On April 12, 2013, the Board of Health of the Commonwealth of Virginia approved new laws deploying building codes and architectural regulations sanctioning that clinics offering first trimester abortions meet the same building specifications as newly-constructed, full-service surgical hospitals. Mandating compliance within about 18 months, these standards will entail significant and costly alterations to existing facilities that may bankrupt many clinics in the state.
The political maneuvering which occurred to achieve these architectural arrangements, and the responses of concerned professionals in Virginia, were well documented in the press. The Health Commissioner resigned in protest. The chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine called these building codes “arbitrary and capricious.” A director of the University of Richmond School of Law wrote an editorial challenging the legislation on legal grounds. Almost 200 physicians took a public stand, denouncing the politicians and urging the state to reject the architectural alterations.
Health policy analysts, social workers and advocates for low income women - who will be greatly impacted when these local clinics close - continue to speak up and organize. We have heard from just about everyone with a stake in the impending architectural arrangements.
Under the new regulations, public corridors now have to measure five-feet in width. Doors must be widened to accommodate stretchers. Janitors’ closets will be enlarged. The scope of these new laws extends to the site plan, which must now include four parking spaces per procedure room and an ambulance awning to shelter the entry doors.
More importantly, however, there exist neither “best practices” nor evidence-based research substantiating the claim that these conventions are structurally or medically necessary. Carolyn O’Shea, deputy director of NARAL, a pro-Choice advocacy group, wrote, “thousands of Virginia women, particularly low-income women, will lose affordable access not only to abortion care but to the comprehensive services like family planning and well-woman care that these centers provide.” The leaders in Virginia challenging the legislation recognized that excessive building regulations have nothing to do with the health, safety, and welfare of patients and everything to do with the politics of space.
The politicians spearheading restrictive building codes hypocritically appealed to the paternal notion of protecting women who seek healthcare in medical centers.To be ethically, let alone rhetorically consistent, the government would have to regulate all clinics performing out-patient procedures such as restorative dentistry and liposuction. If the additional architecture was really about “protecting women,” the largest consumers of cosmetic surgery, these building codes would extend to dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons’ clinics. Obviously, imposing the government on women altering their appearance contradicts at what level and for what purpose control is sought.
This leads to important questions: Where are the feminists in the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects (VSAIA)? What role should the AIA’s Codes and Standards Committee, that according to the website,”…handles issues such as code change proposals, developing codes education, and setting up the Codes Network.” Heretofore silent are the state's architecture school faculties. When will we hear from the University of Virginia, Hampton University, or the feminists at Virginia Tech where the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) is housed?
Where are the socially conscious, politically active, and community-engaged architects and why are they not stepping-up to add their voices and professional expertise to challenge the deployment of patriarchy through architectural arrangements? Who will speak for architecture in relation to women if not the leaders in the profession? Patriarchal regulation of women’s bodies and female sexuality has a troubled history of supervision by the medical profession and the State. It is incumbent upon architects as professionals to put the community’s interests ahead of their own.
There is no intellectual exertion to offering an aesthetic analysis of the architectural design of women’s healthcare clinics in Virginia. The present, strenuous and very difficult task is to problematize how women with limited resources will have to scramble for healthcare, and how men seeking political office are playing ideological football with building codes and women’s rights. The act of explicating healthcare architecture – how it is positioned uneasily between corporate and public interests, science and culture, and politics and women’s rights - is to make transparent the power of professions in society. Which community are architects serving by their silence on this issue?
Of late, it appears architects have embraced a symbolic and narrow attention to ersatz women’s issues and frivolous if not contradictory causes. Last year women in architecture celebrated and embraced Architect Barbie with a dream house competition (largely played out among women.) This year, a number of women have expended social capital in a media-generating campaign to garner Denise Scott Brown that Pritzker Prize recognition. An impressive 12,000 people (at the time of this writing) have signed a petition of support redressing the Brown slight. Can we build upon that momentum and challenge the use of architectural arrangements in the name of politics?
Architecture needs feminists and society needs feminist architects to identify the political implications of design and planning. It is well past the time for visually literate, spatially sophisticated, and committed feminist architects to speak up and advocate for spatial justice, not just in Virginia, and not just on the issue of clinics offering abortion services.
Feminism provides us the tools to be Citizen Architects - it can (and should) activate the architecture profession to use their expertise of the built environment to participate in public discourse. It will provide an avenue for architects to coalesce and generate collective action on behalf of the lived material condition of women’s, and men’s, lives. Nothing more, and certainly, nothing less.
Carla Corroto is a sociologist at Radford University studying the intersection of gender, race, and social class in architecture.
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