"We celebrate our queerness, the things that bring us together, and then we learn from each other through the things that set us apart.”
By Liana DeMasi
Years ago, fresh out of architecture school, Maya Annotti found herself at a traditional architectural firm in San Francisco. The unofficial-official dress code confined all the men in suits and the women in dresses or skirts and heels. If anyone didn’t fit within the binary, it seemed the company implicitly lacked space for them.
But beyond aesthetics and workplace politics, Annotti found herself wanting more tangible results from projects. It seemed that, often, ideas rarely reached fruition, even after years of work. While that can be typical of the industry as a whole, the lack of upward and forward mobility professionally, in conjecture with strict corporate energy, Annotti yearned for a change of scenery. In search of a truer sense of self and actualization within her industry, she found a job in New York as a Technical Designer at Pink Sparrow, a design and fabrication shop specializing in experiential environments.
Pink Sparrow has completed projects for the likes of Absolut, NBC Studios, Alicia Keys, and Google. Many of their projects involve space enhancement or temporary installations, meaning that much of Annotti’s work includes swift turnaround times with no room for error. However, daunting tasks are outweighed by the gratification of their completion. Having had her hand in nearly 50 projects in just two years, Annotti has quickly proven herself a talented asset. But what success she’s had doesn’t come without imposter syndrome within a heavily white, straight, cis-male dominated industry. According to AIA's membership demographics report for 2021, 73.1% of members identified as male, the majority of which are white.
“Queer people have always been secondary inhabitants of places,” Annotti says. “I find that I have to work twice as hard to prove my worth, even though I know my worth.”
Navigating uncertainty around how queer identity will be received
Since entering the industry, Annotti has found that many of her moments of self-advocacy have been to ask for milestones or improvements that are automatic for her straight, cis-male colleagues. “Men walk through the world with a different consideration,” Annotti says. “Many of my male counterparts have started out with the raise I’ve had to ask for, or the responsibilities I’ve had to prove myself to get. To have that work confidence embedded in you from society is a privilege, one we don’t talk about enough.”
This privilege and ease extends far beyond the workplace, though. “I think it is fair to say that for a lot of queer, or marginalized individuals in general, there is always a level of uncertainty when it comes to how you might be accepted in any environment, professional or otherwise,” says Julie Molloy, Senior Designer and Project Manager at Fogarty Finger Architects, a New York-based firm. “It’s something I consider even when I’m traveling to unknown spaces with my partner. Will we be accepted? Will we be safe?”
Molloy, a native of Ireland, moved to New York City years ago, an effort she believes ushered her into a deeper and altered understanding of herself. “If I wasn’t working and living in New York, in the more liberal world we have carved out for ourselves, I likely wouldn’t feel so forthcoming or positive about my queerness,” Molloy adds. “There is still a long way to go, but it is important to acknowledge that.”
Fogarty Finger Architects (FFA) is make up of about 60% women, about half of which are immigrants. Additionally, one of FFA’s founding partners is gay, as are many of the employees. Molloy, who is a part of the hiring process, notes that: “We don’t look past your skills and talents. We don’t care where you come from or how you identify. We care about what you bring to the table, about whether or not you’re a decent human. If you, too, are inclusive, and if you’ll follow the same mantra that we uphold at FFA.”
Annotti and Molloy have both had their hand in several high-profile projects at their respective companies. Molloy worked on The Dime, a luxury high-rise in Brooklyn, New York. Annotti was involved in a trade show booth for Google’s Grace Hopper Conference. While it’s rare that the projects they’re on are queer-focused, both have considered the influence of their queerness on the work they produce. Queer architects and designers naturally queer-ify the spaces they inhabit. It could be argued, then, that they queer the spaces they create, as well. “I’m constantly taking over these spaces, even though they don’t feel like they’re made for my audience,” Annotti says. “You go and you survey these spaces and then have to decide and make something incredible. We have to work within the client’s brand identity, but everyone has their own idea about what queerness looks like — is it pushing your client towards a different color palette? Or softer edges where there shouldn’t be?” While queerness isn't just one thing, it can certainly be codified as an alternate perspective.
This idea resonates for Molloy as well. She’s drawn inspiration from the likes of Robert Irwin, Donald Judd and James Turrell, visionaries she believes have propelled her to question and alter the bounds of architecture. “I consider how we see and treat space, and how we can pair the art world with our built world,” Molloy says. “Outside of the professional lens, I am using all parts of my background to develop my design persona, with that is my queer identity, and the people and experiences within these circles.”
When considering queerness in the architecture industry, it would seem necessary to focus entirely, or at least principally, on achievements by queer architects and designers. Yet, that scope ignores a large portion of the story. Queer space does not simply reference an architectural feat created by or for queer people, but also space occupied by queerness. In that, queer architects and designers occupying space in the industry comes with its own difficulties. However, one’s sexuality or gender dosesn’t always find itself at the forefront of the conversation.
“We aren’t standing around swapping our personas with the hopes of being accepted,” Molloy says. “We are there to do a job and to instead swap our talents and skills, so in the end we can hopefully build something beautiful.” The diversity at Fogarty Finger works to uphold a natural expectation of acceptance, making it so that the work at hand is not interrupted by an unsafe work environment, emotional or otherwise. In other words, the need to advocate for one’s acceptance is removed from the equation, since the acceptance is both implicitly and explicitly laced into the environment.
“While I’m the only queer woman at my company, it’s not because their values don’t align with inclusivity,” Annotti says. "The talent pool just isn’t as diverse as it could be, as it should be." On average, before financial aid, architecture school costs between $100,000 and $200,000. Often, that is too financially burdensome for marginalized communities, especially as the wealth and pay gap are considered. Education costs can be a major deterrent for potential students, but more than that, many marginalized communities are not exposed to STEM. This lack of exposure hinders any potential untapped talent and desire. “If kids were given opportunities to explore architecture and design at a younger age, the industry demographics might be different,” Annotti continues. '
An industry reframing
Pink Sparrow and Fogarty Finger work to center inclusivity and equity in mind and practice, both via hiring queer industry members, taking on queer clients and projects, and creating safe work environments. Yet the road ahead is long, requiring diligence and industry reframing. “So much of architecture is influenced by policy, zoning, and urban planning,” Annotti says. Subsequently, making the route to a career in architecture more equitable and accessible might change more than just the immediate industry. Neighborhood zoning might alter, urban planning might shift, and policy might change—all in equitable directions.
Further than that, as queer community is oriented toward just that—community—LGBTQ+ ideals extend into the industries they enter. “Just recently I met a queer interior designer during Pride week,” Molloy says. “She connected with me about starting a queer design group. I love that about our world, the level of support we have for each other. We celebrate our queerness, the things that bring us together, and then we learn from each other through the things that set us apart.” Perhaps, through this, the industry might continue to follow suit.
Liana DeMasi is a writer, filmmaker and creator based in New York.