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Superior arguments

Maria Smith

Fashion and equality suffer the same unisex problems

I’ve recently started to wonder whether contemporary architecture and design isn’t a bit ‘unisex’. Clean and unadorned: restrained. In fashion, a unisex style has grown increasingly prevalent. This is generally celebrated, although style is neither halfway between the traditionally feminine and masculine nor a new third style. It’s more that it’s now acceptable for women to dress ‘like men’ without comment. Ok, great, but it’s not yet possible for men to dress ‘like women’ without raising an eyebrow, and for me this perpetuates the notion that the traditionally masculine is superior to the traditionally feminine. 

Arguably, this is true. Arguably we should be phasing out stupid things like stiletto heels and bodycon dresses; these symbols of a hierarchy we want to reject. On the other hand, a design blacklist doesn’t feel like a brilliant solution. Wouldn’t a free for all be more, well, free? More in keeping with equality of opportunity for all? How can we tell our daughters that they can be engineers and at the same time tell our sons they can’t wear skirts? How is that supposed to make sense to a four year old? We can wear the same thing, yes, but that shared wardrobe fills only a drawer in the vast walk-in closet of fashion. The unisex drawer doesn’t expand our possibilities, it confines them: unisex looks more like censorship than liberation.

Google ‘1950s office’ and ‘1950s bedroom’ and the distinction is clear. The offices look like suits, the bedrooms like frilly dresses. One the dominion of men, the other of women. Today office design and bedroom design are much closer, even indistinguishable if the printer or pillows are out of frame. But they both look a lot more like the 1950s office and bedroom. Isn’t this the same unisexification we’re seeing in fashion? Again the message is that the traditionally masculine is suitable for all while the traditionally feminine is suitable only for women. Are we inadvertently propagating the hierarchy of masculine over feminine by plastering it all over our environment?

The offices look like suits, the bedrooms like frilly dresses. One the dominion of men, the other of women

There’s an excuse about undecorated, honest modernity but this is just an excuse. The biscuit boys and their disciples are prolific purveyors of structurally irrelevant, environmentally questionable, style-led designs. Somewhere along the way, exploiting a material’s inherent properties and simply being able to see what something is made of became conflated. Just because you can see something is made of concrete and you’re getting all holier than thou about how it’s honestly expressing its concreteness, doesn’t mean that it should be made of concrete. Bricks are one of the worst offenders: structurally rubbish, embarrassingly unsustainable, and a relic of a time when being able to hold a bit of building in one hand was important in a way it’s not now. Yet bricks are still held in tremendously high esteem, not only on account of their heritage value, but on ethically as a good honest material. This kind of ethical gazumping of style dressed up as integrity over pragmatics and environmental concerns is architecture’s equivalent to unisex over stilettos. The restrained and conservative aggressively denigrates the decorative, fancy designs supposed to be beneath our evolved selves. This argument is subjective at best.

Sure, patchy ideology presented as incontrovertible fact is evidently the order of the day at the moment. Subjective assertions are taking the place of verified facts in all walks of life. This is not only a concern to world leaders. We’re all complicit, even lowly architects on lowly matters of style. One of the secrets of the success of ‘truthiness’ is assumed consent: you don’t really need to mount a coherent argument when you’re preaching to the choir. The ‘truth to materials’ rhetoric is so ubiquitous now it requires no defence. Architects hardly need to convince their colleagues on these matters. This makes it difficult to call out and argue against. It also makes it easy to hide behind. 

For decades, we architects and designers have been effusively rolling out unisex design under a false banner of material honesty. While the argument may be a little holey for some, it’s comfortable, certainly less contentious than gender issues. But what if it belies our saturating our environment with subliminal support for archaic gender hierarchies, not to mention damaging the environment? From concrete to copper, materials we should be minimising the use of (if not eliminating altogether) are still morally glorified. Couple our exposed material fetish with our lazy environmental jargon that lets us feel good about ourselves merely for being less bad (think 100% recyclable materials) and we’re talking about seriously distorted ethics. Is this unisex ‘truth to materials’ dross perpetuating the use of delicious concrete and glorious metals that offer deluxity of finish without girly decoration but costing us dear environmentally? 

Perhaps if we allowed ourselves the joy of ‘feminine’ extravagance we’d feel huge relief at the relaxing of an increasingly tenuous pretence and save the planet while satiating our thirst for aesthetic interest. Perhaps. 

Maria Smith is director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang



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