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  • Sex and the Single Building:The Weston Havens House, 1941-2001
  • Annmarie Adams (bio)

This study explores an iconic twentieth-century house, the Weston Havens house, (Figure 1) in Berkeley, California, designed by architect Harwell Hamilton Harris between 1939 and 1941. It was inspired by personal circumstances. After occupying his beloved "Sky House" for sixty years, philanthropist Weston Havens donated the famous house to the University of California in 2001.1 As part of my planned sabbatical in Berkeley in 2007-2008, I was offered a chance to live in the Havens house. But when university representatives learned that I would be coming with a husband and two children, the offer was recanted: "The house won't work for a family," they said. Curious to know how an icon of postwar domestic architecture could not accommodate my family—which, I usually assume, is the conventional family size and organization meant to inhabit such houses—my interest was piqued. Why was this impossible? Could such a house exist? How queer.

What is queer space? Where does queer theory intersect architecture? Emerging in the early 1990s as both a challenge to and a subfield of gender and gay and lesbian studies, queer theory encompasses "whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence."2 While queer theory is most closely associated with literary criticism, relatively few scholars in architecture have explored queerness. Those who have studied queerness have mostly engaged a traditional definition of queer space, focusing on architecture that is occupied or created by gay or lesbian people. 3 A broader definition of queer space, drawing on queer theory, would suggest that architecture that is itself odd or different might also qualify as queer space.

Still, architecture holds great potential in the explication of queerness because it is part of the constellation of forces that shape gender performance. As gender theorist Judith Butler explains, "there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results." Crucially, it is not space in general but spaces in particular that allow for and insist on different gendered possibilities.4 The exploration of a "single building" then, such as the Weston Havens house, offers a particular example of queer space that allows us to rethink previous studies of queer architecture. It is also my contention that its pedigree as a work by Harris allowed for a kind of consensus of appreciation regarding the house that made it a significant architectural destination.

One of the challenges in this study is to mobilize the material evidence of photographs, architectural plans, drawings, the actual built structure, and written accounts, while never losing sight of the broader theoretical questions this remarkable building poses. In terms of methodologies, Bernard Herman's concept of "embedded landscapes," combining Ian Hodder's contextual archaeology and Dell Upton's experiential analysis, informs this reading of the house.5 The premise is that like Herman's study of a typology (the Charleston single house), a concentrated focus on the plan can highlight a home's role in shaping the lived spatial experiences of actual people as they live out social roles [End Page 82] through performances of gender. As material evidence of lived experience, the house and its contents reveal spatial relationships that encouraged certain social interactions, as well as particular socially constructed performances of the self, while making others spatially (and thus bodily) impossible. In this way, Butler's work helps us to think through and bring into representation these performances that might otherwise seem impossible within the architecture of normativity: the single-family home. Butler's theory thus serves to "queer" the methods we often engage for material culture studies.

Examining the building beyond Weston Havens's life span marks one of the project's contributions to vernacular architecture studies. As Upton's work reiterates, "the history of architecture should account for the entire life of a structure from its initial planning to its destruction and even its afterlife in history and myth."6 Vernacularists have argued that the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6832
Print ISSN
1936-0886
Pages
pp. 82-97
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-25
Open Access
No
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