Feminist theory in 20th-century architecture encompasses identification of gendered
power relations in architectural and urban form and discourse, critique of masculine
dominance in the design professions, and creation of “feminist” and “feminine”
architectural practices. Influenced by feminism in philosophy, literature, cultural studies,
and the social sciences, feminist architectural theory has embraced histories of women in
architecture, new types of architectural practice, and the reconceptualization of the
“feminine” itself. In architecture, feminist theory has three main tendencies, all of which
address gendered power relations and the injustice of masculine domination in
architecture. Some theorists celebrate the differences between men and women and take
an overtly feminist approach to the critique and reconstruction of architectural practice
and history. Others emphasize the struggle for equal access to training and jobs in
architecture and for recognition of women’s competence in the profession. Another group
focuses on theories of gender difference and representation in the built environment,
architectural discourse, and cultural value systems.
Feminist architectural theory has its sources in 19th-century feminist thought and the
revival of feminism in the 1960s. Betty Friedan’s book The Femi nine Mys tique (1963) marked the emergence
of a second wave feminism in the United States and, later, around the world. This
feminism emerged from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1950s
and 1960s, just as 19th-century feminism developed from abolitionism. “Women’s
liberation” focused on the pursuit of civil rights and equality. During the 1960s and
1970s, this strategy evolved into the analysis and challenge of gendered power relations.
Feminists recognized that while the struggle for equality is ongoing, it left intact the
epistemological and representational sources of inequality. They turned their critique to
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language, social relations, spatial hierarchies, education, history, art, and other means for
preserving gender-based relations of power.
In light of the new emphasis on representation and language among feminists, the
work of Simone de Beauvoir became central to feminist theory; her book The Second Sex is considered
one of the greatest works of 20th-century feminist theory (published in France in 1949,
translated into English in 1952). Its importance lies in the clarity with which Beauvoir
summarized women’s condition; in The Second Sex, she traced the history of women’s reduction to
objects for men, their status as man’s Other without control over their actions or
subjectivity. Beauvoir demonstrated that this assumption dominates social, political, and
cultural life. Further, she noted that women internalize this objectified vision as normal
and enact their prescribed roles within patriarchy.
Feminist theorists and architects have created alternative practices and histories of
architecture. In liberal feminism, there has been a conscious continuity between feminist
history, theory, and practice, on the premise that changes to representation of the past
contribute to the struggles of living producers. Doris Cole, Dolores Hayden, and Susanna
Torre, for example, produced explicitly feminist histories of women in architecture and
design. Others, such as Doreen Massey and Leslie Kanes Weisman, authored critiques of
the sexism and discrimination against women embedded in and enforced by the built
environment. Prominent women practitioners, such as Denise Scott Brown and Patricia
Conway, have been advocates for women in professional institutions and critics of
masculinism in architecture culture.
Gender theories have been produced by specialists in many disciplines as well as
architecture, such as philosophy, anthropology, geography, film studies, and cultural
studies, the result of increased interest in theory among architects and in architecture
among theorists of other discourses. French philosophy and psychoanalytic theorists,
including Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques
Lacan, have had a particularly strong impact on feminist theory in architecture. The range
of gender theory in architecture encompasses textual analysis and philosophical inquiry
(Bergren, Grosz, and Ingraham); architectural history read through feminist, postcolonial,
psychoanalytic, and poststructural theory (Çelik, Colomina, and Friedman); critical
interpretations of gender and identity in architecture culture and the built environment
(McLeod and Sanders); and complex work that interrogates gender construction and blurs
the boundaries between theory and practice (Bloomer and Diller). This work can be
created by men and women since women’s equality is not the central, political aim of
gender theory; it analyzes and ultimately rejects the dichotomy between masculinity and
According to early feminist theorists, the sexual binary male/ female constructs a
series of negative values that define the female as passivity, powerlessness, death, the
natural, irrationality, and the Other, whereas the male connotes activity, power, life, the
cultural, rationality, and the Self. This hierarchical value system is imbedded with
oppositions relating to sexual difference. It generates meaning by placing terms such as
“nature” and “culture” in opposition; meaning is acquired only by acknowledging the
other term. A crude model for understanding sex and architecture might define the
masculine as the alienating, technological outsides of buildings and the feminine as their
nurturing, comfortable insides. In this formula, the phallus/exterior stands alone, projects,
occupies space as an object, and is coupled with technology and logic. The
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womb/interior, in this account, protects, creates space, shelters humans, and is affiliated
with sensuality and materialism. The problem with such a theory is that it reduces
architecture to a series of biologically-based metaphors without interrogating the social
and cultural constitution of the linked terms. That is, it attributes fundamentally
“feminine” or “masculine,” universal essences to female and male biology (their sex),
which are represented in cultural and social phenomena such as buildings.
In the 1970s, feminists made a crucial distinction between biological sex (their sexual
organs and their biological functions as women) and gender (their social identity and the
cultural associations of the feminine). The term “sex” seemed, to many feminists, to
consign men and women to fixed roles, and they seized on “gender” as a more fluid,
socially constituted category. Beauvoir’s famous assertion “One is not born a woman,
but, rather, becomes one” summarizes the split between sex and gender. Sex implied that
being a woman was an innate, biological state, whereas gender connoted the process by
which female humans became “women.” Beauvoir noted that “the individuals that
compose society are never abandoned to the dictates of their nature; they are subject
rather to that second nature which is custom.… It is not merely as a body, but rather as a
body subject to taboos, to laws, that the subject is conscious of him-self.” Gender is,
therefore, a culturally and socially constructed category of difference, not fixed or stable;
according to feminist theorists, it has no “natural” basis.
The idea that there is an “essential” women’s nature or experience was further
challenged during the 1980s; feminist theorists rejected “essentialism” because it reduced
women to a homogeneous image based on their bodies (their biology) and a universal
“woman’s experience” that was the same for all women regardless of their age, race, or
class. Women of color criticized white feminists for creating an exclusively white,
middle-class image of women. Informed by critiques of essentialism, feminists have
scrutinized dominant, stereotypical images of women and assumptions about gender
roles, often through a parody of the pervasive mechanisms of the media. Writers and
critics such as bell hooks and Adrian Piper have investigated the ways racial difference is
interconnected with sexual difference in dominant regimes of power.
Recent feminist theory has challenged the sex/gender dichotomy itself as an
ideological construct. Judith Butler has defined gender as more than the imposition of
meaning on “sex”; gender is the very cultural and discursive processes by which the
sexes are established, according to Butler. Lesbian critics, such as Monique Wittig, have
challenged the heterosexual bias of straight feminism and the inadequacy of the
male/female binary, positing a transgressive character of lesbian identity, neither
stereotypically “feminine” nor “masculine.” The essays collected by Joel Sanders in Stud
explore such reconceptualizations of gender, sexuality, and identity in architectural
discourse and design.
Feminist theorists in architecture have turned to a critique of the masculinist
underpinnings of architectural discourse, both written and formal. A central concern of
feminist theory has been the definition of the architect as a masterful, socially isolated
individual whose genius and vision are imprinted on his designs. The conflation of the
male body, illustrated by Vitruvius’s famous diagram of a male circumscribed by a circle
and a square, exemplifies the dominance of a masculine norm in architecture. It is
precisely this model that feminist theorists reject, seeking new models of identity and
practice. The interrogation of the architect’s position in society informs feminist practices
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such as Matrix and Liquid Incorporated founded on collaboration rather than individual,
competitive action. Diana Agrest has critiqued the history the Vitruvian model and
provided an alternative based on the theory of écriture femi nine (feminine writing). According to Agrest,
women can place themselves outside the system of architecture by reconfiguring their
marginal position and creating an architecture of the repressed, denied, excluded, and
More recently, feminist theory in architecture has returned to the themes of the body
and the everyday experience of women. Feminists have used fashion, the home, and
domesticity as a central theme in their work and have produced commentaries, parodies,
historical critiques, performances, and alternative practices to critique architecture
culture. Jennifer Bloomer’s work, for example, plays with language to create new forms
of thought and expression in both writing and design. Her essay and project “Abodes of
Theory and Flesh: Tabbles of Bower” reads the foundational texts of architecture, from
the Renaissance to the present in order to analyze the relationships between the feminine
and ornamentation, the masculine and structure. In a series of important essays (see the
works by Agrest, Coleman, and Fausch), Mary McLeod has dissected gender, fashion,
modernity, “otherness,” and the everyday in relation to the feminine in architecture
The simultaneous appearance in 1996 of three major anthologies of feminist writing
on architecture signaled the significance of feminist architectural theory. These
collections joined a growing body of work (see, for instance the works by Bergren,
Colomina, and Fausch) that interrogates the social construction of sexual difference in
architectural history, theory, and practice. In their introduction to The Sex of Architectu re, Diana Agrest,
Patricia Conway, and Leslie Kanes Weisman claim that “women writing on architecture
today are exploring history, the uses of public space, consumerism, and the role of
domesticity in search of ‘ways into’ architecture, often through alternative forms of
practice and education.” Francesca Hughes, in The Architect: Recons tructing Her Practice, contends that “the absence of women
from the profession of architecture remains, despite the various theories, very difficult to
explain and very slow to change…. One simple and obvious reason for [the lack of
feminist criticism in architecture] is the very small number of architects who might
choose to apply feminist criticism to architecture: a constituency most easily identifiable
as women architects.” By contrast, Debra Coleman, Elizabeth Danze, and Carol
Henderson, editors of Architectu re and Feminism, propose a strategic relationship between architecture and
feminism that would be forged “out of the desire to produce intertextual work that
contests an unjust social order.”

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