Matrix: A Feminist Critique of Home Design

Matrix’s Making Space covers home design most extensively, and unsuprisingly I suppose (see the first post here on who Matrix was and what they were all about). How many continue to believe that a woman’s place is in the home? And yet homes have never really been designed for women, especially not now with the many new responsibilities and work patterns alongside those of care that so many women have had to take on.

There is some brilliant history to be found here, as well as historic design. That is, historic given the time it was designed and built, but we continue to live in so many of these homes. So not quite so historic after all. This all makes me want to go back to people writing architectural histories like Swenarton and Burnett, to think about what they might have missed.

5 House Design and Women’s Roles

Chapter 5 delves more some actual plans from key reformers and reports, they are brilliant and illustrate so clearly the lack of consideration for women and the assumptions of life trajectories built into the fabric of our homes.

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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.

http://www.matrixfeministarchitecturearchive.co.uk/

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)

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Priddy Nine Barrows and the Priddy Circles

Os map of Chewton Mendip to Priddy to Wells walk

This walk was splendid, one of our best yet. We caught the 376 to Chewton Mendip (site of an earlier not so great walk before I knew you should never go anywhere without an OS map or you will get lost and miss all the things), stopped at the Mendip Pantry to pick up some incredible pies, scotch eggs, lush baked goods of all sorts. Highly recommended. We ate our first pie alongside the church, which is so unexpectedly grand. It has Saxon origins, was rebuilt in the 12th century, most of what you can see was built in the 1400s by Carthusians and patched and rebuilt again across the centuries and into the 1800s (but look at the door, I mean just look at it)

Be still my heart. The tower is from the 15th century.

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A Feminist Green New Deal for Housing

It’s out! Launched into the world! The briefing I just finished for the Women’s Budget Project and Women’s Environmental Network as part of their awesome Feminist Green New Deal project. It focuses on housing and just how transformative it might be to how we live with each other and how we live in the world. All this under the exciting title Rethinking Housing Supply and Design.

A little teaser.

Housing is fundamental to life, security and wellbeing as well as tackling climate change and working towards a zero-carbon future. It also remains a key site of gender and intersectional inequality, with design that does not accommodate diverse needs or care responsibilities, with mortgages and rents out of reach, and a suburban ideal that requires a car for daily living and can isolate women and children in the home. Housing investment as a central part of a Green New Deal (GND) —with a commitment to full funding from central government to ensure costs are never passed on to residents or local communities— would open up an incredible opportunity to centre a new vision of equality and care capable of transforming both landscapes and lives. It would also acknowledge and begin to address the connections between climate crisis and housing crisis, reducing housing’s contribution to the UK’s carbon footprint even as it reverses the rise of homelessness and houses the estimated 8 million people are in housing need.

This paper offers seven recommendations to achieve a gender inclusive and sustainable housing sector:

1. Participatory planning for the future: centring women and others traditionally marginalised

2. Making internal form and design responsive to care work, gender and diversity

3. Improving the materials and fabric of our buildings

4. Developing gender-, community- and climate-responsive site design

5. Improving connection to town, city and region

6. Expanding who builds, installs and maintains housing to non-traditional workers

7. Implementing a right to safe, decent and affordable housing following the most recent UN guidelines, where housing as a home is prioritised over housing as an asset

Read the full policy paper here.

About the Feminist Green New Deal project

The Feminist Green New Deal is bringing a gendered and intersectional approach/perspective to the Green economy/Green Recovery – ensuring that the voices of women, people of colour and other marginalised groups are heard during environmental and political debates.

Through a programme of nationwide grassroots workshops and policy roundtables a Feminist Green New Deal Manifesto will be created and launched at COP26 Glasgow Climate Talks.

This Project is a collaboration between Wen (Women’s Environmental Network) and the Women’s Budget Group (WBG).

Learn more about the project here.

Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

In addition to lists and principles for design, there are these two lovely chapters on architecture in Victor Papanek’s Green Imperative. This book also reminds me how much I love a good epigraph, and that I should use them for everything I write.

Sensing a Dwelling

Think with the whole body.
–Deshimaru

We are born indoors, live, love, bring up our families, worship, work, grow old, sicken and die indoors. Architecture mirrors every aspect of our lives–social, economical, spiritual.
–Eugene Raskin

I think all of my favourite architects talk about the ways architecture affects every sense, and unsurprisingly Papanek argues that we need to pay attention to mood and an environment that supports and develops our sensory abilities.

We need to pay attention to the dimension of light, he mentions Taliesin West by Frank Lloyd Wright – and the light that comes through its canvas sails is indeed quite wonderful.

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Victor Papanek on the Green Imperative

Victor Papanek, what a legend. Born in Vienna in 1927 (Red Vienna!), he studied at Taliesin West. This was written between 1991 and 1995 and three places, Tanah Lot Temple in Bali, Schumacher College, Dartington and Fundacion Valparaiso Mojacar, Spain. I can’t help but be just a little jealous about that.

Truth be told though, it is Arturo Escobar brought me to Papanek, with his recent work on design as a way of thinking/ theorising/ getting to the pluriverse. So I am newly intrigued by design understood in its broader sense, and this is of course where Papanek has so much to contribute (though to be sure he also excels at the actual design and the making and the details). He likes lists as much as I do, and we start there. He writes that the repertoire of a designer’s skills and talents include:

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Joan Tronto on Care, Democracy and Economics

I loved how Joan Tronto’s short book, Who Cares? How to Reshape a Democratic Politics, so simply and succinctly argues for a way to radically rethink politics, economics and democracy. She writes:

We hear often that we are in a care crisis. That is, we face a shortage of formal caregivers to cope with the increased care needs of ever-more elders who will need ever-more care. But this crisis involves more than demographic and labor market projections. We all experience a version of it daily: “I wish I had more time: to care for my loved ones, to contribute to causes I care about, to be there for my friends.” We spend so much time on undesirable tasks and so little time on ones we really value. How can everything be so upside down? This pressure seems to each of us a personal failing. But it isn’t. It’s a political problem. (2)

And a economic problem. And a collective problem. I love the way she is cracking open what is ‘political’ and economic, returning them where they belong in our everyday lives. She continues:

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Malham Cove to Flasby

A most glorious summer day, a second glorious summer day in the Dales and we did the famous walk to Malham Cove, carved out by water and ice. My pictures make it look empty, but it was full of people. We did, of course, have lovely moments of emptiness, but it was so busy we didn’t walk in the file of people going to the bottom of the cove. We didn’t do more than pause a moment at Janet’s Foss, but it was lovely to see the families enjoying the water.

We also had ice cream. Glorious.

But best of all were the limestone pavements up above Malham Cove, I had never really seen such pavements before. Not like this.

An image of the limestone pavement at Malham Cove

It wasn’t until later that I read more about how these formed–the geology of it is quite amazing.

Karst is defined as a landscape whose features develop are dependent on the presence of efficient underground drainage. Except in deserts, this is only completely achieved where there are caves large enough to carry streams and rivers, and cave passages are only formed naturally in soluble rocks where the groundwater can dissolve away the walls of narrow fissures to turn them into large caves. So karst is a feature of soluble rocks, of which limestone is by far the most important (but is not the only one). Named after the Kras of Slovenia, karst terrains are found all over the world, and the Yorkshire Dales has one of the finest. (102)

Karst is defined as a landscape whose features develop are dependent on the presence of efficient underground drainage. Except in deserts, this valleys is only completely achieved where there are caves large enough to carry streams and rivers, and cave passages are only formed naturally in soluble rocks where the groundwater can dissolve away the walls of narrow fissures to turn them into large caves. So karst is a feature of soluble rocks, of which limestone is by far the most important (but is not the only one). Named after the Kras of Slovenia, karst terrains are found all over the world, and the Yorkshire Dales has one of the finest.

… most Dales karren are much more rounded, in a style that makes them known as rundkarren. The rounding is normally developed when they form underneath a soil cover, where the soil and vegetation keep percolation water against all the limestone surfaces. In few places, notably at the top of Malham Cove it can be seen that soil has recently been stripped off the pavement along the back margin, so that these rundkarren appear to be true sub-soil features. (104)

This is difficult language to piece together, but I love how unfamiliar words like karst and karren fit this landscape. I love how it opens the earth up to understand the coming together of sea and sand, water and stone over the millions of years since the sporadic violence of tectonic movements first cast these ancient seabeds into the sky.

Waltham, Tony (2007) The Yorkshire Dales: Landscape and Geology. Ramsbury: Crowood Press.

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Skipton Castle and Woods

A lovely, warm, sunshiney weekend everyone said, so off we went like the magical, spontaneous creatures we are. Minimal extras, as the spontaneous non-car life demands (but more about that later). A quick search of places not too far, well suited for country walks, with a train station and a reasonable room for two nights. Not the easiest of combinations to find, but Skipton was brilliant.

The land orginally belonged to Earl Edwin, son of Leofwine and brother to Leofric of Mercia according to an 1873 history of Skipton. This is mostly a rather boring account about lords and ladies, has some interesting lists of goods and lands taxed and the meaning of wealth. But I love this description of the castle’s founding:

After the forfeiture of Earl Edwin, the first grantee of his lands in Craven was Robert. de Romille, a Norman adventurer of ancient family. In his choice of a situation for the seat of his barony, Romille had nothing but the face of Nature to direct him. There had, unquestionably, been a Saxon manse at Bolton, for the occasional residence of the lord; but it was now dilapidated; and though the sequestration of that favoured place would have attracted a monk, and its beauties a man of taste, yet it wanted two of the first ingredients in the residence of an ancient baron—elevation and natural strength. These Romille found. on the brink of a perpendicular rock at Skipton, which furnished an impregnable barrier to the north; while a moderate declivity to the south, equally rocky, and therefore incapable of being undermined, afforded sufficient room for the enclosure of a spacious “bailley,” the ramparts of which would command the plain beneath.

The erection of this castle elevated the place at once from a poor dependent village to a respectable town. In times of turbulence and disorder, the inhabitants of the adjoining country would crowd for protection under its walls. Many privileges also would be granted by the lords, many advantageous offices enjoyed by their immediate dependents…

— An extract from the History and Antiquities of the Deanery of Craven in the County of York by Thomas Dunham Whitaker, 3rd Edition Published in 1878

Skipton Castle is splendid, increasingly well-fortified over the years to defend against incursions by the Scots by the Clifford family, whose principal family seat it served until 1676. Of Lady Margaret Russell (1560-1616), who married George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland in 1577, the website states: ‘deeply interested in alchemy she discovered many excellent medicines‘. Looking her up I didn’t find much more about that, but she was also the patron of Emilia Lanier, first woman to style herself a professional poet (and possibly Shakespeare’s dark lady). She enjoyed being a mistress more than a wife. I would know more of them. Lady Russell’s daughter Anne is most celebrated in the placards around the castle itself, and planted the lovely old yew that stands in the castle courtyard in 1659. They grow so slowly.

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Kingussie to Glen Banchor

Our first day, a lovely bright summer day. We were so very lucky with the weather. Not so lucky in other ways maybe. This would have been so much better split into two, not least because we found out at the end that the trains have been on strike every Sunday and we had a last three miles to walk (16 miles…my poor partner). The loop up from Newtonmore was the best and I wish we had started there to walk further up the Glen, though Gynack Burn out of Kingussie is quite lovely.

Gynack Burn is, of course, the falling water that the Duke of Gordon planned to harness to his industrialising schemes, powering factories for flour, wool and linen. One mill still stands — now The Cross, a most lovely, delicious (and expensive) restaurant that I recommend highly. But up the burn you can see worked walls of stone that once served as dams, attempts to wrest power from the water.

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Andrea Gibbons