Designing women: Why architecture needs feminism now more than ever
At this very moment, across the world, in countries where women hold powerful positions across a range of industries, the biggest decisions urban development and architecture are mainly made by men. How would cities differ if women built them?
Feminism’s role in architecture has been ebbing and flowing since the 1960s, falling in and out of vogue. Accepted and denied. The movement’s proponents ask questions and offer critique on how the built environment affects the female experience. Still, this approach is relatively under-the-radar with scholars, historians and architectural practitioners often focusing on architectural approaches that prioritize sustainability, disaster-proofing and technology, rather than feminism. Many architects reject the notion that there’s a female architecture altogether, wanting their work to be seen and critiqued through the same lens as their male counterparts. Danish architect Dorte Mandrup sparked debate across the profession in early 2017, proclaiming “I am not a female architect. I am an architect.”. Today, gender politics, coupled with the profession’s ongoing diversity struggles are discussed widely, and more than in previous decades. Yet, the conversation surrounding feminism as a potential catalyst for design-driven social change has received less attention.
A Feminist Approach
A feminist approach to architecture encourages design practices to accommodate differences among people and cultures. Take this comment in The Guardian from Fiona Scott, director at Gort Scott Architects. She says, “The premise of our practice is to put people at the centre – I’m thinking about gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, age. There are lots of groups that get marginalized. I think teenagers have a completely alien experience of cities from most of us. All these parallel lives are going on, and it feels counterproductive to come at things from one particular perspective.”
In 1999, the city of Vienna distributed a questionnaire to gain insights into how men and women use infrastructure. The answers they received highlighted a large gap between the daily needs of each gender. While men typically used transit to travel to and from work only, women often bustled around the city taking multiple trips. These included grocery shopping, dropping off and picking up kids, visiting elderly family members and more. Women used public transit more often and made more trips on foot than their male counterparts. In 2000, Vienna started gender streamlining and adopted an inclusive urban planning model. Extra street lamps were added to make travelling at night safer, sidewalks were widened and wheelchair and stroller ramps were installed in busy areas. By 2016, Vienna executed more than 60 projects with this approach.
Basic safety in public spaces is a top of mind priority for women across the world, and the statistics are important to note. According to a UN Initiative to make cities safer for women and children, more than 83% of Egyptian women reported sexual harassment on Cairo’s streets; in New Delhi, rape is reported every 29 minutes and only 12% of women in Lima’s cities feel safe. Public toilets are also insecure spaces for women, children and LGBT people. A study in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township showed that sexual assaults in the area could be reduced 30% by doubling the number of properly functioning public toilets in the city. In North America, socially conservative policies have made the work of feminist architects more relevant, especially in recent months. Lori Brown is an architect who prioritizes the needs of women and LGBTQ people in all the spaces they use, including the home, bathrooms, abortion clinics, women’s shelters and others.
“The goal is to consider and incorporate where we are socially, politically, environmentally and even economically [into designs]. We operate from the position that everyone is valued and everyone should be considered, which requires different ways of operating as a designer [and] thinking about the types of spaces you design, the types of users that would be needing these spaces. It’s not to create autonomous and separate spaces [for women], but to think about the intersections between people who use spaces,” said Lori Brown, architect and co-founder of Architexx, in a recent Pacific Standard article.
Architexx is an independent, unaffiliated organization for women in architecture that seeks to transform the profession of architecture in the U.S.A. Here in Toronto, women began organizing in the early 80s, leading to the formation of the Women’s Architecture League (WALL). Their home base was the Cameron in Queen and started at around 1982 and ran for about 4 years. Today, Building Equality in Architecture Toronto (BEAT), formed in October 2015 by a team of dedicated architects and designers, continues to promote the advancement of women in the profession, provide mentorship, networking and leadership opportunities. Currently, there are no current statistics tracking how many female architects are working in Canada. BEAT is working towards change. From lower pay to fewer promotions, to stereotypes about design skills, it’s a fact that women operate on an uneven playing field.
When pioneering architect Charlotte Periand applied for a job at Le Corbusier’s studio in October 1927, she was famously rejected with the reply, “We don’t embroider cushions here.” The industry has come a long way since then, but survey after survey shows that women architects continue to struggle to be accepted as equal players.
Heidi is the president of Matte PR and publisher & editor at Glossi Mag. She’s also a mentor to designers at Toronto Fashion Incubator. One of her favourite films of all time is Paolo Cavera’s ‘Black Belly of the Tarantula’. She recommends not watching as a feminist, or you’ll be upset. The film is scored by musical hero Ennio Morricone.