Architecture has long played a role in reinforcing gender roles, reflecting historical power dynamics and societal values. More often, gender norms are driven by the layout, form, and function of both public buildings and domestic spaces. However, contemporary perspectives, including feminist ones, are increasingly challenging these traditional norms and advocating for more inclusive and equitable design practices. In the article, we try to reveal the unseen narratives of architectural spaces.
Historical Power Dynamics:
The layout and design of spatial surroundings reflect and reinforce pre-existing social hierarchies, power dynamics and ideologies. Women are stereotypically perceived as meek, humble and in need of protection from men. This notion has driven the demand for spatial division into public and private spaces. Throughout history, rulers, monarchs, and authoritative figures have used architecture to display power and dominance. Monumental structures like palaces, government buildings, and religious edifices have been constructed grandly to symbolize authority and control over the population. These structures are created by men for men.
Interestingly, the layers of social strata are also driven by the arrangement of spaces within a building.
For instance, in medieval castles, the higher floors were reserved for the ruling class, and workers and servants occupied the outside quarters. Similar spatial arrangement visually emphasized social hierarchies.
Division of Spaces
Architecture has often enforced spatial divisions based on gender roles. Historically, women have always been confined to the four walls of their houses, while men have been on the run as breadwinners, or the owners of the outside world defined by public spaces. Domestic spaces, too, have been designed to segregate household tasks and roles, such as kitchens being secluded from the main living areas. Kitchens and working areas are often kept apart from the main gathering spaces of the house with a backyard or only a view towards the living room. This used to provide women to stay indoors and cook meals for their husbands while keeping an eye on the kids. Public spaces have separate entrances, bathrooms and waiting areas for men and women.
A woman is denied protection bestowed to her when she exceeds the boundaries set for her. This social segregation further amplifies exclusion in an already marginalized population segment. Instances of violence and attacks on women, where attention often turns to shifts to the victim’s attire or reasons for being outdoors, and the need to find justification in her actions, underscore the prioritization of the status quo over the personal safety of women.
Security measures implemented by authorities, such as increased surveillance of public areas frequently used by women or the creation of designated zones for their use, further solidify the gender-based dynamics of space. These constraints do not guarantee safety; they merely serve as precautionary steps taken at the cost of a woman’s fundamental freedom.
Another example of restricting female movements is seen in the architectural element of ‘jaalis’ in vernacular Rajasthani architecture in Western India. The women were provided a peephole into the outside world through ‘jaalis’ or lattice windows. Purdah-clad women would utilize these windows to watch a street fair or the bazaar without getting caught by the male gaze.
Aesthetics and Materials
Materials and colours perpetuate gender norms and stereotypes within a space. Certain materials are associated with gendered attributes, such as heavy metal, concrete and leather, and are often associated with strength, resilience, and masculinity. In contrast, light colors like pastels and materials like fabric, satin, and glass are linked with delicacy and soft feminine features.
In the most recent Barbie film, a pink dream house takes center stage, characterized by an open layout that allows every Barbie to greet one another upon waking. What distinguishes this seemingly stereotypical pink abode is the deliberate effort by the movie’s creators to reclaim the color from its historical associations with the trivialization of femininity. Notably, the absence of conventional walls within the house conveys the notion that women are unconfined by the traditional boundaries of a bedroom or kitchen.
The Need for A Feminist Perspective
To create inclusive spaces, we must engage women architects and designers in various planning and design stages. Karen A Franck, author of “A Feminist Approach to Architecture,” states that women are into connectedness between different activities and the spaces that support them. (Frank 1989)
The intersectionality of identities and experiences, including gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and ability are recognized by feminist design. It is important to include designers who consider a range of perspectives and the need to create spaces that accommodate diverse populations, by making sure that no one is marginalized or excluded.
Both within professional contexts and through collaborative consultations, a more extensive societal dedication to gender equity becomes essential to ensure its integration throughout all procedures and regulations. It is imperative to secure the presence of women in leadership roles, enabling them to contribute their voices, viewpoints, and lived experiences to discussions and decision-making processes.
A feminist viewpoint will promote universal design principles that make spaces accessible to people of all abilities. This approach ensures that everyone can navigate and use spaces independently and comfortably, including publications by women architects and academicians in the field as a key subject and not just as a ‘special’ elective in the education realm, advocates for education and awareness about the impact of design on gender and power dynamics. Designers and users can contribute to more inclusive spaces by fostering a deeper understanding of these issues.
Women have experiences, and it’s time we acknowledge the same and let them create their spaces and environment. Through intentional and thoughtful design, we can reshape our built environment to reflect the values of equality, representation, and empowerment for all.
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