“Feminism – the belief that men and women are of equal value – should provide an avenue for architects to coalesce and generate collective action on behalf of the lived material condition of women’s lives. Nothing more, and certainly, nothing less.” Carla Corroto argues for a new function for feminism in architecture.

In the last few years, the profession of architecture has acknowledged exigent women’s issues. From the declining number of women who persist in practice, to inequities in pay, architects are debating how best to challenge the gendered status quo in architecture. Last year ArchDaily published an editorial which argued that promoting women in practice would more fully represent humanity and increase the viability of the profession. The unease is not limited to the US – architects in the UK and Australia are also assessing the strength of the profession relative to women’s participation. As architects envision what is fair for women inside the profession, they are explaining why architects need feminism to facilitate necessary changes. Feminism can re-design careers, practice, and architectural education. Indeed, as leaders in other professions and disciplines recognise, feminism is a paradigm shifter.1

Feminism can re-design careers, practice, and architectural education. Indeed, as leaders in other professions and disciplines recognise, feminism is a paradigm shifter.

With this polemic, I offer another perspective on the function of feminism in architecture. My intent is to continue a conversation with the profession generally, and with feminist practitioners and educators directly. Using a current political event as heuristic device, I offer an example of how feminists in architecture should participate in public discourse when the built environment is involved. I am also drawing attention to a conflict between what American architects say they do as Citizen Architects, and what is actually happening.2

An example: the architecture of choice

On 12 April 2013 the Board of Health in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the US, approved new laws deploying building codes and architectural regulations that in effect further limit women’s rights and choices. The laws sanctioned new guidelines requiring clinics offering first trimester abortions to meet the same building specifications as newly constructed full-service surgical hospitals (by law, women past the first trimester are treated in hospitals). Mandating compliance within about 18 months, these standards will entail significant and costly alterations to existing facilities that may bankrupt many clinics in the state. Public corridors now have to measure 5 feet in width. Doors must be widened to accommodate stretchers. Janitors’ closets must be enlarged. The scope of these new laws extends to the site plan, which must now include four parking spaces per procedure room and an ambulance awning to shelter the entry doors.

Conservative operatives in several other states simultaneously proposed the use of building codes to close the doors on abortion providers, but Virginia is the first to authorise this level of medically unnecessary architectural protocol for women’s healthcare clinics. Targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) bills single out clinics for unnecessary, politically motivated, and restrictive regulations and if they find success using building codes to close clinics in one state, you can be sure that tactic will be replicated. We can read the political text (it is not subtext). The controversial conservative Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, current governor Bob McDonnell, and commonwealth anti-abortion groups’ political allegiances are linked to the building codes. In order to get these restrictive architectural regulations passed, the Attorney General used a combination of public rhetoric and backdoor dealing. First, he hypocritically appealed to the paternal notion of protecting women who seek health care in medical centres. Then he applied threats to members of the politically appointed commonwealth Board of Health, warning they could be individually liable for legal costs if sued over building code issues.

The political manoeuvring in relation to architectural arrangements and the responses by concerned professionals in Virginia, is well-documented in the press. The process of garnering votes during a session of the Virginia General Assembly is a matter of public record. The state Board of Health initially voted to grandfather existing clinics. How the politicos applied pressure to ensure a reversal is likewise documented in the public record. The Health Commissioner resigned in protest. There were loud objections from the state legal and medical communities. The leaders in Virginia who refused to endorse the legislation recognised that excessive building regulations have nothing to do with the health, safety, and welfare of patients and everything to do with the politics of space. There exists neither ‘best practices’ nor evidence-based research substantiating the claim that these conventions are structurally or medically necessary.

To be ethically, let alone rhetorically consistent, the commonwealth would have to regulate all clinics performing outpatient procedures, including restorative dentistry and liposuction. If the additional architecture was really about ‘protecting women’, the largest consumers of cosmetic surgery, these building codes would extend to dermatologists’ and cosmetic surgeons’ clinics. Obviously, imposing additional regulations on women altering their appearance contradicts the level at which, and the purpose for which the politicians seek control.

Responses to the new building code came from concerned professionals throughout the state. The chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine called these building codes ‘arbitrary and capricious’ and stated that the disruption in health care for women was politically motivated. A director of the University of Richmond School of Law wrote an editorial challenging the legislation on legal grounds. Almost 200 physicians took a public stand, denouncing the politicians and urging the state to reject the architectural alterations. The press continues to interview political operatives asking how this new regulation will influence the gubernatorial race come November. Health policy analysts, social workers and advocates for poor women who will be greatly impacted when these local clinics close, continue to speak up and organise in a developing social movement. We have heard from just about everyone with a stake in the impending architectural arrangements. Except architects.

Where are the feminists in the Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)? How about in the architecture faculties at the University of Virginia, Hampton University, or at Virginia Tech where the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) is housed? Where are the socially conscious, politically active, and community-minded architects and why are they not stepping up to add their voices and professional expertise to challenge the deployment of patriarchy through architectural arrangements? Who will speak for architecture in relation to women if not the leaders in the profession?

The AIA has a Codes and Standards Committee that according to the website, ‘…handles issues such as code change proposals, developing codes education, and setting up the Codes Network.’3 If feminists are interested in working within the profession to advocate for change, perhaps this committee is a place to get to work. Architecture is now a pawn for Virginia lawmakers who are using the built environment for targeted regulations on abortion providers. Through their silence are architects tacitly supporting restricting women’s rights?

Architects giving voice to women’s rights

First and foremost, space and architectural form has social and political content —always. Architects should speak their spatial and design truth(s) —articulating the meaning, consequence and impact of design, building and space on women’s rights. It matters that architects expose how space functions to contextualise and situate social relations, rather than serving as a neutral, impartial backdrop to social interaction. Architects should emphasise that while buildings are predominantly interpreted as a representation of culture, essential to the cultural framework of architecture is power. The creation of architecture requires land, capital, and the authority to build. Arguably, the history of architecture is the history of those in power. Power is constitutive of architectural space in ways that generate and reify dominant ideology and social inequality. Feminist design professionals should be objecting to the deployment of architecture in the project of patriarchal power.

Feminist design professionals should be objecting to the deployment of architecture in the project of patriarchal power.

The male-dominated profession, its critics and historians, favour locating architecture in the realm of cultural representation as they evaluate aesthetics and avoid the actual consequence of built form on individuals and social groups. In addition to interest in the design of clinics, let’s ask how the new architectural modifications design women’s lives. Carolyn O’Shea, deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia wrote, ‘… Virginia is one step closer to losing many women’s health centers that have exemplary records of providing safe first-trimester abortion and reproductive health care, some of them for decades. That means thousands of Virginia women, particularly low-income women, will lose affordable access not only to abortion care but to the comprehensive services like family planning and well-woman care that these centers provide.’

Most architectural literature debates the cultural, tectonic, and artistic influences on form. It is incumbent upon feminist architects to offer an inverse analysis and identify how architecture and spatial arrangements impact social relations and identity groups. Specifically, how does form reify gendered inequality? There is no intellectual exertion to offering an aesthetic analysis of the architectural design housing women’s health care clinics in Virginia. The present, strenuous and very difficult task is to problematise how women with limited resources will have to scramble for health care, and how men seeking political office are playing ideological football with building codes and women’s rights. Similarly problematic is how the architectural profession is complicit in this imposition of power.

Most architectural literature debates the cultural, tectonic, and artistic influences on form. It is incumbent upon feminist architects to offer an inverse analysis and identify how architecture and spatial arrangements impact social relations and identity groups. Specifically, how does form reify gendered inequality?

The act of explicating health care architecture – how it is positioned uneasily between corporate and public interests, science and culture, and politics and women’s rights – is to make transparent the power of professions in society. Patriarchal regulation of women’s bodies and female sexuality has a troubled history of supervision by the medical profession and the state. It is incumbent upon architects as professionals to put the community’s interests ahead of their own. Which communities are architects serving by their silence on the building code issue related to women’s health choices?

Feminism and architecture in context

Of late, from outside the profession it appears architects have embraced a symbolic and narrow attention to ersatz women’s issues and to frivolous if not contradictory causes. Last year women in architecture celebrated and embraced Architect Barbie with a dream house competition (largely played out among women.) This year, a number of women have expended social capital in a media-generating campaign to garner Denise Scott Brown that Pritzker Prize recognition. An impressive 12,000 people (at the time of this writing) have signed a petition of support redressing the Brown slight. Can we build on that momentum and encourage at least a petition campaign in support of women’s health care and challenging the use of architectural arrangements in the name of politics?

Re-framing feminism

In a well-received article published by the Design Observer explaining why architects need feminism, Despina Stratigakos delineated ‘what feminism contributes to the architecture profession.’ I would like to re-frame that concept could be read as professional self-interest. Architecture needs feminists and society needs feminist architects to identify the political implications of design and planning. It is well past the time for visually literate, spatially sophisticated, and committed feminist architects to speak up and advocate for spatial justice, not just in Virginia, and not just on the issue of clinics offering abortion services.

Architecture needs feminists and society needs feminist architects to identify the political implications of design and planning.

Every few years, architects seem to grab onto another discursive version of design activism. Whether through the obvious and trite tropes of New Urbanism, LEED certification, or any other number of Rural Studio-like impositions, architecture-the-profession typically ends up playing a marginal, ineffective, or obstructive role in the politics of building and space. To counter working for the proverbial ‘man’, it is time to challenge the deployment of architecture in the name of limiting women’s rights in any state. Introducing and accepting a feminist consciousness will take collective action.

Feminism is activist. Feminism is disruptive. Feminism – the belief that men and women are of equal value – should provide an avenue for architects to coalesce and generate collective action on behalf of the lived material condition of women’s lives. Nothing more and, certainly, nothing less.

 

NOTE: A shorter version of this article originally appeared on ArchDaily.

Footnotes

  1. See for example: C. Davies, “The Sociology of Professions and the Profession of Gender,” in Sociology, doi: 10.1177/0038038596030004003; A. Witz, Professions and Patriarchy, (New York: Routledge); and V. Taylor, N. Whittier, & L. Rupp, Feminist Frontiers, 9th Ed.(New York: McGraw Hill)
  2. AIA Citizen Architect statement claims that “The Citizen Architect uses his/her insights talents, training, and experience to contribute meaningfully, beyond self, to the improvement of the community and human condition. The Citizen Architect stays informed on local, state, and federal issues, and makes time for service to the community… The Citizen Architect on the Move … examines the role of architects in politics.”
  3. The AIA Codes and Standards Committee is a board-level committee that helps guide the AIA’s agenda in the codes and standards arena. See: http://www.aia.org/advocacy/AIAB099011