The Gender: An Architectural Agenda project has come to a close after 6 months in the works. The exhibition that was on display at the RIAI has been taken down and packed away to UCD Richview in the second year studio, leaving the project to fizzle out as students leave for internships, holidays and summer jobs. It seems as though all thought of activism or political discourse has receded to the backs of minds, that is, until the new scholastic year starts in September. The exhibition, the weekly lectures, and the public conversation with Jane Rendell and Despina Stratigakos opened up the discussion on feminism in architecture to a wide array of people in the architectural community. The true success of this project comes not from wide sweeping political statements about feminism and equality, but from a more nuanced study of the subtle feminist ideas of several successful feminist authors. These authors are subverting the traditional male-centric architectural profession by providing new perspectives on already established methods of practice, study, teaching, etc.
The work of Karen Barad questions our reliance on language and text as a form of communicating ideas – she asks, ‘How did language come to be more trustworthy than matter.’ In this instance she offers a new way of connecting with architecture through a particularly feminist and material aspect of critical spatial practice. In another text, this one by Karen Reisinger, the discussion concerns the adaptable nature of architectural space after ‘catastrophe, interruption, or abandonment’ as a gentle shifting of powers from human to non-human and questions our pre-existing understanding of architecture as a binary – something that is either there or not. Other authors challenge the ego of the architect, and champion the team as a more powerful entity, or write autobiographically about personal experiences of discrimination and their effect on the profession as a whole. Among this diverse group of academic writing, there emerges a quiet, but firm resistance. Malin Åberg-Wennerholm, Cany Ash and Robert Sakula, Karin Reisinger, Despina Stratigakos, Jane Rendell, Ruth Morrow, Karen Barad, Meike Schalk, Thérèse Kristiansson, and Ramia Mazé; to name a few of the many writers from which this project drew inspiration.
The challenge that faced this student-led project was to study these texts critically and then create a personal response that could start a dialogue between the authors, the student experience and the general public. A group of several 2nd year and masters level students studying architecture at UCD began the project in late January of this year by dissecting these texts, discussing our interpretations of them and creating a personal response which would be put on display in a roaming exhibition that would travel around UCD and to the RIAI. By finding pieces of writing that resonated with us personally, we could curate an exhibition that would show our response to the ideas of these feminist authors.
In this way, the authors’ original concepts go through several iterations. The idea is represented as text, which is published in a book or journal, these texts are interpreted by the students and a piece of work (art, sculpture, image, essay) is created, which in turn is interpreted by the public who view the exhibition. Each iteration shifts the perspective allowing for different discussions to arise from the same original thought.
While the exhibition was on show, we had also invited two of the authors whose texts we had studied, Despina Stratigakos and Jane Rendell, to give their thoughts on our responses – interestingly adding another level of interpretation. Criticism here has taken on new forms – those of art, sculpture, and even architecture itself. Finding interesting parallels with Karan Barad’s text on the failings of language as a means of communication, this project has opened up new perspectives on the ideas of the authors, even presenting new interpretations of their texts back to them.
Representing our responses in new forms has also had the effect of making the ideas presented in the original texts more accessible to a wider audience. This in turn has opened students up to becoming more familiar with academic writing and encouraging a more diverse range of means of political engagement. All this evidence would suggest that there is room for students to become less apathetic towards the happenings of the architectural institution and that there is potential in the agency of groups who drive for political and societal change to adopt alternative critical strategies that may lead to real discussions and real progress.