Sunday, 30 November 2014

The 'body' of Architecture

Being a vocal feminist and an architecture graduate, I have always been interested in our society's obsession with architecture that manifests itself in the form of human genitals. From the Gherkin to the Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers, phallic references never cease to be present and I have to come to the understanding that some of the fundamentals of our architectural influences must be derived from our awareness of ourselves and the body in which we occupy. The Ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated phallic festivals where they constructed penis-like shrines to Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, and many ancient cultures in the Far East also celebrated the phallus as a symbol of fertility. Thousands of years later in the present day, we celebrate the penis again through the erection of skyscrapers that dominate our cityscapes. In the voice of feminist theory, high rise towers embody the symbols of male authority, power and the extension of man's ego. Anthropomorphism, in terms of the phallic, is the evidence of a male dominated society. 

The relevance of this topic to me stems from the fact that having completed a 10000 word dissertation on the perception of the female architect and having established my thoughts on the patriarchal framing of architecture,  I have found myself a year later in an architecture practice, working on a skyscraper project, that looks exactly like a penis (balls and everything...!). Oh the irony..! The project having started out as a low rise proposal has gradually escalated in size through the developer's wishes of wanting more and more square metres; his eyes squealing in delight every time our sketch models increase in area. My female colleagues and I have been giggling about this, especially when I attempted to colour the shape in a light-orange-flesh like tone when producing a diagram (ended up having to change the colour to blue to minimise resemblance!).  

But in all seriousness, if skyscrapers are a reflection of masculine power, what buildings embody the symbols of female power? I didn't want to stereotype or mention Zaha Hadid's Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar -aka the 'Vagina,' but can we define buildings as being 'masculine' or 'feminine'? I read an interesting quote last year that said, 'cultures that revere the feminine principal and treat women as equals produces built forms related to the morphology of the female body' [J.Rendell in Gender, Space, Architecture], which seems to suggest and stereotype that buildings with curvaceous and womb like qualities are produced in more gender equal societies. However, looking at the fact that the vagina stadium is in Qatar and Middle Eastern countries are famous for their repression of women, presents this statement to be quite false. So, when will architecture stop being a man's world? Will it be when more women reach the top? When the balance between the genders is not 21% female to 79% Male (statistics for RIBA membership that is)? Or conversely, do we need to stop attributing the penis to the skyscraper and accept that in the modern world, where ground space is a becoming a problem for exploding cities, that towers are in fact an ideal form for the development and progression of our society? 

New York City : (found on

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