New Internationalist

A Woman’s Place

Issue 202

new internationalist
issue 202 - December 1989

A woman's place
Modern buildings still tend to be designed by men - and it shows.
But what is different about the few buildings designed by
feminist architects? Lucie McCauley explains.

The father of the skyscraper himself, Louis Sullivan, described one towering building like this: 'Here is man for you... a virile force, an entire male... it sings the song of procreant power'. Architecture professor Leslie Kanes Weisman put the same thing a little more critically. 'The 20th-century urban skyscraper... is rooted in the masculine mystique of the big, the erect, the forceful - the full balloon of the inflated masculine ego. Skyscrapers in our cities compete for individual recognition and domination while impoverishing human identity and the quality of life.'1

The built world has up to now been designed and defined by men - and the skyscraper is only the most glaring example. But much closer to our everyday experience is the design of our own homes, which reflect a set of ideas about women and family life that have outlived their usefulness.

The nuclear family, centred around a bread-winning father and a housewife/mother, is no longer the norm in Western society. In the UK 60 per cent of households no longer fit this ideal of nuclear family model.2

Dolores Hayden notes in her path-breaking Redesigning the American Dream that most US households will soon fall into one of four groups: single-parent families, single people, the elderly, and employed women. The needs of such groups are being ignored by designers and builders not interested in experimenting with more communal housing design.

Homes designed for the nuclear family emphasize the separation of public life from family life. But what was once the ideal private home for the World War Two veteran and his bride - a place designed as a retreat for a man and a workplace for a woman - is for a single mother a recipe for isolation. The separation from the support systems she needs (childcare, schools, recreational facilities) is bad enough. But also privatized, secluded living spaces mean that women must manage both home and job with little or no moral support or physical help. The details of design can be crucial. A mother with a baby carriage faces similar access problems to a person in a wheel chair: steep flights of stairs and revolving doors can be a nightmare.

Slowly the recognition is dawning of the need for a better balance of privacy and community in our family and working lives. Women are beginning to design and build their own ways of establishing this balance. Some of these solutions are based on the work of the late nineteenth-century 'materialist feminists', led by Melusina Fay Pierce, who challenged industrial capitalism's separation of the household from public life. These feminist design pioneers supported the 'neighborhood strategy' of urban development - low-rise, multi-family housing in a village atmosphere with shared common areas, courtyards, and kitchens. They also incorporated their own experiments with child-care centers, housewives' co-operatives, and communal dining facilities.3

Today, these kinds of co-operative housing complexes built around common courtyards seem the best response to the needs of single-parent households. They already have deep roots in Europe, where many architects design multi-family housing projects including shared kitchen and dining areas. 'In Europe,' says Boston-based architecture critic Jane Holtz Kay, 'the scheme of social services and planning is much more holistic.they have always done more.to include in their designs community facilities like day care for children.'

Both European and American co-operative designs have been inspired by Nina West's innovative, single-parent housing projects built in London in the 1960s. West began with a small apartment building that included a day-care center for the neighborhood. Parents could either use the center for their children or work there as paid employees. In 1972 she built 'Fiona House', which had special features to help single parents. Carpeted corridors lined with apartment windows doubled as playrooms to make keeping an eye on the kids easier. Intercoms linked apartments so that neighbors could babysit for each other.4

A whole feminist design network has blossomed in North America over the last decade. A recent Canadian example of the fruits of their endeavours is the Women's Community Cooperative - a low-rise apartment building in Hamilton, Ontario formed by a group of older single women whose children have left home. The architect Ellen Vera Allen says the co-op is a good solution for women who do not qualify for housing subsidies because they no longer have children to support.

Another successful project in Hayward, California has helped many of that town's single and divorced mothers and a few single fathers too. Architect Mui Ho says that her design differed from many other projects for low-income people because it included adequate space for older children. Ho concentrated all the housing units in one space and designed a large separate, shared play area.

'Outdoor space is not a luxury,' Ho says. 'It is a basic need.' And public parks in cities usually aren't adequate. 'Those parks are overcrowded and not always well kept up. How can a mother with two kids get to a Central Park? What we need are many parks within walking distance. You can live in tight conditions if there are enough neighborhood parks.'

The Hayward project's houses are attached to each other around a courtyard where younger children can play and be watched easily. Group environments, says Ho, are good for supervision, security, and supportive friendship - all important things for working parents trying to raise their children alone. The houses are in groups of five to seven. groups of three aren't enough, says Ho, because 'what if you don't like either of your neighbors'?' And ten houses can be too many for the co-operative environment the group is designed to encourage.

It is not only single mothers who could benefit from such creative new ways of arranging living space: even mothers within a nuclear family might well feel less pressure and isolation. And people living alone might also relish the mixture of community and privacy that such an arrangement could provide. It is high time that architects started giving people the chance to try a new way of living.

Lucie McCauley is a writer based in Boston.

1 Women's Environmental Rights: A Manifesto. Lesije Kanes Weisman (Heresies, 1981).
2
Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment, Matrix Book Group (Pluto Press, 1984).
3
Redesigning the American Dream, Dolores Hayden (ww Norton. 1984).
4
Ibid.

Building Hope
They paved paradise.
Population in the cities is exploding and it may not
be long before the whole urban model explodes with it.
Steve lzma
suggests ways of restoring our ecological balance.

The are like rats leaving a sinking ship. Sensitive and caring professionals (who can afford to) are packing up and leaving the big smoke forever. The local lifestyle magazines in Toronto, London and New York are full of it. Interviews with the escapees become repetitive - too much crime, too expensive, too much traffic, too much stress and certainly not enough clean air or green and living things.

Architecture achieves its real power over nature in the modern city. It's a bittersweet triumph. In scrutinizing the traditional aspects of design - innovation of shape and use of materials, efficiency of space, cost - we often lose track of how we are disturbing a delicate series of ecological balances in the way we build.

City planning came into being in order to supervise the shape and organization of the urban fabric, including its architecture. But industrialized building methods and design have an in-built logic that is very difficult to alter. The modernist approach to architecture makes maximum use of earth-moving equipment to flatten uneven terrain. This 'mining' approach of modern building methods denies the option of 'cultivating' the ground through gradual terracing as part of construction. The results: flat uniformity rather than uneven diversity. Nature is reduced to something to engineer and manipulate - simple grist for the industrial mill.

Urban energy use is another problem. Electrical generating plants - nuclear or not - stretch natural systems to breaking point. Only one-third of the energy burned actually leaves the site as electricity; the rest goes into the air as waste heat and a significant contribution to the Greenhouse Effect.1 Even when it reaches the other end of the wire most electricity is turned back into heat for motors, electrical circuitry, air conditioning and radiators.

This concentration of heat is becoming a major problem in cities. New York City's climate no longer includes the alternation of on-shore and off-shore breezes between day and night. Excess heat trapped by roofs and pavement lingers long after the sun sets creating a stifling micro-climate that extends 20 miles from the centre of the city.2

Waste is another problem magnified many times by urban life. Immense amounts of packaging are necessary if you have to feed hungry consumers thousands of miles from the farm. The Third World is also filling up with mass-produced packaging. The plastic bags, bottles, paper and foil wrapping that litter the gutters, alleyways and canals of Bangkok or Jakarta are depressingly reminiscent of the West.

Natural watercourses where most human settlement occurs could at one time handle the organic wastes of small communities. Now they are often so overloaded with effluent as to lose their character as rivers and streams. Detroit's Rouge River, for example, cannot be distinguished from solid land in infra-red satellite photographs.

In a world with a population of more than five billion people it is hard to imagine how to bring our urban lives more into balance with nature. But sooner or later we must realize that no matter how large we build the urban machine nature is always bigger. Humanity is just beginning to understand the social and economic costs of distorting rather than adapting to natural cycles.

There are small steps we can take to adapt and regain some ecological balance. Houses with solar panels can often cut by more than 50 per cent the energy needed for heating, even in temperate zones.3 Community gardens can localize food production, thus cutting down on transportation costs and the use of packaging. Recycling programs are proving successful in many cities. Composting reduces the need for landfilling or incineration of garbage and also encourages people to work on their own or community plots. Ecological pest management reduces the amount of toxic substances in food and the water supply.4 An overall policy of decentralizing communities so that workplaces and markets are closer to where people live would mean less time in cars and less precious fuel in the tank. High-density buildings would become less necessary.

Unfortunately, good ideas don't implement themselves. Too often environmentally friendly designs are an option only for the well-off and a luxury for those who have neither the time nor the money to engage in such experiments. What is necessary are overall policies and financial incentives that make an improved city environment a practical possibility for most people.

Ultimately it is hard to imagine an ecological program for design and architecture that does not include radical proposals for decentralization. For, as writer Elaine Morgan puts it, 'bureaucracy as well as wealth and production must be reduced in scale and more evenly dispersed throughout the country; till the frantic pace of oil-fuelled urban change slows down and the overwhelming problems can be tackled maybe 10 at a time instead of 300 at a time'.5

Not until architecture abandons its fetish for density and grandeur and becomes an art of harmony for humans and nature will we be able to construct for ourselves a habitat that is truly sustaining, for both people and the earth.

Ontario writer Steve lzma has a love-hate relationship with technology.

1 Architecture and Energy, Richard G Stein (New York. 1977).
2 Ibid.
3
Ibid.
4
The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City, Farallones Institute (San Francisco, 1979).
5
Patling Apart: The Rise and Oectine of Urban Civitization. Elaine Morgan (London, 1978).

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page


This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on A Woman's Place

Leave your comment