At the start of this month came the sad tiding of the death of a promising young Italian architect, Giovanni, whom I met through his participation in the Shenzhen Biennale in December. Even sadder was the report that he apparently took his own life because he did not feel accepted as a gay man.
In this day and age? Yes, in this day and age.
As we celebrate the progress of marriage equality and the election or appointment of LGBTQ men and women to high posts around the world, we can easily forget how difficult it is for many—especially young people—to be honest and open about who they are.
Surely, this is a problem in our society in general, but not in the refined and enlightened field of architecture.
Quick, name one openly out LGBTQ architect of note.
OK, I am still waiting.
Yes, Stanley Saitowitz in San Francisco, Juergen Mayer H. in Berlin, and, if we think hard enough we might be able to come up with a few more. But, indeed, we would have to work hard at it.
It is perhaps a bigger scandal how few women have made it to the top of the discipline after decades of supposed equality, but let’s not forget that there are no out LGBTQ Pritzker Prize winners, nor AIA Gold Medalists, nor recipients of any of the other major glittering prizes. For LGBTQ men and women, the choice is still, all too often, making it as straight and hiding all their lives, retreating to anonymity, or self-selecting to a part of the discipline where being queer is so accepted it is a self-reinforcing cliché: interior design and decorating.
Years ago, a student of mine came to see me to tell me he was dropping out of the program. When I asked him why, he told me that he had just come to terms with his sexuality, and did not see himself in the profession as a gay man. He did not see any role models and felt that the whole culture of architecture was alien to how he saw himself leading his life. We have not come very far from there.
I do not know the particularities of Giovanni's situation. He was part of the team assembled by Francesco Delogu and Maria Cristina Finucci to create an installation in the section of the Shenzhen Biennale that I curated. Their stack of milk cartons containing trash and found artifacts was, to my mind, one of the most successful and beautiful of all the contributions to this year’s Biennale, and it was clear that Giovanni, together with his colleague David, was the driving force behind the whole piece. Every day, he was either wandering around Shenzhen looking for small treasures to include, or composing the results in the strangely seductive stack he and David created. I kept finding myself spending more time at this installation than the others because Giovanni was so charming and well spoken, and obviously such a good designer. It is sad to think what great contributions he could have made to architecture.
Whatever drove this elegant, intelligent, and talented young man to turn away from that potential, I know how hard it is for LGBTQ men and women everywhere to feel at home, not only in social and familial structures that still have a hard time accepting them, but also in the still macho and repressive world of architecture. Being gay in architecture is still very difficult. It hurts. Some of us have had the good fortune of supportive family, friends, and mentors—and have made choices that have taken us away from the rough and tumble of the profession.
I will mourn Giovanni, I will remember with pleasure and sadness the short acquaintance I had with him. I will continue to remember and thank the heavens for all of my LGBTQ mentors, models, friends, and students who almost did what he did, but who have fought to be themselves as people and as architects their whole life. Giovanni's death should remind all of us how much harder we need to work to make all who love architecture feel at home, safe, appreciated, and free to pursue their dreams in our harsh discipline.
Ed. note: Giovanni's surname has been omitted out of respect to the deceased and to his family and friends who are coping with their loss.