Feminisms in Plural: Interview with Andrea J. Merrett
In your research, you have been tracing the history of feminism in American architecture. Can you discuss key historical moments where feminist movements impacted and informed architecture which can still be felt today?
Some key moments can be traced back to the 19th century through the scholarship of Dolores Hayden and Gwendolyn Wright.
In their writing during the seventies and eighties, they look at the relationship between first-wave feminism and its direct impact on the built environment. They examined the work of reformers and writers who critique the home as a place which shouldn’t require so much work from women, so they can have more time to dedicate to their public lives or careers. Another key moment was in the 1970s where you see women in architecture – a small minority which I have identified as the women’s movement in architecture – responding to the women’s liberation movement. They are responding to calls for equality and liberation from the constraints of patriarchal society which dictated that women and men had different places and roles. Part of the work the women’s movement in architecture focused on was overcoming discrimination and having more women enter architectural schools and practices. This resulted in an increase in women within the discipline since that time. Another part [of the women’s movement in architecture] relates to more radical feminism and ideas to rethink architecture altogether rather than trying to be a part of the profession as it was. Examples include the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA) founded in 1974, an experimental summer school program. You also have the Boston-based practice, the Open Design Office, which tried to eliminate hierarchical office structures and profit motivation and implement flexible work schedules. By the late 1980s and 1990s, feminism becomes a lot more academic. In architecture it becomes part of that turn to theory. So when everybody is reading Derrida, the feminists are also reading the works of post-structural feminists like Irigaray and Cixous. These would be key moments from history. And, I think we are in another moment now where you have people thinking about feminism and related issues around inclusion; whether coming from a feminist perspective or from questions regarding race or postcolonial theory. These questions about different kinds of power dynamics of inclusion and exclusion are being raised both in the teaching and practice of architecture.
How has the definition of feminism evolved to encompass broader conversations for both women’s rights in architecture and for people who do not identify with the binary constructs of gender?
I think we first need to talk about feminism(s) as a multiple which does not have a single definition. This has largely been an effort of feminists and certainly feminists of color who pushed these ideas in the seventies and eighties with the concept of intersectionality. During that time, there was a focus on how these different systems of identities and questions of power all relate, reinforce each other, and create differences in discriminations and experiences that people have. It is also important to keep in mind that a definition of feminism that is only concerned with women is a very narrow one. As far back as the second-wave, feminists’ arguments were focused on dismantling the patriarchal system by thinking about patriarchy in a relational manner which does not only affect men or women but everyone embedded within the system.
You co-curated the travelling exhibition, Now What?! Advocacy, Activism and Alliances in American Architecture since 1968 with Architexx; can you speak more about the ways in which architects and designers have historically instrumentalized their work as a form of activism?
For the exhibition, we were keen on looking beyond design as the only platform for activism. Rather, we took on a broader perspective of understanding that starting a professional organization for women, for example, falls under the rubric of architects and designers who use their professional positions to advocate for both themselves and for others. One such case is the Women’s Development Corporation, a non-profit housing developer based in Rhode Island which still exists today. The founders – a group of architects, planners, and historic preservation professionals – met at WSPA and wanted to establish a corporation where they can use their architectural skills to help other minorities. They started off designing housing, a lot of which was primarily for single mothers and their children. There were a lot of participatory planning sessions with potential residents in the early years asking what they want and need in order to ensure their design proposals are responsive. Their work doesn’t focus on a particular design idea but rather on using design as a tool which is responsive to the clients’ needs. Another organization like the Architect’s Renewal Committee in Harlem, founded in the late 1960s, was envisioned as a community facilitator which helps support residents in their fight against urban renewal by making their professional skills available to others.
In 2018, you participated in a couple of workshops/symposiums—FAAC YOUR SYLLABUS: Pedagogy Workshop in 2018 with Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (FAAC) at GSAPP and A Convergence at the Confluence of Power, Identity, and Design symposium at the GSD—which focus on identity at the center of pedagogical reforms within the discipline. What were some of the tactics and strategies collectively discussed and proposed?
There are multiple strategies that are being proposed and tried in different places for ensuring pedagogical reforms. We had discussions about de-centering the author by co-teaching so there isn’t just one voice of authority in a classroom or in a studio. When teaching history, we need to emphasize that architects worked in networks and collaborated with others who played pivotal roles in defining their practice. We also discussed restructuring the contents of the syllabus to challenge the predominant narratives in the discipline. We need more students pushing to include different voices within architecture history courses to start dissolving the narrative of the white male star architect. We also discussed questions of working inside or outside the institution and tried to understand in which space one’s work would be most effective. The Founders of WSPA, as I mentioned earlier, decided to disregard the existing institutional framework and instead open their own school, whereas a lot of educators are trying to affect change from within existing institutions and schools.
The architectural discipline is overdue for change. Why do you feel architecture has been so slow to adopt new strategies? Do you have suggestions for how we can move forward?
We need to start by asking the question of why architecture has constructed itself as a predominantly masculine profession in the West. This becomes evident when you start to include other identities more visibly that threaten this definition. There also needs to be an accreditation requirement to include issues of pedagogical reforms as mandatory to ensure that changes are met. One way to move forward will be through more engagement and collaboration between different schools of architecture. A huge lesson from the women’s movement in architecture in the seventies is that the success they had was due to the creation of a national network by women across organizations from different parts of the country. If anything is going to happen, it will be through a collaboration rather than an isolation between different schools.
Andrea J. Merrett recently defended her dissertation on the history of feminism in American architecture. Before entering the doctoral program in architectural history at Columbia University, she studied and practiced architecture in Montréal, Canada.