Feminism and Architecture

Le refuge Tonneau, Charlotte Perriand + Pierre Jeanneret, 1938
Le refuge Tonneau, Charlotte Perriand + Pierre Jeanneret, 1938

Rebuttal to Deborah Richmond: Originally published by JAE, the online Journal of Architectural Education, April 4, 2015

Deborah Richmond’s recent account of her experience attending the Parsons School of Constructed Environments conference, “Feminism and Architecture,” featured in last month’s Journal of Architectural Education made several interesting conclusions based on what she perceived as the weakness of the conference and of the impact of women in architecture. Deborah argues that “appropriating and aggrandizing the smaller bits and edges of architecture, where the battle for creative leadership is more easily won” is misdirected and therefore somehow unimpactful on the future of the profession. She argues, furthermore, that “furniture” is not architecture. While I am delighted to find my “Petite Architecture: Charlotte Perriand & Kazuyo Sejima” mentioned in her review, I fear she missed the main message of my presentation.

La Caravana, Pierre Jeanneret y Jean Prouvé, 1939. Feminism and Architecture
La Caravana, Pierre Jeanneret and Jean Prouvé, 1939

Perriand and Sejima, the two women at the heart of my talk, epitomize successful women architects who revolutionized and transformed architecture. These two women were on the frontlines and not on the margins of the profession. Perriand and Sejima are two heroines—alternative to the single hero of Bigness—who started at the small scale and then extrapolated their work to design big, as Perriand used to say, “from teaspoon to the city.” Sejima, and many others I might add, might disagree with the statement  “furniture is not architecture.”

Architects, as a creative platform on which to expand and grow their craft, have always designed gorgeous “little” things from which they draw inspiration based on experimentation and innovation. Mirrors (Eileen Gray), delightful little eyeglasses (Kumiko Inui), cool shoes (Zaha Hadid), or silverware (Toyo Ito) are a few examples that easily come to my mind.

The impact and importance of the “smaller bits and edges of architecture” have not been sufficiently studied precisely for the reason Deborah implied: “too teeny weeny for the big ol’ brawny boys making the important buildings.” Perhaps the two examples of women still designing objects at the height of their power might make people pause and rethink the position of those bits and edges. Furniture and interiors, after all, were a primary source of innovation in Europe in the 1920s and in Japan in the 1980s.

My term “Petite Architecture” refers to objects that conflate residence, machine, and furniture, and have sensuality as a distinctive feature. ”’Petite’ is a small word for a big concept,” J. M. Prada Poole correctly noted. Maybe architects evolve and learn from beautiful things. Men such as Jean Prouvé, Pierre Jeanneret, Albert Frey, Kenji Ekuan or Sou Fujimoto have all designed petite architecture. Petite impacts architecture as a whole regardless of time, place, or gender.

Pumpkin House, Kenji Ekuan, 1964
Pumpkin House, Kenji Ekuan, 1964

Toyo Ito agreed with Marshall McLuhan’s notion that “our clothing and shelter are the extended form of our skin.” Coco Chanel claimed, “fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions.” Small is not only beautiful, small implies experimentation, revolution, ecology, economy, efficiency, and intimacy. Small things make a big impact! In fact, last year at the Venice Biennale, Rem Koolhaas stated, “Because I wanted to talk about architecture, I dismantled architecture into its smallest parts.” Now is the time to examine the essence of architecture, zoomed in, in the age of the iPhone.

Platform II, Kazuyo Sejima, Yamanashi, 1988-90. Petite Architecture in Japan
Platform II, Kazuyo Sejima, Yamanashi, 1988-90

Finally, Perriand and Sejima are beacons of strength and courage for women everywhere. To follow the path Perriand made to success in pre-war Japan or to observe how Sejima changed her outfit from black to flower patterns, as a result of her liberation, might lead us to find clues from which to broaden our concept of feminism. Indeed we might find that part of what Perriand and Sejima contributed to architecture was rooted in the fact that they were women. Don’t pull the bottom rungs out of the ladder, Deborah!

The feminist tent might be bigger than you think!

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