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Farshid Moussavi on Women in Architecture

Farshid Moussavi

Agenda bender: the case for the abolition of female role models

We all know that becoming an architect requires a leap into the unknown. No textbooks can fully prepare you for it. To emerge as an architect you must navigate your way through unfamiliar territories – culture, politics, economy, clients, the construction industry, statutory bodies, user groups, emerging technologies, consultants, decision-makers,wider communities; the list is endless … And for a woman there is an extra unfamiliar territory because she is working within systems which are mostly not of her own making.

Whether revolving around the need for more women architects (as highlighted in the recent Architects’ Journal special issue), or how the female body can be used to embed sensuality in architectural forms, discussions about women in architecture tend to be trapped in the representation of some idealised ‘woman’. This idea is fundamentally conservative. In order to innovate, architects need to move beyond such approaches (which are limited to a prioriassumptions) and embrace the unknown. If the idea of a female gender is to become fuel for innovation, 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.

One of the most useful gender theories I have come across is Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘becoming-woman’. This dismantles biological gender definitions and reconceptualises the sexes as ‘being man’ versus ‘becoming-woman’: where ‘being man’ is the status quo and ‘becoming-woman’ is a process of becoming something other than the status quo. The significance of ‘becoming-woman’ is that it is a creative and sexually-neutral process which can be undertaken by men and women alike. Whereas the idea of ‘being a woman’ implies rebellion against ‘being a man’, ‘becoming-woman’ is productive – a process of disengaging from conventions and opening out to processes of becoming completely different.

In architectural terms, the status quo (or ‘being man’) could refer to the use of prefigured design systems, which can broadly be described as top-down or bottom-up. The common denominator of both systems is that the design process proceeds through the application of prefigured formal rules, either at the scale of the whole or part. ‘Being man’ therefore seeks to manage or predetermine the built environment through these apriori and autonomous systems. However, given that our contemporary environment is characterised by dynamic forces, these systems risk producing architecture which, being detached from processes of change, finds itself obsolete. An innovative approach (or ‘becoming-woman’) exploits the multivalent forces that exist within environments external to the discpline rather than those purely formal conventions already internalised and turned into rules for the discipline. ‘Becoming-Woman’ in this way discovers potentials for and generates new systems and built forms.

The number of women practising varies from country to country, as does the perception of professional women and the professional scene: how meetings are run, when and how colleagues socialise, the way men and women interact. The need to navigate local or national gender issues is an exclusively female concern. But this can be fuel for innovation. When I practised in Japan, my own extreme difference with the local culture enabled me to ask ‘obvious’ questions and challenge the status quo, rather than unquestioningly accept conventional practice. In poetry, as elsewhere, the benefits of exteriority are quite visible. The empathy and humanity in the poemsof William Carlos Williams, for instance, were fuelled by his job as a doctor, listening to the ‘inarticulate poems’ of his patients. Both in the UK and elsewhere, I have found that clients and academic institutions interested in innovation value precisely this kind of difference and consider it essential in taking the kind of risk necessary in any creative work.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that scientific knowledge grows through two stages: periods of ‘normal’ (status quo) science in which scientists consolidate research around common puzzles, and ‘intellectually violent revolutions’ which occur when these same puzzles are suddenly seen differently. ‘Becoming-woman’ too makesuse of the status quo, rather than rejecting or replacing it. The status quo becomes a foundation for processes of change, distortion, adjustment, subversion, decentring, dissolving, and so on. Rather than arguing for female architects to be the same as male architects, women should differentiate themselves, not only from men but from other women too. There should be no female role models. Where men in architecture have role models to emulate, the absence of any idealised female style, career trajectory or behavioural conventions gives women architects the freedom to become, and produce, something as yet unheard of.

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