Architecture+Feminism Roundtable

Roundtable Review: Architecture + Feminism, Architecture Australia, 2008.

In early December 2007 an informal roundtable dedicated to past and present conjunctions between feminism and architecture was convened at the School of Architecture and Design, RMIT University, in partial response to the brief visit of a Swedish architect and architectural scholar, Katja Grillner. To many the coupling of architecture and feminism might appear anachronistic at the current socio-political juncture, a defunct double act in an era wherein surely we have transcended the necessity to highlight ‘women’s issues’, for instance, equality of pay, political representation, and expression. Curiously, as this small event was being organised, similar forums or events were emerging out of the political woodwork. Gertrude Street Contemporary Art Space held a forum provocatively entitled, Feminism Never Happened, just a couple of weeks prior to the RMIT roundtable event. Earlier in 2007 the Brooklyn Museum, New York, hosted a show called Global Feminisms (March 21 – July 1, 2007), which gathered together a selection of artists grappling with feminist issues from the 1990’s to the present day. Those who generously participated in the RMIT roundtable speculated on whether such signs alone tentatively suggested a return to questions and projects that fall loosely under the much maligned and misunderstood rubric, ‘feminism’.

Feminism as a project forwards both socio-political issues as well as intellectual or cultural projects. The plurality of feminisms that can be historically traced, at least from the French revolutionary period onward, make feminism seem a cacophonous area of practice and research. For convenience, feminism is often arranged into ‘waves’ that seek to organise relevant activities around particular historical periods. According to this arrangement, first wave feminism seeks women’s emancipation from the yoke of the private domestic realm in order that they can enter into the same political field as men, and to be recognised as political actors with equal rights to men. Second wave feminism is more often associated with intellectual and cultural projects. Though it emerges alongside the student and workers’ protest movements of the late 1960’s and continues to call for the formulation of women’s rights, yet it also begins to develop a distinctly feminine voice that allows the celebration of sexual difference. A third wave can also be identified developing from the 1990’s onwards, which questions a reliance on essential definitions of what constitutes woman. The third wave opens up to the voice of the dispossessed ‘other’ in the form of post-colonial and ethnic identities, queer expression, and all the minor voices that a micro-politics calls forth. Importantly, with respect to all of the above, feminism is not necessarily just for women. Anoma Pieris (University of Melbourne) spoke about the feminisation of former colonies, and how the fledgling independent nation-state itself can come to be gendered to its disadvantage. This also strikes as a reminder that where women in post-industrial nations may feel that the feminist cause is no longer relevant, this very much constitutes a privileged stance when placed in counterpoint to the plight of women in many developing countries.

Despite the convenience of the above arrangement of feminisms into ‘waves’ of action, as Karen Burns (Monash University) pointed out, we have to be wary of framing distinct periods for we risk forgetting the ongoing, if quiet efforts of women and others to have their voices heard. It is as important to recognise the continuities as well as the ruptures in the multifarious threads that constitute feminist histories. Our contemporary stress on innovation often arrives with a forgetting of what has been achieved, or a subtle erasure of knowledge gained (an example of this Burns described as ‘intergenerational matricide’). Karen Burns and Harriet Edquist (RMIT University) both participants at the roundtable, noted that it has been some twenty years since they co-edited an edition of the journal, Transition dedicated to architecture and feminism. Edquist also recalled an active architectural women’s group that used to convene in the eighties named after Eileen Grey’s House, E.1027. A similar collective from a more politically active past, SWIM (Supporting Women Image Makers) had also been mentioned at the Gertrude Street event. The importance of a collective voice of enunciation was emphasised by many gathered at the Architecture and Feminism Roundtable, as it was suggested that a focus on individual architects constituted an insufficient account of the current activity of women operating in the field of architecture.

In terms of contemporary expression a confusing trend has developed whereby through a desire to emancipate the female body and its diverse modes of sexual expression, women have come perilously close to returning their bodies to the status of mere objects of desire. What is known as ‘raunch culture’, in which it is considered daring to foreground women’s sexuality (for instance, consider the Nando’s commercial where a mother takes a pole-dancing job in the evenings, and this is considered her choice and a liberatory one at that), quickly threatens to re-objectify the woman’s body, and make nothing further of her powers than her sex. An architectural exemplar might be the uninhabitable, laser-cut perspex folly within which is trapped a go-go dancing figure,  designed by Cassandra Fahey of Cassandra Complex for the 2005 Pavilions for New Architecture show hosted by the Monash University Museum of Art (September 1 – 29 October, 2005). How are we to read the sexy, girating body trapped and inaccessible in this glass-like enclosure? Similar ambiguities are much more readily available in the visual arts, where at the same time women practitioners appear more daring to explore the issues – think Tracey Moffat’s video vignettes Love, which explore Hollywood desire, and Patricia Piccinini’s Big Mother where a not human/not animal breastfeeds a human baby (both works were part of Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum). But why this focus on sex to define what woman can be or can do?

What we do know is that when it comes to the profession of architecture, women are still finding ways to be significantly represented in the work force. Katja Grillner (Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm) explained the research that she and a small collective were undertaking in Sweden under the name FATALE (Feminist Architecture Theory – Analysis, Laboratory, Education). This research group is dedicated to pragmatic questions, such as where are women going after they complete their degrees, and even after they are successfully awarded higher degrees. Very often women simply disappear off the professional radar. Grillner argued that there was still a need for very basic information about, and even support for graduating female architects. We also need to keep asking what is preventing the workplace from embracing new structures that can more adequately facilitate women’s needs? Then, on the other hand, there is the question of the intellectual culture of the discipline of architecture and its modes of creative and explorative practice. In terms of the processes associated with creative practice, how might architectural discourse as well as design be rethought via creative and critical analysis? Is it possible to imagine an écriture féminine [feminine writing], to borrow a concept from French philosopher Hélène Cixous, for the thinking and doing of architecture in such a way that it is made to open up to new possibilities? Here is an issue that appears to be less frequently discussed (in fact, it was noted by one participant that we seem to have lost or forgotten a language with which to address the pertinent issues). Should we continue to fight for architectural operations at the periphery of what is conventional architectural practice as a way of questioning traditional methods of representation? It does seem worth asking whether women can forge their own distinct mode of ‘feminine’ expression in the practice of design, and/or whether this approach is appropriate.

A disturbing outcome of the Roundtable emerged where it was suggested that it is a risky business to wear one’s feminist allegiances on one’s sleeve. The female (or other) architect does not want to be called a feminist for fear of being typecast, or else for fear of having her or his fluid subjectivity fixed in place. Those gathered seemed to be asking whether we could act as feminists by subterfuge, so as to avoid being constrained in our architectural production, especially by market forces (no one wants to ‘market’ themselves as a ‘feminist’ architect for fear of being stuck with domestic-related projects, or the design of childcare facilities!). This suggests that many clichés and habits of thought are still firmly held in place. When we consider the conceptual binary structure of man/woman, which also works itself out through an opposition between culture/nature, and public/private, one side of the dichotomy remains repressed in favour of the other, irrespective of their profound interdependence. In addition, the balance between basic socio-political rights and representation and creative modes of practice peculiar to women practitioners, together with pertinent discourse formation, is one that we are a long way off achieving. A constant vigilance is required in a discipline that is so influenced by fashion and still very much male dominated, from the institution to the world of practice. It is certainly not fashionable to be a feminist, but do we really need to invent a new name before we can start asking some pertinent questions about the place of women in the discipline of architecture?

With Niki Kalms, “Architecture + Feminism” in Architecture Australia, March/April, 2008.