The Feminist Influence by Elise M. Edwards

Elise Edwards

In these past few months, as I’ve been finishing my dissertation about a theological and ethical perspective on architecture, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking often about my work.  In March, I was invited to give a talk at a symposium titled “On Christ and Architecture” at Judson University.  As they introduced me, the speakers noted that I am a black feminist.  Because of the brevity of my presentation, I didn’t speak about things that most people associate with feminism. So I was especially excited when at the end, one of the organizers complimented me by saying, “I really see the feminist influence in your work and I thank you for bringing that to us.” So exactly what does a feminist perspective bring to a theological study of architecture?

Perhaps first I should explain what my theological study of architecture is.  The purpose of architecture is sometimes understood as aesthetic or functional—to either make buildings that look nice or serve their purposes well (or both).  However, I discuss an ethical approach that expands this common understanding of architecture.  Grounding my research in philosopher Karsten Harries’ The Ethical Function of Architecture and theologian Timothy Gorringe’s A Theology of the Built Environment, I argue that architecture presents interpretations of a community ethos, or way of life, for its specific time and place.  These representations can either promote or inhibit human flourishing, and therefore, are the proper concern of Christian theology and ethics, which is concerned with questions about how Christians and those in the broader society are to live rightly in the world.

A feminist perspective on this ethical function of architecture offers at least two contributions: (1) it provokes questioning about what flourishing is for all peoples and the Earth, and (2) it provokes examination of systems of power and privilege and how they are constructed into our built landscape.  To the first point, the feminist response to what it means to live well and flourish departs from “traditional” proposals by intentionally seeking to address the lives of women and girls. Therefore, it addresses issues of female education, health, recognition, and pursuit of opportunities.  Feminists should be aware of how the spaces in which we live reflect gendered norms and expectations.  A simple example is found in the way children’s nurseries are so often color-coded according to baby’s gender.  But it goes deeper.

Feminist critics of architecture in the 1980’s and 1990’s like Delores Hayden and Daphne Spain examined the commonplace segregation of women that went unchallenged in the US post-World War II housing boom.  It is commonly recognized today that domestic spaces reflected and supported not only a division of labor along gender and racial lines, but an ideological construct of society’s “proper places” for certain people.  So a feminist perspective has us question not what spaces do to people in general, but to people in their particulars.  How does gender affect one’s experience of a building? How do buildings separate groups of people?

We must also ask how power dynamics within the practice of architecture affect buildings.  Architecture is still a male-dominated profession despite increasing numbers of women in the field.  Only 16% of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) membership is female.  And although 49% of architecture students and 39 % of interns (entry level architects) are women, only 17% of firm principals and partners are women, according to a 2012 AIA survey of 2,805 member firms.  (Read more about women in architecture and development here.)  So I wonder how often women’s voices contribute to discussion of our built environments.  This is why I am committed to expanding the range of people who influence architectural design.

I’m at the tip of an iceberg here.  Over the next few months, in my posts on feminismandreligion.com, I would like to discuss how feminists, religious thinkers, and spiritual practitioners might be more active in examining and contributing to the design of architecture.  I look forward to our online discussions and learning from your experiences.

Elise M. Edwards recently completed the requirements for a PhD in Religion at Claremont Graduate University, where she studied Theology, Ethics, and Culture.  She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines  issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Black Feminism, Christianity, Ecojustice, Ethics, Feminism, General, Justice, power, Power relations, Social Justice, Women and Community, Women and Work

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14 replies

  1. There are a number of new buildings and also what’s called the High Line in my neck of the woods in NYC, a notoriously liberal, art gallery district. But until recently you didn’t get any sense of that mindset in the architecture. When I read your very fine article, thank you Elise, I realized for the first time that some of these new commercial and living spaces truly take on the politics and creative mindset of the neighborhood. The High Line is an old, elevated freight railway, out of commission for a long time, and now transformed miraculously into an elevated parkland, complete with winding paths, small woodlands, glasslands and verdant fields of flowers. One of the new condominiums was constructed with towering slants of gleaming glass, seeming from different angles to defy gravity, called the HL23. There is a fearless femininity to some of these structures and especially the High Line with its celebration of nature and love of greening, instead of the rigid lines of iron.

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    • I’m very interested in seeing the High Line for myself. So far, I’ve only seen it on TV, but I haven’t been to NYC in a few years. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. Thank you Elise for opening this door. I became interested in the similarity between Vatican and Nazi male triumphalist architecture and public expressions. For example compare St. Peter’s Square to Konigsplatz in Munich where male patriarchs would appear for maximal public appearances. – The intriguing thing is that St. Peter’s Square is not a square at all, but is in fact round, resembling more a womb lined with the placenta of the colonades. This, together with the copula of St. Peter’s being the shape of a breast – makes the whole complex more like a symbol of a mother’s body. And the catholic church often calls itself
    “Holy Mother the Church”! = Hmmm… food for thought? Sigurd

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    • Large public works are so fascinating because of their ability to overwhelm or become fascist. I started to discuss that a little in my dissertation but it was a bit of a tangent. i plan to look into this more as my career develops. Thank you for your comment.

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  3. Pulpits, triumphal balconies, single-family houses where women can be isolated in servitude to a male “head of household.” No hooks on the back of women’s restroom doors to hang purses, the design of gas pumps before they put in the little latch that keeps the gas flowing from the pump, so a woman’s hand doesn’t have to hold down the gas pump the entire time. Regulations outlawing more than four women living together in a single household, unless they are biologically related. The absense of women only communities, group houses or entire cities. Women be frozen out of the architecture business and not designing the houses or buildings we live in. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an excellent commentator on buildings that would serve women’s and girl’s needs.

    I for one never want to sit in huge halls listening to men up on stage talking about anything anymore. I have so had it with their lord it over all of us architecture, I am so done with them.

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    • I wish someone would try to start a community like the Mosuo culture of China. I’m reading “Societies of Peace,” and I think that a matriarchal society is the only answer to the world’s problems. Women and their children, aunts, uncles, and grandmothers all living together and cooperating. Plenty of sex for everyone. Support for children/elderly/disabled via an extended family. Sharing of resources. What’s not to like here?

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  4. Thanks, Elise, for beginning the discussion of how our built environment shapes our lives. My husband and I just went through building a house while our Unitarian Universalist Church added a new addition, so similar thoughts have been in my mind recently: What kinds of spaces allow us to flourish in all the aspects of our lives? And of course, as a feminist, I want to understand that question as it applies to women. One of the best things we did at church was add a commons area where we can enjoy our fellowship hour together, allowing us to become more of a community. One of the things my husband insisted on when we were building (and I thought was impossible) was to buy a circular rug, so that the “living room” area of our “great room” (including the dining room and the kitchen) would feel welcoming. We found the rug; the living room is very cozy and welcoming. So I’m excited to hear what you’ve learned in your dissertation research.

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    • Thank you! I like circular rugs, too, but as of yet, do not have one in my home.
      Also, I think you are exactly right about the importance of common areas. I do discuss that in my dissertation.

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  5. Oh, and P.S. we had a woman architect. She was great. Not only did she have good ideas, but she really listened to what we wanted and needed.

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  6. Fascinating. i never would have thought of this before. I want to read more and see some concrete examples.

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  7. My husband, who is trying hard to live by his feminist beliefs, is also an expert on water. So, one immediate issue that comes to mind when discussing architecture, in particular, religious architecture and feminism is: toilets. I as a menstruating woman need a reliable access to toilet facilities.

    Another thing that comes to mind is cold, hard and lifeless feel and look of Abrahamic buildings of worship, which, in addition, seem to have as their goal separating humans from their natural surroundings. This observation has been brought home to me again in the BBC’s series http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r6z2d Pagans and Pilgrims, in which the presenter consistently ignored or overlooked the beautiful natural settings he was in and admired bleak stone churches.

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    • Men often seem to think that THEIR creations are more important/beautiful/momentous than anything Nature/women create. I think they are trying to convince themselves, since the Truth is self-evident. They will never create anything as momentous as a child, and Nature will always be much bigger and more beautiful than anything men create with their hands.

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