Blue Marble / Blue Urbanism: SCR Jamaica Bay Resiliency Plan

Catherine Seavitt

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The rapid emergence of the environmental movement of the 1970s was facilitated by the extensive dissemination of the Blue Marble. This image of the whole earth as seen from space, captured by the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7, 1972, allowed us to perceive our planet as a complete and total entity. Stuart Brandt’s Whole Earth Catalog reproduced several images of the globe from space on its covers, beginning with the first color photo of the Earth taken in 1967 by the ATS-3 satellite on its first edition. The catalog’s pages were packed with the countercultural tools and resources of the environmentalist hippie DIY ethic and aesthetic. With the recent emergence of the Anthropocene and its parallel theorization, this whole-earth imagery has returned again—with an emphasis on the impact that humans have had on the globe, transforming even its geological strata through our extractive petrochemical practices and carbon emissions. My recent design research for Structures of Coastal Resilience (SCR) similarly attempts to visualize water in the urban environment as an interconnected system while developing innovative and novel tools for our whole earth, supporting the resiliency and health of both social and environmental systems.

The Blue Marble also showed that the vast majority of the earth’s surface is water—the blue was pervasive across its spherical surface. This visual identification of the ocean and its importance to humans, particularly at the shorelines where the ecologies of land and water intermingled, was evoked decades earlier through the visceral work of three female scientists who helped launch the then-nascent environmental movement: Rachel Carson, Marie Tharp, and Sylvia Earle. Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson wrote her earliest published work, the prescient “Undersea,” in 1935 for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. It was later published in the September 1937 issue of the Atlantic Monthly (now known as The Atlantic). Likely influenced by Thomas Beebe’s 1934 notes taken during his famed half-mile bathysphere descents into the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda, Carson’s short essay on the beauty of unseen life below the surface of the ocean both captured the imagination and elevated the importance of oceanic ecologies. Her later books, particularly The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955), celebrated the teeming life at the estuarine shoreline, including the intertidal bays that served as the habitat of the adaptive and resilient marsh grass, Spartina alterniflora. Marie Tharp, geologist and oceanographic cartographer, worked from 1952 through 1977 at Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Laboratory, creating a scientific contour map of the ocean’s floor. The map revealed the presence of the mid-Atlantic ridge, proving the then-controversial theory of continental drift. Like the Blue Marble revealing the whole earth, Tharp’s oceanographic map revealed the unseen at the bottom of the ocean. The marine biologist Sylvia Earle continued to explore the deep ocean—in the early 1970s she led the first all-female research team of aquanauts at the submersible Tektite II underwater laboratory located offshore the U.S. Virgin Islands. These three earth scientists created a groundswell for future work and research—indeed, they invited others to jump into the water.

My Jamaica Bay research group at the City College of New York, one of four academic teams participating in the SCR initiative, further investigated the fluid coastal margins where water meets the land. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as part of a post-Hurricane Sandy investigation of the social, environmental, and infrastructural vulnerabilities revealed by the 2012 superstorm, we attempted to reconsider the “structures” of flood protection and resiliency as inclusive of natural and nature-based systems. One of the aspects of our research has been the connection of environmental restoration, storm risk reduction, and ecological health—including that of human and nonhuman species in the urban environment. We posit that the resilient success of Jamaica Bay’s future is dependent upon improving its ecological health and in supporting robust and novel techniques of marsh grass restoration at its fast-disappearing back bay wetland islands and coastal margins. An improved exchange of water and sediment from ocean to bay will lead to both enhanced water quality and a more robust wetland ecosystem, providing multiple benefits including improved species biodiversity, wave attenuation, wind fetch reduction, coastal erosion protection, and carbon capture. Our City College design team—Kjirsten Alexander, Danae Alessi, Eli Sands, and I—has been fortunate to collaborate with yet another cadre of female scientists investigating the function and importance of wetlands—Lisa Baron, biologist and USACE New York District project manager of the Jamaica Bay marsh island restoration projects; Ellen Hartig and Marit Larson, ecologists at New York City Parks’ Wetlands and Riparian Restoration Unit; Patti Rafferty, coastal ecologist at the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area; and Jane McKee Smith and Mary Cialone, research hydraulic engineers at the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory of the USACE Engineer Research and Development Center.

Long the dumping ground of New York City—the destination of waste, dead horses, contaminated dredged materials, and even poor and marginalized populations in its myriad lowland public housing developments—Jamaica Bay and the Rockaway Peninsula offer an opportunity to recast this urban embayment as a functioning ecological foreground to the city. Today, the vast scale and large urban population of the bay may be embraced as an asset for exploring the development of nature-based features as viable coastal storm risk reduction techniques as well as engaging a new generation of environmental stewards. Our proposal consists of strategic design recommendations for the narrow Rockaway Peninsula, the central marsh islands, and back-bay communities. Though ostensibly environmental in nature, these recommendations for improving the health of the bay have social and political implications as well. A more robust and resilient bay will empower the 2.8 million residents living within the Jamaica Bay watershed, transforming a vulnerable population into a force for environmental equity and improved public health.

The SCR Jamaica Bay resiliency plan includes three strategies developed through field research and modeling, both physical and digital. The first strategy addresses water quality and the reduction of back-bay flooding via a series of overwash plains, tidal inlets, and flushing tunnels at the Rockaway Peninsula and Floyd Bennett Field. The second strategy develops enhanced verges at Robert Moses’ Belt Parkway, elevating coastal edges at vulnerable back-bay communities and managing flood risk with a layered system of marsh terraces, berms, and sunken attenuation forests. The third strategy develops novel techniques of bay nourishment and marsh island restoration by maximizing the efficacy of minimal quantities of dredged material. By harnessing the natural forces of tide and current and constructing elevated linear terraces for sediment trapping at the marsh perimeter with our novel technique of the atoll terrace/island motor, the marsh islands can migrate upward with rising sea levels. A resilient marsh ecosystem provides coastal storm risk management services to adjacent communities through wind and wave attenuation, delivering maximum immediate benefits for both vulnerable communities and the disappearing salt marsh islands. Here, risk reduction is not equated with flood control achieved through expensive beach nourishment, high seawalls, and surge barriers. Rather, the proposal opens the bay to natural systems through managed intertidal flooding and improved sediment delivery—a new aqueous and oceanic blue urbanism. By merging the “whole earth” approach to the interconnected bay-to-ocean aquatics of the urban watershed with new and novel restoration techniques inspired by the tools and resources of the Whole Earth Catalog, our Jamaica Bay proposal for SCR seeks to support both social resiliency and environmental equity in the urban realm.


Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, AIA is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the City College of New York. Her research explores adaptation to climate change in urban environments and the novel transformation of landscape restoration practices. She is also interested in the intersection of political power, environmental activism, and public health, particularly as seen through the design of public space and policy.

Plaza Adelante: An Immigrant Resource Center

Sandra I. Vivanco

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Emblematic of the commerce and entertainment activity that is the heart and soul of the Latino neighborhood of San Francisco, a jewel-toned building stands proud and calm in harsh distinction to the uproar of Mission and Twentieth streets. Due to its unlikely location in what has become the hottest neighborhood in the most expensive city in the United States, this immigrant resource center is at once meeting place, refuge, and locus of resistance.

On a winter afternoon not long ago, a Nicaraguan couple recently evicted from their apartment commiserated with a single mother looking to place her infant in affordable childcare because she is reentering full-time employment. Nearby, a Venezuelan refugee sought legal advice while a small business entrepreneurship class took place in the adjacent classroom. In our current political climate, these all-too-common scenarios represent a significant challenge for both immigrants and laborers in the Bay Area.

The Client

The project was developed by Mission Economic Development Association (MEDA), a community-based organization with a mission to strengthen low- and moderate-income Latino families by promoting economic equity and social justice through asset building and community development. MEDA envisions generations of Latino families that have sufficient assets to thrive; that are rooted in vibrant, diverse, and forward-thinking communities; and that are actively engaged in the civic and political life of their neighborhoods and the institutions that affect their lives.

For years, MEDA has prioritized service integration across the agency as it increases the success rate of their clients by coordinating all of the programs they access. In addition, financial capability is fully integrated into all of their services, as research has shown that clients are three times more likely to improve their credit, savings, income, or debt if they participate in multiple asset development services. Every family at MEDA receives financial coaching and screening for public benefits while accessing multiple services within the agency.

While promoting economic empowerment for the Latino immigrant population, MEDA provides a host of services to reach financial stability ranging from housing assistance to small business incubators and from digital literacy to job training. Sharing the facilities are many other nonprofit organizations promoting community real estate, housing opportunities, financial capability, free tax preparation, business development, community loan funds, workforce development, and opportunities to bridge the technology and digital divide.

The Project

Plaza Adelante consolidates multiple nonprofit organizations, previously dispersed in different areas of San Francisco, into a single location anchored in the bustling heart of the Mission District. Inspired by the high level of interaction between these organizations, A+D decided to explore new spatial paradigms to promote and foster further connections and future interactions.

The project relied on funding that was only available between 2008–10, and as a result the entire project team worked tirelessly to obtain government approvals and complete construction on an unrelenting schedule that went from ideation to building in a fraction of the time a project of this complexity would have usually taken.

We transformed an existing family-owned, three-story furniture store into a community center by overlapping multifunctional spaces to merge the collective with the semipublic areas of the individual organizations headquartered there. We cut deep light wells and choreographed a clear but complex circulation system that celebrated chance encounters and encouraged public interaction by using transparency. A couple of years later, in collaboration with the CCA BuildLab students, we designed and built nine different furniture-scale architectural interventions that addressed the boundaries between the diverse services offered at Plaza Adelante while actively bringing the vibrancy of the street into the bowels of our project.

We make more with less. We exposed all of the possible social spaces to the common circulation and opened class and conference rooms by glazing them so that from every floor one is aware of the activities taking place in the adjacent space. We hoped to build community by allowing each individual to feel part of the whole and encouraging interaction within strangers.

We work simultaneously at the scale of the city and the body. We created a generous entry space, the Paseo, as a third kind of space that is both intimate and communal. Intuitive and synthetic, the scissoring canopies of the café mediated between the silence of offices, classrooms, and the raucous street activity.

We discover innovation through analyzing complexity. At Plaza Adelante, we worked simultaneously at many levels beyond the traditional roles of artist and architect—we helped fundraise, we advocated for MEDA’s clients, we brokered relationships between government and nonprofit agencies, we design-built, and we shaped cultural memory into collective space.

The Architect

Characterized by the investigation of cultural and technological aspects of modern city inhabitation, our practice is solidly rooted in the industry of construction and design and within the academic dialogue of architecture. Such a balance affords the professional ventures of the firm to tap the unfettered ideas of academia. Processing these recent contemporary developments in architecture with a skillful eye for construction and affordability promotes innovation and has repeatedly drawn attention and accolades to our work.

Our studio has a long, successful history of design collaborations. An architectural project is strengthened when complimentary talents, experience, and approaches are consolidated into one single effort—to design and build an innovative, environmentally conscious building in direct response to its urban and social context. Our design practice brings together four different scales of architectural interest: culturally diverse architectural history, urban and landscape design, interior architecture, and environmentally aware component fabrication.

The variety of roles we are prepared to undertake allows us to intervene meaningfully in the public realm. With multiple operations of urban acupuncture, we energize the urban realm and in the process highlight formerly invisible, underserved communities. These conditions frame our obsession with the place the individual occupies in the city which by definition is a negotiated realm.

We are new but have a long memory.

We are local but nonnative.

We are small but think BIG.

Age-Inclusive Design Advocacy

Sarah Gunawan & Julia Jamrozik

Architecture + Education Program, Buffalo Public School 53 Sponsored by the Buffalo Architecture Foundation, Architecture + Education Program, photography courtesy of Douglas Levere, 2011

Architecture + Education Program, Buffalo Public School 53 Sponsored by the Buffalo Architecture Foundation, Architecture + Education Program, photography courtesy of Douglas Levere, 2011

The disability rights movement surfaced in the 1960s, building momentum through the collective effort of activists and protesters, and reached a pinnacle in 1990 with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Universal Design emerged from the roots of the disability rights movement to advocate for environments that are accessible to the greatest extent possible to all people, regardless of age, size, or ability. Within Universal Design practice, the emphasis often remains on ability; however, this essay advocates that age, in particular youth and old age, offers a critical lens through which we can further expand inclusivity in design. Designing for youth and older adults requires us to consider a diverse range of physical, cognitive, and sensorial abilities. Through an examination of a cross section of theoretical positions and design projects, we argue that the design of playspaces for children and domestic environments for older adults are a form of applied activism, capable of empowering individuals of all ages.

Designing for Youth

Though implemented at the beginning of the last century with the best of intentions for the betterment and health of youth, playgrounds in the United States became standardized, formulaic, unsafe, and uninteresting by the 1950s. The 1960s finally saw a renewed interest in spaces of play through the collaborative efforts of parents, community organizers, and designers. Thinking of both the creative development of children and the urban potential of playspaces as community spaces, Paul M. Friedberg and Richard Dattner designed and executed a series of revolutionary spaces for play in 1960s New York. As both designers and writers,1 they were advocates2 for play as an essential activity in the lives of children and in the everyday spaces of the city.

As the historian and activist Susan G. Solomon documents,3 the decades that followed have again left US playgrounds in a sad state of uniformity. Yet major victories have been made in the last decade, from the group of parents who set up an adventure playground for kids’ self-directed play on Governor’s Island4 to the thoughtful design work by landscape architects such as Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which integrates natural elements into urban playspaces.5 Those advocating for playgrounds that are inclusive to people regardless of ability or mobility, such as Harper’s Playground in Portland, are making still further strides.6

Philadelphia’s Public Workshop embodies yet another approach that creates opportunities for youth to learn design skills and apply them to create meaningful contributions to their neighborhoods through their Building Heros Project.7 This form of hands-on activism through education and making can also be associated with the Architecture + Education program run by the Buffalo Architecture Foundation and Beth Tauke at the University at Buffalo.8 As part of this initiative, architecture students and architects bring design into the public school classroom by introducing children to the profession and the playful and creative potential of design. This kind of focus on youth creates engagement—and ultimately empowerment and agency.

Designing for Older Adults

A demographic and cultural shift occurred in the mid-twentieth century that transformed the perception of aging within the United States—from a process of decline to an active phase of life known as the young-old.9 Age-specific suburban communities emerged across the southern states to accommodate this growing demographic.10 While these developments identified a critical need for environments designed to support aging bodies, they simultaneously segregated older adults from multi-generational communities. In the 1980s, Michael Hunt identified a new pattern of urbanization within older generations through the emergence of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs).11 The occupation of housing complexes by predominantly older adults marked a transition toward the concept of aging-in-place, in which older adults have the ability to live independently, comfortably, and safely within their own home and community.12

The aging of the American population over the decades since has motivated architects to advocate for spatial strategies that support aging-in-place across scales and building typologies. Höweler + Yoon has developed strategies for multi-generational living through their projects Bridge House and 10 Degree House. However, the construction of new age-considerate homes is not a viable option for many older Americans. The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA) at the University at Buffalo empowers individuals across New York State to maintain independence by designing and implementing home-environment modifications like expanded walkways, accessible bathrooms, and the installation of mobility aids.13 The University of Arkansas Urban Design Center (UACDC) has furthered this idea through a strategy of retrofitting existing suburban neighborhoods to enable a process of “aging-in-community”. Through the design of new spatial attachments to the single-family house their proposal encourages informal social interactions and entrepreneurial activity, which enables seniors to thrive within the fabric of the suburbs.14

The challenges older adults face extend beyond the process of aging to intersect with issues of accessibility, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Several designers are grappling with these overlaps. Through attention to the heterogeneous experiences of older adults, these design advocates are responding to the intersectional needs of our aging population.

Age offers a critical and timely lens through which to advance inclusive design efforts within the architectural profession. Designers are once again embracing the creative and social potential of open-ended play and the benefits it has for children and communities at large. There is hope that advocacy at many levels may lead to more accessible and better-designed playspaces in more American neighborhoods. Simultaneously, with the American population of older adults projected to double by 2060,15 the practice has a responsibility to advocate for the diverse and intersectional embodiments of older adults through design. It is clear that better design for children and older adults can improve the quality and inclusivity of the built environment as an intergenerational space. By focusing on the specific needs of these two populations, designers have the responsibility and potential to act as advocates who can generate a sense of belonging and empowerment for individuals of all ages.

  1. See: Friedberg, M P, and Ellen P. Berkeley. Play and Interplay: A Manifesto for New Design in Urban Recreational Environment. New York: Macmillan, 1970. And Dattner, Richard, 1948. Design for Play. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, New York, 1969.

  2. Hirsch, Alison B. "From “Open Space” to “public Space”: Activist Landscape Architects of the 1960s." Landscape Journal, vol. 33, no. 2, 2014, pp. 173-194.

  3. Solomon, Susan G. American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space. Hanover, Md: University Press of New England, 2005. And Solomon, Susan G. The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds That Enhance Children's Development. , 2014.

  4. “play:groundNYC is a non-profit organization advocating for young people’s rights by providing playworker-run environments that encourage risk-taking, experimentation and freedom through self-directed play.” www.play-ground.nyc

  5. With projects such as Teardrop Park, New York, NY (1999–2006)

  6. www.harpersplayground.org and http://place.la/project/harpers-playground/

  7. http://publicworkshop.us/

  8. http://buffaloarchitecture.org/programs/architecture-education/

  9. Bernice Negarten, 1974 in “Age Groups in American Society and the Rise of the Young-Old
  10. Deane Simpson, Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society
  11. "Staff Bios: Michael Hunt". University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Healthy Places Terminology”, October 15, 2009 https://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/terminology.htm
  13. Center for Inclusive Design and Environmeental Access, “Home Modifications” http://idea.ap.buffalo.edu/Services/HomeMods/index.asp
  14. University of Arkansas Community Design Center, Houses for Aging Socially: Developing Third Place Ecologies, Arkansas: ORO Editions, 2017.
  15. Mark Mather and Linda A. Jacobsen, and Kelvin M. Pollard, “Aging in the United States,” Population Bulletin 70, no. 2 (2015).

RAIN

Meredith Gaglio

Ecotopia,  RAIN.

Ecotopia, RAIN.

We wish to share with people information that is: workable . . . novel . . . successful . . . practical . . . perceptive . . . loving/humorous . . . integral . . . cosmic . . . down-to-earth . . . fitting . . . appropriate . . . sane . . . infertilating . . . hopeful . . . encouraging . . . non-redundant (don’t reinvent the wheel) . . . way over there there’s someone else doing what you’re doing . . . we try to find seeds . . . RAIN helps things grow . . . interests that dovetail . . . information rather than opinions . . .

RAIN: A Monthly Bulletin Board 2, no. 1 (October 1975)

 

 

When the “Rainmakers,” led by Steve Johnson, Lee Johnson, Tom Bender, and Lane de Moll, described their editorial vision for RAIN magazine in 1975, they conveyed a midcentury shift in the Appropriate Technology (AT) movement as it grew from a disconnected array of grassroots organizations toward a more cohesive, nationally recognized solution to the United States’ energy crisis. Their statement also represented a transformation in the journal itself. Initially sponsored by ECO-NET, a federally funded Portland, Oregon-based environmental education network, RAIN originated as a free “monthly bulletin board” for AT practitioners of the Pacific Northwest, with an emphasis on its Portland home. But, as the above quote shows, the publication quickly changed course, engaging with and establishing links between the groups “over there”—that is, across the United States—and their Oregonian compatriots. For its readership, RAIN provided a dynamic, often prescient, and remarkably expansive characterization of the AT movement

In the summer of 1974, Steve Johnson, a freelance writer recently employed by ECO-NET, established RAIN magazine, aided by his colleagues Anita Helle, Mary Wells, and Lee Johnson. The first issue of RAIN, wryly named for Oregon’s frequent precipitation, was a practical resource for local AT enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest region.1 Compared to future iterations of the journal, which incorporated philosophical essays, political commentary, and in-depth discussions of topics ranging from the economic value of trash or the basics of composting toilets to the United Nations Conference on Discrimination Against the Indigenous Populations of the Americas or the history of androgyny, the earliest editions of RAIN were extended informational pamphlets. Despite the elementary nature of the periodical, “reader response was immediate and dramatic,” exposing the dearth of communication networks available to appropriate technologists. Practitioners of AT “were hungry for news of each other’s projects and for leads to often-obscure books and magazines being published in their areas of interest,” and Johnson, via RAIN, began to develop a structure for mitigating their demands.2

Upon the initial success of ECO-NET’s twenty-four-page “monthly bulletin board,” Johnson, Johnson, Helle, and Wells began to extend the scope of their journal. In the fifth edition from February 1975, the staff demonstrated an urge for conceptual growth. At this time, they introduced pullout instructional supplements entitled “Roughdrafts,” meant to be a monthly “series of RAIN-sheltered print tools designed to shape more positive and practical alternatives.” Although short-lived, these new features clarified the Rainmakers’ mission and, along with a secondary commitment to expanding the magazine’s coverage beyond the Pacific Northwest, prefigured RAIN’s forthcoming transformation into the preeminent “print tool” of the AT movement.3

By the spring of 1975, the RAIN foursome also began to pursue an institutional change, seeking independence from the government-supported ECO-NET program. A newly established connection with Tom Bender and Lane de Moll, who hailed from Oregon’s progressive State Office of Energy Research and Planning, proved serendipitous. Bender, an architect, and de Moll, a community organizer, were also in search of opportunities to expand the reach of their community resource operation, “Full Circle.” They consolidated their organizations under the title “Rain Umbrella, Incorporated” and purchased a Victorian home in Portland as a live-work headquarters, aptly called “Rainhouse.”

De Moll and Bender’s first collaboration with RAIN came in April of 1975, but they did not become part of the editorial staff until October of that year. Their presence was clear from the beginning, as the magazine’s “catalog-type entries grew more polished and feature articles became more prominent.”4 Notably, RAIN’s subtitle changed from “A Monthly Bulletin Board” to “Journal of Appropriate Technology” after only four issues, demonstrating its transition from a locally oriented magazine to one with national aspirations. Between 1975 and 1980, despite multiple editorial transitions, RAIN maintained its signature content, tone, and structure, and it grew in popularity, if not subscribers, nationwide.

As mainstream support of appropriate technology increased, Bender, de Moll, Johnson, and Johnson, all of whom had only recently departed from government positions, did not eschew the institutional sphere, despite the AT movement’s aversion to bureaucracy; instead, members of RAIN took on advisory roles in government projects and kept their readership apprised of the positive and negative aspects of corporate and governmental AT policies. RAIN’s simultaneously critical and receptive approach was one key to its success, and its editors strove to provide a comprehensive, intricately constructed periodical that would convey the multifaceted nature of appropriate technology. Their journalistic aim was not to present an objective view of AT, per se, but rather to introduce the complexities and contradictions of the movement.

During the late 1970s, as federal and state AT programs were enacted, many appropriate technologists, including RAIN’s editorial staff, found them to be, for the most part, misguided and insufficient. As a result, the AT movement began to change. Throughout the journal’s publication, the Rainmakers frequently described RAIN as being in a state of transition due to its shifting staff, financial support, or organizational ties, but, at this moment, the shift became ideological as well, reflecting the evolution of AT and its practitioners. RAIN’s content became more overtly political, and the editors urged readers to reignite the radical, political spirit of their countercultural beginnings to push for institutional change

This upheaval in content echoed that of the movement more generally and so continued RAIN’s commitment to supplying readers with the most up-to-date information on AT in a straightforward, honest way. Yet the original editors struggled to align their own priorities with their established roles as Rainmakers. In early 1979, Lee Johnson surrendered his post; Bender and de Moll, meanwhile, lingered through October of that year. By the close of 1980, RAIN could boast an entirely new collective of AT practitioners. Carlotta Collette, formerly of the Minnesota Center for Local Self-Reliance, John Ferrell, a solar activist, and Mark Roseland, a social ecology professor at Wesleyan University, with the assistance of former Rainmakers during the early months, oversaw a smooth transition within the journal. Much as Bender and de Moll predicted, this next team introduced fresh content to RAIN, befitting the magazine’s second decade.

However, overwhelmed by attempting to sustain the weakening movement in defiance of Reagan-era policies, the editors gradually diminished the geographical scope of the journal, increasingly focusing, as it had upon its foundation, on the Pacific Northwest and Portland specifically. Upon Steve Johnson’s return as an editor in late 1980, RAIN was beginning to return to its starting point. During his tenure, the editorial staff reduced the magazine’s annual number of issues and even eliminated “Journal of Appropriate Technology” from its title. RAIN officially continued into the 1990s, revealing the ways in which certain aspects of AT practice, such as community organization, persisted through the 1980s, while others, such as small-scale solar or wind energy programs, faded from view.

1 John Ferrell, “The Magazine from Ecotopia: A Look Back at the First RAIN Decade,” RAIN Magazine 10, no. 1 (October/November 1983): 5

2 Ibid., 6.

3 Steve Johnson, “Introduction to Brainstorming,” RAIN 1, no. 5 (February 1975): 10.

4 Ferrell, “The Magazine from Ecotopia,” 7.

Feminism in American Planning

Bri Gauger

Amidst the upheaval of 1960s and ’70s America, social movement struggles propelled a profession previously known for urban renewal projects toward an advocacy role. Bruised by the very public failures of top-down modernist urban renewal, planning was forced to pay more attention to process, engagement, and equity for marginalized and underserved communities, and planners began to acknowledge their profession’s complicity in race, class, and gender oppression. As social movements opened planning to considering new normative goals and tasks for planners to engage with, affirmative action measures and federal funding for community-scale research on urban issues provided opportunities for women’s education and academic careers in planning.

It was in this context of possibility for social change that women began entering the planning academy in the 1970s, just after the professional field of planning began institutionalizing as an academic discipline. While women came from many disciplines, those from architecture backgrounds were particularly drawn to planning because it seemed more open to considering social aspects of the built environment. Before entering the academy, these women were politically active across a spectrum of social movements, from the civil rights and antiwar movements to environmental justice and labor organizing. A feminist consciousness about gendered power relations and knowledge production cut across their activisms. For many, this mind-set arose not only out of shared feminist practices such as consciousness-raising, but as a direct result of extensive advocacy in areas like public housing and community development. These backgrounds enabled them to link social and human struggles to oppressive structures and systems through the physical form of the built environment and the political process of planning.

While postwar planning’s top-down rational model left little room for attention to social issues and scale, early feminist planners argued that power operates through social norms in the built environment. By the early 1980s, when the first group of women to become prominent planning scholars were settling into tenure-track jobs, they gathered extensive experience working in areas like housing and community development that were previously excluded from mainstream planning.1 They leveraged their organizing backgrounds to advocate for attention to social issues and scales through their scholarship, teaching, and academic careers.

The “gender lens” introduced in early feminist scholarship held that social and political relationships, language and discourse, and the built environment all structure (and are structured by) gendered identities, relations, and expectations. It called for recognition that women’s experiences of the built environment differed from those of men, exposing, for example, that while municipal zoning laws are often viewed as technical planning mechanisms, zoning is in fact a system laden with values. These ideological orientations produce negative effects for women, such as increased time and economic pressure by zoning childcare out of suburban neighborhoods or designing transportation systems around male commuting patterns.

As an institution, the academy posed many challenges for women. Spread in planning departments across the US and Canada, the first generation of feminist planning scholars were often the only women in otherwise male departments and faced age and experience gaps with their new colleagues. Male colleagues took credit for their ideas, shut out their perspectives entirely, and boycotted their scholarship by refusing to cite women’s work. In order to put gender on the agenda in planning, feminist planners collaborated closely with those working toward similar goals in other environmental design professions. Planners turned to other women within their institutions to participate in informal activities, such as interdisciplinary feminist writing and reading groups. In addition to participating in education and advocacy collectives like Women in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Planning (WALAP) and the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA, covered in more detail elsewhere in this exhibition), feminists built community across the US and Canada by hosting a number of conferences specifically devoted to gender and the built environment and by organizing panels on women’s issues at more mainstream conferences.2

Sometimes these activities generated edited volumes that would prove instrumental in helping to define research on women and the built environment, as well as linking gender to concerns over racism and poverty.3 As part of a concerted effort to raise the profile of environmental design and spatial disciplines among feminists in the broader sphere, planning scholars were involved alongside members of the emerging Women’s Studies movement in emerging feminist publications like Signs, Quest, and Heresies. The 1980 publication of a Signs issue devoted to the role of women in urban politics and community organizations was a watershed moment for many, as planners helped to frame early academic discussions about space and feminism. Women shared bibliographies and syllabi with each other as they sought to form a canon of feminist literature in planning, as well as formed their own publications when faced with pushback against publishing gender research in mainstream journals.

In addition to working outside of the academic planning establishment, feminist planners organized for change within the planning academy. When several women convened an informal discussion at the 1986 Associated Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) annual meeting to discuss challenges to publishing feminist planning literature, the twenty-one women in attendance represented nearly all of the female planning professors in the United States (the vast majority of whom were junior scholars without tenure). Within a year, the Faculty Women’s Interest Group (FWIG) obtained formal recognition from ACSP and FWIG members built a support and mentoring network for women scholars, dispensing practical advice about academia and the tenure process, and advocating for ACSP diversity efforts around recruitment and retention of minority students and faculty.

By banding together as a marginalized group, women made space to develop and debate ideas when the establishment did not have room for them, growing a intellectual network in planning and across allied disciplines. As the first special interest group within ACSP, FWIG charted a course for women’s representation and equal treatment in the planning academy that would later serve as an organizational model for planners of color and LGBTQ planners in the academy. As diversity efforts became further institutionalized in this way over the next few decades, however, debates about gender and who had claims to feminism fizzled. Even though the number of women in the academy has risen dramatically over the last four decades, institutional gains in the academy continue to be unevenly distributed, and critical feminist concepts like intersectionality remain largely unexamined in planning literature and education. Once again, it is time to organize across disciplines and creatively apply pressure from outside and within the academy, shifting the needle toward equity.

1 The debate over which activities count as planning has always been deeply gendered. Female settlement housing advocates helped plan the first city planning conference in 1909, but at the second conference male architects and engineers (led by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.) successfully shut the “housers” out, setting an institutional precedent that excluded women from city planning for decades to follow. For more, see Susan Marie Wirka, “The City Social Movement: Progressive Women Reformers and Early Social Planning,” in Planning the Twentieth-Century American City, edited by Mary Corbin. Sies and Christopher Silver (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 55–75. xiv, 594.

2 With help from WALAP, Harvard students at the Graduate School of Design organized a 1973 “Women in Housing” conference; the Feminist Planners and Designers (FPD) at UCLA hosted annual conferences for nearly a decade, beginning in 1979 with “Planning and Designing a Non-Sexist City”.

3 Such as Gerda R. Wekerle, Rebecca. Peterson, and David Morley, eds., New Space for Women, Westview Special Studies on Women in Contemporary Society (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1980); Eugenie Ladner. Birch, ed., The Unsheltered Woman: Women and Housing in the 80s (New Brunswick, N.J.: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University, 1985).


Bri Gauger is a PhD candidate in urban planning and graduate certificate student in women’s studies at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation traces the history of feminist thought and activism in the urban planning academy since 1965, incorporating oral histories from several generations of women planning scholars. bgauger@umich.edu

Dolores Hayden's Non-Sexist City

Irina Vinnitskaya

Images of Dolores Hayden's Non-Sexist City, reprinted in  Gender, Space and Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction  (Routledge, 1999).

Images of Dolores Hayden's Non-Sexist City, reprinted in Gender, Space and Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction (Routledge, 1999).

Dolores Hayden’s essay, “What would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work,” from the Spring 1980 Supplement of Signs magazine, examines how architectural design and urban planning in the United States have been instrumental in constraining women’s equal participation in physical, social, and economic life and explores alternative egalitarian housing solutions that support women. Hayden argues that the adage, “a woman’s place is in the home,” has been the de facto principle governing residential design in the “urban region,” which encapsulates cities, suburbs, and exurbs. She reflects on how the design, siting, and financing structures of residential architecture are orchestrated around the “ideal nuclear family,” which views men as breadwinners, engaged in the workforce and public life of the city, and women as the symbol of domestic order, confined to the private life of the home and the needs of the family. Such planning choices, she writes, have created hardships for women who break out of their traditional roles as homemakers and enter the workforce. She rejects the home as an homage to “patriarchal fantasies” and male authority and proposes measures to address this shortfall through the work of community organizing, warning against market solutions that she deems exploitative. The Non-Sexist City that Hayden proposes unites housing, services, and jobs to support employed women and their families by adapting a financial model like those of limited-equity housing cooperatives.

According to Hayden, the rise of the suburb and homeownership in the early twentieth century altered the relationship between private and public life. The suburb was conceived as a safe haven from the noxious urban core—a place of serenity for family life to prosper. Federal programs financing the development of the suburbs had certain conditions; they supported racial covenants that excluded people of color from white communities and unequivocally denied mortgages to unmarried women. The primary beneficiaries of these new homes, designed for “a male worker and unpaid homemaker,” were the white middle class. Hayden writes that this socioeconomic dynamic is rooted in the “happy worker” movements of early industrial cities and would solidify into the status quo with the construction of suburbs, asserting that “men were to receive family wages and become home ‘owners’ responsible for regular mortgage payments, while their wives became home ‘managers’ taking care of spouse and children.” The power vested in male breadwinners would transform the home into a “container for female unpaid labor” and the stage on which the “fantasies of patriarchal authority” would play out, argues Hayden. But just as suburban sprawl was becoming a fixture of American life, women’s participation in the workforce was growing. The home as designed to fit the ideal family was quickly becoming outdated.

The rise of women’s employment would cause an imbalance in women’s relationship with domestic work. Hayden notes that the frantic housewife/wage earner would find herself torn between employment, commutes to and from the workplace, domestic chores, and the “physical and emotional maintenance” of the family. Traditional zoning practices exacerbated the strain on time and labor that intentionally isolated the residences from “shared community space—no commercial or communal day-care facilities, or laundry facilities, for example, are likely to be part of the dwelling’s spatial domain.”

To Hayden, this challenge to bridge domestic work with women’s economic position is not a private problem—it is a social problem that cannot “succumb to market solutions.” Responding to the rise of fast-food chains to replace home-cooked meals, commercial day cares, and television to replace childcare, and expanded credit on products for domestic work, Hayden warns that these market replacements lend themselves to creating exploitative conditions for workers. She writes that these jobs are often underpaid, nonunion, and unsecure, filled by marginalized women of lower-class status to substitute the unpaid domestic work of affluent families.

In Hayden’s Non-Sexist City, housing is a confluence of living, working, and supportive services designed around community-delegated, egalitarian support for domestic and public life. Hayden suggests organizing small participatory groups called Homemakers Organizations for a More Egalitarian Society (HOMES). HOMES strive to create an environment of shared unpaid domestic labor, supporting all residents in the paid workforce, eliminating segregation, eliminating programs that sex-stereotype work, reducing duplication of domestic labor, and supporting personal choice towards recreation and sociability.

Hayden’s HOMES rely on grassroots organizing and collective bargaining to acquire zoning variances and legal conversions to accommodate the proposed structures. A HOMES group may consist of any number of households that establish housing with collective services, including day cares, laundromats, kitchens, grocery stores, a garage, gardens, and offices. Services are staffed by residents, compensated to eschew what Hayden calls “sex-stereotyped attitudes towards skills and hours.” Housing can be new or rehabilitated, taking a typical suburban block of homes and inverting the position of public and private space. Dwellings, side yards, and portions of front yards remain private, while auxiliary spaces are integrated into the community. Backyards are combined to create a shared park that the houses face instead of the street. Sheds and porches become community spaces. A dial-a-ride garage replaces numerous private cars, and appliances, such as washers, dryers, and power tools, are shared among neighbors. Alternatively, existing single family homes, designed with open plans, can be converted into duplexes and triplexes varying in size from studios to three bedrooms to create collective arrangements. Hayden suggests a limited equity housing cooperative—in which residents already share an economic stake—as a model for integrating collective services.  

Hayden explores the ideas of a Non-Sexist City in several books following the essay’s publication. The Grand Domestic Revolution (1981) explores the material feminists and their stance on economic and spatial issues as part of women’s depressed social position in relation to domestic and public life. Redesigning the American Dream (1984, 2002) recounts the history of the American suburb, making clear the correlation between the separation of public and private life and strict divisions of gender roles.

Despite this advocacy, we continue to live in much the same housing that Hayden’s essay deems incongruous with an egalitarian society. We witness a housing crisis that struggles to provide secure and affordable housing—a crisis compounded by a legacy of segregationist policies—while communities struggle against city governments’ emphasis on the private market to resolve these issues. The Community Land Trust (CLT) model challenges that. It combines tenants, building owners, community organizations, and people living near the associated development to set aside land for housing that is independent of real estate market fluctuations. CLTs and the numerous organizations that support them demonstrate that housing equality continues to be an issue and emphasize that, like Hayden did in 1980, community control and participation are cornerstones to challenging discriminatory policies whose effects linger today.
 

References

"What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work"
Dolores Hayden, Signs, Vol. 5, No. 3, Supplement. Women and the American City (Spring, 1980), pp. S170-S187
Published by: The University of Chicago Press

 

1980

Hayden, Dolores. “What Would a Non-Sexist City Look Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design and Human Work.” Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, ed. Jane Rendell, ed. Barbara Penner, ed. Iain Borden, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003, pp. 266–281.

 

1981

“Introduction.” The Grand Domestic Revolution a History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities, by Dolores Hayden, MIT Press, 2000, pp. 2–29.

“Feminist Politics and Domestic Life.” The Grand Domestic Revolution a History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities, by Dolores Hayden, MIT Press, 2000, pp. 291–305.

 

1984

Hayden, Dolores. Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Tanaka, Aaron. “The Transformative Vision of Community Land Trusts.” Dissent Magazine, 20 Nov. 2015, www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/transformative-vision-community-land-trusts-boston-dsni.


 

Reimagining Randolph: Randolph Career Tech Center

Imani Day, Gensler

Randolph Career Tech Center, Detroit, 2017. Courtesy Imani Day, Gensler.

Randolph Career Tech Center, Detroit, 2017. Courtesy Imani Day, Gensler.

Detroit public schools have been troubled for some time. Between massive depopulation, bankruptcy, and controversial policy about school choice, the degeneration of the city’s educational system was all but inevitable. Each of these challenges compounded the decline in state and federal funding for public school education. As the city of Detroit begins the long journey to resolve these complex concerns, instigative design and physical repair can be powerful tools to address the system’s problems. However, it will take a truly diverse team of activists to shift negative attitudes toward traditional public school environments.

Detroit is a city founded on the spirit of entrepreneurship and cultural innovation. From an automobile industry that mobilized the world to the birth of Motown and Techno, Detroit’s innovations have historically set cultural metronomes for people all over the world. We are now witnessing that innovation fuel the restructuring of the antiquated public school system. New educational perspectives and methodologies seek to teach young, bright students the value of their ideas, not only to their city, but also to the world.

Randolph Career Tech Center is a public vocational school that suffered for years from the economic downturn. It was built in the 1980s as a technology career program, but when the school failed to attract the number of students it needed to be viable, a traditional high school component was added in hopes of attracting more students. In 2016, enrollment hit a low of 167 (with 92 traditional high school students) in a facility built to serve 600 students. The facility was in desperate need of attention and repair, and the various curricula were not nearly as robust as they needed to be.

In late 2017, with revamped programs in plumbing and pipefitting, masonry, carpentry, HVAC, electrical, marketing, agricultural science and environmental technology, and computer-aided design, enrollment is at an all-time high of 310 students. That number will likely double as the school adds an adult night school for community members to learn skilled trades. In a city where nearly 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, these core skills are critical to empowering workers to earn livable wages, providing incomes high enough to lift families securely out of poverty, and put Detroit on the path to an educational comeback.

Fiscal pressures and a low population caused Detroit to hit a construction low in the ’90s and the first decade of the twenty-first century. Many architects, skilled contractors, and builders left the city (and the industry) in search of steady work. Recently, however, construction has increased, resulting in a gap between the supply and demand of skilled labor. Therefore, it is imperative that the city strengthen its career and technical education centers to replenish the supply of skilled workers to the construction unions and companies.

The city’s workforce development team has invested in the facilities and programs that will train this next generation of trade professionals. In the fall of 2016, Gensler began its partnership with Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation (DESC), DTE Energy, and Barton Malow to reimagine the future of vocational education in Detroit. Careers in construction are some of the most lucrative for young people in Detroit; many trained professionals go on to start their own companies.

The redesign of Randolph inspires pride within the youth of the city and creates a learning environment to stimulate and motivate this entrepreneurial spirit. The changes incorporate evidence showing that physical environments in which students learn can either optimize or derail their odds of academic achievement and lifelong success. Through a complete rebranding of school graphics to reflect a technical focus, Randolph will communicate itself as a credible educational resource in the construction community. In an effort to increase school pride and enrollment, vibrant environmental graphics were introduced in the central communal areas to reinforce the raised levels of expectation and encouragement for students to not only graduate, but to continue their careers through the program’s job placement initiatives and apprenticeships. In each room, specific trade logos adjacent to the entry indicate individual programs, their respective importance, and the school’s pride in the city’s revitalized built environment.

As the school continues to grow, the need for a central hub where the entire student body can assemble is increasingly apparent. By combining two classrooms, the “heart” of the school functions as an open, multi-purpose room for lunch periods, assemblies, and workshops. Decades ago, students painted murals of piping and tools around the school to convey the technical focus; today, Gensler reveals the technical nature of the trades in a more literal sense. By exposing ductwork and conduits in the corridors and entryways, students see their education directly reflected in their learning spaces. New lighting strategies brighten the space and highlight the newly exposed systems and branding. Local metal workers, graphic designers, and community members used raw materials and equipment to embody the technical focus. Licensed contractors and volunteer union workers, many of whom were Randolph graduates, helped to actualize the vision for the future of the school.

Randolph’s full revitalization was realized through $10,000,000 in raised funds and in-kind donations of time, design, labor, and materials. Several companies and aligned groups have come together to maximize the school’s full potential. Design is a mode of problem solving; in the case of Randolph, disrepair has played a significant role in fostering creativity and enthusiasm around a learning space. Through the intentional collaboration of policy, design, and advocacy, we can utilize the public school systems to support and empower Detroit’s next generation of leaders.


Imani Day is a designer with Gensler and an adjunct professor of design at the University of Detroit Mercy. She is also an editorial fellow with the Avery Review. Passionate about educational spaces and cultural work, Day moved to Detroit in 2015 to focus on community-oriented design projects.

F-Architecture

Sarah Rafson

Self-Examination Chair, Post-Fordist Hymen Factory. Feminist Architecture Collaborative, 2017. Courtesy f-architecture.

Self-Examination Chair, Post-Fordist Hymen Factory. Feminist Architecture Collaborative, 2017. Courtesy f-architecture.

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).

Open Design Office

Andrea J. Merrett

In April of 1972, several participants in the Boston-based professional group Women Architects, Landscape Architects, and Planners (WALAP) met to discuss starting a feminist practice. They were interested in answering the question, “How would an office of women professionals differ from the traditional (men’s) office?”1 They agreed that the practice would be a nonprofit enterprise that would “seek commissions for work with some social significance”—for example daycares and housing. Among their goals were: “[to] establish credibility for women, ... [to] provide a model for a new kind of office, ... [and to] research and support research on women’s activities in the profession.”2 Six women, Emilie Turano, Joan Sprague, Gwen Noyes Rono, Youngbin Yim, Magda Brosio, and Lois Golden Stern, went on to launch the Open Design Office (ODO).3 They also established a nonprofit organization, the Women’s Design Center, to focus on research and public education on women and the build environment.4

Although they did not officially define the procedures for the ODO until the end of the first year, the members agreed on three principles. The first was that all profits would remain within the firm. The members of the ODO believed the structure of most offices was a corporate model in which profit motivated senior partners to exploit employees. In contrast, the ODO sought to treat all its members equally and fairly. After they paid themselves, the members agreed to use any profits earned to subsidize research or community projects. The second principle was that working hours would be completely flexible.5 As long as members met deadlines and kept each other informed of their schedules, they could determine their own schedules. The ODO would hold regular meetings to discuss projects and management issues. The third principle was the elimination of an office hierarchy. All members of the office were to reach management decisions together by consensus. Each member was expected to take full responsibility for her projects, and the office would only accept projects on which everyone agreed.

In rejecting a hierarchical structure, the founders of the ODO were responding to an office culture that glorified the myth of the individual creator over the reality that most projects require a team of people. Many offices also excluded women from advancement. In their emphasis on equality, the founders of ODO embraced one of the tenets of radical feminists who rejected hierarchies and what they thought of as “male” leadership qualities such as assertion, domination, and independence. Women’s liberation groups tried to operate without any leaders, giving every member equal say in decision-making through a consensus process. Sprague described this method of working as “affiliative” and compared it to women preparing a meal together: “No one defines who is in charge.”6

Whatever the aspirations of the office, a de facto hierarchy did develop.7 Sprague was the most experienced member. She had graduated from Cornell in 1953 and practiced for almost twenty years, including a decade as partner in a firm with her then-husband, Chester Sprague. She was also the only registered architect in the office and brought in most of the work.8 For some members, the office did not live up to the promise of equality.9 Others soon realized that they prefered the security of working as employees. After the first year, four of the six members left the firm and were replaced by new members. For the two women who stayed with the office the longest, Magda Brosio and Marie Kennedy, Sprague’s leadership role was not a problem. She invited Brosio to join the office while Brosio was still a student at the Turin Politecnico in Italy.10 She had been in the US briefly to marry and returned to the ODO after completing her degree. For her, the office offered an empowering environment despite her youth and inexperience.11 Kennedy graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1969 and had worked at Urban Planning Aid for two years before joining the ODO in 1973. The office appealed to her because Urban Planning Aid had also been experimenting with a nonhierarchical structure in which all responsibilities, including janitorial work, were shared, and pay was based on need rather than experience.12 Although the ODO did not go that far in its policies, it promised a supportive environment.

For the first few years, the practice thrived—and even turned a profit.13 The busiest years were 1974 and 1975, when the office had commissions for several large projects as well as some smaller projects and consultation jobs. The type of client and the way that the ODO worked with them was very important to the office members. In fact, the ODO turned down at least one project because the client wanted to give them free reign, which would not provide the architect-client interaction the firm sought to cultivate. ODO aspired to work for underserved populations, especially women and children, and it wanted its clients to be full participants in the design process.

One of the most important projects for the ODO was the Roxbury neighborhood rehabilitation. In the late ’60s, Harvard purchased about thirty properties in the largely African American area southwest of downtown Boston, all of which it planned to demolish to expand its hospital. With help from some Harvard students on strike at the time, the affected tenants organized a tenants’ rights association.14 After contentious negotiations, Harvard agreed to renovate the properties and hired the ODO. The budget did not allow for a full historic restoration, and rapid inflation curtailed the budget even further, forcing the designers to be creative.15 However, the ODO saw the opportunity to not only provide design solutions, but also to redesign the process. Tenants worked with the ODO from the beginning, and they had a say in the compromises necessary to meet the project constraints. The ODO selected aluminum siding for its economy and availability in many colors. The tenants then chose the colors for siding, trim, accent, and roofing. At the tenants’ request, most of the porches that ODO planned to remove were preserved. The most innovative aspect of the project was the construction documentation. In order to economize on time, the ODO used photographs instead of working drawings to communicate with the contractor. The photographs were also easier for the tenants to read, enabling them to understand exactly what was happening to their homes.

By 1976, the economic downturn threatened the livelihood of the office. The members agreed to give up their rented space and work from home.16 Because of the ODO’s office structure, the practice had amassed no profit surplus to see it through a recession. Several members left to seek employment elsewhere. The office officially closed by 1978; however it’s legacy continued through the work of Sprague, who went on to co-found the Women’s Development Corporation in 1979, and the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development in 1981.

1 Open Design Office, “Open Design Office ... A Working Alternative,” Joan Forrester Sprague Papers, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.

2 Ibid.

3 Eleanor Roberts, “Six women partners provide ... A new dimension in architecture,” Sunday Herald Traveler, Section 5, December 3, 1972: 11. After the first year, Rono and Yim left the office and Olga Kahn, Lucille Roseman, Kathryn Allott, Mary Murtagh, and Marie Kennedy joined.

4 Roberts, 11.

5 WALAP, “The Case for Flexible Work Schedules,” Architectural Forum 137 no. 2 (1972): 53, 66-67.

6 Joan Forrester Sprague, “Between Commune and Corporation,” unpublished paper, February 1976, Sprague Papers. Sprague wrote the paper as part of her M.Ed.

7 Joan Rothschild and Gerri Traina noted this in a study they did on women’s enterprises, which included the ODO. Joan Rothschild and Gerri Traina, “Women’s Self-Managed Enterprises, A Pilot Study,” July 1976, unpublished study, Sprague Papers.

8 Olga Kahn, phone conversation with author, October 19, 2017.

9 Olga Kahn, who was with the office in 1974, was disappointed that it did not operate as a true collective.

10 Magda Brosio, phone conversation with author, October 9, 2017.

11 Magda Brosio, email to author, October 21, 2017.

12 Marie Kennedy, interview with author, February 24, 2013.

13 Rothschild and Traina.

14 http://www.missionpark.com/history.htm.

15 Joan Sprague, “A New Kind of Historic Preservation” Neighborhood Rehabilitation for the Roxbury Tenants of Harvard,” unpublished draft, September 1976, Sprague Papers.

16 William Ronco, “Reshaping the Office,” c.1976, Sprague Papers.


Andrea J. Merrett is a PhD candidate in architecture at Columbia University writing her dissertation on the history of feminism in American architecture. Her research has received support through a Buell Center Oral History Prize, a Schlesinger Library Oral History Grant, and the Milka Bliznakov Prize from the International Archive of Women in Architecture. Recently she has coedited an issue on women and architecture for the journal de-arq: Journal of Architecture (2017), Universidad de Los Andes, and presented her dissertation research nationally and internationally in New York, Stockholm, and London.

Liquid Incorporated

Gabrielle Printz

Liquid Incorporated,  Headroom , Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 1995. Courtesy of Amy Landesberg and Lisa Quatrale.

Liquid Incorporated, Headroom, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 1995. Courtesy of Amy Landesberg and Lisa Quatrale.

Liquid Incorporated was a practice established in 1991 by architecture’s illegitimate daughters, Amy Landesberg and Lisa Quatrale—two women pursuing the liquefaction of a paternal profession they could never simply inherit. They were not legally incorporated (a joke or a dream or a precedent applied unscrupulously), but the corporate moniker came to define a collaborative entity that resisted the modern impulse to regenerate disciplinary concerns into a set of business protocols. Rather, in their corporate body, they attempted to dissolve the structural limits of architecture and its practice.

This wet and wild undoing of architectural subjectivity also extended to the disputed content of their domain: they embraced “merely mere” forms of architectural action through the expansion of ornament and in “minor” interior interventions. Exhibitions became an important vehicle for their work, and in the context of the gallery, their body-minded architectural gestures urged new intimacies between subjects and objects of design. The women of Liquid Inc embraced architecture in all its material possibility, privileging matter over concept while suffering no loss of the latter. It was the slippery stuff of architecture—plumbing and plaster and drapery—that attracted them. Inside wet walls and in newly conceived intimate spaces, they confronted the gendered dis-position of materials coded as feminine, inessential, unsightly, or excessive. Embracing Lilly Reich and Bruce Goff at the expense of Mies and Loos, they proceeded to indulge dissolution against canonization.

Landesberg and Quatrale formed Liquid Inc in the prescriptive disciplinary space of Yale, where they partnered as graduate students; they had both lost their mothers and grew closer around Amy’s young daughter. To the discomfort of some faculty and their peers, they banded together to elucidate a more fluid space of operation. Their (il)legitimate entity was formalized in their collaborative final project at Yale: see angel touch, a close examination of the cornice of angels on Louis Sullivan’s Bayard Building, as documented in the now twenty-year-old Architecture and Feminism anthology. Literally scanning Sullivan’s once-molten terracotta, a myopic view of thickened ornamental space, they found something they desired, “a superstitious space” in the company of angels.

After graduation, Landesberg and Quatrale went on to identify other opportunities for intervention in the marginal spaces of practice and in architecture’s marginal elements: cornices, door thresholds, modesty screens, weeping sections, expanding joints, collars for columns, desks for makeup and making up architecture, and other “incident[s] of furnishing in the unstable space.” These excesses, so called in their 1996 exhibition, were the superfluous matter arranged to loosely structure promiscuous relations between space, surface, and body. In Marilyn Kiang’s Atlanta gallery (“you know who she is”) and the private space of her office-cum-boudoir, excessive architectures take on subjective qualities, lives, ambitions, and ulterior motives of their own. Plexiglass is allowed to sink under its own gravity, and thresholds are outfitted with rubber gaskets and peacock feathers to catch passing bodies in an embrace. Their “modesty screen” reveals the body in its drawn and built states; it seems to sense, rather than simply show, what’s concealed. These exhibited designs anticipated other kinds of spatial occupations and perhaps also the unexpected content of one’s psyche, newly attuned to fluid spaces and fluid movements through them—a kind of derive in close quarters, over linoleum eskimo-kissed with eyelashes, toward a door that holds you like a keepsake.

But these were gestures with precise vocabularies. The deliberate use of text laminated into drawings and repeated in unison at lectures qualified the work and also their roles in producing it. Landesberg narrates a house—Adam’s Eye—to her daughter, and her reflections are incorporated into the narrative of the project as it’s published in ANY (No. 4, 1994). Drawings are text, annotations are structural. The scanned image performs as drawing, where section cuts open into photographs and technical details “present themselves as image,” as if of their own accord. They drew exclusively with ink on mylar, liquid on a surface that is translucent, but also reflective; it returns a gaze. Seeing these details “too close,” myopically, subverted a vision of architecture as necessarily whole, as in the humanistic tradition, and those details are recognized at points of vulnerability and instability.

In instances of building, which largely occured in the context of the gallery, they were also deliberate in their denial of structural efficiencies. Rather than performing the virtue of support, architectural objects are themselves held in a subjective embrace: there, a column is relieved of its duties and is instead held up by “a tight squeeze.” The same structural figure appears on mylar as a column of text, lived out through its own second-hand narrative. In the drawing, speculations about the columns’ gender question its classical applications: “they are usually girls, that is when ordered, well this one is pretty disorderly.”

Liquid Inc’s promiscuous architecture doesn’t reproduce feminine metaphors but instead exploits weaknesses in a discipline and profession so reliant on its preferences for masculine performance.

Their labor of dissolution did not arrive at the point of conversion where critical work yields to the compromising positions taken to forge a sustainable architectural enterprise. That is to say, their “unfirm” did not survive in Atlanta, where they worked and taught. Excluded from the arena of profit-making architecture even as they reproduced its corporate guise, Landesberg and Quatrale practiced a kind of poetry against what they saw as a violent hegemony enacted in diffuse ways throughout the making of architecture.

What kind of practice are we? Illegitimate daughters illegitimately claiming paternity. Promiscuous daughters with multiple fathers. Seeking fathers—an inevitable course in the process of architectural re-generation. Such a paternalistic discipline. Should we kill them like our modernist fathers do? Or try to fill their shoes like our classical fathers do? How do daughters claim an inheritance? Where for god’s sake are our mothers?

But in moments of solubility, at the edges of the discipline, where ornament stretches into space, where the wetness is made to spill into dry zones, a liquid practice found expression.

Noel Phyllis Birkby

Stephanie Schroeder

“It appears that if you were a man, you should be studying architecture.”

With that dismissal, in 1948 Noel Phyllis Birkby’s suburban New Jersey high school career counselors crushed her aspirations. Based on their rigid notions of gender, they shunted her desire to build, guiding her into the more “feminine” study of art despite her aptitude for and interest in architectural and environmental design. Birkby’s career in architecture was almost derailed even before it began. When Birkby returned to New York City in the early 1950s after spending one year at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, she had a serendipitous encounter with a female architect who inspired her to pursue the profession.

She enrolled in Cooper Union’s architecture program in 1959, and for the next five years studied architecture at night while working in administrative positions in the offices of the architects Henry L. Horowitz and Seth Hiller. She earned her certificate in architecture in 1963 and completed a Masters in Architecture in 1966 at Yale, where she was one of only six women in a class of 200. At that time, there were about 1,500 registered female architects and roughly 35,000 male practitioners in the United States. Although Birkby’s entry into the world of architecture was delayed, she quickly made a name for herself as a visionary.

Birkby worked as a senior designer at Davis Brody and Associates from 1966 until 1972, when she opened her own practice. While at Davis Brody, she designed the Waterside Plaza that sits along the Hudson River in Manhattan and the Long Island University Library Learning Center in downtown Brooklyn. She described the latter as “designed more as a fabric than as a building.”

Waterside Plaza, New York, 1974, Davis Brody & Associates

Waterside Plaza, New York, 1974, Davis Brody & Associates

Long Island University Library Learning Center, Brooklyn, 1975, Davis Brody & Associates.

Long Island University Library Learning Center, Brooklyn, 1975, Davis Brody & Associates.

The metaphor of weaving and knitting appears repeatedly in Birkby’s writings. It is not a coincidence that knitting and weaving are considered “women’s work” and therefore seen as ornamental or extraneous to architectural design. Women’s ideas for and concerns about the built environment are often considered irrelevant or unimportant by many architects, regardless of their gender. Once admitted to the field, Birkby continued to resist conforming to architecture’s masculine norms.

Birkby conceived of a gendered analysis of the built environment during the height of the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s. She moved in circles with prominent feminists of the time. Along with Kate Millett, Barbara Love, Sydney Abbott, and other high-profile feminist activists, she took part in CR One, the earliest consciousness-raising group in New York City, which helped women more fully understand the systemic oppression and everyday sexism they encountered

Redefining and expanding environmental parameters was of the utmost concern to Birkby. Her research, teachings, and writings investigate the origin of design itself. What environments would women create, and how would women organize those environments if they had carte blanche to do so?

Design for and by women would be Birkby’s lifelong pursuit. “This ongoing project evolved from my participation in the design of a women’s commune in New England. Questions of appropriate forms, spaces and symbols were raised and we asked each other if women have unique sensibilities that they bring to the process of designing their own environments,” Birkby wrote in her notes for an article on the topic of women and the built environment. She indicated that this question had also recently been raised among design professionals in terms of “Do women design differently than men?” She concluded that whether or not they do, architectural education conditioned women to confine themselves to “male-defined processes in a male-dominated atmosphere and are apt to become male-identified in their approach to design problems.”

Photograph from a workshop at the Women’s School of Architecture + Planning, where Birkby integrated the fantasy workshops into the school’s curriculum. Work from an Environmental Fantasy Workshop. From the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections.

Photograph from a workshop at the Women’s School of Architecture + Planning, where Birkby integrated the fantasy workshops into the school’s curriculum. Work from an Environmental Fantasy Workshop. From the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections.

Participants in Birkby’s environmental fantasy workshops in the mid-1970s were asked to imagine their ideal living environments by abandoning all constraints and preconceptions. The workshops consisted of sharing and recording women’s fantasies, in drawn form, about how they wanted to live, eat, sleep, work, make love, make friends, spend time alone, learn, walk, garden, relax, think, and be. Birkby held her program of environmental fantasy workshops with women of diverse backgrounds. Deb Edel, a cofounder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, remembers attending an environmental fantasy workshop spanning several days in Birbky’s home sometime in the late ’70s: “About five or six women were in attendance and we discussed how we wanted to use (and reuse) the space in which we were currently living.” According to Edel, “Birkby tried to get across why we don’t have to hold space in traditional ways or in ways designed by men for us.”

An original outline of the Women’s Environmental Fantasies curriculum indicates those who would be participating were “older women, housewives, female kids, nuns, career women, lesbians, straights, writers, painters, doctors, secretaries, factory workers, mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmas.” The next section of the syllabus asks why these women’s ideas and opinions were important. The answer was, in short, “Because no one ever asked us.”

In another outline for the Women’s Environmental Fantasies workshop, Birkby indicates fantasy was also used as a consciousness-raising technique to address architectural education. “Not only is fantasy the beginning of creativity, but fantasy expression has been found useful by psychologists in helping people get in touch with their own experience, a problem we find relevant to the education of women architects,” she wrote. Her investigation into women’s environmental fantasies found a “striking aspect of many projections for the desire for expansive spaces very often combined with options for total privacy. The free choice of isolation is something many women have been denied.” Birkby used tools ranging from speculative renderings drawn by women to broad discussions of alternatives to traditional uses for and organization of space to interrogate the traditional foundational aspects of architecture.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Birkby also cobbled together a modest income through design commissions and teaching at a number of colleges and universities. Yet as the boom years of the 1980s turned into the conservative ’90s, Birkby, outspoken and unorthodox, wasn’t getting much work. She picked up one-off jobs through word of mouth within the lesbian-feminist community.

Work from an Environmental Fantasy Workshop. From the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections.

Work from an Environmental Fantasy Workshop. From the Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections.

In 1992 Birkby began spending more time at her summer home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The heady days of meaningful work and feminist activism had long passed. The AIDS crisis gripped the nation, and the continuing inaction of the US government around this epidemic engendered righteous anger and spawned massive protests within the LGBT community. Architecture and design were on the back burner as much lesbian activism, at least in NYC, focused on activity related to the devastation of the gay male population resulting from HIV.

Birkby died from breast cancer at sixty-one in 1994 in hospice at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. During her final months she was surrounded by her chosen family of friends and comrades. The late Sydney Abbott was the only person present when Birkby passed.

In 1997, the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College celebrated Birkby’s work in the exhibition Amazonian Activity: The Life and Work of Noel Phyllis Birkby, 1932-94. Attendees included Kate Millett, Sydney Abbott, and other lesbian-feminist activists who wanted to honor this radical American architect and activist who moved the profession forward by challenging its assumptions and rattling its underpinnings.


Sources: Material for this article was found in the Noel Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA; The Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, NY; and Bertoli, Alberto and Phyllis Birkby. January 01, 1980. “Alberto Bertoli And Phyllis Birkby.” In SCI-Arc Media Archive. Southern California Institute of Architecture. http://sma.sciarc.edu/video/alberto-bertoli-and-noel-phyllis-birkby/.

Stephanie Schroeder is a New York City-based writer and activist with special interest in feminism(s), mental health, LGBTQ issues, design, creativity, and alternative economies. She is coeditor of HEADCASE: LGBTQ Writers & Artists on Mental Health and Wellness, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. www.stephanieschroederauthor.com