Feminism has had a powerful, longstanding influence on the development of architecture and urban design, although this is rarely acknowledged. Part 1 of Susana Torre’s lecture, Feminism and Architecture, explores the legacy.

Susana Torre, Courtesy of The Architectural League of New York.

Susana Torre, Courtesy of The Architectural League of New York.

Note: This is the first part of a remarkable lecture delivered by Susana Torre in New York, and co-sponsored by The New School University and The Architectural League of New York. It is published here with the generous permission of Ms Torre. Watch the video of the lecture here or read Part 2: Tokenism and Part 3: What Now?


Feminism and Architecture

My subject today is the ways in which feminist ideas have contributed to changing architecture and urban planning in the past three decades, and the reasons why these contributions are not acknowledged. To put this story in historical perspective, I want to begin by describing the exhibition “Women In American Architecture,” which opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977.

Women in American Architecture, 1977. Photograph Norman McGrath.

Women in American Architecture, 1977. Photograph Norman McGrath.

I was the exhibition’s curator, but also a member of a team, and we conceived of the exhibition as an enquiry – from a feminist point of view – into the conditions surrounding the production of space (particularly domestic space) in American society, and the extent of women’s participation in that production as designers, theoreticians and users. More specifically, we were interested in exposing the ways in which the subordination of women was embodied in space and the complicity of architectural design in that subordination. We also wanted to respond to the widespread impression that  “Oh, I didn’t know there were any women architects”.

This exhibition is my starting point for examining six themes, six ways in which feminist ideas have contributed to changing architecture and planning – and how these contributions have gone either unacknowledged or misinterpreted. These themes are: the design of domestic spaces; the changed structure of the suburb; the development of new building types; the engraving of collective memory; our changed attitudes towards nature; and finally, women’s culture and identity as a legitimate design paradigm.

Women in American  Architecture, 1977. Photograph Norman McGrath.

Women in American Architecture, 1977. Photograph Norman McGrath.

In the first installation of the 1977 traveling exhibition, the Brooklyn museum had expected that we would mount the exhibition panels in their large Beaux Arts gallery meant for huge sculptures. I thought this mismatch of scales would guarantee that the exhibition would look insignificant in that space, confirming the low expectations expressed by the museum’s allocation of $150.00 as the installation budget. This amount was enough to pay for the nails to support the exhibition panels, the spackle to cover the holes afterwards, and the labor involved. Since one of the objectives of the exhibition was to demonstrate the great number of women in the field, I came up with the idea of a Drafting Room installation, a room where the women were absent but their work was on the tables, whose bases were provided by Lionel Spiro, the supportive co-founder of the Charrette Corporation. We used the $ 150 to pay for the red paint of the “higher horizon.”

WAmArch 3

Women in American Architecture, 1977. Photograph Norman McGrath. The American Woman’s Home model by Jane McGroarty.

But the question of women’s almost complete invisibility in architecture was already a bit behind the times in 1977. In the art world, for example, there was already public recognition of the existence of women artists, if not necessarily of the worth of their work. The question was instead “Why aren’t there any great women artists”? This was the title of a pioneer and very influential analysis by Linda Nochlin that challenged the assertion that there were no great women artists because women were incapable of greatness. That is to say, greatness as defined by the male establishment’s standards, a problem that I believe we have not been able to overcome in our discipline.

In order to fulfill the objectives of our project, and to make visible the work of the women that our research unearthed at The Archive of Women in Architecture, we had to resist the very persistent pressure from some prominent board members of The Architectural League, our sponsor. They wanted us to reduce the number to only those “exceptional women” whose work would be acceptable to the (male) establishment. It would be a “stronger exhibition”, they said. The suggestion was also made that, to supplement the very scant number of exceptional American women, we could have a few European ones – if we could find them.

Indeed, if we had followed their advice, the exhibition would have consisted of the women you could count with one hand, such as Julia Morgan, the protégé of one of the country’s wealthiest patrons, Phoebe Hearst, or Theodate Pope Riddle, Phillip Johnson’s rich aunt, who built her designs for boys and a girls schools with her own money. And this would not only have frustrated the right of all women architects to become visible, but, more importantly, the very analytical objectives we wanted to achieve. Our way of telling the story also entailed a significant break with the dominant way of writing architectural history, with a focus on the figure of the architect and his [sic] work, or on “movements” or styles. We focused instead on the social and cultural conditions of production to reveal where women fit into the complex puzzle that ensured their invisibility. Since conditions vary in different contexts, we felt that, to keep our analysis in focus we had to limit ourselves to the US. The work of these architects was bracketed on the one hand by that of the far more influential domestic designers, untrained architects who had conceptualised the home as “woman’s place” in society and, on the other, by that of rebellious women who sought to assert women’s presence in the public domain through singular “Women’s Buildings” – at Chicago’s 1883 World’s Exposition and in Los Angeles in 1973-1975, the latter as a major cultural centre.

It is important to remember that the exhibition and the book did not happen in a vacuum, but almost at the end of a decade and a half of sustained feminist activism and social theory which produced major structural changes in society and in legislation ensuring rights for women that we have taken for granted in the past three decades. These changes were not due exclusively to feminist activism and ideas – but would not have happened without them. They included (among others): accessibility to housing and education; accessibility to non-stereotyped jobs; the expansion of the range of roles a woman could assume; the broadening of the range of sensibilities and emotions suitable for public display; changes in the relationship between men and women; and the active promotion of women’s access to political power.

The six areas that I have identified are not exhaustive. I am sure more in-depth research will reveal others. And although my design work has addressed all of them, I will refrain explaining any projects in the power point slides, not only because of time limitations but also because I hope you will visit my website or Google the projects I am showing.

1. The design of domestic space

Examples of feminist-inspired redesign of domestic spaces first appeared in the 1880s, as we know from Dolores Hayden’s book “A Grand Domestic Revolution”. However, these radical plans envisioning major changes in the domestic routine had a very limited influence compared to the dominant model of kitchens designed to make more efficient the work of one single worker, the wife. That is why it is quite disturbing that at the 2011 MoMA exhibition called Counter Space, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s 1926 Frankfurt kitchen was presented as a great innovation of Modern kitchen design because it replaced the kitchen-cum-dining room of the typical German worker’s house with an efficient, separate small room. Schütte-Lihotzky’s design, based on Christine Fredericks’ application of Taylorism, pushed women into isolation within that space ignoring decades of feminist analyses and improvements about that very subject. Even “Modern” women can produce totally backward designs, and we have to be intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that Modernity was not expressed in the design of that kitchen but rather in women’s emancipation from rigid domestic roles. Today I don’t believe any American designer would design a kitchen for a single female worker – the challenge is to design for the integration of all family members in the work of nurturing.

Hayden’s book provides examples of feminist plans of the 1880s and later, which expanded beyond the confines of the home into the design of neighbourhoods. In these plans, domestic labor would be performed in spaces equipped with industrial strength kitchens and laundries to be shared by several households. Although a few such cooperatives with shared facilities were implemented in New York City in the 1920s, the idea became more widely adopted by the co-housing movement in the US since the opening in 1991 of the movement’s first community, Muir Commons in Davis, CA, designed by the architectural team of co-housing leaders Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durret.

2. The changed structure of the suburb

In my 1998 essay “Expanding the Urban Design Agenda” I wrote:

“In the mid-1970s, when manifestations of male domination in American Society were under attack as part of a large and diverse social movement against all forms of social injustice, feminist scholars and policy-makers turned their attention to the limitations of women in traditional (sub)urban settings. One reason for this focus was that women’s increased access to education and their large(r) numbers in the workforce altered the separation of male and female roles, challenging the segregation of private and public worlds exemplified by low-density suburban communities. Pioneering studies showed the relationship of housing and community design to economic opportunity and sociability for women. (…) But while cities offered greater opportunities for everybody (…) the growth of suburbs seemed an irreversible trend. Scholars, architects and community activists therefore promoted the idea that American suburbs should become more like cities, that is, denser and more urbanized, providing better access to public transportation and placing services and amenities within walking distance of homes. Changes in zoning were seen as a priority in this effort because zoning was (and is) being used to exclude innovative uses of space to respond to respond to the needs of working women. Examples include(d) the sharing of homes by single parents of different families, working for pay in the home and the presence in the neighborhood of convenience stores. Advocates for the poor urged women to join the challenges of to restrictive zoning, which had the effect of limiting cooperative housing, battered women’s shelters, and other facilities to marginal neighborhoods, where there were higher crime, poorer schools, less public transportation and fewer amenities.”

In the just over decade and a half that followed since I wrote this, designers have introduced a multitude of initiatives to transform the suburb, including mixed-use zoning and many new housing types. Between the New Urbanism’s upscale new residential developments – the so-called TNDs, or Traditional Neighborhood Developments such as Celebration, available to a tiny and wealthier minority, and Dolores’ Hayden’s remodeling of existing suburbs by Homemakers’ Organizations for a More Egalitarian Society, or HOMES, that included jobs within each community, there has been a momentum towards the enduring transformation of suburbs. The pending assignment was racial and economic integration in residential communities across the country. A very limited form of integration – only a few families at a time – was being implemented by designs of multi-family housing that emulated the look, scale and materials of large single-family residences, a solution that, while being more acceptable to the white middle class, was clearly insufficient. It is only now, decades later, that the Federal Administration is making a concerted effort to integrate the suburbs, an initiative meant to offer poor minorities better opportunities for housing and education that is meeting harsh resistance by conservatives intent on protecting exclusive enclaves.

3. The development of new building types; the redefinition of old ones and the design of new construction norms and details

In the US, the integration of women into the labor force fostered the creation of new public building types since at least the end of the nineteenth century, when wealthy feminist patrons like Bertha Palmer managed to force the inclusion of a Woman’s Building in the Chicago Columbia Exposition of 1893. Unlike similar Neo-classical pavilions at the exposition, this one included a large central space that was used for lectures on the dissemination of feminist ideas and also teaching events to share, among other things, knowledge about technologies to shorten the time of domestic labor. As we know, this new building type pioneered in the 1893 exposition was revived in Los Angeles in 1973, expanding its functions to become a major cultural center and arts school in California; there hundreds, possibly thousands of women artists and designers got their chance to develop ideas in the fruitful company of peers, ideas that changed art culture in this country far more deeply than the culture of architecture has been changed in the same time period. A redefined type analyzed by Cynthia Rock was exemplified by the Women’s Clubs of the turn of the twentieth century, founded by white and African-American women seeking to show “their strength and ability to shape forces in their communities.” These buildings had programmatic requirements for spaces devoted to self-education that distinguished them from the men’s clubs.

Second wave feminists not only made Roe Vs. Wade happen – we also demanded that childbirth be restored to its natural, fundamental nature instead of being treated like an illness. I still remember the little embattled group of feminist midwives that managed to open the country’s first Childbirth Center in New York’s Upper East Side in the late 1970s, a major victory of persistence against hostile bureaucracies and the medical establishment. They worked out of a remodeled old townhouse that they transformed in home-like suites so that the entire family could participate in the joyful event of childbirth. As we know, this was such a good idea that ob-gyn hospitals, afraid of losing clients, decided to co-op it. So they commissioned architects to change their typology, incorporating childbirth centers with luxury equipment like king-size beds and Jacuzzis, many resembling 5-star hotel rooms so much so that the original purpose of the midwives became distorted: childbirth was no longer considered an illness; it was now a high end vacation.  Safe environments for women in the early twentieth century meant the new type of residential hotel where young unmarried women could feel protected from the big city’s (male) violence while pursuing careers. From the 1970s on, it was more likely to mean a shelter where battered women and their children could begin to reconstitute their lives away from (male) violence. This new building type, and other related new types of housing have been notoriously difficult to integrate, becoming NIMBY classics. When I was head of Parsons I taught a housing design studio that had the participation of Silvia Smith, now a senior partner at FxFowle. The studio originated in an initiative by Marjory Perlmutter to bring a non-profit developer, Community Access Inc. in contact with Parsons students for the design and construction of housing with an innovative program, combining apartments for former battered mothers and their children with studios for recovering addicts, creating a supportive community of people with complementary needs. Some students would go on to work at FxFowle on the construction documents phase of the project. But it didn’t come to pass, as “gentrifiers” in the Lower East side neighbourhood of the proposed site succeeded in stopping the project.

My own contribution to the redefinition of a building type was the design of Fire Station 5 in Columbus, Indiana of 1985-87, when the city’s Mayor – a woman – wanted to recruit and support women in the firefighting force. Finally, feminist activists have contributed to discarding the standard of designing for an able-bodied young male by creating a demand for more inclusive environments for different kinds of needs, from the redesign of doorways, toilets, buses, and parks to make spaces accessible to people with disabilities (and parents with baby carriages).

4. Changes in the way we conceive of engraving collective memory in the American city.

The questions about whose memories, how and where they are to be engraved in the collective experience have been of great importance to feminists. Women’s history, and the history of dispossessed peoples had, until the past 25 years or so, been invisible in the public domain, while statues and busts of entirely forgotten illustrious men remain in our parks and squares. My own proposal for transforming Ellis Island into a place for the celebration of the immigrant communities’ contributions to American society, and Dolores Hayden’s and Sheila de Bretteville’s homage to Biddy Mason in Los Angeles, are but two examples of inscribing forgotten histories in collective memory. There were also changes in the way war narratives were to be commemorated, brought about by the decision to memorialise the Vietnam War — a war the US didn’t win — onto the Washington Mall, the country’s most hallowed space of memory. Maya Lin’s memorial was crucial in materialising this change, not because it was designed by a woman (although this in itself was important), but because the memorial itself was not heroic, and did not resort to stereotypically male monumentality. Instead, she created a setting for the public display of private grief, where the ritual of leaving personal mementos has become part of the memorial and all spontaneous memorials since.  I explored the re-inscription of memory in a competition entry for the September 11 memorial on Ground Zero by designing the memorial as a place to re-enact a collective, cyclical ritual of memory, necessary to turn any place into sacred space.

5. The radical revision of our attitudes towards the preservation, rather than the conquest of Nature, and the emergence of sustainable design as an ecological practice.

To do this huge topic justice would require another lecture devoted to it, because the historic equation of “woman” and “nature” has been at the core of the universal subordination of women in society. The replacement of an attitude of domination over nature by one of cooperation with natural process is symbolic of the changes in women’s status worldwide. Thus feminist ideas and practices may be one force contributing to the reversal of noxious practices which are rapidly deteriorating our global environment and which remains the most urgent challenge facing us all.

6: Feminist identity as a legitimate design paradigm

This is not about the persistently annoying question about whether women necessarily design differently from men, but rather about the ways in which designers have sought to incorporate feminist concerns and ideas about women’s culture in their work. Feminist artists in the 1970s and 80s re-introduced the idea — already familiar to artists like Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti in the 1930s — that art not only could make the viewer question the structure of society but could do so by making visible women’s different point of view. Some artists like Joan Semmel and Judy Chicago did this through figuration, but others like Harmony Hammond sought ways to infuse abstraction with a feminist, critical purpose.  Artists such as Joyce Kozloff and Mimi Shapiro put the so-called “minor” arts of women’s crafts on the same level as the major arts of painting and sculpture, and re-introduced ornament after its long banishment from “serious” art. Public artists like Judith Baca engaged in large-scale projects for murals or construction fences to make visible and generate pride in the culture and ethnicity of marginalised social groups, who began demanding that projects of such kind be incorporated in community buildings being constructed with the help of government agencies. Some of these experiments found an echo in architectural designs – here are just a few examples: MOS’ House in Lincoln, MA; Zaha Hadid’s Stadium; Venturi and Scott Brown’s pattern and decoration building facades and furniture; my own “A little house” project inspired by quilt patterns; Benedetta Tagliabue’s “Basket” pavilion representing Spain in Shanghai; Isabel Coixet’s giant animated baby in the same pavilion. The few examples I’ve shown, along with other visual research into the nature of femininity in architecture by Jennifer Bloomer and Liquid Inc. remain to be analysed in the context of contemporary architectural practice instead of being secluded to the spurious category of “feminist architecture”.

Unfortunately, we did not and still don’t have the critical framework that supported the inscription of changes introduced by feminists in the culture of art. We did not have a critic of the stature of Lucy Lippard writing about the work of women architects, or a feminist journal like Heresies, which was a critical instrument for the creation of feminist discourse in the arts during 15 years. We did not have the Guerrilla Girls, the self-appointed “consciousness of the art world”, publicly shaming powerful museums for the pitiful percentages of women’s work in their exhibitions and collections. Now that the Guerrilla Girls have extended a franchise to women in the filmmaking industry, taking on Hollywood, perhaps we should seek an architectural franchise that would take care of exposing the pitiful percentage of women in decision-making positions in most major architectural offices. Oddly enough, what still remains as a persistent stereotype is the association between curvilinear geometries and the feminine, as we can see in these recent articles about buildings designed by Zaha Hadid and Jeanne Gang. It is as if curves, associated with arbitrariness and irrationality, were the exclusive idiosyncrasy of women. This is peculiar, considering work by Oscar Niemeyer, Eero Saarinen, Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava, and the widely spread use of software that has enabled the emergence of an architecture based on curvilinear geometries and complex forms. Yet this stereotype of gender distinction remains, waiting to be analyzed and exposed as a ridiculous and quaint memory of the past.

I hope to have demonstrated that the influence of feminism in architecture, planning and urban design has been powerful and multifaceted. Nevertheless, this influence is generally ignored in the histories and theories of the field, which nevertheless do recognise the importance of ideologies such as nationalism, fascism, socialism, or regionalism.  Most of the reasons for this deliberate oversight or denial have to do with the conservative ideologies which arose as a backlash in the 1980s, following the resurgence of feminism and other equal rights movements of the previous decade. It was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, 1981 to 1989, that the Equal Rights Amendment was presented but failed to be ratified for inclusion in the Constitution. The most powerful woman in the world at the time was the anti-feminist Margaret Thatcher, who believed that “there is no such thing as society”, only individual men and women whose duty is only to “look after themselves.” For her, as she said, “the battle for women’s rights has (…) been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever.” Another quote: “the feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. I hate feminism. It is poison.” This view was amplified by the media, proclaiming that feminism was dead instead of being an evolving force, and the 1980s and beyond could be described as a “post-feminist” era, while feminists were stereotyped as bra-burning men-haters.

Nonetheless, in this same decade of the 1980s, women began to enter architecture schools in greater numbers, approaching 50% of admissions in Ivy League schools. They too defined themselves as “post-feminists,” thinking that the battle for equal rights was over. It would take another decade or so for them to begin to experience the effects of discrimination in the workplace in spite of their superior education. Issues such as sexual harassment, maternal leave policies and the “glass ceiling” were workplace issues that, together with race, social class, sexuality and the openness to difference and the “Other” became central to the agenda of third-wave feminism emerging in the 90s.


Read Part 2: Tokenism and Part 3: Where to Next? And remember you can watch the full lecture at the Architectural League NY.