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Editorial View: Gender and Innovation

Catherine Slessor

Putting gender on the agenda: how the disequilibrium between the sexes could impel innovation. Read this issue here

When Charlotte Perriand turned up at Le Corbusier’s atelier in the Rue de Sèvres in 1927 she was told that ‘we don’t embroider cushions here’. Perriand, however, persisted and eventually joined Corb’s team of unpaid assistants (plus ça change), wrapping newspaper around her legs to ward off the bitter cold in winter. She went on to design furniture, interiors and buildings in an extraordinarily productive career that spanned over 70 years. Immortalised reclining languidly on a prototype for the classic chaise longue she designed with Corbusier, Perriand suggested a new role model for the modern, intelligent, sportif female designer.

Given the tenor of the times, Perriand’s trajectory is all the more remarkable, and though much has changed, many obstacles still confront talented, determined women who choose to make a career in architecture and design. This perpetually challenging issue has recently had a renewed airing, notably through our sister magazine, The Architects’ Journal. Following a survey of attitudes to women in British architectural practice, the AJ launched its Women in Architecture Awards, which took place earlier this year.

Yet though such initiatives are fundamentally to be welcomed, as Farshid Moussavi pointed out in her perceptive address at the Women in Architecture Awards lunch, and goes on to discuss further in this issue, architects, whether female or male, need new and more creative ways of negotiating the minefield of gender politics.

Role models are all very well, but can be just as corseting in their unattainable representations of how women should be (for instance, the powerful and multi-garlanded Zaha Hadid certainly takes some emulating). ‘There should be no female role models,’ asserts Moussavi. ‘Where male architects have role models to emulate, the absence of any idealised female style, career trajectory or behaviour conventions give women architects the freedom to become and produce something as yet unheard of.’ Essentially, she says ‘the presence of women in architecture has to be liberated from the dialectic of women architects versus men architects and women need to be considered as different’.

Citing the gender theories of Deleuze and Guattari, Moussavi posits the notion of ‘becoming-woman’, rather than ‘being a woman’, as a gender-neutral means of disengaging from the straitjacket of existing conventions and opening out to the process of becoming something completely different. ‘Becoming-woman’ is an especially agile and exploratory process, exploiting the multivalent forces that pervade environments external to a particular discipline, rather than simply accepting the formal conventions already internalised and turned into rules.

‘In this way’, says Moussavi, ‘becoming-woman discovers potentials for and generates new systems and built forms.’ Instead of that familiar feminist rallying call ‘the future is female’, the future could now be said to be ‘becoming female’ − for men as well as women.

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