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Women in a man-made world: the need to build more holistically

The exteriors of buildings are an expression of human sexuality and power, historically determined by men – we should now design more holistically

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book about sex and architecture. The idea for Building Sex: Men, Women, and the Construction of Sexuality (William Morrow, 1995) arose when I was sitting in a bar in New York with a friend who had just come back from Paris. We talked about that city’s beauties, but then she remarked: ‘Why is it that I feel uncomfortable walking down big boulevards like the Champs-Élysées?’ ‘Because they were not built for you’,

I replied, only half-joking; ‘They were designed for men, preferably in the army, to march down in triumph from the Arc de Triomphe. You are supposed to be on the sidelines or, preferably, wandering around the nearby Tuileries, being elegant and sensual. Axes and big buildings are for men, gardens and interiors are for women.’ We laughed about the absurdity of the situation, and out of that conversation came the book. In it, I tried to show how the notion of the rational, monumental and free-standing building, not to mention an urban environment that organises such structures in grand axes and blocks, reflects the power to organise materials, the Earth and our daily lives. The world is subordinate to the idea, the plan and the structure. Within and around these constructions, we create cocoons and escapes, places that are sensible, sensuous and even sexy. These spaces flow, they respond to our bodies, and they bring us into contact with nature. 

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The scale and majesty of the Champs Elysées lends itself to military display, such as American troopsin the Second World War celebrating the liberation of Paris in the summer of 1944. Source: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

The man-made world, in other words, has indeed been made by men, and women still have to make themselves at home within that construct. This means that the designed environment largely reflects values we associate with masculinity, while especially the domestic interior, often not designed by professionals, is for many the embodiment of values they see as feminine. These are not fundamental or absolute values, but associations we have made over centuries that put interiors in the same realm as fashion, decoration and cooking as being in the women’s realm, while building, planning and monumental structures ‘belong’ to a masculine world. The office building and the factory are spaces defined by grids, in service to functionality, and neutral in their appearance. They are still designed and ruled by men. The places where we work, play or live are designed according to abstract principles and have little to do with our lives. It is only the domestic interior, as well as places of entertainment and consumption such as stores, clubs, restaurants and theatres, where often disparate pieces of many different materials and colours can come together, usually in a flexible manner, in the service of comfort, conversation and consumption. Our interiors (at least for those of us who have the means) are comfortable and collect our personal memories and attitudes around us in keepsakes and pictures, but we see them as places where we do not think or act, so much as we just are.

It is not just the buildings that suffer from this split. The public realms we have to use are often harsh, overwhelming and inhuman. They represent struggle – against materials and nature, and against each other for territory and self-expression. They are made out of materials that are durable, monumental and thus in-human. Clad with stone or concrete, large in scale and meant for mobs, our squares and streets frequently do not invite social interaction. They invite the display of power. It is again only the semi-public spaces for consumption, such as shopping malls, that offer comfort and enticement, as well as places for socialising.

Bampfa dsr 16 01 4133

Bampfa dsr 16 01 4133

Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photograph by Iwan Baan

Towards the end of the 20th century, this dichotomy seemed to be becoming a thing of the past. Some of the most avant-garde and influential architects in the world – from Zaha Hadid to Wolf Prix, and from Thom Mayne to Toyo Ito – were experimenting with structures that flowed, exploded and otherwise fragmented. They were also building with the land, rather than on it, and designing from the inside out. Meanwhile, popular culture demanded ever more flexible stage sets for daily life, valuing places where you could have an experience, whether at a theme park or in a hotel lobby, more important than institutional structures. This made the investment in monuments seem absurd. Postmodernism and Deconstruction seemed to be pointing the way towards the death of male-oriented architecture, while philosophers ranging from Jacques Derrida to Michel Foucault were breaking down the notions of hierarchy and hegemony with gusto and in fluid thinking. Finally, many architecture schools had more than 50 per cent female students, promising a sea change in the profession once this generation graduated.

‘Within and around these constructions, we create cocoons and escapes, places that are sensible, sensuous and even sexy’

Yet, little did change. Though you could argue that Hadid’s emphasis on fluidity and continuity, as well as her design of objects and buildings that were formal continuations of each other, promised an alternative aesthetic and even fundamental reversal of the split between inside and outside, the more she built, the more the promise of early structures such as the Vitra Fire Station, the MAXXI in Rome and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati disappeared into the design of structures that answered to the needs of large corporations. Similarly, Jeanne Gang’s softening of a developer-produced stack of apartment buildings with sinuous balconies in her Aqua Building remains just a surface effect. Diller + Scofidio, now Diller Scofidio + Renfro, moved beyond their restaging of male and female roles in their performance pieces, such as The Bride or their Ocular House design on Long Island, to the creation of often beautiful, but also conforming buildings.

Liz diller bad press dissident ironing shirt 2 p391

Liz diller bad press dissident ironing shirt 2 p391

In their early days, Diller + Scofidio turned principles of motion economy on their head in Bad Press: Dissident Ironing. Image courtesy of Michael Moran / Diller Scofidio + Renfro 

If we are going to address this larger problem, and in particular the area of architecture and design, we need to consider a more fundamental rethinking of what architecture is. I believe this needs to happen in several ways. First, we need to revalue the interior. It is fine and well to argue that, as Louis Sullivan claimed, ‘form follows function’, or to ‘design from the inside out’, as Frank Lloyd Wright claimed he did, but it is not the plan and the structure of the interior we need to put first.

We need to start from the qualities of the interior that usually come from furniture and furnishings, while also paying attention to the thoughtful use of light, scale and sequence. This means that pattern and decoration, arrangement of furniture and fixtures, ways in which buildings respond to the body, and the ability for the interior to both cocoon us and create a relationship to a larger world through frames and views, need to be the seed of all design. This is true not just in the home, but also in the places where we work and play. Here the history of interior design has much to teach us, although we are often not told the names of the female designers who put interiors together. I always find myself looking back at the books in which authors such as Peter Thornton and Mario Praz collected images of domestic interiors for inspiration, although they provide no significant role models.

‘The more Zaha built, the more the promise of early structures disappeared into the design of structures that answered to the needs of large corporations’

Praz in particular argued for the domestic interior as a mirror and map of a social persona, and I believe that this notion of the creation of a stage set for self- and social performance, whose public version has been argued by thinkers such as Anthony Giddens, could and should provide the basis for thinking about architecture as such a framing act of affordance. The interiors Thornton shows exhibit the ability to see architecture starting not from abstract structures, but rather from the weaving together of the bits and pieces that give meaning to our lives. Architecture can be a collage that keeps changing, an assemblage of information, images and forms that are available to us, usually in a mass-produced form, that we can make our own, and out of which we can construct meaning in and through space.

Second, we need to think of the landscape in which we work as being more important than whatever object we put there. Buildings should be ways for us to focus and frame the world that exists, rather than replacing it. Ideally, buildings should be part of the landscape. This is true not just in ‘green’ settings, but in our urban environments as well. We need better public spaces and infrastructure more than we need new buildings.

Liz diller bad press dissident ironing shirt 4 p393

Liz diller bad press dissident ironing shirt 4 p393

By folding, buttoning and ironing a shirt in alternative ways, it could no longer be stacked or packed. Image courtesy of Michael Moran / Diller Scofidio + Renfro 

We need more spaces such as New York’s High Line, the most successful public space created in the last century, more memorials such as Kathryn Gustafson’s Princess Diana Memorial in London, which are alive and invite our interaction, and we need more emphasis on small-scale, even temporary interventions such as the parking-space parks that spread from San Francisco.

As our technology develops, the distinctions between objects and their meaning are also disappearing. Objects have become smaller and more interchangeable. It is the software, the content, the cloud of images, forms and ideas that swarm around us that give meaning. Why are we still stuck with our focus on making distinctive buildings, our idée fixe?

Third, we should think of moving beyond the building as object and think of it as the marshalling of resources to again focus, frame, cocoon and create places that afford a variety of social relations. Computer-based programs such as those that Zaha Hadid’s office uses now allow us to optimise flows and predict points of gathering, but we can also learn, as firms such as Snøhetta and RAAAF do, from observation and experience how to create spaces and places that make sense, rather than building boxes and then making the best of what is left inside and outside these objects.

‘Architecture, in other words, might not need buildings at all’

Fourth, we should think of not building at all. The future will increasingly be dedicated within design to renovation, restoration and re-imagination of existing buildings. We have more than enough buildings. We can no longer use up natural resources that we cannot renew on structures just because we want something newer, shinier and only maybe more logical than what exists. Historic structures have a patina, a sense of human existence, that new structures usually lack. Instead of that turning into the ‘ruin porn’ that gives us the glossy photographs of Detroit in decline, it should lead to a higher value for existing structures and their possibilities over the investment in the shiny and new. The new president of the US AIA predicts that even in the country that many still think of as dedicated to progress and newness, over a third of the work in which professional architects will engage in the coming half century will be in the area of renovation and reuse.

Architecture should be a mirroring, mapping and reusing of the world that already exists. Space is not just something you make, but something you find, appropriate, allocate and, most important, enliven. You can do that in and with existing structures; with projections; by changing perceptions through advertising or lighting. Architecture, in other words, might not need buildings at all. If we could imagine how the discipline could be like a festival or art installation in a public sense, and like a social network in a smaller scale, we might start to think about spatiality, and sexuality, in a fundamentally different manner. 

This piece is featured in the AR’s March 2018 issue on Women in Architecture – click here to purchase a copy