Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture explores what it means to employ feminism in design, but can the exposed design methods really be considered radical?
Improvised, not-for-profit, tactical, self-reflexive, playful, ephemeral, collaborative, non-Cartesian, instinctive, interdisciplinary, embodied: just a few of the terms describing Feminist Practices excerpted from the collection of articles that make up Lori A Brown’s edited volume of the same title.
What does it mean to practise in a feminist manner and how is it done? Through the voices of 19 different women, the book, originally conceived as a travelling exhibition, attempts to answer such questions. If resistance to a single hegemonic tradition is understood to be a feminist attribute, the book obliges by providing a broad spectrum of methods, offered by a diversity of authors, about projects located across both hemispheres.
It also makes the singular identification of certain answers difficult. Whom do feminist ‘methods’ benefit: the production of an expanded knowledge to be made universally available, or ‘women’ − that disenfranchised half of our global population? In other words, is it about the formulation of new theories of difference, or is it about pushing for equal rights?
The latter may have been predominantly featured on the agenda of the first two ‘waves’ of feminism, but this selection of practitioners confirms that our current ‘third wave’, which has been dominated by work on materiality and performativity, is more preoccupied with embodied, individual spatial experience than with planning a coup on the patriarchy.
The rise of everyday studies through spatial practices (Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, etc) first situated resistance within the realm of spatial experience and in the interstices of daily existence rather than through direct action against oppressive structures: the revolution would be tactical and freedom would emerge from The Revolution of Everyday Life − freedom of the working class rather than of womankind, but the methods posited were appropriated and today’s feminist empowerment curriculum begins with the conscious experience of one’s body and its movement in space. (That the practice of embodied experience shifted from means of emancipation to ends in and of itself is not so much discussed in the book.)
Despite Jane Rendell’s reminder to resist binary oppositions, the relationship between fabric and structure − between the resilient and the rigid − emerges from most of the featured essays. The gender attribution is consistent throughout: the masculine resides in the structure/infrastructure, whereas the territory for feminist practices occupies the infill/fabric.
This is made most literal in Lois Weinthal’s essay ‘Interior-scapes’ through the parallels between architects and tailors as traditionally men with the authority to intervene on structure, and between interior designers and seamstresses whose role consists of repairing, mending or embellishing that which stands clear of structural concern.
Weinthal doesn’t reject the opposition but attempts to reverse its embedded hierarchy: what if the walls were contingent upon the design of the furniture? For Cynthia Hammond, air itself is the site of intervention of her Breathing Spaces, because of its invisibility.
Through the use of dancing fabrics and bodies, Ronit Eisenbach, Dana Reitz and their students undermine the formality of their school’s ‘Great Space’ by reconfiguring its users’ experience of the cold concrete columns into a visceral experience of instability.
In Lilian Chee’s fascinating documentation of an episode in the life of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, structure takes the form of dominant narratives, to which she opposes anecdotes, rumours and the fabric of fiction. In the reconstruction of a legendary event, Chee as feminist historian mends a weak factual narrative structure with fictional improvisations, like a seamstress whose work far eclipses that of the tailor.
Whether tested on Turkish housing blocks, Indian domestic courtyards, the ‘white space’ of architecture, or the public spaces of Taipei, Melbourne or Toronto, the methods exposed in Feminist Practices mostly operate as ameliorative tactics to be implemented within an unchallenged normatively male power structure.
Given the book’s alarming introduction about the role and representation of women in both practice and academia today, one might experience the collection as an assessment of the effectiveness of the third wave’s methods, which have dominated the last two decades of feminist practices.
To its credit, Feminist Practices offers both general trends and alternatives. Several essays present practices qualified as feminist through their tackled subject rather than through methodological ‘difference’ − a concept that has been essential to feminist theory, but as Teresa de Lauretis has argued, is itself the product of normative heterosexuality. Rather than limit their impact to the interstices, some ‘minor architectures’ target structural transformation, recouping the revolutionary spirit of Everyday Life practices.
For muf architecture/art, intervention occurs early enough in the masterplanning process to appropriate and impact the direction of large building commissions. In Meta Brunzema’s work on La Marqueta Mile in East Harlem, the parasitic design takes on infrastructural characteristics. For Kim Steele and Lori Brown, who respectively work on industrial agriculture and abortion clinics, change begins with implementing policy. In these projects, community participation serves as a means of empowerment at the legislative scale rather than towards a distribution of authorship.
Of the entire collection, the most radical feminist practice presented dates back to early 20th-century Berlin where the emergence of the ‘career girl’ called for the development of new housing typologies. Despina Stratigakos’s remarkable account of the era suggests a managerial control unimaginable today: the provision of proper accommodation for the working woman elicited a comprehensive structure of production that included women clients and architects as well as a coalition of women’s professional organisations, enabling such programmes to be exclusively financed by women and disclosing a factor absent from today’s feminist practices: ‘the growing financial strength of the women’s movement and the willingness of its leaders to invest those resources in the built environment’.
One would logically conclude by asking: is Lori Brown’s book itself performing at the structural level or is it mending the voids that colonise our current literature on architectural practice? In many ways, the answer resides outside her capacities as editor and solicits the collaboration of power structures. It would begin with its integration in required course syllabuses, or even more urgently with the release of a cheap paperback edition.
Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture, Lori A Brown (ed), Ashgate, £65