A/D/O by MINI | Making Space For Protest: Feminist Architecture…

Making Space For Protest: Feminist Architecture Collaborative

An interview with Virginia Black, Rosana Elkhatib, and Gabrielle Printz

Feminist architecture collaborative (f-architecture) is a research office based in Brooklyn, focused on creating new forms of architectural work through activism, critique and spatial intervention. Founders Virginia Black, Rosana Elkhatib and Gabrielle Printz describe themselves as working through “architecture and its refusal,” and expanding the definition of designer. Political by mandate, their work is interested in how bodies interact with space, and how the politics of space influence those bodies. This unfailingly results in projects that are in protest in one form or another.

Since they met in grad-school and then as residents at the New Inc Incubator, they have worked together on charged projects such as Expanding Salomé; which redresses the famous play and opera through a feminist lens, using responsive staging and modes of performance informed by their collaborator, the mezzo-soprano and aerlalist Nikola Printz; or Representative Bodies; which gave voice to the women of AMUPAKIN at the UN Habitat III Conference in Quito through peaceful protest. The latter example illustrates the relevance of their work: critique and agency are crucial to their practice and allow it to be both grounded in academic research and very public current events.

On top of directly political interests, at a moment in time where designers are often expected to produce at faster and faster rates, establishing a collaborative aimed at slow making and exploring process is protest in itself. Printz explains, "To address something complex, with implications that are not just spatial, but political, material, cultural and economic is our main ambition. We try to represent those layered and often obscured conditions in a way that they can be approached thoughtfully and opened to intervention." Challenging, self-reflective and critical, Black, Elkhatib and Printz are constantly working towards a complex framework for their research that can respond to its changing context.

We met on the lower east side to talk about the critique of design labor; modes of exhibition; design of the body; and who really has access to any of it.

As an introduction, can you talk a bit about the language you use to define your practice?

Gabrielle Printz: In a literal sense we’re interested in protest. [When we started working together] we were looking for ways to make a project out of a space for protest or the occasion of protest, recognizing that it’s something that requires not just space, but logistics, resources and permitting. Occupy elicited all this reflection on POPs [“Privately Owned Public Space,” the city zoning the requires certain privately owned spaces to be accessible and usable by the public], but architects and theorists have been less prepared to examine the site and methods [of] protest in a way that might enable it.

I think in a more practical way, it also has a lot to do with the way we work and our identification as architects. In a lot of instances, we feel that building is not a solution to a spatial problem. There’s that critique, but then we are also not licensed to build in any way, so we use the title to operate in kind of counter-architecture ways.

What gap in the field do you see your practice as filling? How can a feminist approach be applied to more mainstream architecture?

Gabrielle Printz: The profession’s feminism is tied up in issues of pay equity, representation and, more recently, finally, harassment. Those are urgent and fundamental goals to address in tackling the inequity faced by women, women and men of color, non-binary people, and all those others who don't benefit from the vast overrepresentation of cis-het white men in practice. But there are far fewer opportunities to do explicitly feminist projects or research.

Virginia Black: We need to be careful to critically examine the women we support. We cannot continue to make the assumption that because a principal is a woman, she deserves praise. We need more mechanisms to prevent exploitation of power, which can come from men or women if they have the opportunity.  This reminds me of a phrase carved onto a bench at Barnard: “Abuse of power will come.”  [...] The elevation of a figure based on their identity, their intellect, even their feminist stances, does not promise idyllic leadership removed from the abuses of patriarchy, but may help to paper over abuses. Feminist practice needs to open up space for care against abuse, but also space to address our heroes critically.

I am curious to hear your thoughts on architectural exhibition outside of your own projects: how do you see the future of more traditional modes of design exhibition? Biennials, for example. Do you see these as a setting conducive to criticality in the field?

Gabrielle Printz: The biennale circuit, for all its issues (see: compli.city), has an incredible capacity to support research and commission work that otherwise couldn’t exist. It’s probably so cynical to talk about it like a funding mechanism, but that’s the primary offering. And that’s why curators are in especially important positions right now, to produce a platform that doesn’t look so blindly back at architecture’s own history, or a slate of issues that architects feel they can simply observe and are not bound up in (thinking of Aravena’s faraway fronts). There have been a handful of very provocative exhibitions in recent years—After Belonging in Oslo, Superhumanity in Istanbul—that have elicited exciting work that resonates far beyond the immediate elements of architecture.

Along these lines, are there new formats of presentation that you see becoming more influential in the future?

Gabrielle Printz: I can say the inflatable chair [an object that will be included in the upcoming Prague exhibition] is ~more future~ than a model on a plinth, but format is so much a function of the thing you are trying to see. Multiplying the frames through which you can have a discourse or present a concept or a history or future opens up points of access to that conversation. A book, a website, an immersive experience will allow you to see something in a particular way, but we have to think of format as something designed in relation to its content or its methods. We might say that we need more space for the ethnographic, but are not going to tell you that the future of the architecture exhibition is VR.

Virginia Black: Agreed, but one of architecture’s central issues is that its primary methods erase individual voice and presence. There are many methods to re-inscribe individual or collective bodies, rather than through the abstraction of identity, in architectural representation, that I feel any “progressive” architecture has to contend with.

Working as a team, can you describe your process of creating? For example, how do you generally begin a new project?

Gabrielle Printz:  I feel like each project starts as a spin off from something else. A reaction to something that infuriates us or a joke that we take too seriously. Or something that seems impossible to manifest, but we start to write about it like it’s happening, and that catalyzes its reality as a project that we then doggedly chase into some object form in the world.

Also, just trying to get money for things forces us to describe and reassess our interests over and over again. So much project text came into being just because we had to do a giant grant application to try to make something happen.

How has your project, Post Fordist Hymen Factory evolved, post-grad school and post-incubator?

Gabrielle Printz: Up to that point, we had done a lot of writing and a lot of field work, obsessed with this thing that already exists in the world, which is the artificial hymen. We were super interested in it as an object of design, but one that is so consequential to a certain body and in certain cultural contexts [The Post Fordist Hymen Factory aims to protest cultural ideas surrounding virginity and femininity by critiquing the practice of hymenoplasty around the world, and the interiors in which it happens. Through VR, physical objects, renders, and gifs, they design probes to examine cultural ideals and politics in order to reframe them.]

We won an open call to do an exhibition at a gallery in Prague, and that will be a pretty direct document of our research and field work in Beirut—a Middle East center for medical tourism—where we visited a number of the plastic surgery clinics that offer hymenoplasty. We mapped those spaces and noted their furnishings and finishes as part of an aesthetic regime that also props up the making of an ideal body. These are now translated as components of this exhibition. We plan to remake these clinical spaces, as scenes which will also host critical hymen objects: an artificial hymen that you apply as a perfume; a chair that functions as a viewing device for self-examination; and a rug that helps to perform the evidence of the ruptured hymen. We will have a VR experience as a way of navigating the clinic landscape, and are also collaborating with a podcast based in Jordan called Sowt to contribute to the soundscape.

Virginia Black: The idea is that you would spend some time in the chair, look in the mirror, and then adorn yourself with the VR headset, which is where we hope to incorporate audio narratives from the podcast. One of the biggest challenges of the project is trying to speak directly with women who have experienced this, because it's obviously something that's incredibly difficult or risky to talk about.

Rosana Elkhatib: These narratives should really allow for a more emotional experience where the audience is inside the thoughts of these women, and can have a more direct experience of what they went through. Hearing these from the chair will allow a visitor to really connect to the spaces [we are recreating], where access is delimited by class, gender, or location.

The opportunity to use such a range of modes of representation in this exhibit seems crucial: VR, the immersive clinical space, audio, text.               

Virginia Black: One of the things we were really interested in from the beginning of the project is how to illustrate choice through architectural representation methods. Examining all the forces that act on the body of a woman and how she perceives her need or desire to engage with them is so incredibly complex, and difficult to communicate in any one discipline or medium. I think that’s what I find to be exciting about this project, and particularly bringing in the audio narratives will be really powerful: I think those will be something that a lot of women will be able to relate to, and it will make the specific experience in question translatable.

And we’ve definitely discussed making components available outside the exhibit as well: the VR should be available on our website, and the recorded narratives will hopefully be broadcast. So some components have the potential to take on other lives like this as well outside the designed exhibition space.

The VR is so strange in particular because of some of the exteriors of these buildings. There’s one that’s incredibly modernist, and looks so basic from the exterior, and then you get into the interior and everything is suddenly much more exuberant and so specifically addressed to the womanly body. That contrast of having this feminine space within a modernist office tower is really interesting to me.

Gabrielle Printz: All of these clinic spaces are pretty intensely femme spaces, and are these concealed interiors in which only women can congregate. Like a parlor, but nobody really speaks to one another.

Virginia Black: And to get access to this, you usually have to navigate the space in very clandestine ways. There aren’t really exterior signs that you are in the right place. This is one thing that the VR is trying to channel, is this feeling of anticipation. Having to anticipate where you can and cannot enter or how you might communicate some desire that you don't want to be known, but that you need to get across in order to be admitted.

You describe your projects as locating "new forms of architectural work through critical relationships with collaborators across continents." Who or what might you be interested in collaborating with, as your practice evolves and grows?

Gabrielle Printz: We’d love to maintain and grow our relationships, particularly with AMUPAKIN and Nikola. But also we’d love to collaborate with reproductive justice organizations in the US and elsewhere. The clinic is an architecture that we’re especially invested in at the moment, and we’d love to work with organizations currently defending access to spaces and procedures that are facing new challenges in 2018.

Text by Emma Macdonald

Images courtesy f-architecture