectrum to binary extremities that leave out everything in between. Rather than creating inclusive spaces that welcome the variety of biological diversity and gender expression, this type of architecture segregates, isolates, rejects and discourages participation by anyone that does not fit into society’s limited definitions.
However, hope is on the horizon.
The many benefits of creating inclusive spaces for dialogue and diversity are increasingly understood. Not only are these spaces healing for social infrastructures, but they have proven to come with economic advantages as well. Why buy two sets of faucets, sinks and so on when we can share the same space?
As a queer architect with Middle-Eastern heritage, born in Europe and raised in Canada, I feel especially welcomed in fluid spaces that liberate the multiplicity of identities with which I resonate. As I strive to learn how to create more empathetic spaces through architecture, I find myself asking these questions to anyone who is willing to have this conversation: What is a truly self-aware and empathetic architecture that provides equitable access to everyone while recognizing their dignity? Are we creating kind spaces of social inclusion that challenge perceptions and change attitudes by proactively identifying and courageously confronting our unconscious biases?
I believe that anyone should be able to use any restroom, regardless of their gender identity or expression… as long as they wash their hands.
Amir Azadeh is an architect and a member of the Toronto Society of Architects (TSA). He works at Diamond Schmitt Architects in Toronto, and is currently serving as the Vice President, Communications at the OAA while also serving on the OAA Council. He has volunteered on a number of committees, including the Interns Committee, Communication Committee, Conference Committee, Awards Committee, as well as the Website and Logo Task Groups.