Panel Session: Transformative Armatures – The Performance of Gender as/in Architecture

This is a live blog piece by guest author, Julianna Sassaman, who is studying architecture at MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning. The panel is part of the 2011 Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies conference on Gender, Sexuality, and Urban Spaces in Cambridge, MA.

This was a great, if incohesive group of panelists. They’ve each done really interesting research on different architectural expressions of ‘women’s spaces’ in three different US institutions: contemporary Mosques, Gymnasiums at the turn of the century, and Settlement Houses in the early 1900’s.

Maryam Eskanderi gave a very compelling presentation on the need to re-examine mosque typology and explore the gender heirarchy assumptions embedded in that typology. Essentially, her work has determined that mosques prioritize men’s space, making the front of the mosque inaccesible to women, and allocating the separate women’s prayer space as ½ to 1/5 the amount of space allocated to the men. She talked about radical activists in the US staging Rosa Parks-style interventions in this model. And, she advocated for the role of architects in changing the typology, making contemporary mosque design reflect the changing politics of the practice of Islam in the US where communities are more open to mixed gender prayer spaces.

Kathleen Daly began by talking about exercise as a way of managing women’s bodies. Her research focused on the women’s gymnasium movement that was attached to women’s colleges in the late 1800’s in the US. Exercise for women was a new concept at that time, and the ideas of how/when/where women should exercise were hilarious! There was a great effort to hide women’s recreation (even behind shrubbery, if outdoors) and at the same time there were constructed observation decks in some of the gyms. Overall, a very intriguing look at the connections between controlling/shaping womens bodies, the condoned public/private expression of those activities, and the architectural typologies that developed in the early construcion of the spaces.

Finally, Karen Robbins research focused on Settlement Houses in the early 1900’s in the North East US. These homes were created for Victorian Era women to do ‘charity’ work by moving into poor neighborhoods, and creating homes where they could teach working class people (mostly immigrants) the values and customs of middle-class Americans. This paper brought up very complicated issues of ‘charity,’ assimilation, acculturation, and alternative living arrangements for the women running the homes. It was an interesting look at how social reform was conducted through domesticity.

It was hard to find the concrete links between the three panelists, but I was thoroughly intrigued by each line of research… the audience raised some questions about the role of cultural assimilation in relation to the typology of these institutions and I wish we’d had more time to discuss along that vein. At the same time, other audience members brought up the fact that the changes we are expecting of architects (particularly in politicising the mosque space) are often changes that need to come from within the participants of the institution. Architecture alone cannot demand the revolution, but it can have the effect of compounding assumptions and hindering that change.