The Bartlett


Transcript: Are Buildings Gendered?

Understanding the gender dynamics and imbalances of power reflected in buildings.


architecture, people, bartlett, question, architects, spaces, built, maria, design, space, buildings, gendered, thinking, jos, women, matrix, facility, cities, education, gender


Maria Venegas Raba, Christoph Lindner, Theme music, Jos Boys

Christoph Lindner  00:03

Hello and welcome to Building Better, a podcast about life and research at the Bartlett and how we are trying to build better.

Christoph Lindner  00:15

My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I am also the Dean here at the Bartlett. In each episode, I'll be sitting down with other members of this community to explore a topic that captures a snapshot of what happens here, from innovative techniques to interdisciplinary ideas to groundbreaking results.

Theme music  00:38

Christoph Lindner  00:38

For our second episode of Series 2, we are thinking about buildings, and how we can see society's understanding of gender dynamics and imbalances of power reflected in them. To help me explore this topic, I've invited two participants from the Bartlett International Lecture Series, who earlier this year hosted a lecture on feminist design practices.

Christoph Lindner  01:10

My first guest is Maria Venegas Raba, an architectural historian, and PhD researcher in transnational histories of Latin American modernist architecture. She is also a co founder of the Bartlett Decolonial Reading Group, an intersectional collective that engages with questions around power, knowledge circulation, legitimation practices, and the intersection between colonial legacies and spaces of resistance.

Christoph Lindner  01:44

And my second guest this month is Dr. Jos Boys, a Senior Lecturer in Environments for Learning at the Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction. Jos was the co-founder of Matrix in the 1980s, a feminist architecture and research collective and she is also the co-author of the book Making Space: Women and the Manmade Environment. She is co-founder of the DisOrdinary Architecture Project, which challenges current access and inclusion conditions by bringing disabled artists into architectural education and practice.

Theme music  02:20

Christoph Lindner  02:26

And so I want to begin by asking a short, but very big question, how are buildings gendered? Jos?

Jos Boys  02:35

It is a big question. I guess for me, there's really interesting things about how buildings and spaces were gendered when we started Matrix, the feminist design cooperative in the 1970s, and 80s. And what's changed since so in that period, that was really part obviously of second wave feminism, but it was also, I think, really underpinned by the fact that a whole lot more white middle class young women started entering architectural education and practice in much greater numbers post war. And there was the question about how buildings or spaces are gendered was actually a really new question, then. Sexism didn't exist as a word. There was very little research when we were looking to find what had been written. So it's 40 years later, and there's much more work, there's more embedded in education and practice. So it's quite interesting for me that this is a question that still gets asked, it's like, it's quite hard to believe that we're still needing to explain how how space is gendered. And that's obviously not just about women, that's about relationships between women and men. It's about non-binary, queer, trans people. It's about the intersections with race, class, disability, all these things. So it's a complex space that we're talking about. I think when we look back to Matrix in the 1980s, in the way that it tried to challenge manmade environments, I guess a really big point on is about power and money. It was about who has access to control and design of space and resources. And in terms of state what's changed since then, I guess, we don't get the kind of design guides that were around when I was studying, which always assumed that women were in the home and the men were out at work. We still had a kind of very solid single function zoning that underpinned a kind of you know, it was like suburbs/city, home/work, women/men those divisions were... they were assumed to be norms. They weren't actually norms, but they were enforced in the design of built space and you can still see those patterns kind of embedded in the way that our cities are designed. And then for me some of the things that haven't changed I live on a public housing estate, and I overlook from the third floor, the playground and the outside space and it's still true that the boys take up a lot of space, and they have a lot more facilities built for them, the girls are much less present and when they are, they're quite cautious about how they use those spaces. So playgrounds show us a lot about the differences in how space is gendered.

Christoph Lindner  05:19

Already, there's a lot of ideas to think about there. But something you said that really struck a chord with me was pointing out that buildings don't gender themselves, we gender them through design, through architecture through the way we build them. But also, as you've just pointed out in the case of the playground, that we also gender them through the way that we use those spaces and occupy them. So Maria, what are some of your initial thoughts about the ways in which buildings are gendered?

Maria Venegas Raba  05:46

Two brief anecdotes that were mentioned in the interviews that I did for the oral history of Matrix with two of the former founders and members. So one was actually an anecdote or story that Fran Bradshaw told me which is how, reflecting on history, and what Jos was saying, just before, in the new towns that were built here in the UK, after the Second World War, during the 1950s, and 60s, there were these assumptions about who the users would be, and where the users would access in these kind of new urban experiments. And, for example, she was telling me, but it was very illustrative, how the town, these towns were designed for men that were kind of driving cars, and thus that implied that the role that was assumed for the woman was kind of constrained or limited just to a domestic realm. So that was one of those kind of historical examples that were given or mentioned in the interviews that I did that were very, very kind of illustrative for me, another one was one mentioned by Anne Thorne. It's about the vision that she had for the future of cities. And she was telling me that, for example, cities in the UK at least provide infrastructures of leisure and collective encounter like pubs. So you can find a pub in every corner, but then, when you think, how is the city actually addressing the need for childcare or nurseries, and the space that these other kind of infrastructures that are very much needed in the city aren't as important in terms of proportion as the space that you think like all the pups have when you kind of put them together. So you have pubs within walking distance pretty much always. But if you think, where's the closest nursery? Probably you won't have like an easy answer to that question and that speaks about how the cities are thought of, designed, but also, as you said, occupied and used, and how much work is still to be done to kind of balance those assumptions.

Christoph Lindner  08:15

Really fascinating points. Maria, when you were talking, I was reminded of the ways in which we try to reopen spaces during the pandemic after lockdown. And it seemed to me sitting here in the UK that there was a lot of emphasis on getting pubs open. I'm not sure I heard much emphasis of getting daycare or other kinds of facilities that support families and, you know, multiple people and multiple generations open...

Jos Boys  08:39

Childcare is really interesting as something that has changed a lot because it's become just increasingly privatised, where it was much more a public facility and I think one of the things I learned about Matrix that I didn't know at the time, working with Maria on exhibition and archive, is there was some really fabulous work because women were the ones who had to do that kind of work so it became a women's issue. But there was a nursery plan called JUMOKE and it had this fantastic idea that it would just become this kind of facility on each corner of a neighborhood. And it wasn't just that it would provide childcare, but also it would provide like adult education and facilities for DIY and kind of swophops and that it was, it was a much wider kind of notion of what a caring kind of community based caring facility was. And we've moved so far that's gone so backward compared to what happens now where you're just lucky to get childcare, if you can afford it.

Christoph Lindner  09:39

So I'm thinking that the conversation about how buildings are gendered may be sounding quite abstract at this point. And my hope is that after this episode, some of our audience will walk around in their daily lives and look at office spaces and train stations and public spaces and streets and think about the ways in which they're gendered but how do we actually... do you have any tips for how to read the gendering of spaces?

Jos Boys  10:06

Well, I guess, I mean, I think the thing is, if you're walking around as a woman, or an older person, or a person of color, or a trans person, those things just come up to bite you directly - you may not recognize different things for different people, but obviously, if you're non-binary, the issue around public toilets, and you know, the fact that you're likely to be policed, whatever public facility you use is, is an immediate, you know, it's like, you don't need to be taught how to do that. But one of the things that we use, actually, in the DisOrdinary Architecture Project, which I think I found really fruitful, is we use ideas about fitting and misfitting, which come from Disability Studies Scholar called Rosemary Garland Thomson, and so what that says is, is as you move around, if you don't, if you don't need to notice everything, anything, if nothing comes up and bite you, you know, you will not notice. If the space doesn't meet your needs, if you misfit in that space, then you're very aware of all the different things that get in your way.

Maria Venegas Raba  11:06

I remember it very clearly when I was an architecture student that I kind of failed a project because I didn't design a bathroom for men in ways that kind of provided intimacy next to the urinal ao men wouldn't see each other and things like that. So I think there's a basic assumption, when you are designing that you are projecting yourself, and it's a very embodied process is not very common -yet- to think beyond your own body and like the position where you are inhabiting the world, really. So I think, to observe, like the cities and the spaces that we move every day, and that we visit every day has to actually go a bit beyond gender has to actually think about like the intersectionality of the body that you are and the subjectivity that you are inhabiting, and the kind of individuality of your own condition, because there's so many elements that will imply access or not, to certain spaces, not just gender. And I think that process of empathising or really trying to understand and grasp the things about like the experiences of others, in general has to start from that reflection of where you are standing in that kind of system of power and access that is taken into account, whereas you are a migrant, Black, white, if you're men, women, like if you have any religion, etc. So there is so much more complex, I think, than just thinking through through a gendered lens.

Christoph Lindner  12:45

I guess what I'm hearing from both of you is that ultimately, the way that we have designed built environments for different users, for different people, is just full of inequalities that we have literally built in inequalities of access, of mobility, of opportunity, and so on into all kinds of spaces, into public transportation, into public space, into workplaces, into toilets, into homes, into hospitals, and more. And I guess my question is, is why does design and architecture, why is there been such a history of doing this? Is it accidental? Is it conscious? Is it because of the financial models that drive building? What are some of your thoughts about the source of some of these inequalities in our built environment?

Jos Boys  13:35

You know, if we focus in on architecture, we're often not taking into account how much architects are only working to briefs and financial arrangements from the commissions that they get, and so there's a huge amount of this that architects may not have much control over. But I think for me, what's-what I always come back to is, is about unconscious bias, but it is also about both in society at large and within I think very, very directly within built environment education. We have a kind of unthought about image of what a kind of ideal person is, what's an ideal student or how should a tutor behave or what are you like when you're out in public space? It goes back to what Maria was saying about all of what we do is embodied so we have an embodied practice and if that includes assumptions about men and women, that may be problematic. But I think we do to me and I've talked to lots of architecture students about this, we have this idea of a kind of, you know, who is the person we're designing for, and often they're kind of the ideal, you know, what we train people to be as an architect is somehow to be very obsessive, very single minded - they work all hours. At the same time, you're kind of mobile, you're independent, you have a lot of agency, you show confidence, you're unencumbered - you don't have a bigger life, you don't have other commitments in your life. And that's the kind of model and it's not that we don't understand that it's not true, but it's a model somehow just becomes the model of both what it is to be a designer and what it is to be a user.

Maria Venegas Raba  15:05

Yeah and also to add to that, I think beyond kind of putting forward this, this tribal culture where you are like part of an exclusive, exclusive club, if you're in an architecture school, and then if you are like sacrificing your life, really, you're kind of becoming successful or on your way to success. I think there's also a question about not only how architecture schools have been really complicit in a way, by really looking the other way around when it comes to like, thinking how diverse might be the school, or how actually, really, it's showing the diversity of the place where they are in, but also how architecture schools in itself, kind of have a position as institutions within those systems of power. And thus, they have a responsibility to kind of respond to that position of privilege that they are in. So what I'm kind of saying is, for example, my background is I am Colombian, and in Colombia architecture is very elite, an elitist job, really, and your clients are mostly private clients. And there's not such a correlation between the public sector and architecture schools for some reason, and the thing that it's kind of pushing forward is this, this role and stereotype of like this genius, solo individual who is like, embedded and completely buried under kind of work and deadlines and commissions. But then the question is, if we want to keep kind of reproducing that really like, because I think it's not healthy for those that are inside, but it's also extremely, extremely exclusive. And it's kind of, I think, time to to open those, those windows and look at the real world and ask the people like what Jos was saying: if you want to do something, just ask the people that, that know more and sometimes that knowledge isn't necessarily in architecture school.

Christoph Lindner  17:39

And presumably, it does involve a lot of critical self reflection, and a lot of change? And I think many voices in the Bartlett are asking for architectural education, to be much more radically inclusive. And if we think about how architecture, design, planning, you know, create, build all of our built environment, all the homes, we live in all the buildings where we work and study and the hospitals, and you know, they build everything, then it seems to me that these should be professions, industries, areas of education that need to be radically open, radically inclusive, radically democratic. So I find it fascinating how on this podcast, no matter what topic we pick, ultimately, the conversation seems to boil down to issues of power, and how its misuse can create inequality and the role that architecture and design can potentially play in overcoming that. So if I hear you correctly, part of what I'm hearing is that the gendering of buildings represents the values, the practices, the priorities of society and then if you want those things to change, it's society itself that also needs to change because that's a big part of what's driving this?

Jos Boys  18:58

Well, I guess the the trouble with the use of the word society, I agree with so much that what you just said, but I think the I that word society is a very flattening word. Because in that society, there's lots of contested positions that people are discriminated against. So I think I would follow on and repeat what Maria said, which is, and this does happen, it, this isn't it's not something that Matrix did and it hasn't happened since but Matrix did... it just did some really simple things. It had an opportunity because of a shift in funding regimes to work very directly over a long period of time with women's groups, with community groups with People of Colour, and to work with them on what sorts of buildings were missing, what sorts of resources could be pushed in their direction, which the standard, you know, the dominant society wasn't thinking about with kind of just was invisible, and how to have an opportunity to do that in a very equitable way, by just having very simple methods that were not the kind of drawings and you know, computer modeling now that that architects do for each other, they were very much around using very basic models around using techniques for enabling people to understand scale by measuring the rooms they were in with their own bodies, by being able to... going and looking at different buildings, by talking about what sorts of things they wanted to happen, to talking about the activities, and then creating spaces around those things. So the voices, it's about being able to support and amplifying voices and experiences that are normally ignored, whether that's people who clean buildings, or whether it's the fact that, you know, women are not the kind of buildings that that in terms of the role that women are given can have much more say, as users. So I think that we always need to be looking at those complexities and to recognize that there are tensions and that it's not a kind of easy thing to do. But I think that those are not skills, I think you do get those skills taught in architecture school, but not in all architecture schools, because they mix together a discussion about what makes a good building with you learning how to be this kind of persuasive, assertive, individual, they're all about not listening, really, they're all about arguing your case. And so you learn skills, which are about not listening, and not having dialogue, and not making room for other kinds of voices. So for me, it's built right into the kind of curriculum. For me, that's how we keep producing an elite - the system within architecture schools, produces, you know, self selects for particular types of people who are not necessarily the right people to do that kind of work with marginalised groups.

Theme music  21:47

Christoph Lindner  21:53

I can imagine all kinds of ways in which we can change architectural and design education. I can also, looking optimistically, envision societies around the world evolving their values and practices to be more inclusive, more welcoming of diversity in all forms. So my question is this: what do we do with all the buildings, all the infrastructure, all of the built environment we already have?

Maria Venegas Raba  22:19

Yeah, I was thinking when you were asking the question about, for example, a documentary I saw on on Amazon Prime two days ago called the street and is about Hoxton and how problematic are all the kind of, and complex really, are all the conditions of gentrification that are taking place in Hoxton right now. And I was thinking that architects were featuring in this documentary as the ones that were designing these 2 million flats for brokers that work in the city and I was actually thinking, "whoa, there's a lot more job to be done really on the ground, like on street level with the people that are being pushed out." And that they end up like giving up to the market. There was this guy with a garage that had been there for like 27 years and then in the documentary, he sells it. And it's slightly heartbreaking and I was thinking like, there at least had to be like a farewell party. And these kind of things, I think, are a lot more going on on a permanent daily basis in London, where the market is so so powerful, that it's pushing people away and the architects instead of like engaging with the, with the trouble in this case, at least in a way it was featured in this documentary, were actually kind of slightly non present or tangentially present as the designers of this super expensive flats that I don't know who has the money to buy. And I was thinking that the architect actually has to go beyond thinking like just a materiality sometimes, yes, materiality comes into the question, but is a lot more about the social kind of aspects of that process of change in which we are taking a part really, even if we are deciding not to look at it because it's too troubling. I don't really have an answer to it, but I think it's necessary at least to give people some sort of like a therapist, really about space and when what you're doing is losing space and being kicked out of the space that you lived for your entire life or you will grieve really, I think and I think architects are kind of... in my vision have to really engage with these questions because there's something really important going on there and I think with the architecture education as it is now, it's very difficult to engage with these questions.

Jos Boys  25:13

And I just like to add to what Maria said, which is a great example. It is also about thinking about how change happens. And I think people have different models and I think the role of, you know, changing architecture in that process, it's like there are certain situations where space really matters and there are certain situations where it's not, it's not such an issue - it may be much more a societal issue in terms of values. But I wanted to give an example, which in a way, I think, is a positive example. I think change happens from a kind of snowballing change of everyday attitudes. So mindsets change and I was going to use the example which I think came out of second wave feminism in that period in the 80s. Architecture had a role in that process of moving ideas where the Women's Refuge movement that said, "this is a building type we don't want, but we actually need to have a building where women can escape to, away from abusive and violent husbands and partners." And the fact that those buildings clearly were needed, and that the arguments for the campaigning around them, the complexities of designing them as a building type, Matrix did one in Harlow, where they were actually called in to an existing building on an existing refuge that had been built, that had been designed in a very institutional way, by some male architects and the clients had said, it completely misunderstands what domestic violence is like and and Matrix redesigned it, adapted it to be much more communal, for the women who live there, but also recognising all sorts of complexities in terms of those women's lives. And for me, that kind of... the building's the kind of insisting on and being able to do that being able to make new building types that hadn't existed before. That's how architecture can be involved in positive social change. And I think we, you know, just to repeat, Maria, really, it's quite interesting what, how architectural education would enable people to have those kinds of skills to recognise those situations to work into those situations, and to be part of shifting societal attitudes where they're discriminatory.

Theme music  27:32

Christoph Lindner  27:39

We like to ask all of our guests the same question at the end of the episode. And I think this question really connects well, to what we've been talking about today. And the question, is this looking to the future? What is the one thing in your view that needs to change so we can build better? Maria, what do you think?

Maria Venegas Raba  28:00

I think in the context of climate emergency, architects have to be a lot more really educated into interdependency and how we are kind of part of a wider ecology with our peers or other humans but also nonhuman beings. And how that kind of awareness of that interdependency is what will determine in the end if we'll become extinct as a species or not, and how smooth or enjoyable is going to be that process because I think there's a lot of things that I've learned in my research, in my doctoral research, but one of the things that I really value is solidarity and I think it only exists when people are really aware of the other and like really kind of doing that exercise of putting themselves in the shoes of the other and trying to look at the world through that lens. Otherwise, it's just going to be kind of "me, me, me, me, me, me, I'm cooler" competition forever, that is clearly not taking us on any kind of hopeful future. And yeah, I found that, that here in the UK being a migrant, sometimes you recall to solidarity as a way of finding that grounding with people that share some of the struggles that you go through and that's mutual care.

Christoph Lindner  29:38

And Jos, what do you think needs to change so we can build better?

Jos Boys  29:43

I mean, I completely agree with Maria in terms of, you know, thinking about how we move away from a kind of neoliberal notion of an independent, mobile, unencumbered subject who's kind of self actualising, their whole life is to do with making you know self actualising themselves to this kind of these people who to us being centered on interdependency and care and solidarity. And I think just what I'd add to that is, I think it's still true that when we talk about gender and space that often we kind of assume that's about women. It's about what women do. But actually, gender and space is also obviously really about the everyday relationships between men, women, you know, we've talked already about different different intersections, and how those everyday relationships are played out and reinforced or contested in built space, in very diverse and complicated ways. So it's as much an issue for men and many men know that. But I think that just as we have with Black Lives Matter, a real sense that the problem is white people, I think that in architecture, we still have to recognise as the problem is male, white, middle class entitlement. And that responsibility lies with all of us that have entitlement, that obviously, and privilege, and that includes me is to, to really recognise that and try and see where it's having an impact on what we do, and on our inability to recognise the diversity and discrimination in kind of just our everyday surroundings. And I think there is a lot happening, but I think quite a lot of it is just happening at the level of appearances, both institutionally and individually. And I think that, given that this is 40 years on from Matrix, I really, I feel like we just can't go on talking about it. We have to do, we have to keep doing things and pushing for change.

Christoph Lindner  31:35

Well, thank you, Jos and thank you, Maria, for sharing your optimism, your vision, your experiences, and I feel really inspired by the potential, the possibilities here of the better future we can build.

Christoph Lindner  32:01

You have been listening to Building Better the Bartlett podcast. This episode was presented by myself Christoph Lindner, produced by UCL with support from the Bartlett Communications Team, and edited by Cerys Bradley.

Christoph Lindner  32:17

It featured music from Blue Dot sessions.

Christoph Lindner  32:20

I was joined today by Maria Venegas Raba and Dr. Jos Boys.

Christoph Lindner  32:26

And if you would like to hear more of these podcasts, please subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter. And of course, you can follow us @theBartlettUCL.

Christoph Lindner  32:42

This podcast is brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's Global Faculty of the Built Environment and UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone. We'll see you next month.

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