When the architect Le Corbusier developed “Le Modulor” in the 1940s, he had a handsome British law enforcement officer in mind. His system of proportions geared towards humans shaped the entire post-war world. It dictated everything from the height of a door handle to the size of a staircase. Always aimed at making things as comfortable as possible for the ideal type of one-meter-eighty man. His influence extended to the design of the streets, which were based on the size and needs of the car with which our imaginary hero drove to work. As a native Swiss who worked in Paris, Le Corbusier initially considered 1.75 meters as a measure, based on the average height of a French person. But then he decided on a good six feet: “In English detective novels,” he later explained his change of heart, “the handsome men, like the police, are always six feet tall!”
For the dashing man Le Corbusier sketched with strong calves, narrow waist, broad shoulders and a huge lobster claw as a raised hand, this may have created a dynamic world. But this modernist worldview did not consider women any more than children, elderly or disabled people – strictly speaking, no one who did not correspond to the statuesque ideal.
City as an obstacle course
In the 1980s, a few women had had enough. After decades of struggling with children’s and shopping carts, navigating through dark underpasses, unlit alleys and labyrinthine subway systems in the urban obstacle course, mostly created by men, it was time for a different approach. “Through lived experiences,” wrote the feminist design cooperative Matrix in its 1981 manifesto, “women have a different perspective on their surroundings than the men who created them. Because there is no such thing as a ‘female tradition’ in building architecture, we want to explore the new possibilities that recent changes have opened up in the lives and expectations of women. ”40 years later and 27 years after the group broke up, a Area of London’s Barbican Arts Center dedicated to the Matrix Cooperative. An experimental room in the foyer, accessible to everyone who is there or waiting. Following the recent vigil for Sarah Everard, whose killing in the UK sparked thought about women’s safety across the country, and the Black Lives Matter protests for social and spatial justice, the timing of the exhibition could hardly be more appropriate.
A film from the Birmingham Film and Video Workshop will be shown under the title How We Live Now, which was broadcast on British television channel Channel 4 in 1988. It documents the experience of women making their way through Paradise Circus, a residential area in the post-war city center of Birmingham, conceived as an island in a roundabout, surrounded by a ring road and accessed through underpasses, stairs and elevated paths. A Daily Telegraph reviewer had expected “something amateurish, boring full of wacky left-wing women.” Instead, he was fascinated by the common sense presented, which reveals the negative sides of urban planning in which the car dominates. The makers of the film “do not assume any conscious discrimination”, he said, “but simply the inability of male architects to imagine what women really do and need in buildings”.
Save money with Thatcher
An example of this is shown in another part of the exhibition: the Essex women’s shelter. The complex, designed by an architect, suffers from some fundamentally incorrect planning: from the much too small communal kitchen to the play areas for the children, which are spatially separated from the main communal rooms. With no visual or acoustic connection, so that it is impossible to keep an eye on the children. In 1992, Matrix began redesigning the women’s center. The cooperative proceeded as it was the rule: They presented the women with large cardboard models of different rooms that they could rearrange in order to try out different constellations. There was also a measuring tape with which they could measure the existing premises of the women’s shelter and compare it with the plans.
“All simple techniques,” comments Matrix co-founder Jos Boys, who curated the exhibition together with Jon Astbury from the Barbican. “But they made the women feel like they were involved in designing the project. An important aspect of the whole thing was to make the language and practice of architecture more transparent and accessible for laypeople. “
Boys describes something that sounds almost unimaginable today. Community action, participatory planning, squatting, workers’ cooperatives and technical support centers, a heyday when public money was abundant. Much of Matrix’s work was funded by the Greater London Council, chaired by left-wing politician and later London Mayor Ken Livingstone. In 1986, then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher abolished the Council.
One of the Matrix projects was the groundbreaking Jagonari Educational Resource Center, an educational center in the eastern London borough of Whitechapel. Matrix worked for a group of South Asian women – and with them. The cooperative gave workshops with models that could be dismantled and asked women to bring photos of buildings from their countries of origin that they liked. And she organized a “brick picnic” walk to find out which building materials and colors would be favored by future users.
The education center, which was completed in 1987 and now houses a day-care center, integrated numerous Asian influences that deliberately have no connection with Hindu or Islamic symbolism. This included decorative metal grilles over the windows. Visually interesting, they also offered security. Mosaic patterns around the doors, squat toilets and for the cookware after meals together, sit-in sinks for cleaning large pots – all parts of the building are also wheelchair accessible, a rarity at that time.
“They understood exactly what we needed without patronizing or judging,” wrote customer Soma Ahmed three decades later in an ardent homage to Matrix. The occasion was the support of an (ultimately unsuccessful) application for a retrospective award of the RIBA gold medal for architecture. “We said what we needed in the building: protection, security and childcare that took into account the cultural and religious needs of women and at the same time dispelled some myths, especially about Muslim women. You were exactly the right contact person for this. “
What exactly is feminist architecture? That was a question Matrix was sometimes asked. How is a city designed and built by women different from others? From Boys’ point of view, that doesn’t matter. The cooperative did not propagate a feminist aesthetic, but a certain way of looking, listening, planning and designing that takes into account the very different needs and desires of people, one that embodies “the richness of our diverse ways of life in the world”. It is also about who is able to build this world. A large part of Matrix’s work was publications, instructions and events on professions, training and further education paths in the construction industry. The members of the cooperative, the number of which varied between twelve and 16, all received the same salary. As public sector funding ran out, the model became less and less viable. The Matrix members turned to other things – from science to running restaurants to opening their own architectural offices. But their brief sparkling moment should inspire future generations. In the past few years in particular, the work of this cooperative has been rediscovered. The demand is so great that Matrix’s landmark 1984 book, long out of print, Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment, is being reissued this year.
The last section of the exhibition at the Barbican presents architects, artists and filmmakers who carry on the spirit of the collectives, such as the 1989 born artist Winnie Herbstein, who works in Glasgow. In her film installation Studwork (Fachwerk) from 2018, she smashes stereotypes about gender roles in manual activities with the wrecking ball. Socio-politically motivated works by architecture firms such as Muf and Public Works, lobby groups such as Part W and Black Females in Architecture and the feminist design collective Edit, which is responsible for the clever structure of the exhibition, will also be shown. Even if there are no longer any full money pots from the public purse, ways are shown here to create space for excluded, marginalized voices.
In Matrix ‘words: “Consciously or unconsciously, designers or planners work within the framework of the ideas of how society works, who or what is valued, who does what and who is moving where.” The question is: who will included, whose values are prioritized and what kind of world do we want to create?
The exhibition How We Live Now can be seen until December 23 at the Barbican Arts Center in London