Generally, when I find myself using the word “space” within feminist conversations, I usually mean Space, a type of catch all phrase that includes “community,” “culture,” and any theoretical premise I’m pretending to have learned in undergrad.
Luckily for us though, Lori Brown explores how feminists can use design, buildings, public policy, and politics to create feminist atmospheres — in actual spaces. Along with being a feminist architect extraordinaire, she is an Associate Professor at Syracuse Architecture, and author of Feminist Practices.
We spoke with Lori about the importance of architecture when it comes to abortion clinics, women’s shelters, and public space at large. By far one of our most fascinating conversations of late, this interview will leave you looking around your surroundings with new insight.
And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Lori Brown!
Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. I was very excited to learn more about your work, especially since I am not too familiar with the study of architecture. While researching your projects, I was intrigued to see how you interweave design, materials, politics, public policy, and history. Could you share with us how these elements take shape in your project “Politicizing the Female Body” which examines how abortion clinics are impacted by architecture? How did you first come up with this project idea? What exciting things have you learned?
LB: I came up with it because I was frustrated, and continue to be frustrated, with architecture’s overall lack of engagement in political issues. In the time when I started thinking about this project, I had been looking at the domestic realm which has historically been gendered as female, and as one could argue to this day is still so. I thought what better way to force an intersection with politics than to take on a space that is inherently politicized within North America. It is so inherently about the female body that I hoped to invoke people within my discipline and clearly outside of it to think about the space of the clinic — and not only the interior. It became far more about legislation, and how public space gets co-opted to create roadblocks against women who are legally exercising their rights to reproductive health.
I have learned many things from this project. First is that by interviewing so many independent providers, there are these amazing people who so fervently believe in what they do, that they are willing to put their lives on the line. In architecture, I can’t say that I have encountered that complete commitment to something. Another thing that I have discovered was that although abortion providers rarely use architects, they are thinking about space all the time, and it forced me to think about how does an architect who is trained to think about space engage with an outside group. How do we make what we do relevant to the general public? The project operates on many scales, from the state level to the sidewalk in front of a clinic. There are so many opportunities where architects need to be involved, from policy making to designing these spaces, and we are really absent. The project is going to continue and there will be different phrases from the research.
SB: Could you share a bit more about how architectural details impact reproductive justice?
LB: Sure, let’s start from the outside. The current design call from ARCHITEXX about the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi is looking at [a clinic's] fence and ways that through design and installation, the fence can become more private, more secure but also aesthetically more appropriate and more engaged with their local community. From a design perspective, simple things such as a fence begins to operate on many different levels, and can provide better security for the patients and employees who work at the clinic.
Thinking about the details in terms of the internal spatial organizational — I had the opportunity to go see a lot of clinics and not many of them used architects, but a few did along with interior designers. It was so interesting to see how they thought about how the process of someone entering the clinic. What would you encounter? They thought about the experience from the front door, from the reception desk, from the recovery room all the way to exiting.
One Midwest clinic in particular had a detail so thoughtful, yet so small. The designer had patients after recovery exit a separate door so they never again had to enter into the reception area where you know that people are waiting for their significant others or the friends. It dawned on me that these minor spatial moves have such a dramatic impact on how people experience something that is so highly personal. It reinforced the need for my discipline engage with these issues.
Another case of how minor components had major spatial implications was a clinic in Mississippi — she did a whole revamp of when she bought the clinic. It was more surface treatment, paint and cabinets and such. But when you walk in, you think, “This is not an abortion clinic.” There are certain ideas about what that space would be like, look like, and feel like. But you feel empowered when you walked in that door. The colors were upbeat; there weren’t the drab grays, light blues and teals you see in a medical space. Through these minor alterations, that space really impacts someone on a visceral level. Almost everyone I interviewed, I asked, “In what role do you see design impacting your patients?” And almost all of them were aware of how design of the space really improves the experience for all involved. From paint finishes, to floor finishes, to cabinet finishes, to the sequencing of moving space — that’s the realm of design and architecture that we all need to be participating in.
More broadly, there is the onslaught in Texas, Virginia, and several other states in redefining abortion clinics meeting ambulatory requirements. The mandated increased distances of hallways, widths of hallways, upgrading equipment to meet ambulatory requirements come at a considerable costs to these clinics but do not impact the quality of care. At that level, architects need to get involved in how building codes are created. These codes are being exploited and aren’t going to make the space any better or any safer.
SB: Normally when I hear the word “space,” within feminist settings, it’s in lieu of words like “community” or “culture” but rarely in terms to physical materials. How can we cultivate our feminist lens to see how buildings and architecture impact our lives?
LB: Almost on a fundamental level, you can examine how space sets up interactions between people. Whether that interaction is more equitable or sets up as more important one party or another — that is how space perpetuates or creates power structures. As we have seen in regards to the waiting room, are people staring at you when you enter? These are very subtle ways that observation and surveillance start to get implemented spatially that could have a detrimental effect on how people feel in space. I think about how spaces can be created to create more equitable relationships.
Thinking about clinics, there is always in someways a hierarchy between a doctor who has knowledge and a patient who is seeking care. I think in certain cases where space really helps facilitate better movement and experience, that hierarchy is lessened and helps someone going into a space like that if they have never been. Thinking also about women’s shelters, there have been cases where shelters are hidden within communities. There are now efforts to make them more central so that the community participates in creating protection for these women who have suffered severe trauma and who are there in the interim before they find other places. Those interactions start to shift power dynamics in ways that can be been very impactful.
SB: How can women from any stage in their education learn more about architecture?
LB: There are a lot of great websites that are aggregating things that are going on like Archdaily and Designboom. The Beverly Wills Foundation is a great resource to learn more about the history of women in architecture and contemporary women architects. There is also a great website in Australia called Parlour that is having an incredible conversation about the role of gender and equity within architecture and design — that would be a great broader resource about the climate and changing the discipline.
Of course I have to give a plug to my own architect group in New York City: we are trying to figure architecture out and bring awareness of women.
SB: And now for our last question, let’s pretend that you are on a dessert island. You get one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
LB: My drink of choice would be a Mint Julep as a shout out to my Southern roots. My food would be kale, the superfood. My feminist, well I would have to bring two. One would be Eleanor Roosevelt because of the amazing work and pressure she put on the country to create more social programs on the government and internationally. As well as Iris Marion Young–she is no longer alive but her ideas about democracy and public space have been instrumental to my work.
Suzanna Bobadilla is particularly grateful for the architects who built her grandmother’s house.