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.