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

Published

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.

Article published in The Funambulist 23 (May-June 2019) Insurgent Architectures. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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.