What do we talk about when we talk gender in architecture? While there is a consensus on what sex means, the issues of gender are perceived to be a more complex and fragile territory to step on. I suppose it is easily digestible and comprehensible to bring everything down to sex – the need for more women architects, issues of pay gaps and underrepresentation can be efficiently translated into tables and pie charts which are, of course, much needed to bring attention and look for tangible solutions. The resultant problem is, however, that the conversation about gender in the mainstream discourse of our profession often dwindles, and eventually stops around there. The unasked questions that remain are: Why does it matter? Does the sex of the designer play such a huge role in the type of architecture that they produce? Or, perhaps, there is more to gender than what the eye sees? (there obviously is, so please bear with me)
If we understand the profession of architecture only as an art of building ‘four walls and a roof’, very little compassion is left for the art of curating. The act of assembling information and pieces of evidence, be it art or else, on a particular topic to raise attention and pose questions, gets little attention from the product-oriented minds. But aren’t we taught to provide solutions?; an architecture student might ask. Well, how can you provide a solution if you don’t know what the question is?
The issues of gender, feminism and representation in architecture are immensely important topics and I must say I was happy to see that there is (some) initiative to ‘display and discuss’ these matters among the students and staff at TU Delft Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. A particular take on that was recently on show in the public spaces of our faculty – if you were there you could not have missed it (contrary to other initiatives – the Architect and her Drawing exhibition was on display for about a week around the Easter weekend and the Architect’s Patriarchy Berlage lecture was [in]conveniently scheduled for the 24th of December 2021). Posters and photographs were displayed on the stairs and in the corridors in a timber + cardboard way which resembled, at least to me, protest signs, aiming to tackle the topic of Gender in Architecture.
The webpage of the organisers, a student association, explained that through the exhibition they ‘want to seek the controversy and hope to spark the discussion’ (sic!). A part of the display, for example, included interactive parts asking to vote for whether a man or a woman designed certain buildings (for example a high-end contemporary residential villa). I admit I have not yet seen an exhibition in the BK which would have triggered more discussion among my near and far colleagues – in this, I must say it was very successful. Many students whom I talked to were quite disappointed with one of the most prominently displayed parts of the exhibition – a series of portraits of famous architects on the staircase, which (if I am not mistaken) were ‘borrowed’ from the existing display in another part of the faculty building. Encouraged by shared sentiments, I thought of building on that exhibition as a framework for producing meaningful, interactive and participative discussion, to invite a more feminist approach not only towards the content of the exhibition but also the way it was curated.
With my intervention, I took the liberty to become interactive with the aforementioned part of the exposition with non-destructive means (think of it as a Photoshop mask) to spark the discussion the organisers aimed for outside of my social circle and take their seeking of controversy as an invitation to propose an alternative. We (the collective pronoun I use here represents also other students, male and female alike, who endorsed, encouraged and helped with this small happening) considered this a missed opportunity in the discussion on the underrepresentation of women (and other minorities) in architecture and the built environment. Would it not have been a lot more empowering for the students and staff to switch the narrative around and (finally) display and learn about all of these fantastic women architects who (I think we all agree on that) do not get enough attention in profession and pedagogy? My temporary edit of the display was, therefore, a response to an invitation to start a dialogue, not only on the mere presence of women in the profession but rather on what their presence represents.
Being a woman (or man) does not define one’s professional position. Neither is female interchangeable with feminist. Some architects found their way in designing high-end commercial architecture; others focus on feminist writing and social housing projects. There are both men and women on either end of this spectrum. Gender in architecture can encompass much more than representation – it can relate to discrimination by design, sensitivity to the complexity of experience, or the value of care, to mention a few. Attempting to discuss inclusivity without discussing the conditions that reproduce exclusion is pointless. Attempting to challenge the underrepresentation of women in mainstream architecture by actively reproducing the images of those (over)represented is a missed take. Can we talk about women in architecture without making it (again) about men?
The black and white portraits of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Norman Foster and other big names displayed on the stairs were covered with a cut-out of a female architect on a Tuesday afternoon. The selection included, but was not limited to, Charlotte Perriand, Denise Scott Brown, Matrix cooperative, Lina Bo Bardi, Yasmeen Lari, Mariam Kamara and Tatiana Bilbao. On Wednesday morning, the only sign left of them were pieces of masking tape. Once again, they were taken out of sight, out of the spotlight, as a bitter reminder.
Considered an act of vandalism, this little intervention sadly did not last long enough to generate any meaningful discussion I was hoping for. Still, the speed at which it was taken down reflects, among other things, the efficiency of greater forces with which one has to deal with once taking a place uninvited. Perhaps I should have talked to the organisers first? Give suggestions and ask for permission? But is this not, very ironically and very seriously at once, what we women have been brought down to all along?
Markus Miessen points out that in the current economy, as architects, we are forced to comply with the rules of the game and invites the concept of an uninvited outsider, or a crossbench practitioner, as a response, aiming to generate productive friction, relevance and responsibility. Teresa Hoskyns, Doina Petrescu and other mixed voices write that ‘it is possible to produce another quality of […] space through intervening in the power relations expressed through space. Place can simply be “taken”’. This position opens up a new range of possibilities for practising outside of the organisational constraints, in curatorship, at a university, and in the (architectural) profession. What then becomes questionable is the capacity and willingness of the organisation in question to accommodate and, if not accept, at least tolerate, productive difference.