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International Women’s Day Book Review: ‘Making Space: Women and the man made environment’


For International Women’s Day 2022 we are releasing a special edition of our book review series in which members of the dRMM team share a publication that has allowed them to evolve either their thinking or their approach to architectural practice.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. This theme calls for a world that is free of gender bias, stereotypes and discrimination. In support of this, dRMM Architectural Assistant Abby Hopes shares how the book ‘Making Space: Women and the man-made environment’ (1984) by Matrix – a feminist architecture collective founded in the 1980s – has informed her interest in ensuring there is a place for gender equity in the built environment. Recently, the book featured in the exhibition ‘How We Live Now: Reimagining Spaces with Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative’ which ran at the Barbican centre from the 17th May to the 23rd December 2021.

A new edition of the book is being published for this year’s International Women’s Day, with a new introduction examining the context, process and legacy of Making Space written by leading feminists in architecture.

What are your opening thoughts on the book?

‘Making Space’ deals with gender equity in the built environment. It has been nearly forty years since the book was released so it is astounding to think that many of the same struggles covered in its pages still apply today.

This book trailblazed the start of the conversation regarding the relationship between gender and architecture, focusing on the experiences of women in the manmade environment. Although the book discusses the experiences of ‘women’ we can expand much of the book to include experiences of those who lie outside of the gender binary. Thinking in terms of that which is ‘non-male’, rather than that which is female, helps to understand how other gender groups have, as a result of our patriarchal society, traditionally been excluded from the shaping of spaces. It is important to widen our understanding of gender in order to inform how we design the built environment to be of benefit to all.

A contemporary understanding of the whole range of gender experience can really highlight how previously, we have thought of gender in such an oppositional way. Matrix Collective strived for intersectionality; if the book had been released in 2022, I believe it would widen its remit to investigate these diverse gender experiences of space in much more depth.

Why did you choose this book?

I had seen Dr Jos Boys (an architect, academic and member of the Matrix Collective) speak when I was in my first year of university. She was talking about her work on the DisOrdinary Project which uses co-design to bring together disabled artists and built environment specialists. After the lecture, I looked up ‘Making Space: Women and the man-made environment’ at the university library. It was the first time I had read something that put into words my feminist approach to architecture. I will be forever grateful for finding the book! I really resonate with everything it represents, especially the shared, inclusive method of practice favoured by Matrix. They don’t take individual ownership over the ideas they create – their actions and outputs are truly collective. Reading the book helped me to understand things about my own experience of the built environment as a woman, whilst recognising the nuanced and diverse experiences of others. I think the book is particularly revolutionary; at the time of publication, there weren’t as many women represented in the architectural profession, with Matrix being one of the first groups to challenge this. The book talks about women and their experience of public space. Providing a deep rooted context to my understanding that spaces have been designed in a particular way because non-men were absent from the conversations that shaped the design of these spaces.

The book concludes with case studies that show the wonderful collaborative work the Matrix have done with women and community groups, illustrated through their work building community centres, children’s nurseries and more. It has really helped to reinforce my view that architects should be facilitators, in this capacity I believe we have a responsibility to translate people’s experiences into built forms that better serve them going forward. As architectural practitioners, we can honour our facilitative role by designing through participatory workshops. This gives people a chance to input into the big and small spatial details that can positively impact on their experience of space. Working in this way is an approach that I aspire to in my future career.

A space that is well designed should mean a space that doesn’t cause discomfort or unease when we are navigating it. Quite often, design that meets the needs of a marginalised or traditionally excluded group is design that is good for everybody.
Matrix exhibition at the Barbican Centre, 2021
Matrix exhibition at the Barbican Centre, 2021

Why did you enjoy the book?

I liked the fact that the language was really accessible. It is an important reminder that as architects we can use lots of fancy words which often don’t relate to, or describe, the everyday experience of people. There is a section of the book which explains how to read architectural plans and sections which helps everyone reading the book to understand these drawing types. I enjoyed that there are a lot of photographs and diagrams that go along with the text, to build a wider picture of the story that Matrix tell. By showing people trying to use environments that are harsh or hostile through photography, Matrix are exposing the inequalities that manifest in physical space.

I found the book to be very educational and engaging, through a combination of historical information and examples of real-life projects that Matrix had undertaken alongside their research. The ‘House design and women’s roles’ chapter was really insightful, which explains the influence of expectations of gender roles on housing design and policy throughout time. The stereotypical ideals of the nuclear family, for example, have created an arguably very individualistic way of dwelling, which has isolated many women from integrating with public space.

A space that is well designed should mean a space that doesn’t cause discomfort or unease when we are navigating it. Quite often, design that meets the needs of a marginalised or traditionally excluded group is design that is good for everybody.

 

How has the book informed your practice or shifted your thinking?

It has made me realise that I am not alone in the way that I think and this encourages me to keep going in pursuing my ambition to contribute to a more inclusive world. The work of Matrix has opened my eyes to a participatory approach to design, inspiring me to undertake further research into how we can use alternative design tools for engagement to consult with communities. I now consider community engagement to be a fundamental part of my work and it complements my passion for access to architectural education, in my role as a tutor and student mentor with the widening participation department of my university and volunteer with Accelerate Open City.

It is vital that we consider about people that are ‘other’ to ourselves in order to bring in different perspectives. As architects, I definitely think we need to be listening to young people and including them within the creation of the built environment. We have the power to help them articulate their experiences in order to be heard. We must strive to address how we, as built environment practitioners, seek to present information to those who we design for. Matrix’s work has influenced my outlook on this – viewing simple diagrams as vital tools in how we convey spaces to people.

Given the time that has passed since its publication, does the book ‘stand-up’ as a tool to discuss a widened understanding of gender identity?

The last chapter of the book really focuses on listening to the needs of women and the importance of listening is threaded throughout. The Matrix Collective’s approach to architecture is to form partnerships with the people they are designing for. They are very clear on the fact they are not prescribing solutions. They want to open-up conversations, to provide a platform for dialogue and change. Their approach invites everyone to take their seat at the table and I believe that this invites input from trans and non-binary perspectives.

Why would you recommend the book to people inside and outside of the field of architecture?

This is an eye-opening book for everyone. All of us experience the built environment every day. The book makes you take a step back and really think about how the designed world is structured. I found that the Matrix Collective’s ability to open people’s eyes extended from the book to the exhibition at the Barbican Centre, organised by Edit Collective. Both the book and the exhibition aimed to be inclusive, inviting and of interest to all. This is important, the impact of including people in conversations and welcoming them into the process of design can only have a positive and transformative effect on the way we shape space.

Visit Matrix’s online archive to learn more about their work.

International Women’s Day Book Review: ‘Making Space: Women and the man made environment’

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International Women’s Day Book Review: ‘Making Space: Women and the man made environment’

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