Derived from the measurements of men’s bodies, dimensions become so encoded in the world of design and construction that discrimination against women is subconscious
For some big things, Wales seems to be the measure. ‘An area twice the size of Wales has been flooded’, for example. For others, comparisons might be with double-decker buses. Liquid is always Olympic-sized swimming pools. But, as we know, the measure for all things, is man. When Protagoras proclaimed that around two and a half thousand years ago he was thinking more about a kind of relativity, how there is no truth but that which an individual accepts as the truth, it nevertheless transferred from the philosophical to the physical arena. If we build for ourselves, then of course our measure will be ourselves. But it has almost always been one particular kind of self: an idealised male.
From student days when males carry their A1 portfolios comfortably nestled into their armpits while women struggle to the building sites where bricks are scaled to the male hand, too big for a woman to easily handle, the proportions of the male body are profoundly and profusely inscribed into our built culture. In fact the development of architectural theory from the Greeks onward can seem like a protracted attempt to squeeze a male body, whether it is standing, prostrate, crucified or struggling with a great weight, onto the idealised buildings of the past. At the heart of it all is Vitruvian man, a figure always awkwardly squeezed into a circle or a square, straining to reach the perimeter with his hands, almost doing the splits with his legs, with a compass stabbed though his navel. Until, of course, Leonardo made his famous version look a little more comfortable by sneakily decentring the square and shifting it down a little, rather ruining the whole Renaissance.
Of course measures of men’s parts have always been inscribed in our architecture because the measures themselves are taken from the body. The inch, the foot, the yard and so on all come from thickness of thumbs, lengths of feet, paces, spans and so on. Yet history isn’t always as exclusionary as the rules might suggest. There are idealised female forms in three out of the five orders and there are caryatids, the female form literally embodied in architecture (albeit notably captive). And Leonardo’s own diagram has been taken to suggest an equilibrium between the male (square) and female (circular) characteristics.
You might also argue that the obsession with the perfect male body is, at least in part, attributable to the homoerotic inheritance of classical Greece and Rome. The male form embodied in an architecture of perfection is itself, of course, always perfect. Those sculpted torsos straining to emerge from the rock as revealed (rather than sculpted) by Michelangelo betray a struggle, a becoming. In fact you might even argue that the male body itself has become the principal site of contemporary male construction. The six packs, the toning, the unnaturally enlarged pecs and arms indicate that while once it was a male body inscribed on a building which indicated perfection, today it is the construction of the body itself which has created a narcissistic construction industry, the temple is the body, the body is a temple. Television’s Love Island is an architecture show – built bodies. The contemporary popularity of tattoos, so heartily dismissed by Adolf Loos as the sign of primitives or potential murderers, enhances this idea of the male body as symbolic construction site, its membranes sculpted and ornamented.
‘This saturation of male proportion in architecture carries a suggestion of social Darwinism’
There is something of that homoeroticism throughout the history of architecture, that conflation of the powerful skin and structure of the building and the body of a Spartan warrior. Ayn Rand’s laughably bad novel The Fountainhead opens with the sentence: ‘He stood naked at the edge of a cliff’. Of course he is naked. He has become one with the landscape, his body, in particular one part of his body, surely, as hard as the granite he stands on. In the movie, Howard Roark only gets his shirt off when he operates a pneumatic drill. There is no need at all to interpret any of the imagery here. Roark is, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright, but hotter – Gary Cooper. Just as Wright declared that a building should not sit on top of a landscape but be a part of it, Roark is becoming the rock, it is even there, in the sound of his name, he is taking the reverse journey of Michelangelo’s sculpted slaves still caught in the carrara.
That same homoerotic charge is there in the sculptures of fascism, the toned body of the Übermensch or the mythological Roman warrior. This saturation of male proportion in architecture carries a suggestion of social Darwinism, the notion that man (rather than Man) has evolved into a perfect form, the zenith of creation, and that those bodies that do not match up are disposable. The extreme right has once again latched onto this idea of a ‘human-scaled architecture’, always a critique of Modernism which is seen as ‘inhuman’. Illustrated with pictures of cutesy streets and Classical buildings, it is a cancer at the heart of what appears to be a gentle conservatism. The late Roger Scruton’s recent report on Building Better, Building Beautiful is packed dense with it. Those social media sites which insistently pop up on your timeline and purport to be about historic streets or beautiful European buildings are almost inevitably a front for white supremacy.
You might argue that the Modernists did their best to complete the work of the French Revolution and move from a system of measurements based on the body to an abstract series of metrics, stripping away those associations and making architecture more abstract. But if you look at the buildings that inspired them, the industrial architecture of the US, grain silos and elevators, Fordist factories, Cistercian monasteries and cars and planes, you see that these were largely building types for males, for monks and manual workers. They reinvigorated architecture using male archetypes and ignored the interiors and the spaces of domesticity which might have been more associated with the feminine.
In Germany Ernst Neufert, one-time assistant to Walter Gropius, was commissioned by Albert Speer to formulate his manuals for standardising production as part of the war effort. Those same standards remain firmly embedded in modern architecture, in the dimensions, connections and ideas of minimum and efficient space and in the very regulations which control them. Neufert was, of course, using as a standard the fair-haired German Übermensch. At exactly the same time Le Corbusier was working on his Modulor. This famous figure with the narrow waist, broad shoulders and horribly deformed lobster-claw hand started out at 175cm tall (5 feet 8 inches, then the standard height of a Frenchman), was then stretched to 183cm (6 feet), apparently because that was generally the height of policeman in British detective novels.
‘the industrial architecture of the US reinvigorated architecture using male archetypes and ignored the interiors’
In that change is everything you need to know about scale, that it is, in fact, utterly arbitrary. It has no relationship with the size of the women or the children or the elderly living in those social housing blocks. The Modulor is literally inscribed on many of Corb’s buildings, a suggestion of the extent to which he had taken human scale into account. But to what extent is it an architecture shaped to the proportions of a man or an attempt to shape and model its inhabitants? This version of Modernism was always prescriptive, it not only suggests a certain lifestyle but dictates it. Gone is the messy uncertainty and vitality of the city, replaced with the rigour of the Ville Radieuse.
There is something of this too in the designs of the now much-lauded Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. One of the first designers to apply the functionality of Fordist principles to the sphere of domesticity with her mass-producible Frankfurt Kitchen, she attempted to overlay the dimensions of a housewife in the feminine domain of the kitchen but in the process, arguably, ingrained that division of labour in the architecture of modernity. More even than that, Schütte-Lihotzky’s design created an efficient kitchen at the expense of space and joy. Cooking was turned into a task and the kitchen transformed from the warm heart of the home, a space in which children might misbehave and adults might gather in intimacy over a meal, to a pure place of production. That part of the house which was deemed to belong to the female domain was stripped of beauty, scale and sociability.
Caroline Criado Perez comprehensively outlined the ways in which the world is made to male dimensions in her book Invisible Women, the subtitle of which – Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men – perfectly encapsulates the issue. She explains how everything from seat belts to anti-stab vests are designed with male bodies in mind and often fail to provide women with comfort or even the very safety which is their ostensible purpose. She explains how crash-test dummies have traditionally been based on male bodies with the female version merely a reduced male. And even then the female dummies, she tells us, are placed in the passenger’s seat because, after all, why would a woman want to drive? That dummy woman who exists only as a scaled-down male and is relegated to the passenger’s seat is a pretty good metaphor and, certainly in the world of products, the bias is clear.
Source: Kien Hong Le / Bloomberg via Getty Images
But in the world of architecture the problem is never really proportion. Those Vitruvian men have always existed as exercises in post-rationalisation, idealised bodies applied to idealised volumes. What does it matter if the plan of a church is based on the figure of Christ rather than his mother, or if a Doric column is seen as more powerful than an Ionic? The real problem is not so much one of proportion but consideration. The distribution of lavatories in a theatre, or buildings which are difficult to negotiate with buggies or wheelchairs, or temperatures geared to men rather than women, are arguably far more pressing issues than an aesthetic embodiment which only an elite will ever even perceive, although, of course, to reduce women to ideas of infirmity and incapacity embeds its own prejudices. Neither is it certain that the most nakedly patriarchal of oppressive architectural symbols, those phallic towers, would not exist if women designed cities. Do women not design towers?
The problem may lie less in the building and its embodied codes than in its components. From that man’s-hand-sized brick and heavy bag of cement to the poorly designed safety-harness, from that A1 portfolio to tools designed for male use and the ill-fitting hi-vis vest, male dimensions saturate the world of things which collectively make a building. They are embodied in the process perhaps even more than in the finished product, but because their scale is encoded in the construction they have become almost impossible to deconstruct.
When Berthold Lubetkin designed the six-storey Highpoint II apartment block in Highgate, London, of 1936-38, he committed an architectural apotheosis by incorporating a pair of (albeit non-structural) caryatids in the portico. Copied from examples at the British Museum, they are armless and constrained. The rest of the architecture is utterly Modernist, male proportions might or might not be embedded in its form but it seems as if those male virtues have been subsumed in a new and exciting architecture while the women of antiquity, based on the women of Caryae who were enslaved and made to labour as punishment for their husbands having sided with the Persians, stand resigned to their status. The female body is there as surreal ornament, an in-joke, an illustration of the absurdity of a woman forming part of a building. As a metaphor, it still works just fine.
Lead image: Thomas Charpentier’s 2011 project for ESA, L’homme, mesure de toutes choses explores the way proportions generally conform to male bodies. Courtesy of Thomas Charpentier
This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today