Architecture and the Dialectic of Sex

“And what about women artists? (…) We have seen that it has only been in the last several centuries that women have been permitted to participate – and then only on an individual basis, and on male terms (…) The incorporation of the neglected half of human experience – the female experience (…) is only the first step (…).” [1]

 

 

This paper deals with the overall question if a feminist architecture does, or respectively, even can exist and the hypothesis that thoughts and concepts from various feminist discourses have been implemented, consciously or unconsciously, in the practice of various architects. 

 

The initial question and interest arose as a reaction to the "Xenofeminist Manifesto" by the collective Laboria Cuboniks since it claims for a feminist production of space and architecture. With the help of technology and architecture as tools, the collective wants to abolish racism and sexism.[2]

 

Xenostands for the other or alienating[3]and is “tied to a realist philosophy”[4]. It can be understood as a mixture of cyberfeminism, posthumanism, accelerationism, neoliberalism, materialism[5] and of course feminism. It follows the attempt to bring feminist thoughts together with contemporary life and the contemporary world – a world full of technology and artificial intelligence on the rise.[6]It sees a lot of potential in technology to reach the feminist goals of the 21st century. “Technology as an activist tool”[7]that can be used to revise the world[8], promises a further step towards equality and the abolition of sexism and racism. In addition to technology, the movement ascribes architecture as well, a significant role.

The question that needs to be raised at this point is how and whether xenofeminist architecture could be conceptualized and how all of these intriguing approaches towards architecture could be handled. What would a xenofeminist architecture be? Can there even be such a thing or would it remain an illusion?

Struggling with the vagueness of the concept of such a xenofeminist architecture, I´d like to take a step back at this point and look for precedents for feminist thoughts implemented in architecture in the past. 

 

Conceptual Personae: Shulamith Firestone 

 

A feminist agenda that can be found in architecture in the past, is the attempt to liberate women from their duties as housewives and mothers, a role dictated by capitalist societies. One representative of this claim, and conceptual personae of this paper, is the radical thinker and second-wave feminist Shulamith Firestone, famously known for her text “The Dialectic of Sex” published in 1970. 

 

The centerpiece of the “Dialectic of Sex” is the depiction of society and history in the three categories of Sex, Class, and Culture that have been, became, or even still are, biased. The chart in figure 1 shows how the categories evolved over history, and which kind of revolution could lead to a transition that would ultimately end in a by her formulated goal. 

 

 

Figure 1: Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution(London/New York: Verso, 2015), 172-173. 

 

One of the main claims that Firestone outlines with this chart, is the abolition of the nuclear family, an obstacle that prevents the liberation of women.To overcome this patriarchal straitjacket, as she defines the nuclear family, an alternative to this traditional picture of family-life has to be found.[9]Ultimately, her solution would be that children do not any longer grow up in a nuclear household, but in living communities, where a group of adults raises them in shared responsibility.

 

Early Traces of Feminist Architecture

 

At the beginning of the 20thcentury, already decades before Shulamith Firestone, this quite radical theory of re-arrangement of social structures and family can be found in the so-called material feminism. A term coined by Dolores Hayden[10]and more importantly, an actual attempt of endorsing feminist principles with spatial arrangements. These women … 

 

"(…) saw that many decisions about the organization of future society were being incorporated into the built environment. Therefore, they identified the spatial transformation of the domestic workplace under women's control as a key issue linking campaigns for social equality, economic justice, and environmental reform."[11]  

 

"For six decades, the material feminists expounded one powerful idea: that women must create feminist homes with socialized housework and childcare before they could become truly equal members of society." [12] Material feminists defined built space as a social and economic product and did not define architecture as something that enables social change, but as a tool that can either support or prevent it. They wished to transform women´s sphere all together as part of the material conditions of women´s lives. They were activists, working on transforming the spatial design of American houses and cities.[13] In general, material feminists followed 3 goals[14]that can be linked to Firestone´s chart. 

(1) To challenge the male-headed, traditional family. Something that can be found in the two categories of Class and Sex. (2) To establish women´s economic independence, which again can be linked with Firestone´s category of Class. (3) And to reshape the built environment to support a transformation of the family and social reproduction. A claim that can be linked to the category of Culture.  

 

Furthermore, some of the material feminists already tried at that time to find alternatives to nuclear families. For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Melusina Fay Peirce challenged traditional ideas of the single-family home and worked on feminist apartment hotels. Or Marie Stephens Howland, who was in favor of communal services such as communal kitchens or childcare. Some members of this movement even designed themselves and although some did not, their proposals traceably inspired other architects and urban planners. 

 

Furthermore, the arguing of material feminists´ for new domestic arrangements, including feminist housing complexes, supported on the political level the evolution of socialism. The already mentioned re-thinking of domesticity through collective residential neighborhoods, featuring cooperative housekeeping centers, communal kitchens, spaces for shared childcare, obtained material expressions in the socialist housing after Word War 2.[15]  

 

Feminism, Socialism, and Architecture – The work of Karola Bloch

 

It is clear that it is possible to link not only the attempts of the reorganization of social structure of the material feminists, but also the one by Shulamith Firestone, with several principles of socialism. Hence, the closer look in the architect Karola Bloch, who, after living in exile in the United States of America, was working for the Building Academy (Bauakadmie) of the newly founded Socialist state of East Germany after the Second World War.  

 

The afore outlined feminist concept of the abolition of nuclear households can be found in the development of schematic plans for childcare facilities by Bloch. Her work for the East German Bauakademie after World War 2 was deeply rooted in a more female sphere[16]. And it was not only her personal goal to change the role of women according to socialist principles of gender equality with her architecture and research, but furthermore, her research on long-stay childcare facilities and floorplan typologies that were generated through this research, participated in implementing the gender equality in the GDR. Numerous nurseries and kindergartens, specially developed in cooperation with educators and health workers, offered care for children of every age and relieved women from their domestic duties. 

In the end, it was these facilities that allowed women to have a career, and as several surveys have shown, they were also very well accepted by the population. When asked if they would rather be stay-at-home moms or join the workforce, surveys have shown that they preferred the latter.[17]

 

 

 

Figure 2: Karola Bloch, Weekly Childcare Facility Future of the Nation, Exterior View, 1950s. © Archiv Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei.

 

Even though the building Future of the Nation in Leipzig (Figure 2), designed after Karola Bloch´s scheme B1/60, built by the Fugmann Brigade in cooperation with Bloch, might appear at first glance a bit odd, it is the intention and principles Karola Bloch tried to embody in these building typologies that makes it interesting as a case study for feminist architecture. Such as her and her husband´s – the philosopher Ernst Bloch – belief in this new socialist society and state of East Germany after the Second World War, and the personal urge of the couple to actively participate in the construction of it. Furthermore, her conscious handling of the interior space that took care of the needs of its actual users, the children. And last but not least, how she tried to meet Ernst Bloch´s concept of utopia in terms of how she used her design to express an outlook in which the socialist principles of gender equality, and a new definition of family, finally got realized, and how these typologies she designed, attempted to trigger such a social change. 

 

Almost as if she would be a member of a new generation material feminist, Karola Bloch´s architecture has to be evaluated in a wider context. The feminist principle here is not the construction of "nice" kindergartens, but the development of the typologies for communal childcare. As material feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or Marie Stephens Howland already proposed in the 19thcentury, also the schematic plans of Bloch came with a proposal of the ideal positioning in the urban context and demonstrates how space can induce change. In the end, it is exactly all of this together that makes Karola Bloch´s architecture a feminist act in the first place. 

 

Also, the public role she took over while working on those type plans is strongly suggestive of how material feminists performed in public. Karola Bloch advertised for her buildings not only in trade magazines of the GDR but even in women´s magazines like Die Frau von Heute. 

Moreover, she saw emancipatory potential in architecture, as she stated that good and thoughtful planning was especially important for women since it was them, who had to deal with the troubles that badly designed floor plans of domestic spaces caused. Or when she worked on a building encyclopedia for women, to give them the chance to have a voice when it comes to planning. On this encyclopedia, she was working after she and Ernst Bloch fell in disgrace in the GDR, and even had been fired from her job at the Bauakademie.[18]

 

Back to the Future

 

Going back to Shulamith Firestone´s theory of the "Dialectic of Sex", this architectural example is somehow already on the way to reach the goals on the chart, but on the same hand, it is not truly there yet either. It is almost like an architectural pre-condition for the feminist revolution.  

 

In a more contemporary context, it might have to be more radical. Especially considering that Firestone predicted the feminist revolution to happen within a century in all three categories.[19]And half time through this prediction, it appears that we still have quite some work ahead of us.  

 

As we have seen, has not only the questioning of birth as biological absolute and the social structures that come along with it been on the agenda of various feminists for a long time[20], but also fifty years later it is still part of the contemporary discourse. Today the last category of the chart by Firestone is of special interest. As mentioned before, the key to Firestone's theory is the evolution of the dialectic society and culture with a prediction – or suggestion – how the ultimate goals of equality can be reached.

 

Culture here is partly defined by Firestone as “the attempts by man to realize the conceivable in the possible (…). But man was not only able to project the conceivable into fantasy. He also learned to impose it on reality: by accumulating knowledge, learning experience, about that reality, and how to handle it, he could shape it to his liking. This accumulation of skills for controlling the environment, technology, is another means to reaching the same end, the realization of the conceivable in the possible”[21].

 

For the artist and philosopher James Bridle[22]culture today is furthermore defined as code/space, steered by algorithms. Computation produces physical and cultural space that implements huge covered power imbalances into society. Still, computation has become the foundation of our thinking, especially regarding the undeniable belief today that any given problem can be solved by the application of computation. The risk of such solutionism is self-evident. The 50 years ago by Firestone outlined division by a sex-role system is today famously known as Data Bias. It is a delusion to think that technology develops in a vacuum and is emancipatory per se or free of any prejudice. The circumstance that in the last century technological acceleration has changed the planet, society and us as individuals, but not our understanding of those[23]maneuvered us in a state of “Future Nauseous”[24]. Incapable of catching up with the fast evolution of the technology of the last decade, it generated its own knowledge and we seem to struggle with catching up.[25]  

 

This leads us to the final and ultimate questions: where are we right now on the chart of Firestone? Has the cultural revolution, an important step on the way to reach the ultimate goal, already happened? Have scientific breakthroughs broken down cultural categories or did it end up in sort of a cultural shock and pushed us back again? What if the rapid evolution of technology and our inability to understand its impact on a global scale, as well as its hidden power structures have led to a state of shock? And finally, how can the chart of Firestone be edited so that it applies to the contemporary discourse and contemporary urgencies? 

 

It seems like we got stuck right at this point. So, what we would need today is again material feminists´ insight into women´s oppression using spatial critique, in addition to the social critique contemporary feminism exercises.

 

Xenofeminist architecture could continue where the material feminists and their successors like Karola Bloch ended. Not for the rest, the manifesto outlines that nothing should be accepted as “fixed, permanent or given, neither material conditions, nor social forms”[26]. Furthermore, it wants to use technology to re-engineer the world. A "world that swarms with technological mediation interlacing our daily lives with abstraction, virtuality, and complexity"[27]. Further, the implementation of these attempts by Xenofeminism could lead us a step further in Firestone´s chart: The Transition, where art and reality merge. The realization of the conceivable in the actual expressing itself in the disappearance of culture, and thus also the vanishing of sex-role systems.  

But this crucial next step needs to recognize all the chasm that exists today. The one that opens up between us as individuals when we fail to acknowledge and articulate present conditions.

 

The by xenofeminism self-defined field of action – “from the global to the local, from the cloud to our bodies”[28]appears now to be exactly the right place of action for this revolution. 

 

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[1]Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution(London/New York: Verso, 2015), pp. 149-152.  

[2]Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics of Alienation (London/New York: Verso, 2018)

[3]Armen Avanessian et al., Perhaps It Is High Time For A Xeno-Architecture To Match (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018), 42.

[4]Avanessian et al., Perhaps It Is High Time For A Xeno-Architecture To Match, 44.

[5]Helen Hester, Xenofeminism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 1.

[6]Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, 13.

[7]Hester, Xenofeminism, 7.

[8]Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, 17.

[9]Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution.

[10]Dolores Hayden, Grand Domestic Revolution: History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighbourhoods, and Cities(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).

[11]Hayden, Grand Domestic Revolution, 10. 

[12]Hayden, Grand Domestic Revolution,3.

[13] Hayden, Grand Domestic Revolution.

[14]Hayden, Grand Domestic Revolution.

[15]Helen Hester, “Promethean Labors and Domestic Realism,” e-flux Architecture, 25. September 2017, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/artificial-labor/140680/promethean-labors-and-domestic-realism/.

[16]Mary Pepchinski, “Gender and return migration: Karola Bloch and the development of standard childcare typologies in the German Democratic Republic. 1949-1961, "in Ideological Equals: Women Architects in Socialist Europe 1945-1989, ed. Mary Pepchinski and Mariann Simon(London/New York: Routledge, 2017).

[17]Kristen R. Ghodsee, Why Women have Better Sex under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence (London: Vintage, 2018)

[18]Karola Bloch, Aus meinem Leben(Pfullingen: Verlag Günther Neske, 1981), 103.

[19]Firestone,The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution,171

[20]Helen Hester, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/artificial-labor/140680/promethean-labors-and-domestic-realism/

[21]Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution,154.

[22]James Bridle, The New Dark Age: Der Sieg der Technologie und das Ende der Zukunft. Translated by Andreas Wirthensohn (Münchebn: C.H. Beck, 2019). 

[23]Bridle, New Dark Age. 

[24]Venkatesh Rao, “Welcome to the Future Nauseous,” Ribbonfarm, 9thof May  2012, https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2012/05/09/welcome-to-the-future-nauseous/.

[25]Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution.

[26]Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, 15.

[27]Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, 13.

[28]Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, 83.  

page image: Laurie Simmons, Woman Opening Refrigerator/Milk in the Middle (1978).
Photo courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York.

background image: Suffragette Lady Florence Norman, 1918

© Bettina Siegele 2020

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