No They’re There

Posted on Oct 10, 2016 in design, teaching | No Comments

One of my personal privileges is that I meet a lot of young adults who are still very much in the process of forming their opinions about things, usually without the benefit of relevant experience. My undergrads take a binary approach to gender as pretty much given, for example, even the ones who push the edges a bit. Thanks to Title IX and other initiatives, many of them were not routinely exposed as high schoolers to the same kinds of institutional male spatial privilege that their teachers were—“You have to clear your gym lockers out so that the visiting boys’ team can use them.” So that’s progress. However, perhaps because they didn’t have to deal with such clearcut and almost casual discrimination, they almost universally have a weak grasp of the ways that choices and situations interact in real life, especially for people who are economically or politically disadvantaged. For example, I hear an earful from some of them, at least, about how discrimination against pregnant humans is not at all the same as discrimination against women, even when you can get them to rephrase themselves along the lines of  “discrimination against all potentially pregnant humans.”*

And then, when they’re seniors, it’s part of my current job to get them to design code legal public bathrooms.

Looking at things in an architectural way, gender binary issues show up mainly, but not exclusively, in bathrooms. We are almost all used to using bathrooms at home with people who do not share our own gender identities, and, face it, that’s OK with us largely because home (and airplane) bathrooms are single-occupancy. Where there’s space, and the codes allow it, we can push clients to provide gender neutral single-occupancy restrooms at work. Instead of a men’s room (a man’s room?) and a women’s (woman’s) room, we could have two bathrooms, nothing special needed. This easy solution does not scale up, unfortunately, but perhaps we can figure out how to do that someday in another essay. There are also some peculiar barriers in the law; the California Building Code requires that every restaurant provide a urinal for its patrons, regular stalls and toilets apparently being insufficient for many people (about half of them) if they’ve eaten recently or are planning to eat very soon. The urinal, of course, is also probably the strongest gender marker currently in use in American architecture.

However, there are much stronger “genderized” environmental barriers in other parts of the world, and quite a few of our students come from those places. At the MFA level, all students have a certain amount of autonomy in proposing their thesis projects, and usually I think it’s both understandable and desirable that many international students choose to design something both fitting the territory they know and also reflecting the kinds of jobs they might look for after graduating. I like seeing the variety in their settings, and critiquing these projects is a little like traveling to distant places. Yes, there are some obvious challenges, and they are required to conform semi-generically to American building codes (including, of course, the ADA) partly as a matter of convenience for the department and partly because they really will have to know something about codes someday no matter where they are. There’s not a lot of point in being hyper-local about codes in a school project, really, but you want some accountability to basic ideas about life safety and accessibility.

Accountability to principles of gender fairness, though, is apparently optional. I have seen projects by male Middle Eastern MFA students in which there are not only no female scale figures, but in fact, the “women’s spaces” have been left essentially undesigned, which seems, if nothing else, unforgivably unprofessional. My male colleague was ready to let that all stand as the by-product of a different culture, but in my mind, these students chose to study in the U.S. and thus abide for a time by American customs. By the way, I did challenge the students directly on their gender segregation, despite the breach of decorum that represented. Of course the school has a lovely non-discrimination statement about how we respect people and treat them equally regardless of all sorts of things, and they want to be culturally sensitive (i.e., not imperil their international tuition sources), and I have immense difficulty imagining that the department would be so carefully hands-off if a student were proposing a project in the Jim Crow American South.

I have also seen a very creative project for a Saudi women’s gym, although there the female designer did create a space for male drivers to wait for their exercising female relatives.

What is the best response for the school here that preserves the maximum practical freedom for students at a graduate level? It’s difficult to think of basically any public project in Saudi Arabia or a few other countries that would not be severely segregated by gender, Frankly, if I were a department head, I would be embarrassed  to show those projects to an accrediting agency that publicly requires a positive commitment to fairness and diversity by every school. I think the only real option besides restricting student projects to the U.S., which actually wouldn’t be all that bad for reasons I allude to above, would be to make students sign a non-discrimination statement about their proposals. In practice, the easiest procedure would likely be to wrap everything into the student code of conduct they agree to as part of enrollment and then subsequently reinforce the idea that they are obliged to carry those principles into their designs. And at the very least, no student should ever be able to get away with simply not designing rooms because the people confined to them don’t really matter. Even if fairness doesn’t stop them, professionalism should.

* Yes, there are obviously gestational dads, but even the most legally cavalier employment interviewer isn’t going to ask every man about personal pregnancy plans. At the same time, my students and their friends are unlikely actually to get into anybody’s medical or other nitty-gritty, because they’ve been told (correctly) that’s invasive. They’re very worried about being rude, which is sweet up to a point, but as far as I can tell, that hit-and-miss concern effectively results in some pretty severe oversimplification, ignorance, and unfairness.

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