The Feminist Architecture Collaborative—f-architecture for short—is a group of three New York-based women who are testing the boundaries of architecture, using the discipline’s tools as a means of resistance. The Trump presidency has given architects new urgency to their activism, but for decades, feminist architects in the United States have grappled with how to decouple the profession from its affiliation with wealth, power, and privilege while claiming space for the female body in the “man-made” environment.
Gabrielle Printz, Virginia Black, and Rosana Elkhatib, who operate from the New Museum’s NewINC collaborative workspace, have shaped, in their words, an “architectural research enterprise aimed at disentangling the contemporary spatial politics and technological appearances of bodies, intimately and globally.” The f in their name stands as much for feminism—which “has been a consistent pejorative within the discipline,” says Printz—as it does for fund, free, fuck, fake, fix, found, and a number of other f-words that show how this practice is anything but conventional.
Sarah Rafson: You’ve described the process of founding the Feminist Architecture Collaborative as “a strange project in itself.” So can you tell me more about that project? Where did it begin?
Gabrielle Printz: It started when we all fell in love with each other and each other’s work at Columbia [University, in New York]. In our last year in the Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices in Architecture Program we got so entangled in each other’s thesis projects. We could see a hundred ways to collaborate. I think that we just wanted to stay entangled in that same way after graduation. Every effort to make f-architecture is to actualize this thing that we weren’t totally sure was possible but was born out of our friendship.
Virginia Black: Yes, I was doing work in Ecuador, where I had started to borrow methodology from anthropology, and Gabby had a really strong background in looking at bodies and subjects as the most important part of architecture, and Rosana was organizing a performance of feminist and queer bodies in the streets of Amman. Our projects just started to weave together in interesting ways because we had similar interests.
Rosana Elkhatib: For me the moment of “we’re going to be collaborators for life” was when we were eating salad on the stairs of Butler Library and talking about artificial hymens. I was like, “Oh, this is happening."
How did hymens come up?
RE: So there are artificial hymens, often sold as suppositories, primarily to Middle Eastern markets by Chinese manufacturers on Alibaba.com. We just kept looking into it, because it reflects the fixation on and the commodification of the woman’s body. Or the idea that a woman’s worth relies on the hymen, and that a prosthetic is needed to secure that value.
So how are you intervening?
GP: We’re interested in this product because it serves a very particular function, but the function is never for the benefit or pleasure of the wearer, the woman who inserts it. We are interested in this prosthetic artifact taking on different forms and functions and public presentations, things that become separable from the body, but still register it. We made a cosmology of hymen artifacts, or hymen-adjacent artifacts, which exists as a 3D digital model. There are patent drawings of objects from late nineteenth century catamenial garments—early pads, rigged like harnesses, lingerie items that were predominantly designed by men, to make menstrual blood invisible or more pleasant to deal with. We also include different implements for sex that alter the body to enhance men’s pleasure, devices that amplify scrutiny of the body and intact hymen, all the way up to the evidence that is produced to testify to one’s virginity or proper bodily form. That would include things like the virginity covenant (a document signed by a girl and her father or some religious “father”) and medical reports that testify to one’s virginity.
A new phase of the research, which we’ve just finished a proposal for, examines the space of the clinic, where the body is resecured as an ideal entity and where the concept of virginity is reinforced within the social imaginary.
How does this translate into your project “Representative Bodies,” in Ecuador with the Achimamas of Amupakin?
VB: A lot of these projects involve trying to figure out how to represent women within spaces that are highly controlled and also to represent other ways of making space. Much of the research for “Representative Bodies” came out of the relationship that I had with women in the Ecuadorian Amazon I was working with for my thesis, research I had done about UN Habitat and indigenous rights. Because of Gabby’s experience in publications, and Rosana’s experience with performance, we started to broaden the forms of intervention that f-architecture would take on. So we made a publication, Representative Bodies: A Critical Agenda for Habitats Beyond the Urban. We wanted to have a guerrilla publication in the “urban library” at UN Habitat because in order to apply you had to show you were an established organization.
GP: We had space alongside governments, and the World Bank, and institutions like Columbia. It was just Feminist Architectural Collaborative, with a booth that in the end we didn’t even use because we couldn’t pay for it. So we ended up establishing a delegation of women, who were never invited in the first place, to speak on issues that directly impact them, and bringing them into the diplomatic space of UN Habitat.
Do you ever see this as creating a new space in feminism in architecture, too? Or would you rather not even be defined in those terms?
GP: I think architecture’s feminism today so resembles the kind of Sheryl Sandbergian corporate feminism that only benefits a certain demographic. What we’re doing is trying to make architecture’s feminism more intersectional and really apply it as a form of practice. As often as we assert ourselves as architects, even as people who aren’t practicing conventionally, we also endow so many others with the title ‘architect’ by examining their work in that way, and I think that is one important method of making architecture more expansive.
Sarah Rafson is Ann Kalla Visiting Professor at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture. She is an architectural editor, curator, and researcher and the founder of Point Line Projects, an editorial and curatorial agency for architecture and design. Rafson won the Buell Center Oral History Prize for her master’s thesis from Columbia University. She is a board member of ArchiteXX and editor of sub_teXXt, their online journal. She was a curatorial assistant for Bernard Tschumi’s 2014 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, editorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art, and editor of two recent books, Parc de La Villette (Artifice, 2014) and Builders, Housewives, and the Construction of Modern Athens (Artifice, 2017).