Feminist thought is pervasive in American culture today, but rarely has it been considered in reference to the rarified field of architecture. Feminist architecture collaborative “f-architecture” visited Taubman College virtually on Tuesday evening to speak on how their practice challenges architecture’s historical allegiances to capital — or, in other words, the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.
The presentation began in a digitally-rendered girl’s bedroom with greek columns acting as bed stands and a poster of Princess Nokia on the wall. The three women — Virginia Black, Gabrielle Printz and Rosana Elkhatib — cozied up in bed together, or rather, photoshopped together.
The bedroom — a place of “primordial teenage rebellion” — was a fitting space to introduce the forces driving the collaborative’s practice. Though they were about to introduce projects that tackled subjects ranging from Native land rights in Ecuador to the artificial production of virginity in Lebanon, these politicized issues were inextricably personal as well.
One of their earliest projects took form in October 2016 at the United Nations Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador. The conference worked to implement the U.N.’s “New Urban Agenda,” and while it claimed to seek representation from underrepresented voices in the region, a single booth cost $4,000 USD. For the Amazonian Kichwa midwives of AMUPAKIN, a self-organized birthing center providing traditional plant-based medical care in Archidona, the conference was inaccessible.
So where does design come into this? F-architecture submitted a publication to Habitat III’s “urban library” that considered how the U.N. could break from its extractionist mindset to incorporate “lesser known languages, other socialities, convivialities, semiotic registers, and ritual engagement with the non-human … as a basis for other sustainable futures and more sustainable pasts.”
Black then explained how they also fundraised to sponsor the members of AMUPAKIN to attend the conference and arranged several locations in Quito at which they could sell their wares to benefit the birthing center. At this point in the presentation, it was clear that not only was no one paying f-architecture, f-architecture was, in fact, sometimes paying their clients.
So how do they practice out of New York City? At the start of the presentation, Elkhatib acknowledged the privileges granted to them by their degrees, connections and “physical ability to hustle.” Coming out of school at Columbia University, they established an “air of legitimacy” by renting out desk space at New Inc, The New Museum’s incubator space dedicated to supporting innovative practices in art, design and technology, for just $200 a month.
The last project they presented examined the spatial politics of hymen reconstructive surgery clinics in Beirut, Lebanon. In other words, they wanted to know what role the space of the clinics themselves played in reinforcing virginity culture and the ideal body in the country.
For VI PER Gallery in Prague, f-architecture physically reconstructed the spaces of the surgery clinics using observations collected from fieldwork in Lebanon the year prior. Presenting this, the three women were now photoshopped riding a digitally-animated train car. A pair of hands entered the foreground to hold a sheet of paper that formed the background for the images of the installation they were about to show.
The first image they presented was a photo of their reconstructed waiting room. Describing its effect, they explained that upon entering, you’re greeted with a womanly scent and a sink at which to apply some of the sweet odor. Lebanese Fashion TV plays in the background.
Then, the second image shows the reconstructed self-examination room. An inflatable plastic cushion sits in front of a curved mirror and suggests its usage. Gallery-goers would put on a VR headset while reclined on the cushion to enter a simulation of the operating room. A male doctor’s voice says ominous things while the tools of operation float overhead.
The third and final space is a boutique hotel room space for recovery. The sheets are bubble wrap and pop after one usage. This last room — and the others too, for that matter — are not some twisted conceptions of f-architecture. They are rather a critical representation of the real clinics of Dr. Nader Saab in Beirut, clinics that reinforce the construction of virginity and bodily transformation under the guise of luxury and class.
Armed with a sensitivity for the way space reinforces these existing power structures, f-architecture framed these clinics in a light surely no one had before. Although this all seems like more of an installation artist’s work than an architect’s, architectural education today engrains an apprehensive mindset in students. In an age of impending ecological disaster, what design really justifies its environmental cost?
At the start of the presentation, Elkhatib noted: “It’s fucking hard to do work that is classified by us or others as ‘critical’ that for some seems in-excess of what it is to be an architect — something that’s classified as writing or yelling or art.”
Maybe their practice’s awkward fit into existing definitions of “architecture” is proof enough that architecture has always operated in exclusivity — its very founding is based on the division of thinker and laborer.
Whether f-architecture’s work fits the category or not is besides the point. The architectural education that contextualized their practice gave them the knowledge of the field’s distinctive modes of leveraging (and therefore protesting) power.
Driven by personal convictions, never prospecting for potential work, their firm reminds us of how we imagine and wish our careers could be.
Daily Arts Writer Ben Vassar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.