In Fall 2019, Adam Miller joined The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture as our 2019-2021 Race & Gender in the Built Environment Fellow. During his tenure, Adam taught a series of studios and seminar classes exploring the relationship between aesthetics, power, and identity via the lens of the queer body, queer space, and queer architecture. In Spring 2020, just weeks before the pandemic closed campus, he also helped plan and moderate the Center for American Architecture & Design’s “Moving Toward Gender Equity in Architecture” dialogue. The event brought students and a panel of guests together to discuss gender inequities in the design disciplines and what we can do to solve them.
As Miller’s tenure at UTSOA wraps up, we caught up with him to learn more about his time at the UT School of Architecture and what he’s up to next. Thank you, Adam, for bringing your voice, expertise, and perspective to our school!
What appealed to you in joining us here at UTSOA?
The opportunity to develop my coursework brought me here, and the sunny weather and swimming holes sealed the deal. This fellowship gave me the chance to work on issues that are important to me with amazing peers and students. Also, this was a great reason to move to the South. As someone who grew up in the Midwest and lived on the East and West Coasts, the Texas experience is unlike anywhere else I have lived. I like seeing the many sides of American cultures and differing tastes.
What initially drove your exploration of the lens of the queer body in relation to architecture, specifically?
As a queer person myself, I was initially drawn to the subject to help understand myself and my place in the world. I found no clear definition of the term queer, which I believe is part of its liberatory potential. Much of the existing scholarship, such as the seminal book Queer Space (1997) by Aaron Betsky, attempts to define it – and many of those definitions I have found limiting. The book tells a story about the Western middle-class white gay experience and the places where that group has sex or experiences bodily pleasures as “queer space”. I knew there was a lot more to the story, and it bugged me. It drove me to deeply investigate gender theory, feminist theory, and theory on race to search for a less limiting understanding of “queer space.”
What is a queer space? A definition I tend to return to is “nonnormative logics of space and time,” as posed by Jack Halberstam. There are queer people, and there are spaces that house them, spaces designed by queer people, and spaces that resist the logic of heteronormativity, nonbinary spaces, logics, and times.
Tell us a bit about the seminars and studios you’ve led during your time at the UT School of Architecture. What have been some of the takeaways?
I came to UTSOA interested in asking what a “queer space” in architecture is or might be. To talk about what is queer is also to talk about what is common, and what is normal in architecture. It is also to talk about aesthetics, taste, politics, race, gender, sexuality, and what it means to grapple with the baggage of modern architecture. That baggage becomes a barrier to entry.
One of those barriers is what is considered good taste and what is considered valuable for architectural inquiry. For quite some time, as Diana Agrest, Mabel O. Wilson, and others have described, what is beautiful in architecture has been based on what is masculine, what is public, and what is white. Students, then, are asked to chase this image of success—a condition of success that tends to favor those that identify with it or already fit its image.
My seminar “Queering Architectural Taste” and my studios “Dragging Modernity” and “Inside-Out” asked students to investigate ways to reevaluate their own tastes and the taste of others, to suspend judgment, and take on alternate perspectives, all to expand participation in design discourse.
One way to expand participation in architecture as a discipline is to make space for the taste of others, which also means making space for different images of success and legitimate nonnormative frameworks for value. We need to decenter the beautiful/ugly binary as the aesthetic metric of value and expand our lexicon to better understand and design for communities in difference.
To think queerly might be to consider a conceptual space beyond binary thinking. Queer thinking resists duality, allows for a decentering of a single aesthetic paradigm, and makes space for aesthetic difference: This is a queer space within architecture. This recognition of the difference in taste and its potential design implications is what I think of as a solidarity of tastes. Solidarity is a unity that also maintains and recognizes difference—a discordant whole. This unity in recognizing difference has real implications for us and material consequences in our world.
What have been some of the most rewarding or impactful experiences during your tenure as UTSOA’s Race & Gender in the Built Environment Fellow?
Working with students and Leora Visotzky to plan and participate in the “Moving Toward Gender Equity in Architecture” symposium in early 2020 was impactful for me, and I believe it was for those in attendance as well. I was grateful to moderate the frank discussion we had around current gender inequity in architecture. We discussed stereotypes, progress made, ways to find community, personal struggles and successes, and how we might move forward. An amazing panel of guests joined us, including Mabel O. Wilson, Shelby Doyle, Damon Leverett, and Grace La. Student panelists included Hailey Algoe, Lauren Boyd, Aaron McMurry, Lynn Huynh, Sydney Landers, and Micayla Garza. A recording and a book of the event transcript are available if anyone wants to follow the conversation.
What has your professional work as a founding member of Pneu-Stars been like thus far? What are you working on right now?
For the past seven years, I have been working as the co-founder and director of Pneu-Stars Design Group, where we do stage production work. Right now, I am also finishing up the design for the UTSOA student-run publication, ISSUE: 17, which should be released later this summer.
At Pneu-Stars, my work is hand-made in whatever space the group and I can find, and my clients are almost always music festivals. As director of the group, I have worked with a changing cast of friends and collaborators over the years, including Tyler Beard and Megan Lowe, and recently Lieyah Dagan and Spenser Atlas. Due to the pandemic, most of our projects have been put on hold, but I am hopeful that things will pick up again in the next year.
In my design work, one term I have been reclaiming is messy. Messiness is not bad. It can lead to a lot of discovery and thinking against the grain. Messiness has its own agency. All our projects are design-build. All of them are messy in one way or the other: ad-hoc, unexpected, and outdoors, where the hand-made design mixes with sweat and dirt and beer. One of our first commissioned projects, completed with Alex Spatzier and Aaron Goldstein, was for the Hayes Valley Artworks, a nonprofit public art garden in San Francisco. The clients needed a shed and wayfinding signage, so we gave them two-for-one: a sign/shed. Since then, I have built many massive installations for a music festival in Oakland, CA, and I have been fortunate enough to work with a queer hero and my personal inspiration, the cult filmmaker John Waters, who hosts the event.
As a medium, the inflatable is something I tend to return to because I can make something big out of very little material, and air is free. I also always incorporate some pneumatic element—pneumatic, meaning airflow. The flexibility, scrappiness, and ephemerality of these projects make them feasible. These are monumental installations that must come up in several hours, and be removed from the site several days later. They also leave no trace behind, fit in a duffle bag, and meet the scale of the landscape.
What’s next for you?
I will be joining the faculty at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning as the 2021-2023 Muschenheim Fellow, continuing my research, teaching, and design work.