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The Role of Gender and Computation in the Production of Architectural Space

Info: 3870 words (15 pages) Essay
Published: 16th Nov 2021 in Architecture

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Introduction

Space is an instrument of thought and action, which endorses the struggle over power between bodily consumption. Nonetheless, space in itself is not inherently powerful as it is the politics of spatial usage that govern its power. A male-controlled outlining of architectural spaces undeniably privileges masculinity, in its representation of social order, divisions, and stereotypical gender roles. The underrepresentation of a women's body, particularly of colour and lower social status, creates a possible setting for subservience and manipulation.

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This spatial marginalization of a human body, through the architectural assumptions of space, supports the undisputed operation of patriarchal power within human habitation ranging from activities, bodily practice, and gendered relations. It is normally regarded that architecture is simply 'empty' or 'neutral'[1] containers that enable the unrestricted interaction of bodies in space. The validity of this perception is questionable since the supposedly innocent conventions of architecture operate covertly within a system of power relations to preserve or conduct social values, which may stand to challenge or support social positions. 'Buildings are mechanisms of representation'[2], and as such, they are political and ideological.

Architecture sets the conditions in defining a regime through distribution of bodies in space and restricting and defining the interaction of bodies in space.

The preliminary point to this essay will be a criticism on the role of gender within the realm of the built environment, and to what extent designers take into account the need to recognize a plurality of interests as gender and cultural deliberation is an essential factor within the consumption of planned space. Computation, subsequently, becomes a focal point as to how it can be utilized as an instrument to improve spatial relations and bind theory and practice in the realm of design and the built environment.

Gender and Space

The built environment is a culturally produced artifact due to its formation by human purpose and intervention, 'a living archeology through which we can extract the priority and beliefs of decision-makers in our society.'[3] The process of both building of the forms and the forms themselves express cultural values and denote standards of behavior, which has impact on the end user, being we all.

The role of women, especially women of colour, within the built environment remains theoretically problematic as their interventions have yet to inform cultural discourse in the design disciplines or in the history and theory or art and architecture. Today, many would argue, and correctly so, that the situation for women within many professional industries are improving, as although, in a quantifiable sense, there are more females entering planning, architecture, and design, this however is not suggestive of a distinct enhancement in qualitative measures. Sexual metaphors are still present and underlie much of the discourse on space and architecture. Architecture itself seems to be underwritten by phallocentric premises based on the mastery of the male subject, the stability and permanence of the built object, and the hierarchical arrangement of spaces.

Louis Sullivan, defined a towering building as: "A man... a virile force, an entire male... it sings the song of procreant power"[4]. Similarly, Leslie Kanes Weisman accuses the city skyscrapers of the twentieth century as "rooted in the masculine mystique of the big, the erect, the forceful - the full balloon of the inflated masculine ego. Skyscrapers in our cities (such as Figure 1) compete for individual recognition and domination while impoverishing human identity and the quality of life."[5].

Men have up until fairly recent times in terms of the existence of architectural design as a discipline, largely defined the built environment domain; of which the skyscraper is the most apparent example. It has been suggested that female designers tend to consume a greater compassion and identification for diversity, whereas male professionals have a greater inclination to focus on technology, structures, and construction. This replicates largely the assumptions of a woman's temperament, being the character of the nurturer, and that of men being the traditional "bread- winner".

Equally, some dispute the suggestion that women hold a softer design approach to men. Jane Boyes, a female architect, is unconvinced of the idea that women have a softer approach to design than men. "I consider us all to be equal, and the female designers and technicians in our practice approach projects very much in the same way (as the men)."[6]

Figure 1: Skyscrapers in London

However, it is accurate to say that architects of the female gender class are still in the progression of seeking acceptance within the male-dominated field as Kirsty Curnow Bayley, a partner at a leading English based architecture firm, describes her experience when 'a client really shocked me as he asked: "I'm a little bit anxious, you seem like a really nice person, will you be able to cope with the builders on site?" I was dumbstruck."[7] Emphasis should not be placed, within the discipline, on how women design differently than men but rather on the key similarities and commonalities so that the different viewpoints in the design field are given recognition.

This provides for a more general approach and, thereafter, design results that take into account the differentiation between the sexes. However, through the consideration of architecture being a gender-biased practice, the design of cities and homes can reflect a rich set of ideas about architecture, women, and family life. Despite the fact that overt attitudes of discrimination and exclusion are no longer as prevalent in planning and development today, it is clear from studies of attitudes that designers fail to take into account the need to recognise a plurality of interests. This is to say that designers have interpreted and made generalisations of the "common good" of men and women's needs for some time.

Gender and cultural deliberation is fundamental to the ability of the built environment to respond to the requirements of all whom consume planned spaces and built designs. In the built environment, gender analysis can be defined as a "process of assessing the impact that a development activity may have on females and males and on gender relations as defined by the economic and social relationships between males and females which are constructed and reinforced by social institutions."[8] It is appreciated that now, more than ever, at a time when cities are growing and developing at a tremendous pace, it is imperative to identify gender equality in order to oblige change.

With the growing emergence of feminist approaches to disciplines and professions, discussions in relations to the needs and experiences of women in the design sector are more common as Humm states:

"Feminism encompasses a range of discourses and practices committed to the political, economic and social equality of women and to a doctrine of social transformation which aspires to establish a world for women beyond rudimentary equality."[9]

These views of feminist planning and design can be useful in the realm of the built environment and planning professions to reveal the gendered stereotypes that influence the spaces and places we encounter in our daily lives and generate awareness between gender and design as the constructed environment - the places and spaces shaped and generated by human beings - is largely deficient from the women's studies agenda. As Black and Coward put it:

"Women are precisely defined, never general representatives of humanity or all people, but as specifically feminine, and frequently sexual categories...Being a man is an entitlement not to masculine attributes, but to non-gendered subjectivity."[10]

Thus, the specific allocation of gender to men is ignored; they are instead seen as the reflection of the universal and the human where women stand as 'the other. In most social and political thought, the perception of the female gender as 'the other' has been taken for granted.

Despite these on-going feminist deliberations, it is evident that feminism is less visible in built environment theory, as it is fair to state that women and gender issues have become marginalised. This then rises the question as to whether or not feminist discourse should shift its focus away from 'gender as a distinct category of examination and if so, to what degree?

And would this dilute the impact of feminism?'[11] Furthermore, there have been occurring disputes that have faced Feminist critics through their development, which has been the need to recognise, describe, and explain the extent of the internal differences between women as a study of examination. Feminism, which stems from a political practice and an academic subject, has been exposed to some criticism in many countries for prioritising the concerns of middle-class white western women.

There has been, until relatively recent years, little concern for other factors of influence such as race, income, residential standards - all of which have a mounting effect on the social definition of a female in society, affecting and dictating their place in society. It is faultless to say that gender is not only limited to studies based on women as it spans societal roles and relationships. By approaching gender in a more dynamic way of thinking, it will be acknowledged that cities are not designed simply for humans universally, but for a highly diverse group in terms of race, ethnicity, and class, with the incorporation of gender. In fact, it is clear that design and feminist values need to be incorporated into the philosophy of urban design. This integration should bind theory and practice, taking practicality into account, emphasising built environments and studies of women.

Gender, Computation and Space

Architect and theorist Karl S. Chu discusses in' Metaphysics of Genetic Architecture and Computation 'how our world and our perception of our history, present and future are evolving in response to the fields of computation and genetics. According to Chu, "the evolution of life and intelligence on Earth has finally reached the point where it is now deemed possible to engender something almost of out nothing."[12] This widespread upheaval, powered by the spread and transference of information, may possibly be the basis to bind theory and practice in the realm of design and the built environment.

A poetic re-meaning of the world can be led and brought forth by computation; moreover, it may surface the construction of potential worlds engaging all social backgrounds.

In its simplest form, computation is a device that processes information through a discrete series of steps by taking the effects of its preceding stage and transferring it to the next stage at keeping with the recursive function. Such a recursion-based iterative procedure has proven to be incredibly "powerful and is classified as belonging to a class of machines having universal properties."[13] It is not incorrect to state that the root of computation is in an effort to embody instrumental purpose in an abstract system with the equivalent drive, to represent in all its forms, the encoding of the logic of life and the world we inhabit.

More generally, the computer has often been interpreted as an extension of the consciousness, a super memory or an enhanced tool for logical exploration. There is no question that the computer can be associated to an extension of the mind, but moreover it alters our perception by extending the realm of our knowledge. Computers submerge us into a fluid, exceptionally variable world that presents us distinctive powers to some of our sensations and the decisions to which they lead us. The use of computer-aided design can be a labyrinth exploration of the almost infinite possibilities offered by the machine. While form can vary endlessly, it can follow complex mazes of interactions, such as the contrasting interactions of a man within a space and a woman within the same space, forming scenario based reflections and outputs that will then inform the final design output.

A successful logical examination example, performed manually, in which both women and men were examined when designing and planning took place in Austria. Before the project of enhancing public spaces got underway, data was collected to determine how different groups of people use public space and was therefore established that women used public transit more often and made more trips on foot than men and were also more likely to split their time between work and family commitments. Recognizing this, city planners drafted a plan to improve pedestrian mobility and access to public transit. Additional lighting was added to make walking at night safer for women. Sidewalks were widened so pedestrians could navigate narrow streets. And a massive staircase with a ramp running through the middle was installed near a major intersection to make crossing easier for people with strollers and individuals using a walker or a wheelchair as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The barrier free staircase in Vienna

Despite the positive intention of the analysis to generate a public space that is designed to integrate both genders of the public, primarily taking into account how the body interacts with space, it is true to say that use of computation would have generated a faster outcome, purely formed of the collection of data minimizing human subjectivity. The chief virtue of computerisation is that it has the capacity to process vast quantities of information and data very readily. Consequently, this can then start to be used to analyse the female condition and spatial organisations as the mechanism holds the capacity to analyse the way in which a large sample of people interact with public and private spaces of the built realm. In theory, this algorithmic approach to design can be useful in terms of expressing the 'other', whether it being the female gender, a person of colour or a person of lower social power.

Computation has the ability to take in precise data of material complexity and characteristics in one go, such as site conditions, climate, data concerning spatial use, London traffic data and to then process an output. In terms of identity, this can be used to feed in social data to produce an algorithmic approach.

Thus, a new political responsibility is at risk as this potential approach to design procedures makes the architect further accountable for the consequences, as the world appears more and more as an artificial creation, from nature to artefacts, from materials to buildings. For architects, this implies a departure from the traditional stance of the professional unconcern to the large issues raised by insights derived from computation and data analysis.

Conclusion

In summary, the need of integration of design and feminist principles within urban design theory is acknowledgeable. This integration should bind theory and practice, taking into account practicality, emphasising designed environments and women's studies. This point is central to the theoretical underpinnings of the presence of feminism in urban design theory. In the design of structures, the male, due to their dominance in quantities, has predominantly largely defined the built environments world which leads to the stereotyping of gender relations universalizing women's needs and, therefore, creating building and spaces that trap women in the roles assigned to them. However, the perceptions of feminist planning and design can be beneficial within the realm of the built environment and planning professions to expose the gendered assumptions that inform the spaces and places we experience in our daily lives and generate awareness between gender and design as the designed environment is largely absent from the women's studies agenda.

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In the profession, gender inequality is not a simplistic issue of numerical dominance of men in the architectural and planning profession. It is the male dominance in the theories, standards, and ideologies that need to be questioned, challenged, revised, and infused with gender sensitivity so that women design professionals do not capitulate to a masculinized architectural terrain. Situations that concern power relations between women and men are primarily social issues, but everyday life activities are carried out in physical space, and conscious planning could support activities to achieve a more equal use of public space and private space by women and men. This then brings in the potential use of technological innovation such as computation to define a political and social agenda through the collection and processing of data.

The challenge in planning and designing must be to create a designed and built environment for equally both men and women with the aim for a gender-sensitive architecture, freed from the stereotyped constructs of gender. In so doing, architecture becomes a structure of emancipation and agent of social change.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

A. Krista Sykes (2010) Constructing A New Agenda: Architectural Theory 1993 - 2009, Princeton Architectural Press

Black and Coward (1981) 'Linguistic, social, and sexual relations', Screen Education, Vol 39

Gerard Rey A. Lico (2001), Architecture and Sexuality: The Politics of Gendered Space, Vol 2, No1

Jane Boyes, Interview in Clarke, R. (2007) 'We Want More Women Designing Towns', Western Mail. July 18th 2007

Juliet Hunt, (2004), Introduction to gender analysis concepts and steps", Development Bulletin, no. 64,

Karl S. Chu (2006) "Metaphysics of Genetic Architecture and Computation?" in Architectural Design, Vol 76 Issue 4

Lesie Kanes Weisman, (1981) Women's Environmental Rights: A Manifesto, Heresies

Maggie Humm (1992) Modern Feminisms: political, literary, cultural, New York, Columbia University Press

Michael Sorkin, (1991), Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings, Verso

Rahder and Altilia (2004) "Where is Feminism in Planning Going? Appropriation or Transformation?" in Planning Theory, Vol 3

Rendal, Barabara, Lian, (2000), Gender Space Architecture, Routledge

Unknown author, (2010), Women In Business: Kirsty Curnow Bayley, of Living Space Architects, Express & Echo. 10th December 2019

IMAGES

Figure1: http://www.skyscrapernews.com/images/pics/2839TheBishopsgateTower_pic7.jpg

Figure2: https://timeforequality.org/themes/gender-equality/how-to-design-a-city-forwomen/


[1] Gerard Rey A. Lico (2001), Architecture and Sexuality: The Politics of Gendered Space, Vol 2, No1, Page 31

[2] Lesie Kanes Weisman, (1981) Women's Environmental Rights: A Manifesto, Heresies, Page 1

[3] Rendal, Barabara, Lian, (2000), Gender Space Architecture, Routledge, Page 1

[4] Quoted by Michael Sorkin, (1991), Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings, Verso, Page 291

[5] Lesie Kanes Weisman, (1981) Women's Environmental Rights: A Manifesto, Heresies, Page 1

[6] Jane Boyes, Interview in Clarke, R. (2007) 'We Want More Women Designing Towns', Western Mail. July 18th 2007, Page 3

[7] Unknown author, (2010), Women In Business: Kirsty Curnow Bayley, of Living Space Architects, Express & Echo. 10th December 2019

[8] Juliet Hunt, (2004), Introduction to gender analysis concepts and steps", Development Bulletin, no. 64, Page 100

[9] Maggie Humm (1992) Modern Feminisms: political, literary, cultural, New York, Columbia University Press, Page 252

[10] Black and Coward (1981) 'Linguistic, social, and sexual relations', Screen Education, Vol 39, Page 83

[11] Rahder and Altilia (2004) "Where is Feminism in Planning Going? Appropriation or Transformation?" in Planning Theory, Vol 3, Page 115

[12] Karl S. Chu (2006) "Metaphysics of Genetic Architecture and Computation?" in Architectural Design, Vol 76 Issue 4, Page 39

[13] A. Krista Sykes (2010) Constructing A New Agenda: Architectural Theory 1993 - 2009, Princeton Architectural Press, Page 425

 

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