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«Sherry Ahrentzen The Space between the Studs: Feminism and Architecture I I was in my second year of graduate school, searching for a n 1979, ...»

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Sherry Ahrentzen

The Space between the Studs: Feminism and Architecture

I I was in my second year of graduate school, searching for a

n 1979,

research topic that would sustain my interest for at least three more

years while I worked on my dissertation. One day, someone surreptitiously placed a poster in my office mailbox announcing a two-day symposium called “Planning and Designing a Non-sexist Society” at the University of California, Los Angeles, organized by Dolores Hayden.

Intrigued, I went and found an engaging cadre of researchers, activists, architects, planners, politicians, and graduate students who were rethinking women’s place in the built landscape. I drove back the sixty miles from Westwood to Irvine, California, where I was going to school, and begged one of my professors (the one, perhaps, who had snuck the poster in my mailbox?) to borrow a copy of his 1976 issue of Signs, which contained a ten-page review essay of “Architecture and Urban Planning” by Dolores Hayden and Gwendolyn Wright, an essay that kept cropping up in the discussions at the symposium. The thought that there might be a “field” encompassing women’s (even gender!) issues of the built landscape was like fireworks erupting in my head. I was hooked. I still am.

It’s been twenty-five years since that last review essay in Signs that “describe[s] current areas of research concerning women in architecture and the physical aspects of urban planning” (Hayden and Wright 1976, 924). Since then the work in this area has flourished, so much that a tenpage review essay such as the 1976 one could not possibly cover the writings, exhibitions, and projects produced in the past twenty-five years that explore gender issues of the built landscape, let alone of architecture even narrowly defined. The forums where these feminist writings and projects lie are no less diverse than they were in 1976, but the number of books and edited collections has multiplied, particularly in the past decade. Yet quantity of publication does not translate into clout or transformation within the discipline of architecture. In the professional office, feminism (and even the idea of gender) is often highly suspect, even disdained. Many women seeking acceptance in this still male-dominated field—in the United States, 17.5 percent of architects (U.S. Bureau of [Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2003, vol. 29, no. 1] 2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2004/2901-0005$10.00 ❙ 180 Ahrentzen Labor Statistics 1999) and 15.8 percent of full-time architecture faculty are women (Anthony 2001)—disassociate themselves from talk of gender or even sex difference.1 Yet certainly something serious is happening when all annual Pritzker Architecture Prize winners are men, as are all winners of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal, an award given annually since 1907.2 Architecture matters in the daily play of gender, and vice versa. A myriad of projects, research studies, and writings lends increasing insight to understanding the gendering of architecture in its many manifestations and doing something about it. This current essay does not attempt to duplicate the type of comprehensive coverage Hayden and Wright undertook in delineating and describing the various works twenty-five years ago. In their introductory chapter to the 1999 book Design and Feminism, Joan Rothschild and Victoria Rosner provide a solid overview of the many prominent monographs and edited collections published in the past couple of decades. I have also provided an overview of many essays, journal articles, chapters, and projects of feminist concerns in architecture in my essay “The F Word in Architecture” (Ahrentzen 1996a). What I endeavor to do in this particular review essay is what any good feminist scholar does: look for the invisible among the visible—the space between the studs—and try to figure out why it is overlooked or devalued, and what that means.

To frame or not to frame?

There has been a minor avalanche of books and collections on the issue of gender (or feminism) and architecture in the 1990s.3 Most are edited Compare this figure to those of other male-dominated professions. In dentistry, 19.8 percent of the professionals are women, 26.6 percent of physicians are women, and 28.6 percent of professionals in the law and the judiciary are women. Women account for more than 43 percent of executives, managers, and administrators nationwide. But women’s presence in architecture looks favorable when compared with the clergy, where only 12 percent are women—because there are more clergy than architects in the United States, however, you are more likely to encounter a clergywoman than a woman architect (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 1999). Other depictions of the status and influence of women in the architectural profession are virtually impossible to assemble since the professional organization, the AIA, does not compile statistics on job types and employee gender within its member firms.

Sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation and initiated in 1979, the Pritzker Architecture Prize portrays itself as the international architectural community’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The Gold Medal is the highest honor that the AIA can bestow on an individual.

See Berkeley and McQuaid 1989; Colomina 1992; Spain 1992; Weisman 1992; Altman ❙ SIGNS Autumn 2003 181 collections—some with original essays, others with reprints—and, for the most part, not targeted to a specific topic or issue in architecture but, rather, encompassing a vast, often disparate array. One striking characteristic that most of these edited collections have in common is that in their wish to be pluralistic the editors refrain from providing a framework for rendering and interpreting the intellectual terrain in the book. Some have even chosen not to subdivide the chapters into sections, claiming that such formal structures are divisive and alien to the multidisciplinary nature of feminist work.





While fashionably “postmodern,” this refusal to provide an explicit interpretation and framework—or even the basis for selection—for a collection of essays that one solicited, assembled, and edited may unintentionally convey to readers a lack of intellectual development, connectedness, or even synergy of these myriad projects and writings. Playing to a friendly inclusiveness or rendering a serial encyclopedic compendium can obscure the political and intellectual stakes that are involved. “Why these particular readings?” I-the-reader ask to silent editors. I agree with Jane Rendell (2000) that readers often desire (and can certainly deal with) what she calls “markers” and what I call “conceptual schemas” that they can use to engage in their own thinking about the nature of the field. I am even more convinced of this after having scrutinized this literature and having found various professionals and academics bemoaning the lack of a stance or conceptual framing posed by the editors of these collections (e.g., Haar 1997; Adams 2001). With the growing number of these collections and special journal issues in the past decade, feminist scholars and professionals have become more visible, vocal players on the stage of architectural inquiry and practice. Yet ironically, as Nancy Hartsock forewarned (1987), the concomitant postmodern turn away from grand narratives and authorial authority has suggested to some, including some editors, that since all voices are simply partial, an attempt at overarching synthesis, synergy, or even categorization is simply a tainted effort. However, within context, it must be said that some voices have considerable perspective and insight, particularly the voices of those who have spent and Churchman 1994; Betsky 1995; Agrest, Conway, and Weisman 1996; Coleman, Danze, and Henderson 1996; Ruedi, Wrigglesworth, and McCorquodale 1996; Sanders 1996; Durn¨ ing and Wrigley 2000; Rendell, Penner, and Borden 2000; Anthony 2001. Within the past decade, special issues of journals that address feminist issues in architecture include Design Book Review, “Gender and Design” (Snowden and Ingersoll 1992); ANY, “Architecture and the Feminine: Mop-Up Work” (Bloomer 1994); Magasin for Modern Arkitektur, “Feminine ¨ Practices” (2000); and the Journal of Architectural Education, “Gender and Architecture” (Ghirardo and Stuart 2001, 2002).

❙ 182 Ahrentzen months, even years, inviting, selecting, filtering, advising, and editing various essays and ideas to compile in a monograph—all the while keeping one ear to the ground and listening for emerging developments and debate. Taking a stand, positioning one’s landmarks, and developing conceptual schemas of the vast array of complex works are important intellectual contributions that benefit many. Clearly, with the onslaught and insight of poststructural criticism in the 1990s, we all realize that frameworks are not fixed in stone. But if we have several such frameworks before us, constructive and reconstructive dialogue has a foundational footing on which to build—even if that means tearing away and resetting that foundation later.

What is not being said when refusing to frame this ecumenical blend of feminist projects and epistemologies is that creating such a comprehensive, nuanced, yet elegant framework that could embrace, not straightjacket, the various feminist contributions in architecture over the past twenty years is a Herculean task. Editors of two of these collections who have accepted this challenge develop a conceptual reconstruction of the history and current stage of work and scholarship in the field. Reading each is informative, insightful, and intellectually engaging in itself. Both demonstrate the growth of work in this field. But reading their frameworks together, side by side, is revealing also of what is not being framed or covered.

In the introductory essay to the book Design and Feminism, Rothschild and Rosner (1999) organize feminist work in architecture along three avenues of inquiry.4 The one that they call “Women in Architecture” encompasses research on the work of neglected women architects and the demographic accounting of women architects. Work within the second avenue of inquiry, “Spatial Arrangements,” explores how women experience the spaces they occupy and use. The early work here focused on two interrelated ideologies—women and domesticity and the ideology of separate spheres—and on white middle-class women and heterosexual family arrangements. Later, work addressing and involving more diverse groups of women, settings, issues, and interpretations arose. In the third avenue, “Theories of Architecture and Gender,” the early work in the 1970s and 1980s often examined architecture—whether in symbol or form or practice—in terms of female-male and feminine-masculine differences.

In the 1990s, this binary approach was increasingly called into question, resulting in an outpouring of work that conceptualized gender as one of Their book encompasses other design fields as well, but I focus only on their treatment of architecture here.

❙ SIGNS Autumn 2003 183 an intersecting number of elements, including class, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, that comprise identities. From this orientation, theorists challenged the social context and social conditions that make a multiplicity of differences matter.

Gender Space Architecture (Rendell, Penner, and Borden 2000) is an especially dense and rich collection of previously published articles and excerpts, which in itself speaks to the growing maturity of the field. Coeditors Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and Iain Borden divide the collection into three parts: “Gender” includes selections of key manifestos, texts, and debates in the development of feminism, women’s studies, and gender theory, with material ranging from Virginia Woolf to Judith Butler. “Gender, Space” includes materials derived from a number of “spatial disciplines for whom space is treated as concept as well as context” (Rendell, Penner, and Borden 2000, 6–7): anthropology, cultural studies, geography, philosophy, psychoanalysis, planning, art history, and architecture. The third section, “Gender, Space, Architecture,” is composed of chapters largely drawn from academics and practitioners of architecture who deal with considerations of the architectural practices of design, history, and theory.

Sectioning off material in “Gender, Space” from that of “Gender, Space, Architecture” reveals the contested nature of defining architecture not only among architectural academics but among feminist scholars as well. Although the editors stress the links between the two sections (e.g., mentioning how the ways of thinking about space by the authors in sec.

2 inform those considering architecture in sec. 3), they also claim that the focus on spaces in “Gender, Space” is on spaces that are not usually considered architectural, such as shopping malls, suburban developments, grocery stores, and workplaces.5 In their Solomonic decision, the editors have set that genre of feminist work that Rothschild and Rosner (1999) call “spatial arrangements” outside the field of architecture, likening it to an older sister who passes along her wisdom to the younger sister to capitalize on. Their lens focuses on architecture as “history, theory and design,” thereby restricting architecture from its more inclusive, social, lived, and symbiotic experience, as Rothschild and Rosner pose. (I return to this issue subsequently.) In the introduction to the third section of the book, the one titled “Gender, Space, Architecture,” Rendell (2000) devises a disciplinary and chronological topography that charts feminist projects in the architectural I question this rather curious distinction, given that some of the chapters in the third section also deal with “nonarchitectural” spaces, such as health centers, suburbs, African nomadic dwellings, and the like.

❙ 184 Ahrentzen practice of history, theory, and design over the past twenty years. Those projects from the 1970s and early 1980s encompass two concomitant and compatible realms: that of “Herstory: Women in Architectural History” and “Drawing on Diversity: Women in Architectural Design.” Within the first is an alternative history of architecture that uncovers evidence of women’s contributions to architecture and that reclaims the history of low-key buildings; everyday housing; domestic, interior, and textile design;



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