Sexy Models and Homely Stuff: Architectural Bodies for Architecture without Feminism


Although conversations about feminism in architecture are fortunately on the rise, few initiatives deeply challenge the patriarchal structures of the built environment. In this text, Gabrielle Printz, Virginia Black, and Rosana Elkhatib use the artwork of Carolee Schneemann and A.K. Burns to reflect on feminist homes.

We begin this essay with the demonstrably false claim that architecture has no feminism. Perhaps that’s only to justify our interest in the spatial practices of feminist art, because what have we (feminist architects!) been doing the last several decades, if not pointing out the most egregious patriarchal underpinnings of the built world? Caught between complaint and fantasy, the feminism of the design disciplines has often settled for assimilation. “Feminist architecture,” long considered the work of women, has been made to resolve into Men’s Architecture, a thing never named as such. Woman Architect, like Woman Artist, has retained its pejorative air despite her grasp of the same credentials, her rejection of implied difference. We already inhabit this identitarian matrix, and so the affirmative project of celebrating women’s work has the effect of circumscribing it within the supposedly neutral field of Architecture. In search of the feminist content of spatial practice, we rest our gaze on a pair of familiar figures — the house and the body — to draw out other critical and imaginative possibilities for feminist spatial practice.

In the way that the bathroom serves as an obvious, yet irresistible (and also urgent) object of queer architectural critique and speculation, the home plagues us as a bad object of feminist theorizing. It begs radicalization. So here we are, still wrestling with the home, twenty-something years after Sexuality & Space, the conference convened by architecture historian Beatriz Colomina in 1991 and published as a book in 1992. Its contributions address the less apparent construction of gender and sex through architecture and its discourses. Gender has always been unsteadily “housed” in our discipline, and modernist vacillations between making and leaving homes has tended to discipline the women inside of them. So it remains a chore on our to-do list, to think about all those rooms of our own as a matter of compounded feminist discourse. A year later, in 1993, architect and theorist Diana Agrest entertains Florentine Renaissance architect Filarete’s curious trans-gendering of the architect, a man who births the building in his image and regards it as his progeny. Body and building are ever intertwined, and that is especially true of the house, which gives shape to our most personal arrangements of space and desire. Let’s pretend we’ve already discussed and unpacked the whole library of compromising or reclaimed associations of woman to house. Because now we’d like to talk about the artist Carolee Schneemann, who recently left her body — but not before her glorious retrospective at New York’s MoMA PS1 where we saw, for the first time, Parts of a Body House.

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Carolee Schneemann, “Parts of a Body House,” in Vostell Wolf, Higgin Dick (eds), Fantastic Architecture (1969). / Courtesy of the Estate of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P•P•O•W, New York © Carolee Schneemann.

Parts of a Body House operates somewhere between a text, a performance, and a quasi-domestic space for potentially transformative occupation. It’s a script that anticipates a performance, which does not occur, and asserts the house as a scene for action, partially fleshed out in supplemental drawings. In these representations, she describes the House as a body that acts on bodies, in a kind of wet, interpersonal exchange. One of its first rooms (the Bathroom) was written as a diary entry in the late 1950s, and the House was published in the early 1970s in two different editions, versions of a whole body. Its Parts were meant to be traversed in order, arranged as the alternately pulsing and languid interiors of corresponding bodily functions: top-to-bottom, head to gut. More than analogy, as in Filarete’s ideal cross-formulation of the lithe male body and the basilica plan, the contracting walls of the Lung Room and operational orifices of the Genital Play-Erotic Meat Room are made viscerally present, to be seen and felt in ways that it might never have been articulated among the formal or spatial preoccupations of architects.

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Installation view of Just Relax: This May Cause Some Discomfort…, CARYATIDS, 1993 “More Than the Sum of Our Body Parts: An Exhibit by CARY, 1992-1993,” Ms1994-023, Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.

Schneemann’s House is a feminist project, for some self-evident and also less discernible reasons. It excites the terrain of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), an influential text for the artist when she was first painting in the 1950s, and additionally incorporates her convictions about Wilhelm Reich’s psychoanalytic theories about persistent sexual gratification (pleasure is important!). In doing so, she extracts the female sexual agent from her object-position in countless paintings by men across the history of art to consider the naked body, hers especially, as image-maker. But she doesn’t really leave the house where the painted nude lies. Schneemann insisted on her identity as painter, even as she became well-known as a performance artist, wherein her public disrobing as art could be held up against the private repressions of the housewife. 

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A.K. Burns, production stills from Negative Space 00: Living Room (2017). 2-channel video installation. HD color, 5.1 audio, 36 min synchronized loop. / Courtesy of the artist, Callicoon Fine Arts and Michel Rein Gallery.

The imagined domestic, as analogic to the body but capable of animating bodily agency, also emerges in visual artist A.K. Burns’ more recent work on space. Living Room is a work that stretches across the sealed interiors of a New York City apartment building. Produced as a part of the artist’s 2017 residency and exhibition “Shabby But Thriving” at the New Museum in New York, the video and physical installation of Living Room was presented on the building’s fifth floor. A party wall between 235 and 231 Bowery (the addresses of New Museum properties) separated the exhibited Living Room from its film set in the artist studios next door, the generative space for Burns’ work-on-residence. In this trans-feminist reconstruction of the home in an uneasy political present (the fraught timespace of Trump’s America), Burns understands the subjectivity of space as unfixed, always capable of shifting around bodies defined positively against it.

By engaging Carolee Schneemann and A.K. Burns, we accept the premise of artist-editors Dick Higgins’ and Wolf Vostell’s Fantastic Architecture (1970), where Parts of a Body House was first published: that perhaps artists have more to say about architecture, in all its possibility and its critique, than architects do. Afterall, the editors enlisted two whole women to lend their imagination to architecture: both Carolee’s script and Alison Knowles’ poem “House of Dust” take on the house as the prescriptive architectural figure.

Carolee is the centerfold of Fantastic Architecture; her nude image is splayed between the House’s written Parts. Despite the existence of drawings, Higgins and Vostell chose to reveal her figure. As visible as it might have been in her performance works at the time, Schneemann’s own body was not the object-agent of this piece. Rather, the House was a thing that could be read and imagined in bodily terms. It was an environment with a communicable agency, spread as fluids or rumors might be.

A mostly paraphrased, whirlwind tour of Parts of a Body House ///

Entrance and Exit through the Coat Room.

Cat House is a tiny room filled entirely with cats, you lie among them.

From there, you enter a Bathroom, which is at the back of the head of Body House:

1.Stormy afternoon in the tub

2.Winter night in the tub

Lung Room, to the south.

Heart Chamber/Cunt Chamber entered by a leap, exited through contractions.

Ice Palace, a “great frozen internal pond.”

An esophagus ejects you into the Liver Room or Nerve Ends Room.

The Liver Room is sculptural, with liver-like stuff cast in brown polyurethane, a scene for a picnic.

The Nerve Ends Room is ecstatic, described in all-caps exaltations about a super-sensory material disco — every participant is a kind of DJ and its experiences are catalogued in a memory bank.

The Genitals Play-Erotic Meat Room lives in the center of the Body House and is outfitted with all manner of performing members and orifices.

Hair and Fingers Room offers a resting place after all that activity.

The Kidney Room is where people come together to discuss political transformation.

The Bile River divides the Kidney from the Guerrilla Gut, a training course in the theatre of life — a scene for both self-defense and falling in love.

Though there are narrative movements between the organs, nothing exactly unifies them beyond the script’s implied traversal from one to the next. Even in the drawings, parts are conceived of as distinct assemblages with no unifying enclosure, no skin, only innards. The exposure of the organs suggests an interior experience, but never the ‘inside’ of a body whose skin maintains those thresholds. Dismembered for more careful consideration, or distinct experiences to savor, Parts of a Body House lends sensuality to architecture even in its exhibition as anatomical object(s). It acts and receives action in the way the body does not. If the Body is a House, we can do all the things to it that would otherwise desecrate our own tender vessels. As Schneemann says of her room of genitals, “not all forms of violence are destructive.”

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A.K. Burns, production stills from Negative Space 00: Living Room (2017). 2-channel video installation. HD color, 5.1 audio, 36 min synchronized loop. / Courtesy of the artist, Callicoon Fine Arts and Michel Rein Gallery.

Carolee does indeed use her own body as the perceptual and material ground for ruminations on interiority, sex, and the woman artist, amongst other things. But here, she transposes a common body and its essential parts (head, lungs, heart, guts, nerves, kidney, cunt) onto architecture for other potential functions. The fleshy domestic space was made of and for a feminist erotics, but it also accommodated political organizing (in the Kidney Room) and training for everyday revolutions (the Guerrilla Gut). Put to political ends, the Body House could gestate more than bodies — especially for Carolee, who thought of pregnancy as a usurpation of her other physical processes. The Body House gestates other worlds.

The Body House is a place for sex and other desires, but it is not a particularly sexy place. If the body is implicated as a representational, perceptual, and spatial device across art and architectural practices through the end of the last century, what is its “use” today? Not for pleasure, surely, in this moment where self-care is a necessary if temporary salve for political exhaustion and overwork. In these radical transcripts, the figural body presents as a coded switch point for other subjectivities and material experiences of the home as it has always been: gendered as hell. The goal is not representation per se, a thing we expect of bodies and perform through architecture. Parts of A Body House and Living Room suggest something more mutual in these libidinal exchanges between house and body — in which one doesn’t define the other, their parts never abstracted into types, but always set into more complex relations. Unwhole, as organs-without-a-body, these works resist but do not deny the specificity of gender.

If architecture has a moment with the body, its sexual specificity, and the potentially radical postures undressed by the performance art of the 1960s and 1970s, that moment comes later in the 1990s, to which Sexuality & Space attests. In Chicago, C.A.R.Y.A.T.I.D.S’ legs splayed open on the exam table. Her body has disappeared, but its trace is fixed under the hardened sheet. In 1993, C.A.R.Y. (Chicks in Architecture Refuse to Yield…to Atavistic Thinking In Design and Society) is decidedly worth “more than the sum of [her] body parts,” the group’s script reads. It emerges from under the sheet as a more formal, type-set interior scroll: a disposable barrier curled between stirruped heels. At the same time, the self-proclaimed “promiscuous daughters” of architecture’s canonical fathers, Liquid Incorporated, designed “Modesty Screens” that reveal and drew plans for private houses with figural eyes. Like glossy ink on slick mylar, they made architecture that returned a gaze, building rooms and objects that seemed to move and desire as bodies do. These projects, like Schneemann’s, lived in galleries and are memorialized in texts, an indication that (feminist) architecture need not dwell on building.

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A.K. Burns, production stills from Negative Space 00: Living Room (2017). 2-channel video installation. HD color, 5.1 audio, 36 min synchronized loop. / Courtesy of the artist, Callicoon Fine Arts and Michel Rein Gallery.

With Living Room (2017), A.K. Burns corrects a course in which the body of our radical feminist imagination is as entwined with heterosexual pleasure as Carolee Schneemann insists. For Burns, the “body” is architectural, but its occupants suggest movement from the conventionally attractive, white woman at the center of undressed feminist art of late 20th century. Here, queerness and blackness are given space within the performative frame, but aren’t necessarily tasked with performing identity. Burns’ work, which includes many more bodies, aims to do something more expansive, by way of architecture.  Each component space is staged with “acting agents” — not characters, but symbolic bodies whose performance draws out the real ‘subject’ of the Room. The interiors, like their occupants, are material things, capable of shape shifting but are not held to some prescriptive representation.

Living Room is the “BODY” of the series Negative Space, joining multimedia episodes on SUN (A Smeary Spot, 2015), VOID, LAND, and WATER. A two-channel film sees into the building as a hermetically sealed corpus, closed to the city just beyond it, a bubble in which to see a dystopian present. Living Room is a cosmology of organs with associated rooms, like Schneemann’s Parts make up the Body House, however rendered materially and mediatically in the way that Schneemann’s project is not.

We never see the outside of Living Room (through its aluminum-covered windows), but its elements are distributed across filmed and exhibited interiors. In the installation view, bare studs extend from one projection surface to meet the ceiling; another is a bare sheet of drywall, propped up against a corner. A light-colored carpet, destined to be defiled, is laid out on the floor, under a gutted couch propped up on bags of soil to face the videos. The scenography pulls elements from the broadcasted living room to effectively domesticate the video in the museal environment, but without offering a seat to the museum-guest.

Children play celestial bodies (or “dwarf planets” as Burns describes them in a lecture about the project) who take up residence on the three couches; the seats of one have been replaced with dirt bags. Dressed in self-similar fabrics, children are “of the couch”; florals and fauna and plaids cover them and the furniture as contiguous bodies. A small arm reaches into an aquarium like a small god, caring for a fish by digging pennies out of the bottom of its tank.

A uniformed Ms. Manning descends the stairs in heels, carrying the view between discrete spaces. Burns films a sequence of movement from the top of the building to its bottom. Garbage is transported down the stairs in a material descent from mouth to anus, consumer product to waste. A pregnant body also appears in the stairwell, saddled with a backpack and bags of trash as “counter-weighted impossibility.”

Pausing at a scene in the bathroom (the kidneys), two hospital-gowned figures are engaged in a “Detox Tub Talk,” a conversation between organs and ailments. keyon gaskin is the bandaged figure, suffering from micro-aggressions while A.L. Steiner embodies, and succumbs to, economic toxicity, ending up dead in the bathwater.

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A.K. Burns, production stills from Negative Space 00: Living Room (2017). 2-channel video installation. HD color, 5.1 audio, 36 min synchronized loop. / Courtesy of the artist, Callicoon Fine Arts and Michel Rein Gallery.

The film ends in the basement — its uterus — depicted as a generative space where furnaces usually make and distribute heat. Bodies find synchronicity in music video choreography like a kind of protesting machine. Shot in the dark, all lighting is emitted from headlamps which move with their wearers, tracing the contours of the basement and its occupants. Flashes of t-shirt text shout “HER” “NO” “AGAIN” “OR BUST” — dancing around the last words of 2016 political campaign slogans. As with Schneemann’s Guerrilla Gut, the body resolves back into the political.

For A.K. and Carolee, the house is a vehicle for other states of being. And in the transformation of the house, the body is also allowed to be something else. We might then be forgiven for our lingering fixation on this pair as the entwined subjects of feminist making; there is always more to expose, more wallpaper to peel up, more messes to make or clean up or push from one place to another.

Over and over, we confront the problem of feminism having to signify itself. It’s work that’s most easily done with a body, but whose body is the intercepting question. If our bodies (gendered, raced, laboring, desiring) have always been the transgressive occupants of architecture, what is the political power in flashing our tits (FEMEN borrowing from Valie Export) or opening our bleeding selves to present an internal monologue to an audience? Pumping hormones to make softer, more fertile, less furry, and for easier passage as women in this world.

Representational concerns butt up against the desire to articulate a thing that’s otherwise willed away as invisible. Oppression is a boogeyman if you can’t demonstrate all the ways it hurts us, and expose who is affected. Showing the meat of the body is a thing that Carolee must do, if only to get it out of the way. She claims the organs, the body at its most denatured, to force you to occupy it. Curiously, the legibility of the body in Parts of a Body House is essentially erased, just like CARY’s ghost of an architectress. Scale figures, gestural drawings in pink, are made to climb the pile of intestines. The human residents of Living Room are assigned other symbolic duties, while children disappear into home-decor fabrics. For all our yearning for “feminist stuff,” we get t-shirts instead of paid leave or something more material, and less symbolic.

Inhabiting a body is burdensome, and so is representing it, flashing it, hiding it, or making it conform to all these necessary postures. The demonstrative outfits/illfits/retrofits of our leaky ships remind us of where the body’s abjectness is made sensible, where “Black is not a man” (says Fanon), where fleshy vulnerabilities are occluded but unsynthesized by the violence of the built. We are forced to hide all the ways our bodies are already designed and punish ourselves when they still do not suit an environment built upon such expectations. As architects, we’d like to feel like we have some capacity for redesign, some influence to exert over exploitative structures, if not our own raw material. The ordinariness of the body does not live in the discourse of architectural invention, where spatial practice as “speculative” practice finds loftier places to be. We’d love to talk to you about ideals and feminist utopias, about Christine de Pizan’s City of Women, a world promised by SCUM or realized through Princess Nokia lyrics, all our angriest and most fanciful fanfic. But these hair-skin-and-nails vitamins are giving us diarrhea. It seems so much more radical to talk about the bathrooms we feel comfortable retreating to instead. So thank you, Carolee, for that.