A Room in Camp’s Mansion

Harvard Graduate School of Design
Thesis advised by Jennifer Bonner

One of the camp’s meanings defined a queer way of seeing and making culture, but has rarely resulted in architecture. In “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag described a cult sensibility formed around a shared appreciation for artifice. With earnest love for failure and exaggeration, this ‘camp’ provided a queer means through which to view the moral seriousenss of modernity. Sontag’s definition is based on a love for the kind of defiance found in strong characters, a naively disengaged attitude towards content, and a suspension of the kinds of diagrammatic dogmatism we are drawn to as architects.

The dismissal of good-bad binaries has proved invaluable to queer culture, and while ‘camp’ and ‘queer’ are not synonymous, they are intrinsically related. In response to the shape-shifting character and heavy theorization of this cultural phenomonen, Sontag chose to write her essay as a series of 58 ‘jottings,’ each of which lends some texture to the concept of ‘camp’ but never sharpens its edges. However, she does coin the idea of the “urban pastoral,” and it is through this lens that we as architects might approach the problem of a camp architecture. More importantly, it ties the idea of camp directly to the ways in which queer lives both shape and are are shaped by architecture, and helps us to imagine another domesticity.

The experience of this ‘other’ version of home is mirrored in spaces of queer collectivity. Harlem’s drag scene in the 1980s offered a vision into a speculative architecture of queer home life, and is used here for a precedent in how to assemble domesticity piecemeal from fragments of the nuclear home. Facing rejection from biological families, members of the Ball community lived together in so-called Houses, each led by a self-styled “mother” or “father” who supported a family of young queer people. An amorphous and largely hidden architecture, the Houses of Harlem were cobbled together from ill-fitting stock apartments, making something new from fragments of a defintion of home to which the drag queens had no access.

Sometimes single apartments were shared by a small group of performers; other times, entire floors were turned into sprawling assemblages of rooms. These were spaces of of both living and living-between, of making and making-do. Michael Cunningham describes the Houses as “baroque fantasies of glamour and stardom, all run on Singer sewing machines in tiny apartments.” Between performance and domesticity, a camp architecture comes into view.

These Houses gave architectural language and structure to an identity while providing shelter in a more literal sense from sexual violence and discrimination. Trans sex workers suffered extremely high murder rates, with violence primarily coming from johns. Collective living meant that those who sold sex would never have to be alone with a stranger. If a House succeeded in gobbling up an entire floor or building, they could ensure greater safety. Perimeters of the Houses grew to extremes, providing protection with radical depth. In a sense, the bigger the House got, the easier it became to disappear.

Architecture which attempts to “suit” a particular set of inhabitants may also try to “read” bodies according to normative structures. ‘Camp’ defies this practice. The messy and ill-fitting domestic spaces of the House are not indicative of spatial poverty; rather they are practices of self-design resistant to the kinds of moral binaries and diagrammatic tropes that make modernity so unfriendly to queer bodies. Queer life is unrepentantly disordered, non-repetetive, and always contingent. This project accepts the normative domestic space of the apartment not as a prescriptive diagram for life, but as the raw material for building it anew.

An unassuming warehouse tract in Los Angeles’ Garment District is the site for a camp Mansion. Perhaps a bit too literal an interpretation of Sontag’s urban pastoral, the land is treated as a testing ground for an architecture-by-assembly. The Mansion’s plan operates through an estrangment between the stability of house-like forms and the promiscuity of the labyrinthian apartments they hide. The gabled roof is a convenient foil for weirder forms of queer living. Unstable and jittery rooms slip in and out of recognizability as needed. Deep inside the Mansion, neighbor relations become increasingly strange. It is only possible to perceive the shape of a neighbor’s unit through glimpses of their lives in windows across courtyards. A mashup of otherwise polite domestic forms produces internal relationships that defy normative diagrams of