Introduction: Architecture and the Norm, the Violence of a Continued Reciprocity



Welcome to the thirteenth issue of The Funambulist Magazine, which marks the beginning of our third year of publication. This issue, dedicated to queer and feminist perspectives on interior spaces, intervenes as a rupture in the “macropolitical” scale of the last five issues in order to favor a smaller, yet equally important, scale of spatial investigation: the scale of the room, be it a closet, a bedroom, an apartment, a house, a public bathroom, a changing room, or a supermarket. The idea of dedicating an issue to this topic began in October of 2016, during an event organized for The Funambulist by Kubrick bookstore in Hong Kong, in a conversation between past contributor Tings Chak, Sonia Wong, and myself. Both Tings and Sonia have written articles for this issue, and following their interpretations of the political consequences of Hong Kong’s small apartments are several other contributions of great value.

In a similar fashion to the introduction to our fifth issue, dedicated to “Design and Racism,” the normative, gendered dimension of the discipline of architecture can be approached by looking at its demographics. Despite a nearly equal ratio in architecture schools around the world of female to male students, the inequality in terms of positions, opportunities, salaries, and recognition is still manifest in the professional world. This last aspect, recognition — and representation in general — seems often to be the primary dimension in which feminist struggles are waged in the discipline: all-male panels at symposiums are denounced, award and prize juries are pressured to acknowledge women — including retroactively like in the case of Denise Scott Brown, whose professional partner and husband, Robert Venturi, was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1991, alone — and online media outlets regularly publish articles extolling the achievements of female architects in spite of their lack of fair opportunities in the profession. Although dismissing this call for greater recognition would be a grave mistake, it is my conviction that we need to look at how the built environment itself is designed through normative (misogynistic, homophobic, racist, ableist) logics, and, just as importantly, how it reinforces these logics by providing the optimal spatial conditions for their exercise on and through our bodies.

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One of the eight murals painted by Le Corbusier on the walls of architect Eileen Gray’s house in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. As Beatriz Colomina recounts in several essays (as early as 1993), as well as Jasmine Rault in Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity: Staying In (Ashgate, 2011), these misogynistic and homophobic murals were painted in 1938 against Gray’s consent and were experienced by the female and lesbian architect like a sexual assault. / Photograph by JPMM (1999).

Such analysis has been expertly applied in previous issues of this magazine to 1950s housing typologies in Long Island, New York (Olivia Ahn in issue 2, Suburban Geographies), in Puerto Rico (Melissa Fernández Arrigoita in issue 9, Islands), and in Esfahan, Iran (Samaneh Moafi in issue 10, Architecture & Colonialism). Yet rather than simply outline the political and ideological contexts of the articles in this current issue, it may be useful to examine more closely the normative logic of design in relation to bodies. Although the entire built environment is calibrated to the dimensions of one particular body (or at most, a limited few), this exclusivity usually remains unacknowledged in the design process. Some designers have however explicitly rendered it into sets of standards that crystalize and make visible (though not to them, evidently) the violence of normative logics. Architects’ Data (1936) by Ernst Neufert — who was appointed by none other than Albert Speer to standardize German industrial architecture in 1939 — and the Modulor (1945) by Le Corbusier — who accepted commissions from the Vichy regime during WWII and made private expressions of sympathy for fascist ideology — are the two most well-known sets of bodily standards in the profession, which influenced an entire generation of post-war architects. Nevertheless, another set of bodily standards provides an even more striking example of the way the norm, the built environment, and bodies interact with one another: that developed by Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972).

Unlike Le Corbusier, for whom the aesthetic dimension of a (male) bodily standard was as, if not more important than the ergonomics it established, Dreyfuss created two standardized bodies, one for each of the normative genders, which he named “Joe and Josephine.” The immediate criticism is fairly obvious: although these bodies, as representations of the normative gender binary, are purported to be descriptive of a maximum number of bodies in a given society, many others are not included within this standard, and will therefore always be put in position of discomfort when interacting with objects created within this system. Some will have to lower their heads to pass through a door frame, others (among whom all children can identify) will not be able to reach the ceiling-mounted handles in a subway car, while still others will only be able to climb staircases with great effort. There are a plethora of such examples.

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Momoyo Homma, director of the Tokyo branch of Arakawa and Gins’ Reversible Destiny Foundation, leading a workshop at the Mitaka Lofts — In Memory of Hellen Keller. / Photographs by Léopold Lambert (2014).

A deeper critique of this standardization consists in recognizing that these diagrammatic bodies never actually find their analogue in the flesh. The claim is that they are maximally representative of real human bodies, but such a rationale already implies a binary categorization between bodies that conform to the standard and bodies that do not. In reality, each body relates to these standard bodies through a specific degree of differentiation. Some bodies only deviate to an extremely small degree, while others represent a much higher level of differentiation. The degree of violence experienced by the built environment is proportional to this degree of
differentiation. Thinking in terms of degrees (intensities) rather than in terms of categories allows us to examine the relationship between power and bodies, rather than separating them into two distinct classes (the privileged and unprivileged). In other words, the power exercised by one body over another is actualized according to the degree of fitness of each to their shared environment.

This critique remains, however, incomplete. It might apply to a system like that of the Modulor, since everything in it is informed by an exclusive set of corporeal values, but Dreyfuss’s Joe and Josephine help us go even further — the normative male body is not only accompanied by a female counterpart, but the two are also malleable, capable of representing several kinds of bodies at once: one which uses a wheelchair, one which is larger than average, one which is still a child, etc. By defining Joe and Josephine’s bodies in terms of percentiles, Dreyfuss appears to have integrated the very notion of degree into his system that we advocate for now. But two sentences in his book Designing for People (Simon and Schuster, 1955), however, show a strikingly different motive at work: “Our job is to make Joe and Josephine compatible with their environment. The process is known as human engineering.”

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Momoyo Homma, director of the Tokyo branch of Arakawa and Gins’ Reversible Destiny Foundation, leading a workshop at the Mitaka Lofts — In Memory of Hellen Keller. / Photographs by Léopold Lambert (2014).

According to Dreyfuss, it is in fact Joe and Josephine who need to be made compatible with their environment, rather than the other way around. The built environment therefore is not only calibrated to non-existent normative bodies, but also requires the conformity and compliance of the real bodies which interact with it, both to its physical shape and its underlying logics. Part of these logics involves a gendered division of labor, which Dreyfuss unwittingly makes explicit: “Joe enacts numerous roles. Within twenty-four hours he may determine the control positions on a linotype, be measured for an airplane chair, be squeezed into an armored tank [Dreyfuss worked for the U.S. military during WWII], or be driving a tractor; and we may prevail upon Josephine to do a day’s ironing, sit at a telephone switchboard, push a vacuum cleaner around a room, type a letter.”

Dreyfuss’s notion of “human engineering” here takes on a clearer meaning: it consists in finding an optimal functional configuration for the assemblage of bodies-plus-designed-environment. In order to do so, obviously the designed objects should be informed by the bodies in question, but also to the specificity of the function that has been politically ascribed to them — in the gendered instance given by Dreyfuss himself, the men are working in factories, piloting vehicles, and fighting in wars; the women are doing housework or menial clerical tasks. However, bodies are also informed by their designed environment, and each day spent laboring in the service of a particular function leads, slowly but surely, to an “engineering” of the body into an optimal apparatus at one with the object, a material incarnation of the attributed function itself. It is easy to see that, under these conditions, the political status quo is constantly reinforced, since the built environment is continually reshaped by the bodies politically associated with it, who themselves evolve in turn under the influence of the built environment.

Because of the way normative systems operate, it would be difficult to imagine a space that was neither calibrated to nor productive of dominant bodily norms. One architectural and artistic practice, however, suggests its possibility: that of Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins (cf. interview with Momoyo Homma in The Funambulist 7, Health Struggles). Instead of designing for standard bodies as Neufert, Le Corbusier, and Dreyfuss, and the overwhelming majority of designers do, we could say that Arakawa and Gins rather embrace a certain ignorance over what a body truly is — or, more specifically, over what a body is not, as Minh-Ha T. Pham and I agreed to formulate in a text dedicated to this question (The New Inquiry, 2015). In doing so, they do not attach any definitive characteristics to the body, which they favor calling instead an “organism that persons,” a term they chose “because it portrays persons as being intermittent and transitory outcomes of coordinated forming” (Architectural Body, 2002). If forced to cede ground to normative categories in the process of designing their architectural projects — a dozen of have been designed since the late 1990s, and five of them were built in Japan and the United States — the pair would use as standards the bodies of children, the elderly, autistic people, or even that of a specific figure, like pioneering anti-ableist activist Helen Keller (1880-1968), to whom the Mitaka Lofts, a collective housing building Arakawa and Gins designed in Tokyo, is dedicated. While the architecture that emerges from this creative process is not entirely free of the logics of normativity, it significantly challenges dominant bodily norms and creates greater latitude for the way space is engaged with by bodies.

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Portraits of Madeline Gins and Arakawa in front of their drawings for the Museum of Living Bodies (2003), whose complexity strongly contrasts with Henry Dreyfuss’s drawings on the first page of this introduction. / Photographs by Alan Prohm.

As the title of this issue suggests, the approach taken by the following articles, interview, and projects specifically questions the dimension of gender as a normative construction, examining its manifestations across various political contexts; yet my hope is that this introduction places this specific norm within a broader phenomenon in which norms, bodies, and space influence and shape one another. In this regard, it is my pleasure to conclude this text with the first part of a poem written by Madeline Gins in 1984, which captures this complex interplay with far more precision and skill than my own writing could possibly muster. I wish you an excellent read, and hope that moving through the pages of this issue brings you as much pleasure as working on them did for me.

All Men Are Sisters

Woman is the host. Man, the guest (guestess?). But the host has been too amiable for too long. Look at what we have bred. We have acquiesced to such a degree that in our own homes we now speak their language instead of ours.

Men are by nature critical. Women, self-critical. This is the critical difference.

There simply could not have been a woman who would have said, “Left side” “right side” then stuck to it. For a woman, it is a question of at least seven sides, at least one for every hue. Such subtlety contributes to the subtle difference.

One thing men haven’t realized is that unlike them (all men are
mortal), women do not die — This makes all the difference — although some women, having been brow-beaten by sheer syllogistic brawn, have at times pretended.

Most women do not look like themselves; although many women do assume the form of “woman”; some are men, others gas and electricity, and still others are indistinguishable.

Madeline Gins

What the President Will Say and Do!!, Station Hill, 1984