Boost your margin

Phillipa Longson

A new book finds fertile ground in the periphery of the profession for the advancement of women in architecture

Sophie Hamer's meditations on age and how one might grow through architecture
Sophie Hamer's meditations on age and how one might grow through architecture

I have to admit that I opened this book with a measure of trepidation. Having just finished my undergraduate degree in an architecture school that boasted a female head of school, deputy head, and BA course leader plus a full set of unisex toilets, I had rather hoped that my future battles in the field of architecture would not be related to my gender or sexuality.

After all here we are in 2016: five years after the first AJ Women in Architecture survey, 11 years on from Building Design’s 50/50 charter, and 32 years since the first copy of Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment by the Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative rolled off the press. Yet here on my desk was this book entitled A Gendered Profession; the question of representation in space making. It has four editors – James Benedict Brown, Harriet Harriss, Ruth Morrow and James Soane (gratifyingly 50/50), who share a background in live-project pedagogies – hardly the stuff of disconnected malcontents. Clearly they, and the 33 contributors (who come from a range of roles within architecture – significantly not solely from academia, but education and practice) all felt that this topic was relevant and vital. In short, I sensed that I was about to be smacked in the face with a fistful of sour truths about the industry I am on the brink of entering. The idealistic glint in my eye lost a little of its shine.

My fears were not unjustified. By the end of page one the book had admitted that despite efforts by feminist cohorts in the industry, and the general (if often incremental) uptake of equality-focused initiatives in other fields, architecture as a whole was not so much dragging its heels on feminist issues, as utterly quagmired. Not only this, but some of the issues being raised – the infamous long-hours culture, a lack of working flexibility, and concerns about architecture’s ability to meet social and environmental needs in the current socio-political climate – spoke directly to concerns that had been quietly brewing during my studies, but which I had not associated with gendered practice.

Just as the gloom began to set in, along with a realisation that my knowledge of gender studies and feminist theory was shamefully superficial and/or out of date (the book is pitched at a readership with at least a basic understanding of both), the editors took a surprising and refreshing turn. By linking non-binary gender with the wider issue of identity, coupled with an inclusiveness and focus on intersectionality taken from fourth wave feminism, they promised to show the cracks (chasms?) in the current system. They also use this marginalized perspective to begin exploring possible alternatives to the status quo that might not only meet the bare requisites for women to attain equality within the industry, but could prove highly beneficial and transformative for the entire field of architecture.

And this is precisely what they set about doing. The book is split into four sections: Practice, Politics and Economics; Histories, Theories and Pioneers; Place, Participation and Identity; and Education. Yet the ambition of the collection as a whole appears to be more about concurrently examining the pros and cons of an existence in the margins of architecture rather than the mainstream. The margin becomes a vantage point.

This works because a marginal perspective is a politically potent position, in that its outsider status often offers a critical clarity about the mainstream, but can simultaneously supply precedents for mainstream change (and what architect doesn’t love a precedent?). These precedents are twofold in form, since the margin is both a site of direct rebellion or resistance against oppression and deprivation – as recorded within this text by Vauxhall is Burning by Alexis Kalli, and Lucía C Pérez-Moreno’s chapter on the impact of Franco’s regime in Spain among others – and is also a space of freedom from hegemony and ‘counter-language’. Here things are done differently, radically even, in a manner that supports or accommodates the marginalised and refutes the coloniser. For example, several chapters note that women often actively choose the margins of architecture as a place to practise – perhaps forgoing large-scale or high-profile projects to start their own business, with flexible working hours as the norm and little chance of knocking one’s noggin on a well-polished glass ceiling.

CAMP-er-VAN from Samuel Douek's thesis Never Say Die.
CAMP-er-VAN from Samuel Douek's thesis Never Say Die.

Thus A Gendered Profession uses the perspective of marginality, spoken through a purposely diverse host of narratives, to paint two vivid but distinct portraits. The first is a well-defined picture of the status quo and all that festers within it, and although it’s understandable that each contributor would feel the need to bolster their argument with generous examples of insidious gender bias, it is perhaps inevitable that with so many contributors the reader will repeatedly come across lists of similar statistics and the perpetual haranguing of neoliberalism, capitalism and the patriarchy at large. However the resulting illustration of the problems at hand do effectively galvanize the reader into paying close attention to the second portrait, which is happily far more multifarious and sibylline. Rather than depicting, as one might expect, a fully-realised alternative universe in which all things are equal, the variety of voices in this case come together instead to sketch out a plethora of potential paths forward. Some, such as the guidelines produced by Australia-based advocacy group Parlour, Lesley Lokko’s chapter on her experiences in South Africa, and Joe Kerr’s call for unionisation, provide exemplary and tactical advice; others are highly experimental and imaginative, for example Cany Ash and Robert Sakula’s open investigation into their own practice, and Gem Barton’s engaging parable Architecture 2.0. Few chapters are emphatic about a particular stance, allowing an invigoratingly innovative and investigational response to the complexities faced.

The second image, which emerges by the end of the book, is one of a rich seam of options, discovered by reframing the marginalised perspective of feminism and gender theory as site of radical thought, alternative practice and strategic resistance. This serves not only to counter a foreboding sense of futility in the face of women’s seemingly endless marginalisation within architectural practice, education and academia, but also provides the opportunity for fresh, stimulating discussion (and hopefully action) based on insights found within this very marginalisation. Apparently we might rescue architecture from its inflexible, workaholic, white, middle-class, Western-centric stagnation yet. Which is much to my relief, as I go back to applying for placements – but this time with the words of Bell Hooks resonating in my head.

This is an intervention. A message from that space in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase the category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as a site of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators.

A Gendered Profession, Eds Ruth Morrow, Harriet Harriss, James Benedict Brown and James Soane, 256pp, PB £35. Available from RIBA Bookshops

Phillipa Longson’s dissertation was commended in this year’s RIBA President’s Medals