Joel Sanders is the designer behind Stalled! - a theoretical, architectural and legal effort to make public and institutional bathrooms inclusive for all people regardless of gender, disability or religion. We caught up with Sanders to hear how his academic research and commercial work intersect and inform one another.
Brick & Wonder: A major vertical for your firm’s work falls under “design research”. How does that work relate to the client work you do?
Joel Sanders: In addition to being the principal of JSA (Joel Sanders Architecture), I’m also a professor of architecture at the Yale School of Architecture. For my entire career, I’ve basically navigated between teaching and practice; one informs the other. It is often in the design studios and particularly in the seminars I teach that I begin to identify issues I think are timely and relevant. I’m interested in exploring how our changing culture impacts the design of both public and private space. But while those issues shift, one issue that’s been very consistent for me is the intersection between gender, identity and space.
Over the years I’ve taken insights that often come from outside of architecture, e.g. cultural studies or gender studies and really begun to apply them to thinking about what they could mean for space. Twenty years ago, when I worked on a book called Stud I was seeing the world through the eyes of a white gay man during the AIDS crisis. Today, I’ve returned to thinking explicitly about LGBTQ issues, but his time through the lens of the transgender community. That gets us to the discussion of Stalled! It’s the reciprocal relationship between teaching and practice. One informs the other: we do research and then reply to timely issues.
BW: Operationally, how do you manage doing the research projects while still running a firm?
JS: It’s a huge challenge… I would not recommend it to any of your readers from the perspective of a business model! Who funds the research? We’ve been lucky and some of the research has been funded by grants. But I would say that the model has been... maybe call it Robin Hood? My practice does three kinds of work now. We have a long track record of doing high-end residential houses, lofts and apartment renovations. We work with great clients, lavish budgets. It’s like doing couture dresses. I love that work but -- and I don’t know if I should be saying this -- a lot of the profits that comes out of doing these projects get put back into the other arm of our practice dedicated to institutional work. We are lucky enough to work with great institutions, like Princeton, NYU. So we're very lucky. However, the research part, particularly on project like Stalled!, is really a labor of love.
BW: As a professor, when you walk into the office, how is that dynamic in your firm? Do your staffers find you intimidating?
JS: I guess you need to ask them that question! One benefit of being a professor is that I get to recruit some of my most talented students, and people who are in the orbit of Yale. I have a lot of colleagues from other schools and they recommend talent. I think people come to work with me because they are interested in our work exploring the relationships between architecture, culture and politics.
BW: What is the short origin story of Stalled!, and did Mix Design spring from that?
JS: When I started my career about 20 years ago, much of my work was explicitly about LGBTQ themes. Looking at the world through a gay lens allowed us to generate design ideas that had much broader applicability. In a very early project of mine like Bachelor House, a lot of the design innovations from that project are now integrated in lavish apartments meant for a big family -- a heterosexual couple. This kind of design requires thinking for what I call 'non compliant' or 'non standard' bodies -- thinking out of the box -- you can come up with ides that can be more broadly applied.
In 2015, my office was asked to design the New York City headquarters for GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network), a non profit dedicated to making schools safe nurturing environments for k-12 students. Building codes, coupled with an uncooperative landlord prevented us from implementing changes to the restrooms that were essential to our client’s mission. These professional frustrations coincided with national debates in the media about the perceived threat of transgender people getting access to public restrooms.
At the same time I was teaching a seminar at Yale, and wanting to deal with these issues, I started reading transgender studies, and noticed the name Susan Stryker, a leading transgender historian and theorist. We had met years before; I wrote her an email and we started a conversation. She did some teaching in my class, and then we received an invitation to write an essay for the South Atlantic Quarterly, thinking about restrooms through the lens of the trans issues. One thing led to another, and the project became what it is now: a multi-initiative project to devise best practice guidelines that meet the needs of the trans community but also to think more broadly across race, gender, religion and especially disability.
I love things getting politicized because that’s one of our agendas: “Design Activism” should make people recognize that design can be activism. Designers need to step up to the plate.
BW: Was it challenging finding the funding for this research?
JS: Very challenging and it’s something we’re still trying to do now. Why so challenging? Because for some reason, there is very little funding for design. We’ve done well when we’ve applied to design-oriented organizations, but there are few of those, and the amount of money you get is small. We reached out to larger non profits and foundations interested in social justice, and they will fund policy, but they don’t want to fund design. They don’t understand that design-is-politics-is-policy.
It speaks to one of the challenges we are trying to embrace as we start this design consultancy. We are now officially a business, Mix Design LLC, but we’re want to make it a non profit, precisely so that we can apply for grants.
Mix Design is dedicated to working with clients, companies or institutions that are interested in diversity and inclusion. For the most part, these efforts are being entrusted through human resources and hiring practices which are extremely important. But we believe that restrooms are one example of the way in which diversity and inclusion has design implications. We believe that for institutions or schools and universities, if they’re really dedicated to recruiting and retaining top-quality, diverse talent, increasingly workplace is going to make a difference. There are metrics showing that when people are deciding where they work, environment matters. While you know that contemporary workspaces are all about promoting catalytic, unscripted exchanges between people, usually the default user is a white christian, or secular and able-bodied person. The restroom is an example that people relate to. We need to create acceptable, safe, public spaces that meet the needs of different embodiments, religions and disabilities.
BW: Stalled! is its own freestanding initiative, website and enterprise. It looks like it was an enormous effort to put together and design, and like it will be an ongoing enterprise. Who manages it, how big is the team, and how is it integrated with your firm?
JS: Right now it's me plus two full time people. It has been struggle because we don’t have a lot of funding. But I really am lucky in that I benefit by engaging students and interns, the most wonderful Yale students who worked for me as research assistants over the summer and even during the winter.
BW: Stalled! is responding to a particularly charged political environment, but do you think of it as mainly a political social justice objective or are you also doing architectural problem solving as well.
JS: I think all of it is high stakes architectural problem solving. When we started, we were struck by how much was being written about this issue, especially during those debates, particularly in North Carolina. But nobody talked about it as an architectural problem. Everybody accepted the binary of male female; gender is determined by what’s listed on their birth certificate. We have this solution that is design-based, not law-based, because we recognize that if you eliminate the binary and desegregate it, trans people won’t have to make a choice they’re not comfortable with.
Also it would produce a space that would benefit many more people. Like I could take my 92 year old mother to the bathroom or a father could take his daughter to the bathroom. There’s care giving, people administering medical procedures, breastfeeding. There are also issues of religion, particularly Muslims -- who perform ablutions -- and there’s no accommodation for that. We are helping people realize that these high-stakes social justice issues can have architectural solutions.
BW: With your design activism do you worry that efforts to amend the plumbing codes might get politicized? Or is that a good thing?
JS: Terry Kogan, our legal scholar, is spearheading the initiative to amend plumbing codes and make the non-binary solution viable.
On the one hand I love things getting politicized because that’s one of our agendas: “Design Activism” should make people recognize that design can be activism. Designers need to step up to the plate. I have been going around the country and giving talks and there are always people in the audience who might seem resistant. When we shift the conversation from the focus on gender alone, which people may be uncomfortable with, to talking about inclusivity across different forms of embodiment, people recognize that they’re part of it.
BW: Do you have any worries about getting 'trolled' politically?
JS: No, it’s a little bit the opposite. My father asks me if the Trump administration will affect my practice. I tell him, on the contrary it’s really given me a sense of energy. People can say that architects are inevitably in bed with the rich and powerful. I’d like to show that we could affect social change through design. Personally it’s very rewarding for me so I welcome the controversy!
BW: The topic and issues you're addressing are obviously serious, but does seem to be some whimsy or humor ingrained in the project. Is there room for humor in all of this?
JS: I’ve been interested in bathrooms my whole career. At first glance they are taboo; they make people uncomfortable, but they’re also places of pleasure and places of shame. They’re so overdetermined. Everybody feels strongly about bathrooms one way or the other and that’s pretty great too.
Just the other day I was speaking at a conference full of people in the construction industry. It was a very serious discussion about business and networking, and I raised my hand and said: “Any of you out there have challenges about bathrooms?” These were not necessarily politically or theoretically engaged people. They are sophisticated however, and it started an incredibly lively discussion; a lot of people were really glad I brought it up.
BW: Do you think Stalled! Will burnish the reputation of the firm, and not to be cynical but will it result in more of certain kinds of commissions?
Well it already has! We’re doing workshops all over the country, at Princeton, U Penn, MIT, Vassar, Yale. We’re getting calls all the time, and that’s why we are launching Mix Design because it’s our own consultancy that can provide a full range of architectural services anything from workshops to helping people with policy. What began as a heady academic paper written for scholars has turned into something where we're seeing very broad interest, including, recently, one of the biggest federal agencies to help solve some of their problems. And we hope it leads to more work, and I would say of course we all like to build our businesses, but first and foremost, what’s motivating us is affecting change.
Read more about Joel Sanders and his work on his website.
Learn more about the Stalled! project here.