MAKING A DIFFERENCE: WOMEN OF ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN IN THE MIDDLE EAST
As a topic women in architecture can ask for trouble. Thereis potentially something awkward, uncomfortable, even gauche about this parsing of territories, claim to identities, gathering of communities, separating kinds. At a time when the world has found richness in the differences that all kinds of communities have discovered within their own fabric, within their own minds and kinds; when feminine and masculine are recognized to be described in tendencies rather than absolutes, when in architecture boundaries that designate who performs where or describe how design belongs, are more eroded with designers, builders, technologies and workforce moving more fluidly than ever; when the global exchange of goods and services have reached a more dynamic pattern of shifts; and when computer technology has made design process less singular and forms more hybrid, one may wonder if it is really productive to be thinking about such separations? Despite these reservations on the topic my positive response to the invitation to guest-edit this issue of 2A magazine on women and architecture came with thinking about the particularities of the situation. That I suggested it to be particular to the Middle East region rather than general is part of the premise of this issue. Despite the fact that this publication has in the past reported on significant developments in world architecture and art, our direction for this issue has been to address the topic of women in architecture in relation to the architecture and design in the Middle East region in order to call out those of us- women architects urbanists, landscape architects, theoretical thinkers, designers and practitioners in the field- with different degrees of connections with the Middle East region and to report on the goings on of our activities at this time.
While we recognize the strong global forces operative in the architectural design and practice, the significance of the region we believe merits attention to map the particular dynamics, localities and patterns it produces within its own social, educational and professional fabric of what we can call the architectural field. In a region where the politics and social structures around women’s work, their social practices and rights seem to be fraught with limitations and in instances even to be prohibitive of their educational and professional activities, what would it mean to look at their professional work in the field and consider their voices resonant in their artistic and architectural practices? Which patterns of practice in education and work, in attitudes towards design, technology or business, either personal or professional, would this gathering of work reveal to be specific to the region? Might it reinforce or challenge the impressions, assumptions, cultural biases often associated with women and in this cultural location? Assumptions for instance that women ‘do design but not building’, ‘do style not technology’, ‘do more academy than practice’, ‘do partnership rather than on their own’ are strong. It may be worthwhile to bring into conversation what may be the reasons behind such myths or facts. There is a hope that it would be possible to shift the discussion to cultural politics around women’s work in architecture along with identifying the its cultural habits and institutions? This issue is but a first step in gathering some representative facts.
The significance of focus on the region would also be to discover some of these patterns and activities in what the diverse communities of the region share despite their differences and in ways they differ despite their shared cultures in their social mores, cultural histories or geography. When the effect of cultural habits set by Islam for example- be it Sunni or Shiia – contiguous with other faiths, Christians, Jewish, Zoroastrians, in different countries of the region do indeed imply fundamentally different attitudes towards the education, profession, private or public roles and responsibilities of women in the family and the society, can we ask how the region may find alternative productive dialogues around women’s positions in the profession with their role in the family and the society?
Differences in the work of women practicing in architecture and design in the region are significant despite the social stricture, or historically perceived cultural boundaries affecting their education or practice. Some paradoxes may have been productive. For example women’s engagement with architecture and the arts in contemporary Iran is significant yet limited. We are told in Iran some 60% of all university students studying architecture are women. Here women take higher education seriously and the family and society encourages and supports their education. Their acceptance into many schools of architecture and fine arts in the country which have highly competitive entrance examinations along with strong graduating results have made women a potentially strong force in the subject nationally.
Despite limited direct contact with international professional events in architecture and arts, still many choose to continue to study and practice abroad and have made significant contribution to the academy and professional bodies of art and design outside the country. Yet the proportion drops drastically in the professional women’s continued work in the country whether in practice or in the academy. It is critical to ask what are the operative reasons affecting such a drop for the architectural profession’s share which in effect looses a strong half of its well equipped work force and its specific talent.
Many professional women represented here in the arts and architecture in Turkey, Iraq or Lebanon or Iran have made important contribution to the field despite primary differences in their institutional, political and social structures. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Morocco have had their share of important women architects and artists, historians, planners, conservation or landscape architects. The list of contributors to this issue is by no means comprehensive but distinct. This is a sample group of women architects and designers from these countries whose involvement in the profession is highly significant often in relation to the discourses of world architecture. Many teachers and practitioners have found their opportunity for professional work abroad. We have also begun to see women students of architecture from Yemen, Saudi and Kuwait finding their opportunities in continued education elsewhere. Some have begun work in the Emirates and Abu Dhabi as well as the West. The trajectories of their movement for study, practice or residence is often a crisscrossing across continents. The map of their movement is by definition a cosmopolitan force of exchange within the field. Though the movement may be often be class based and enabled by economic privilege, the promise may be that the presence of these women will not only have a strong impact in the home countries and contribute more substantially to the discourses and practices of architecture and the arts within but will reframe cultural understanding of regionally specific point of view abroad.
The contribution of those working in the West or outside the region also has been significant in bringing the regionally related issues to bear on the discourses current beyond its borders and affect global discourses in the field of architecture in more informed and positive ways. Globally, issues of gender roles and feminine sensibilities affecting normative male dominated professions of architecture have yet to be comprehensively addressed yet we believe recognition of their presence and contribution especially in this region may be a useful example of their paradoxical roles relative to this region and measure of their achievements despite the odds.
This issue represents a group of significant work from globally renowned women architects and academics as well as many talented women of a younger generation who lead their practice either alone or along with partners. In our selection criteria their connection to the Middle East has been either through their origin, education, place of practice or simply the choice of the region as a topic of research. The work of Zaha Hadid, Farshid Moussavi, Amale Andros, Nasrine Seraji, Ana Heringer, represent a wide range of trajectories spanning major international practices, award winning projects and younger generation of critically minded, talented women practicing in architecture, theory and design.
A number of academic women architects engaged in theoretical research, are also represented here by their critical writings on issues concerned with urbanism, territorial descriptions, spatial geographies and technological economies focused from the studies on the Middle East region. Keller Easterling, Lindsey Bremner, Mona ElKhafif, each consider the socio economic machinery behind the regional design as a case for theoretical research with wider implications beyond the specificity of the region.
Keller Easterling’s QIZ and Lindsey Bremner: Folded Ocean critically examine sites of global trade where historic and new spatial geographies are created. Both point to political configurations which organisational structure of QIZ or politico geographic structure of Indian Ocean can produce. Women’s position in one is a literal outcome of the spatial/economic casts and in the other is a geographic space refocusing regionality as a reorganization of the border, rearrangement of communities and geographic trajectories of their migrating feminized casts. Mona ElKhafif’s Staged Urbanism as well as my essay on the Counterspaces of Islamic Modernity consider alternative models of urban configurations which by chance or design engage the city in the production of unpredictable social formations and political events. The feminine may be said to perform here through what Luce Irrigaray called out as the Terrain Vague of an unstable subjectivity operating through material space of potentialities and previledging processes of cou nterdesign affecting spatial formations in the city.
This issue includes project and built work in design and as well as theoretical texts concerning expanded field of architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism and art/ design of site installations. Concurrently participants were asked to respond to a set of questions posed by me around the issue of women’s practice in the field and the region.
Their written responses have been included inside the pages.
We have included short biographic information which maps the trajectory of women’s movement for education or professional practice in and outside the region. The map is a trace of their marked worldliness and cosmopolitanism forcefully apparent in their work and is a refreshing sign of their commitment to the geographies beyond their origin or immediate surroundings.
To include the voice of the younger generation, some women students and recent graduates in architecture and urban design where invited in a session held at the GSD at Harvard University to respond to my questions. Selection of their responses from the session is also recorded in the magazine. Though for many in the younger generation their experience of the Middle East is through their families and discovered as second generation of immigrants or expats living abroad, their rediscovery and interest in the specific potentials and problems of the Middle East promises a new returned perspective on the region and issues at hand.
In a profession that is primarily male dominated and a region with often restrictive social expectations in the family and the society especially in regards to women’s professional role, architectural profession finds its own share of distinct barriers. Beyond design talent and academic intelligence, women’s spheres or work in architecture is still limited.
Construction fields remain a challenge for their acceptance of women in positions of authority in the region. Yet for each of these women to have reached such positions has involved not only great talent, hard work and particular dedication but a determination to swim against the flow and persist against the odds. They are evidence of perhaps what Michel Foucault described as relations of power where domination is not simply cast but has dynamics that can be challenged. Finally it has been striking to find the breadth of differences that this group of women professionals actually produce in their work. That their world is able to bring the home and profession, the region and its outsides in a dynamic contiguity effectively promises a region of cosmopolitan difference within.
Indeed one may ask in what if any sense the work of these women can be seen to be different from men professionals. Though a clear answer may not come quick, it is worth remembering the specific efforts which has enabled their achievements. Now a woman- now a man, now a middle eastern – now a westerner, now a professional – now a mother, or wife, in operations of work and everyday life is a familiar pattern of blinking split decisions in the manner described by Janet E Halley. When the work itself creates this challenge in the body of its architecture between academy and the profession or in the processes of its formation, this dialogic belonging noticeable in the work collected here brings the women and the region to construct a cosmopolitan difference within the discipline. Though the work may look less different from men, yet more difference is brought within it and the profession by the way the women have arrived at it, with multiplied identities in and out of the region, in dialogic belongings to the profession and its outsides. As such it promises a contradictory richness and complexity of belonging, an added soul, as Anthony Appiah puts it, that can make a big difference for the region and for the larger field of architecture.
Published in 2A Magazine Issue 15 & 16 Autumn 2010, Winter 2011