Disegno #25

The Paths That Lead us to Each Other


15 May 2020

It is a late October afternoon in Stockholm. Next to the city’s Nationalmuseum, we pass a tiny park, devoid of people and newly trimmed. It used to be a gay cruising ground nicknamed the “Milk Park”. The homoerotic sculpture of two wrestling men is still there, but there are no longer the bushes with small paths leading into secluded spaces. As we walk, we reflect on how cruising parks might be discussed in city planning offices. Surely city planners also go cruising?

Knowing that bodies respond differently to the spaces that surround them and that it’s crucial to relate to spaces together with others, I had asked my chosen brother Joakim Rindå to join me in seeing Cruising Pavilion: Architecture, Gay Sex and Cruising Culture at ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design. In 2016, I participated in Joakim’s audio walk Stigarna (Swedish for “the paths”), a project he had created on Långholmen, one of Stockholm’s green islands known for its long history of cruising. With headphones on, I walked around Långholmen’s shrubs, cliffs and paths. It was off-season, in weather when actual cruising would most likely not be taking place. That’s how Joakim sought to solve the dilemma of inviting someone with little or no cruising experience into the culture of gay sexual practices, while avoiding creating a freak show. This is an issue I have also been thinking about while I write this text. “People are cooler than we think,” Joakim says.

The exhibition’s eponymous Cruising Pavilion is installed in a temporary-exhibition space at ArkDes called Boxen. It is a double-height free-standing metallic structure inside the former drill hall of the 19th-century naval building that houses the centre. Red lights and Khia’s mega hit ‘My Neck, My Back (Lick it)’ leak through the plastic ribbon curtain that covers the entrance.

We step through and find ourselves in a representation of a bar. It feels empty and the blank, painted boards that make up the walls are too present. I’m disappointed, although perhaps the bareness of the space is compatible with a bar outside of opening hours. The first object that catches my attention is a liquid dispenser on the wall, as you might find in any bathroom. I immediately recall my sister’s visit to a darkroom in Amsterdam, a dimly lit space at the back of a club that is specifically dedicated to sex. This one was in the basement underneath a bar. She was curious but also disconcerted. It was too untidy for her liking, so to regain some boundaries between her body and the space around her, she reached for the wall-mounted hand sanitiser and pumped out some liquid, only to realise that her hand was now full of lubricant.

The dispenser at ArkDes contains disinfectant. It is a functioning ready-made by the artist Puppies Puppies that brings out the charged question of dirtiness. Cleanliness can signal safety and thus be a prerequisite for pleasure, but these liquid containers also represent a more distressing relationship between sex and hygiene, one burdened by beliefs tying together sinfulness, promiscuity and filth. These ties can be violently homophobic, misogynist and racist. History has taught us that dirt leads to diseases and needs to be cleared away – a form of reasoning that has motivated oppression and persecution, and contributed to the ongoing pathologising of people in the queer community.

Two more exhibition spaces follow the bar: the central one borrows its aesthetic from a labyrinth darkroom, while the last looks like a budget hotel room. Together, the spaces allude to three of the most important backdrops to cruising culture. All three are forms of architecture openly devoted to bodies doing intimate things together. As we move through the maze, we contemplate the choices made to represent the spaces. Condoms strewn on the floor and stains on the walls mimic the activities of the darkroom. As my eyes adjust slowly to the lack of light, my fingertips find sgraffiti etched into the walls. In a cubicle within the labyrinth, I discover a series of perspective drawings of illusory spaces with cascading flights of stairs and columns. They send my imagination off to a sauna club I have always wanted to visit in Athens. Gay saunas are like living rooms in the public realm – multifunctional facilities where you work, meet your friends, rest, eat, bathe and have sex. After a club night you might sleep there for an hour or so before the public transport starts again in the morning. I illuminate the drawings with my smartphone and find that they describe a development project for Colmegna Spa, a “politico-sexual-laboratory” in Buenos Aires.

Throughout, Cruising Pavilion presents pictures and plans of amazing architectures, both historical as well as speculative. Manhattan’s Continental Baths, for example, was an epic “sexual power plant” from the 1970s that could accommodate 1,000 men. The “towel only” dress code was part of the organisers’ aim of “breaking social hierarchies in order to generate unplanned collisions between bodies”. Designed in an ancient Roman style, the cavernous basement space in the Ansonia Hotel contained a dancefloor, sauna rooms, a pool, bunk beds in common areas, tiny separate rooms, a sexual health clinic and a cabaret lounge. Joakim tells me that Bette Middler developed her stage skills here. To keep her audience’s attention, she had to compete with the prospect of a sexual encounter next door. “Bathhouse Betty” was both Middler’s nickname and the title of her 1998 album – her career at the Continental Baths a direct example of how these spaces were driving forces of cultural production. What’s more, it’s a reminder that they are surprisingly mainstream – it is a mistake to think they represent a “deviant” periphery.

On the way into the bedroom portion of the exhibition a flyer tacked to the wall reads: “Every hole is a goal”. Fifteen years ago, when I was a student at Stockholm University, a series of carved openings between cubicles in the toilets appeared, prompting intense debate. They were instances of vandalism but also proof of cruising – hands-on reprogramming that collided with others’ wish to use the facility peacefully. However, those glory holes only brought out what various TV series and films have repeatedly shown us: the sexual charge of private spaces devoted to bodily needs in the public domain. In Cruising Pavilion there is an opening in the partition wall of the darkroom the size and the height of a glory hole and, in the final wall of the exhibition, the visitors meet what I interpreted as an oversized homage to this charged architectural detail: a huge circular window with signal-red opaque glass, positioned over a large bed. It was only later that I realised that the circular window is part of the permanent structure of Boxen.

The themes of Cruising Pavilion go beyond heteronormative sexual practices, and reach further than simply invoking spaces and designs that concern men who have sex with men: cyborgsex, female self-satisfaction and polyamory are all addressed via film screens, computer games and drawings. There are signs informing visitors about explicit works of a sexual nature within; the exhibition is not recommended for people under the age of 15; and a host waits by the entrance to handle any questions or queries. This is all part of negotiating how to present cruising culture to a wider public, but it feeds into a sense that the exhibition risks presenting these spaces as peripheral. However, there is also a parallel here to certain cruising grounds themselves, and their agreements and codes of conduct to ensure consent. In a club, there may be textile policies or dress codes, and a host welcoming you to explain the situation and acceptable behaviours for any newcomers. Such signs and stewardship contribute to creating the sexytecture of cruising spaces.

“Sexytecture” is a term my colleagues and I in the architecture and design collective Mycket have invented to describe a fundamental drive in design. It articulates the relationship between desire and aesthetic expression, which is one of the most central and generative forces in play when humans shape the world around them. Embodied experience, touch and emotions often slip out of architectural discourse, both when discussing the affirmative aspects of the built environment and also its heartbreaking sides: discrimination, abuse and hate crime. Design for overtly sexual purposes is an extremely important subject, but it is also an exceedingly difficult one to discuss, given how it is intertwined with political and private matters. Architecture and design play a role in the normalisation of certain bodies and behaviours at the expense of others, but because of this topic’s absence within discourse, architects and designers risk failing in their ability to care for all sorts of bodies and functions. Society’s fears surrounding touch, intimacy and sexual practices are multiplied and reinforced by the built environment.

The design of Cruising Pavilion tries to strike a balance between the representation and the enactment of cruising culture: it serves visitors who wish to get to know and to sample it, as well as those who may recall their own experiences. In this way, the exhibition design attempts to encourage the visitors into this absent discussion. You can move around Boxen by means of a ramp that snakes up the wall and then look into the Cruising Pavilion from up high. From a window above the bedroom, and another in the bar, you get an overview of the spaces and can see other visitors. Immediately, this creates a tension between the ground and the “peephole” position upstairs. Downstairs, you may experience someone watching you while you look at the sexually explicit material or wander through the darkroom labyrinth. Upstairs, fully lit, you are extremely visible. How do you invite others to look into a culture which is not their own? This staged gaze is an architectural play on the procedure of the pick-up, of being spotted and approached. It is a non-intrusive way of providing a hint of the experience of cruising.

The cheap finishing of the exhibition and its empty wall space disturb me, however. The grey carpet in the bedroom is sloppy and frayed at the edges; electrical cords dangle haphazardly; and the tape on the partition walls is peeling off. My fantasy world of cruising is so abundant and sexy that I am almost always disappointed by the cheap and ill-executed material world of the reality. When I finally got my act together and went to Lash – a women’s fetish club in Stockholm that once a week borrows the venue usually used by Swedish Leather Men (SLM) – I found myself surrounded by black plastic, coarse wooden panelling and mesh for concrete reinforcement. I had imagined deep shining lacquer, timber softened by wear and tear, and firmly placed handles for good grip. (In fairness, the premises probably looked unusually boring at that time since SLM had taken all its chains and swings to a large international event.) To some extent, I can interpret the cheap finish of the Cruising Pavilion as a homage to these kind of designs. But, there is also a nagging feeling, since we are in Sweden’s major design institution, that some of it is the result of carelessness. And we cannot afford that. When I discuss my reaction with my lover, she gets annoyed. “Why does it have to be sloppy?” she says. “When bodies are in focus, we disregard the architecture; when architecture is in focus, bodies are left behind. As if they are impossible to combine.”

All architecture schools should offer a fundamental course in sexytecture – spaces designed for sexual pleasure. In such places, the social, erotic and political are intertwined with design, and the insights gained from them will affect other kinds of design projects. Everyone is forced to situate themselves in relation to sexytecture – not only students who deviate from societal norms in relation to sexuality and gender – and it can become a way to study architecture across differences.

This was not the advice I was given as a PhD student, however. One professor warned me: “Do not ruin your career by being sexually explicit. It will stain your research.” I guess I took it as a challenge to do the contrary. My research, which considers the intimate and reciprocal relationship between bodies and spaces, has a stained patina created by bodily fluids and lubricants – it was always the wetlands that attracted me.

Perhaps I am just more of an outdoor person. Open-air cruising grounds always make me happier than indoor establishments. One summer, my lover and I were on vacation with a couple of friends in Croatia. A queer travel guide had recommended a trip to the island of Jerolim – not only were there nudist-bathing possibilities, but there was also a great cruising area. A small boat took us across and we disembarked onto a landing that jutted out from the pale-yellow rock. We found a path lined with tree-sized geraniums that led to the nudist cliffs and beaches where the sun could reach all parts of my body. After bathing and hanging out for a while, we decided to explore the cruising area on the western part of the island. We climbed the bare cliffs by the water and discovered the most beautiful pleasure garden I have ever experienced. The landscape was covered in bushes of rosemary, with narrow, lingering footpaths in between. I recognised this kind of path from cruising parks in Stockholm, Umeå and Copenhagen. These are desire paths and you will see them if you look. They lead into the shrubs; behind a tree; over a hill. “They are the paths that lead us to each other,” says Joakim.

The theorist and academic Sara Ahmed has developed a queer spatial theory out of these desire paths. Bodies create paths in directions they desire to go, which may differ and deviate from those planned for us. A path shows not only how we create the habitual world around us but also how we are constructed by our surroundings. If we wish to dismantle social hierarchies and create societies where there is room for all of us, then we need to understand and potentially challenge our own preferences. “Queer is to disturb the order of things”, writes Ahmed. Queer possesses a transformative power.

Boxen at ArkDes has never made more sense to me – the Cruising Pavilion brings out the queerness of its architecture. The temporary installation, with all its material shortcomings, makes the shiny, metal space come alive, while it becomes amusingly clear quite how far removed its style is from the neat wooden architecture scale models on display in ArkDes’s permanent collection at the other end of the drill hall. This is what I like about the exhibition – it brings out the centrality of queer culture, sexual pleasure and desire for architecture and design. It does not matter if the architects of Boxen knew they were creating a luxury version of a gay fetish club when they proposed its raw metal; its silver-painted wall boards and chainlinks; its ramped path that caresses the outside of the box; its motif of the grand glory hole at the centre of its facade. It’s as if Boxen has come out of the closet.