Architecture &: FEMINISM

Article by: Shristi Sinani

Monika Grabuschnigg, What Shall I Swear By, 2017. Photo by Asaf Oren. Courtesy of Carbon 12.

Greetings from the most overused, overrated, misunderstood, modern day locution, Feminism!

The aim of this piece of work is to explain, the nitty gritty lying within and around the term and how it makes its nook in the field of architecture. Because we all think we understand what ‘feminism’ means, but let’s all be on the same page for the sake of this article, shall we?

Feminism has multiple definitions. Considering all, if we omit the details and somehow boil them down to assess their similarities; all revolve around a single commonality i.e women’s inferior position in society as compared to their gender counterparts. Birthed by 1871 in French text by Alexandre Dumas, a writer and anti feminist. It started off as a description of a woman adopting masculine behavioural traits. From there, the term saw sights of the American women’s rights movement as well as Britain’s women’s suffrage movement, to be finally sorted majorly into two ‘waves’ according to Jane Freedman a British-french author who states the first wave being a period between late 19th century and early 20th century where women demands adhered to equal rights. This is when the 19th amendment to the US constitution was added, getting rid of the gender based voting system. The second wave of feminist activity occurred during the 1960s and 70s when the skirts got shorter, boots got taller and bell sleeves got their spotlight. Feminists were voicing their opinions on areas of sexuality, family and work. Freedman’s text clarifies those waves as not the only times when women voiced their options about suppression in society. Time and again, during, pre and post those times women wrote  and questioned the place assigned to them in society.

If sorted by historical approaches feminism can be - liberal, marxist/socialist and radical which are seen as the dominating categorisations. Some others are psychoanalytical, post modern, poststructuralist, black feminism and so on. All of which have different properties, principles and ideas associated. In short, there is no one way to be a feminist!

In the era of the #metoo movement reigns techno-savvy, silent Generation Z with social media as ammo, everyone having easy access to (almost) everything, being socially woke is no longer a preferred requirement but a mandatory one. Online culture appropriation and racial slurs can cost you your daily bread and butter. So, where does living, breathing, physical architecture fall in the midst of all of this? For starters, how about a little exercise, can you name 6 architects?

How many of those that popped up in your head were male?

Now, name 6 architects who are women; without looking of course.

Good on you if you got them all; bonus points if the first name wasn’t Zaha Hadid!

Soziale Fassade by Isa Genzken, 2002

Statistics collected by AIA suggest 42% of graduate architects are women of of which a mere 18% remain in architecture as licensed architects and 12% of those licensed, are partners. This means, the decision making powers aren’t something contemporary female architects are entitled to. Going back to Zaha Hadid for a second; she had 16.6% female partnership in her firm. ALL of which was her. No woman, apart from her shared place in the board of directors. Established (female) architects in the field point out this is one of the problems in the industry. Along with lack of partner position, there is a lack of support - specially from their same gender contemporaries. Its claimed that whatever little support they seemed to have gotten at the very beginning were from male mentors - now that could be (a) because women may seem to believe there is just one chair at the table or (b) going back to the first remark of lack of women leaders in this particular career field.

After completing tedious, elaborate processes of graduation and license milestones, women face the next chapter of their life, family. Care giving - be it for elders, children or other members of the family; it is seen as the second reason why women lag in architecture. Not that this is one, a man doesn’t go through. But Sheng suggests women seem to endure the consequences of this phase more than the opposite sex being baby bearers and primary caregivers. First world countries such as in the case of Australia there is the Fair Work Act 2009 or even the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to protect female workforce from harassment. It is important for workers to be informed of fair work laws; to be educated and taught how to put into practice when needed. Nevertheless it is also crucial to note that even post laws, 49% Australian mothers experience pregnancy-related discrimination at work; casuals are more likely to such scenarios. 84% of those who have experienced discrimination, have had long term negative impact on either mental health issues or financial stability. At times, laws may be manipulated to look nice on the face of it. For instance ‘bonuses given to employees who take the least amount of personal leave in a year.’

Other than the first world countries let us also acknowledge geographical locations which are ignorant to female specific conditions; an example would be that of Indonesia. This is not a singular condition, this happens in majority third world countries where the general workforce is pressured by the capitalist norms, to make profit for the privileged.

The Jakarta post advocates the following pieces of information -

2017 case of a worker at an industrial area in Karawang, Bekasi, was 8 months pregnant and allegedly forced to quit her job after she had requested maternity leave.

According to Health Ministry data in 2018, around 35 percent of companies in 19 provinces did not have a lactation room. 

If we were to take a guess, not very many women were involved in the design of the company premises without a lactation room. Women understand the user profile which make up 50% of the society - women. Gina Périer, French architect and designer of LaPee, innovated a female urinal system for Roskilde festival in Denmark. It solves few prime hiccups a woman confronts as she decides to use a public restroom - long lines, privacy and/or transmitted infections.

Photograph taken from https://www.lapee.dk/

According to the guardian, ‘The Lapee takes the idea of a single moulded urinal unit with built-in storage tank and adapts it for women by extending the divider to screen the user off, lifting it up and raising the hole into which you pee to make it easy to hit.’ (Orange, 2019) Another reason which seems to adhere more for women than men is the glass ceiling. The dictionary definition of ‘glass ceiling’ looks something like this - an unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities. Architectural academic Martha Throne speaks to highlight how European countries tend to have a dismal male-female ratio of teachers in architectural schools. Architectural profession may have structures that perpetuate hiring an architect of whose values and skill are given more heroic credence where there are discriminations on the part of individuals rather than a collaborative figure.

Denise Scott Brown                       
Neri Oxman
Amanda Levete
Elizabeth Diller
Annabelle Selldorf
Maya Lin
Odie Decq
Jeann Gang
Peggy Deamer
Frida Escobedo
Marwa al-Sabouni
Eva Franch I Gilabert
Amale Andraos
Mabel O. Wilson
Tatiana Bilbao
Deborah Burke
Sandra Barclay
Julia King

To conclude, here is a list drawn out to pay homage to a few architects, who happen to be women: 

While lastly, mentioning how important it is to give them space - physical, mental and emotional. As students or educators, the goal should be to learn, voice and incorporate all that is missing, needs addressing and strengthen principles. If you couldn’t name those 6 women architects - read about them, teach about them. As decision makers, duty’s to tailor rules to encourage strengths of individuals rather than their dismissal. As creatives, best practice would be an inclusive one - diverse perspectives, optimise solutions. Finally as a human beings, we must shatter (or help shatter) the glass ceiling in our own way.

After all, the great I.M Pei said,

“ Architecture is the very mirror of life. You only have to cast your eyes on buildings to feel the presence of the past, the spirit of the place; they are a reflection of the society.”

And women are very much a critical part of society.


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