Matrix: Subverting the Man-Made Environment

I love everything about Making Space (1984), and the collective Matrix who wrote it, could not believe I didn’t know of them until I started work on my housing briefing for the Feminist Green New Deal project. I have read so many amazing things for this, but this is one of my favourites and I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, especially as the new exhibition is out at the Barbican that I hope to soon see. Ther work so deserves to be widely celebrated and even more widely taken up as a challenge and inspiration to do everything better.

The women in Matrix: Jos Boys, Frances Bradshaw, Jane Darke, Benedicte Foo, Sue Francis, Barbara McFarlane, Marion Roberts, Anne Thorne, and Susan Wilkes.

This is what brought them together.

The authors of this book belong to a group of feminist designers col- lectively known as Matrix. We are women who share a concern about the way buildings and cities work for women. We work as architects, teachers in higher education, researchers, mothers, a builder, a journalist and a housing manager. Working together on this book was for most of us a first chance to develop ideas about buildings with other women; and we have learnt a lot from each other. (vii)

Sometimes you read things and you’re just like damn, I wish I was there. Especially when you read the next bit.

Our intentions were to work together as women to develop a feminist approach to design through practical projects and theoretical analysis, and to communicate our ideas more widely. Our training and our work in Matrix have helped us to look critically at the way our built surroundings can affect women in this society. These skills have been useful to us, and we want to share them with others to help us all develop an understanding of how we are ‘placed’ as women in a man-made environment and to use that knowledge to subvert it. (viii)

The reason this is so necessary? Planning and architecture that doesn’t take account of the needs of so many groups in the way it plans and creates space, from kitchen layouts to public building access, the relationships of homes to the rest of the city and the segregation of private and public. They write:

We feel that radical building design and research start from personal concerns, from a growing awareness that our man-made surroundings are not neutral, that there is some sort of contradiction between the lived experience of many women and the particular physical patterns that our built surroundings make. For instance, a chain of symbolic associations, ‘private, home, warmth, stability, comfort’, are literally built into a physical setting, set in direct opposition to ‘public, competitive, aggressive, stimulating’, in a way that does not accurately describe the realities for women and often obscures other possible relationships which might suit women better. (9)

They write ‘We do not believe that the buildings around us are part of a conspiracy to oppress women …[yet] there has been a benign but false assumption that all sections of the population want the environment to do the same things for them‘. Rather than supporting the lives within them or facilitating care, buildings are instead developed with profit as the principal priority.

But we must always remember:

Buildings do not control our lives. They reflect the dominant values in our society, political and architectural views, people’s demands and the constraints of finance, but we can live in them in different ways from those originally intended. Buildings only affect us insomuch as they contain ideas about women, about our ‘proper place’, about what is private and what is public activity, about which things should be kept separate and which put together. But this does not determine how we live.

A little more, then, on the profession of architecture, and what is keping it from creating buildings that support a wide range of needs, all kinds of bodies, and the lives of care, comfort and connectivity that we desire.

2 Women, architects and feminism

It has much to do with the profession itself, the way that expertise is mobilised much as Papanek describes in trying to understand how desig and architecture should be so removed from ecological principles. But Matrix digs much deeper into how privilege is mobilised in the profession where power is principally held by elite men. This means that

Architects who are women, and/or come from a working-class background, have to acquire an outlook similar to that of middle-class males, the dominant group in the architectural profession.1 This is why we shouldn’t expect buildings designed by women to have any qualities distinct from those designed by men. (11)

Tokenism won’t get us where we need to go, and these power relations within the profession are recreated in bricks and mortar.

All buildings we use have particular ideas built into them about what and who is important and who is not. Some men can show their status in the home with a study — a room of their own. Often ‘women’s’ rooms, such as the kitchen, are small and placed well away from the public world of the street. The relative size and impressiveness of rooms and buildings, the relationship of spaces to each other and the people whose convenience is given priority all help to define what is normal, what is better or worse in our society. If a block of council flats looks like a filing cabinet or prison, we are right in thinking that this carries ideas about the status of people who live there.

Built for a dominant group in society, they are not able to see all that is problematic about it, just as those who do have experience of this do not have voice or authority, nor the time and space to really investigate, think and collectively analyse what precisely is needed. This gap is one reason why the space that Matrix attempted to create was so important, and why it continues to be so needed.

The built environment is oppressive for many women, in ways that we do not yet know how to explain. What is more, the form of this oppression changes through time and with place, and the individual woman’s experience of it varies according to factors such as class, race, personality and sexual preference. (12)

So how do we transform the training and outlook of architects? Bring them into face to face contact with building users, put them in front of clients, expose them to the wide range of people and lifestyles that exist. Encourage self-reflection, particularly on their own prejudices. They include such a telling interview here with an architect of a social housing estate, who clearly despises those they are designing homes for:

Big families are a killer on these sites. they are the main source of vandalism. these big families. We’ve come to the conclusion that if one ever got the programme again with big families, they somehow ought to be put in a corner by themselves where almost they don’t have access to the rest of the building … I think big families tend to be … They are just problem families.

lnterviewer: Do you think there are extra problems for families like that on ‘streets in the air’ rather than streets on the ground?

No, I think that whatever you did with them they are problems, stop. That is. they make their own problems. I think actually the only thing society might do to help such families is probably try and persuade them to go back to more rural areas where the unkempt kind of life can be less damaging to the younger children. You can’t help feeling they’d be far better off in Ireland on a peat bog, running about with chickens. (14-15)

The virulence of anti-Irish sentiment somehow always hurts. But this is just one example of much broader prejudices that make creating buildings for life and hope and joy quite impossible. So bring on the feminist consciousness.

Architects may ritually acknowledge the importance of the needs of building users, especially those who are most disadvantaged, but in the absence of understanding, contact and empathy with a wider range of people, this remains pious intention. Feminist consciousness among architects would produce a change in their approach to design, as women designers came to identify with women using the built environment. (24)

This book was so absurdly rich, I have a few more posts. On the internal deisgn of the home, on public spaces, on inspiration and hope for a different kind of architecture. Matrix Open, their archive, is amazing too. Have a look there for other writing, pictures, opportunities for collaboration.

Matrix (1984) Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment. London: Pluto Press.

One thought on “Matrix: Subverting the Man-Made Environment”

  1. You know, of course, Tony Benn’s comment about signposts and ,weather vanes. I think he was used it for politicians. Which ones swiveled round as the breezes blew; and which pointed somewhere clearly and helpfully.

    Thanks again for your signposting.

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