Architecture made only from one point of view is not Architecture

By March 9, 2020 Blog, Events

International Women’s Day 2020

Diversity is essential to improving STEM, just as it is vital to the fields of architecture and urbanism. Yet, according to these statistics released by UNESCO, women are still under-represented in STEM, and gender biases and stereotypes continue to steer girls and women away from science related fields. Only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. 

A lack of visibility and recognition of women working in STEM fields, just as in architecture, is another issue to be noted. An example for this phenomenon is the creation of a Wikipedia page for Canadian physicist Donna Strickland. The page was deleted for not demonstrating the required notability. She then went on to win the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. 

In a recent article by Metropolis Magazine, Despina Stratigakos, author of the 2016 book Where Are the Women Architects?, speaks about the invisibility of women in architecture as “erasure, not an absence.” In the same article, architect and Syracuse University School of Architecture Professor Lori Brown points out, “it’s not just about writing women into bibliographies and not just about adding them to design teams. We need to ask, what are the different ways that women create practice?” In her book Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture, she disseminates the relationships between feminist methodologies and the various approaches toward design and their impact upon our understanding and relationship to the built environment. The different ways that women create practice extends to the approach of feminist urbanism and urban planning from a gender perspective. As explained by Barcelona based architecture collective Collectiu Punt 6, feminist urbanism “starts from the premise that urbanism is not neutral and that our cities and our neighborhoods have been shaped by the values of a society that is patriarchal. The physical form of spaces has contributed and contributes to perpetuating and reproducing these values. Faced with this, feminist urbanism proposes to put people’s lives at the center of urban decisions.”

To celebrate Women’s Day on March 8, we asked our director Carmen Mendoza Arroyo, assistant director Raquel Colacios and guest professor Verónica Sánchez about their experiences working in STEM related fields and architecture as a woman, in what ways female/non-binary architects challenge the status quo of architectural practice and the importance of feminist practice and urbanism.

Carmen Mendoza Arroyo
Architect and PhD in Urban Design and Planning. Associate Professor at UIC School of Architecture. Co-founder of the firm DAC Arquitectura, Rehabilitació i Urbanisme, which specialize in developing urban projects and the design of open spaces and social facilities.

 

What has been your experience working in architecture (or STEM related fields) as a woman?
Looking back of my experience in my field, architecture, when I was studying my undergrad and doctorate, both in Latin America and in Barcelona, all my professors were male. Actually, the only female professor in my doctorate in urbanism was Rosa Barba, an amazing woman that carved out a place for herself in a male led department. On the other hand, working in architecture and urbanism in my practice I had to always be assertive and proof my expertise, or else I would be confused as: my colleague’s secretary, helper or assistant at the construction site. Construction sites are still a male dominated environment. One could think this is because we are talking about many years ago. However, to this day I keep having these conversations with my male colleagues when it comes to feminism in our field, in which they express that they are neither feminist nor sexist. And I always ask them, how can this be, when sexism discriminates and feminism strives for equality? If you don’t believe in equality, then you are sexist.

In what ways do female/non-binary architects challenge the status quo of architecture practice?
We challenge it with two words, inclusiveness and diversity. Our understanding of the field has a lens which brings equality to the table, be it in our design of buildings or designing at an urban scale. Our design solutions are- paraphrasing Reni Eddo-Lodge referring to race inequality – ‘as complicated as the inequalities they seek to address’ (Eddo-Lodge;2017). When design is inclusive, it is addressing a diverse approach to that of the status quo, which only looks at one way of using the city and buildings, that of men or of powerful groups.

What are your thoughts regarding the importance of feminist practice and urbanism?
Feminist practice in urbanism and, if we are more specific to our program, feminist practice at an urban scale in development and humanitarian design, means giving a voice to the invisible, the most vulnerable, such as women that stay at home, those that work in the informal economic sector, those that have to take up roles that they did not have in their original countries, and adapt. Feminist urbanism is designing for all the communities that usually have not been addressed through traditional planning. A kind of urbanism that designs cities as the ones Leonie Sandercock dreams of,  ‘…where only after consultation with local folks could decisions be made about our neighborhoods; where scarcity does not build a barb-wire fence around carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no one is without authority; where I don’t have to translate my ‘expertise’ into jargon to impress officials and confuse citizens.’ 

Raquel Colacios
Architect and PhD. Assistant professor at the UIC Barcelona School of Architecture. Her research is focused on innovative socio-spatial urban analysis understood as a methodology that re-formulates design practice towards a more just city.

 

What has been your experience working in architecture (or STEM related fields) as a woman?Working as a woman architect has been a process in which I realized how masculinized some areas of life still are. It is a discipline in which the status quo is defined by men. And when you start working in architecture as a woman you adapt yourself to the established status quo – because that is what we were taught that way in our studies. Until little by little, at least in my experience, you realize that adapting yourself to the established way of managing processes, projects and people does not make you feel comfortable. You feel that you could contribute much more through a more feminine practice. And what does feminine practice mean? One can guess it would be a more sensitive and emphatic practice. But I would argue that it still has to be defined because there is very little trajectory of how a feminine architecture practice would look like. It is a challenge and an opportunity that we have ahead of us to contribute to a more just, diverse and tolerant practice.

In what ways do female/non-binary architects challenge the status quo of architecture practice?
It is a challenge in itself, changing a practice that has been for so many years lead by men is a difficult task. As I said before, it is a path that we must take in order to face the challenges, difficulties and opportunities that will help us define what a “female practice” is.
Women architects are exploring areas of architecture and urbanism that were not explored before (use of space, security, power relations etc). You could say that for years we have been seeing only one side of the whole, and now we start seeing and  exploring the other side in order to get a much more diverse and representative practice.

What are your thoughts regarding the importance of feminist practice and urbanism?
Women and men don’t live and experience cities and spaces in the same way. In that regard architecture and urbanism has to respond to the different ways the diverse groups inhabit the city. For instance, women move in different ways though the city than men, so having this in mind when designing the city makes the design more inclusive. The same happens if we think on perception of security for instance.

Verónica Sánchez
Architect and independent researcher. Co-director of Proceso de Proyecto Atelier and co-founder of n’UNDO, which advocates a different way of doing architecture. Her research includes refugee camps and informal settlements. 

 

What has been your experience working in architecture (or STEM related fields) as a woman?
I´ve worked as an architect for 15 years now. Last week a friend asked me to accompany him to visit a house to rent. Once there, I asked the owner if I could take some measures. The owner asked me: “Are you a decorator?” For sure if I was a man, he would have never asked the same question.

In what ways do female/non-binary architects challenge the status quo of architecture practice?
It should be the same way. Sex or no-sex orientation should be independent from the architecture practice. However, I hope that the diversity of the individuals and their differences make architecture better, richer and more open. Architecture made only from one point of view is not Architecture.

What are your thoughts regarding the importance of feminist practice and urbanism?
Feminism is a perspective to look at the world, an essential one, because outside of feminism you are discriminating against 50% of the population. If you ignore this perspective, you probably won’t be capable of improving our cities in a real way. If you have a narrow, biased and unequal point of view, your contribution to our cities will be reduced and non-efficient, even unfair. Cities must be created with a most open and holistic vision.

 

Also check out our contribution to last year’s Women’s Day – Changing the Field – a presentation of some of our amazing female alumni.

 

Feature Image: Women’s Day March in Istanbul, photo by Conflict & Development at Texas A&M, Creative Commons Licensed

All other images: Women’s Day March 8M in Barcelona 2019, courtesy of Ajuntament de Barcelona, Creative Commons Licensed

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