Panel Session: Empowerment Architecture

This is a live blog entry by resident pluralist, Sarah Nusser. The panel is part of the 2011 Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies conference on Gender, Sexuality, and Urban Spaces in Cambridge, MA.

Examining “redemptive spaces” for urban women…

Ian Scott Todd, PhD Candidate, English, Tufts University
Erin Eckhold Sassin, PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, Brown University & UMass Dartmouth
Faye Antonia Hays, Doctor of Design Candidate, Design Studies, Harvard Graduate School of Design

What most interested me about this session was the panelists’ intentions to dispel the notion that there is one, universal urban design and aesthetic.

Erin’s presentation looked at gendered spaces and housing for single people in 19th and early 20th century Germany.  She discussed a specific building type (Ledigenheim) in Germany that housed single workers (both men and women), and argued that access to this building type (which included public and private spaces, communal kitchen facilities, libraries) was a radical departure from housing models of the time.  However, this model – although architecturally similar  – presented different opportunities for men v women.

Men tended to be working class, and the goal of the housing type was to sanitize and reform the blue collar male.  Women tended to be middle class (e.g. teachers), and the housing type enabled their lives to be far more open than other women in their class. The Ledigenheim included single units with kitchen, a restaurant open to residents and members of the neighborhood, and a public coffee shop.  In contrast with the notion that women remained domesticated in this period, women residing in the Ledigenheim could live with little supervision and homes were an extension of the street.   Erin argues that this was a distinct break from a model of housing that summoned the convent and the cloister.  In fact, housing became a primary element in enabling women to participate in the public realm.

Faye’s research “Freedom to Dwell: Gendered Aesthetics of Informal Housing” focused on contemporary informal housing in Costa Rica. Photography was a significant investigative tool in her research, and she showed a slide-show of 40 photographs while speaking. Faye started with the assumption that the ability to control housing aesthetics is inherent to quality of life. And she sought to understand how and why aesthetics differ among households and by gender.  She noted that the light-weight materials of informal housing made adapting houses based on household configuration possible.

In one survey, she asked dwellers: If given a bucket of paint of your favorite color, would you use it and which part of your house would you first paint?  All non-single men wanted to paint the front facade in order to improve appearance to others.  The one single male interviewee preferred to first paint the interior.  Most women wanted to paint the interior first, but many women wanted to paint the exterior in order to protect the materials.

The session provided evidence that aesthetic needs are not homogenous – both the preferences and impacts of aesthetic and design decisions can differ by gender.  As planners and designers, the ability to incorporate aesthetic and design flexibility in our urban environments is the challenge.