When Will Architects Speak Up for Women’s Rights?

  • 01 Jul 2013
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Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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.

Except architects.

Courtesy of www.vdh.virginia.gov
Courtesy of www.vdh.virginia.gov

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 womenwho 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.

Courtesy of #OpposeTRAP Facebook Page

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 (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?

Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.

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.

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.

Image of “feminism” via shutterstock.com

Cite: Carla Corroto. "When Will Architects Speak Up for Women’s Rights?" 01 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=395639>
  • Chris

    “Where are the socially conscious, politically active, and community-engaged architects?”

    Answer: Hypnotized by the money found in authoritarian regimes in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

    • archi

      Answer B: They are waiting on tables in a cafe, or stacking shelves in a supermarket somewhere.

  • Jackelope

    A pro-abortion piece on an architecture blog? Seriously? I don’t come here for politics, and there’s plenty of other sites I can go to. You just lost a reader.

    • mythz

      if you bothered to read, it’s more an argument of architects allowing arguments about how the built environment effects people (in this case at women’s health clinics) to be had without architects being involved.

      the advocacy is against the mis-use and inequality of claims being used by people about what architecture need be.

      the call for feminists is a bit redundant here however, surely one needn’t be a feminist to call out politicians using bogus architectural arguments for anything.

    • POL

      Where we build and how we build is driven by politics, economy, the government, and the society. Lets not be ignorant now.

    • Konrad

      Architecture is political…

  • ArchReader

    I second the above, please, please don’t post liberal political material and assume your readers will surely agree. The killing of innocent life in the womb is the real abomination. I’d love to see a piece on the moral compromises involved in designing and constructing an abortion “clinic” in the first place.

  • James MD

    This war on women by Republicans is certainly outrageous and everyone should be speaking out and voting to remove as many conservatives from government as possible. But I’m kind of confused by this article. Is Barbie being used as an example of feminist activity in architecture or an example of sexist activity in architecture? – because I see it as the latter. Barbie has always been seen by many as a creepy reminder of the sexist/racist preoccupations in our society. The problem for many self-proclaimed feminists in 2013 is that they don’t really understand what feminism is, and therefore they turn many real feminists off by bringing in issues that are actually quite sexist – like Barbie. Good lord, how did that get into this article? It’s a good example of why Americans fail women so miserably on these issues. Even the people who claim to be interested in them and who write about them seem to find ways reinforce unhealthy stereotypes about women that totally undermine their argument. And Americans go on abusing women (and therefore children) because they don’t know any better and nobody who’s supposed to know better seems to either anymore.

  • POL

    I find this article very confusing…

  • Scott Warner

    Throughout history architects have been far too willing to allow architecture to be used as a method of enforcing unfair and corrupt agendas simply because those who are unfair and corrupt are generally the only ones capable of paying for architecture. However, if architects flat out refuse to stroke the egos of developers, politicians, businessmen, etc., someone else will step in and replace architects and create an even worse situation. Sadly, the best option is for architects to find a subtle way to work within these awful systems instead trying to blatantly ‘push the envelope.’ In essence you have to convince the developer that you’re delivering exactly what they want while in reality doing the exact opposite. I realize this all sounds very stupid, but that is because it is really stupid…

  • Someone

    As a man I feel awkward about fighting for women’s rights. Besides, I’m a nobody.

    • Colin

      What a cop-out argument. Do you not have female friends? Do you not have a daughter, wife, or sister? Do you not have a mother? Even if you somehow had none of those, do you want to live in a society that normalizes and propagates inequality? You don’t have to spend the rest of your life in the frontlines of these “battles”, but you can take a stand and do much more than what you are doing now, which is being an enabler.

      • Someone

        I live in forest and make my work in meditation breaks. I don’t communicate with anyone besides my employer who is male.

  • Jennifer

    I think even poor women should have doors where stretchers can pass if they are having an operation. This article is confusing. Mostly architects are reading this. More specific details about these regulations would be necessary for us to form a consensus about whether or not these building regulations are appropriate. Read the intent of the regulations above. I think they are in order? Using images of Barbie or confusing this interesting topic with others clinics which might or might not need proper safety and hygiene regulations only blatantly tries to sway opinion. Show us some DETAILED INFORMATION and we can write as architects about this, not as feminists, republicans, democrats or whatever….

  • nobody

    its funny how so many people are more outraged by new regulations than they are outraged by, say, kermit gosnell.

  • Faye

    As a woman and an architect, I don’t support the construction of abortion clinics. There should be other options given to low-income woman, like birth control and family planning education. Unless you’re dealing with cases involving rape or the health of the mother, abortion is just a band aid solution and shouldn’t be encouraged.
    I’m disappointed by the article, I expected something that dealt with actual problems of women’s rights in the architecture profession.