A. Ipek Türeli
Second-wave feminism led to an increasing awareness that US housing was largely built for a nuclear family with a working father and homemaker mother, despite this family structure’s declining prevalence. Feminist design practice began to focus on housing alternatives for the changing family, specifically examining issues of the suburban house. Architects Katrin Adam, Joan Forrester Sprague, and Susan Aitcheson founded the Women’s Development Corporation (WDC) together with Alma Green in 1979 as a response to a major shift in housing policy that allocated governmental spending from direct housing supply to dispersal programs that ranged from community development programs to vouchers.
The WDC’s housing projects in Providence, Rhode Island, featured plan layouts developed based on information gathered through community design workshops with local women in need of better housing. The workshops, which went on for over a year, gave these low-income women a sense of participation in the design process. Furthermore, earlier projects focused on adaptive reuse of abandoned historic properties and downtown revitalization. Because the units were dispersed, these projects managed to avoid the stigma of living in public housing projects, a quality much appreciated by future residents. The WDC eventually focused its efforts more on real estate management, development, and fundraising.
Once federal grants became harder to obtain, the WDC diversified its target groups to include elderly, disabled, and other marginal groups to tap into other types of local, city, and state funds. Since historic housing stock is not always available, the group also engaged in building new housing that resembles low-income housing.
The architects in the WDC were aware of their relational power in choosing to work with women of different racial and class backgrounds and experiences, but they wanted to build alliances that would challenge the norms of the “male-dominated” built environment and empower both the user groups and themselves as architects.
A. Ipek Türeli is Canada research chair and assistant professor of architecture at McGill University. She has worked on urban visual culture with geographic focus on the eastern Mediterranean, and more recently on social engagement in the profession, ranging from the longer history of humanitarian architecture, such as that of religious missionaries, to efforts by contemporary designers to contribute to social movements.