What, exactly, is feminist architecture? The problem with architectural theory/history is that when it really comes down to building a structure that occupies social space, there is only a very tenuous relationship between the words on the page and the nails in the wall. Most architectural historians have no practical experience with building; in fact, I can't think of a single one of my friends working in the field who have actually built a house...or even a shed. It's all theoretical. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE theory, but lately I've been wondering what I can offer to the world as a designer/builder that I couldn't offer as a historian, and I keep coming back to this idea of building as a feminist. It's an entirely different endeavor than writing as a feminist, I think.
As a historian, as a writer, I'm perpetually occupied with the is and the was, rather than the what could be. And perhaps that is the great flaw of architectural theory--it's very seldom speculative, no science fiction allowed. It's not that writing isn't creative, and I've always maintained that writing history isn't much different that writing a historic novel (you just have to provide more footnotes), but it's still primarily occupied with examining what has already happened instead of what might happen in the future. There are architectural critics writing about what they are seeing right now, but those buildings are already the past, already built, already alive. I want to get to them before that stage, when I can still change them into something I believe in. Not that I necessarily believe that the built environment can be transformative, but just in case it is, I want my mind and hands involved at an early point in the design process.
So, what is my responsibility as a [liberal/feminist/lesbian/socialist] designer? At a very basic level, I want a building that functions more than I want anything else. I'm an advocate for universal healthcare; likewise, I believe all humans should have the right to safe, functional, and sanitary dwellings. While the intellectual in me really loves buildings that challenge our conceptions of how space is supposed to work (Eisenman's Wexner Center comes to mind), I think those kind of structures should be designed only for quasi-public spaces (places like museums *not* gov't buildings, which should always provide equal, non-challenging access to public services). I don't believe every human needs a 3,000 sq. ft. house. In fact, I don't think *any* human needs a 3,000 sq. ft. house. Our society craves privacy and individualized space, but you don't need a behemoth of a house to gain that.
Huge houses are socially irresponsible on many fronts. In materials alone, they are devastating the planet. Yes, you can raise timber for wood-framed houses on plantations (monoculture bad!), but what about all the remaining building materials? Synthetic insulation, composition roofing shingles, vinyl siding, even latex paint is bad news. Everything is required in greater quantities, even the pipe to run cold and hot water supplies. Plus, the bigger the footprint of the house, the more soil you disturb during the building process. The more ground you cover, the more problem you have with run-off. More sq. ft. means more space to heat. It's just not an environmentally wise decision.
This is one thing I like about Habitat of for Humanity. Their mission is to build "simple, decent, affordable houses" for as many people as possible, so they build small houses so they can afford to build more. I love the compactness of the plans. This is also why I like working for Bloomington Restorations. By renovating historic homes for low-income buyers, we're not necessarily using less building material--it can take as much to renovate as build from scratch--but older homes tend to be smaller and thus waste fewer resources over the life of the house once we've got it insulated and energy efficient.
So, as a liberal environmentalist, energy efficient affordable housing is huge in my book. But as a feminist? There has to be something more. There has to be a recognition that single-family dwellings don't work for the majority of women (even though that's all we design in school). For instance, in my own family, my great niece is being raised by her mother and her grandmother. To make the living arrangements work, they had to completely remodel the grandmother's house, converting a garage into a living space for the mother, which turned out to be a huge hassle because zoning laws didn't take into account that two adults might be co-habitating and still need separate bedrooms. A cursory survey of statistics indicates that there are something like 12 million single parents in the U.S., and according to the U.S. Census Bureau Household and Family Characteristics March 1998, 84% of children who live with one parent live with their mother. Clearly, my family isn't particularly unusual.
Let's face it. Men aren't going to do the work for us. I'm not into all that 1970s womyn-loving-wimmin-helping-womon ideology, but I do think that I should probably start taking care of my own if I can. Women shouldn't have to modify traditional dwellings to meet their needs, that certainly doesn't fall under "best practices" for architects. There is a paucity of affordable housing designed for single parents, and maybe I should think about working to change that. I wouldn't be alone, there are already organizations like Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation and Women's Research and Development Center (teaching women how to install drywall!) doing things like this. I don't know why I can't contribute to the movment.
To finish this long-winded post, a list of some of my favorite affordable housing projects (feminist or otherwise), taken from the Affordable Housing Design Advisor:
Holladay Avenue Homes, San Francisco, California
YWCA Family Village, Redmond, Washington
Viviendas Asistenciales, Tuscon, Arizona
Melrose Court, Bronx, New York
The Reservoir, Madison, Wisconsin