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How Feminist Architecture Is Challenging Socially Conservative Policy in 2017

An architect currently working on abortion clinics in Mississippi and Alabama discusses how recent TRAP laws and protests factor into her designs.

By Elizabeth King


Irish architect Yvonne Farrell poses next to her installation at the Royal Academy of Arts in central London on January 21st, 2014. (Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)

Architects and designers have embraced feminism’s role in their designs since at least the 1960s. But socially conservative policies have made the work of feminist architects — who prioritize the needs of women and LGBTQ people in all the spaces they use, including the home, bathrooms, abortion clinics, and others — even more relevant (and challenging) in recent years.

Feminist architects’ projects have included offices where gender-designated bathrooms are equidistant from work spaces, bathrooms that are accessible to families and transgender people, and abortion clinics that can withstand socially conservative legislation based on design. Meanwhile, there are currently 24 states that require abortion clinics to meet ambulatory or surgical center codes, and 31 with Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws, which place various legal restrictions on abortion providers and clinics. Trans access to bathrooms has, moreover, been a political flash point in the United States since 2012: This year, Texas and Virginiafiled new “bathroom bills” that would ban trans people from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.

So howare feminist architects working within these regulations? To learn more, we turned to Lori Brown, an architecture professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture and co-founder of Architexx, an organization for women in architecture. Brown, who has dedicated her career to researching, teaching, and designing feminist spaces, is currently working on design projects for abortion clinics in Jackson, Mississippi, and Huntsville, Alabama, both states where access to abortion is extremely limited (Mississippi has only one licensed abortion facility; Alabama has nine). Brown has also designed housing in Syracuse, New York, for single mothers who have recently been released from prison, and publishes and speaks about design and abortion rights.

Brown has dedicated her career to protecting women’s rights through design. After the current U.S. president said that women should be punished for having abortions while he ran for office, and while clinics around the country are seeing an uptick in anti-choice protesters, we spoke with Brown about feminism’s role in architecture, architecture’s ability to support reproductive rights, and how she sees her discipline functioning under President Donald Trump.

On its face, architecture may seem like an impartial disciple. What does design have to do with gender and gender equality?

When you think about the history of the built environment and who has been given the credit for designing the built environment, it’s still historically male. Although our population is close to 50/50 in terms of gender division, the designers who have been credited with our built environment are notreflective of the diversity of users who inhabit the built environment.

Gender is a critical part of how we think about how we occupy space and what’s important to the users of space. It’s not that [male and female architects] have formal differences in the way we create space, but from the outset, women may have a different perspective or different concerns to put forward. The same concept applies for the LGBTQ community — there are certain ways that we think about and occupy and need space that are not the same as the straight male perspective.

As an example, we can look at what’s happening in North Carolina with transgender access to bathrooms. There are many places all over the world that have gender-neutral bathrooms — airports often have gender-neutral bathrooms. To label things in ways that discriminate and prevent certain types of bodies from using certain spaces is very restricting and is illegal from a civil rights perspective.

What might be different about a feminist design versus a design that doesn’t take feminism into account?

The goal is to consider and incorporate where we are socially, politically, environmentally, and even economically [into designs]. We operate from the position that everyone is valued and everyone should be considered, which requires different ways of operating as a designer [and] thinking about the types of spaces you design, the types of users that would be needing these spaces. It’s not to create autonomous and separate spaces [for women], but to think about the intersections between people who use spaces.

Going back to bathrooms as an example: There are LGBTQ people, heterosexual people, children, older people using those bathrooms. [We think] through how all those kinds of users intersect, and where a designer can create space that encourages, allows, and supports those differences. Through the issue of difference, there are all these possibilities.

How do you personally incorporate a feminist perspective into your own work?

The most obvious way is [through] taking on the overlooked and unexamined types of spaces that my discipline has historically not wanted to engage. My work with abortion clinics is probably the one area where there are very few architects that either critically research and examine them and/or design and work with abortion providers.

For me, the way space is structured is really the most thought-provoking aspect. And, thinking about how I can look at unexamined spaces that reveal architecture’s potential to engage important issues and hopefully improve the built environment to be more inclusive of the diversity of users and their points of view.

You do work with spaces that are designed for women, such as the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which is an abortion clinic. What’s your feminist approach to designing a female-oriented space?

The work that I’m doing with Jackson Women’s Health is exterior, and it’s a collaboration with people who had participated in a call [I put out] for design ideas. We’re viewing it almost as a public art installation, but we’re engaging with the issue of security and working with the community to create a better public space. I had the honor of being able to meet with and interview the owner and director of the clinic, as well as the employees and escorts who work there — the project is the result of those interviews, and having visited many other abortion clinics in the southeast, and realizing that there is such an opportunity for design there.


(Photo: Jackson Women’s Health Organization)

For me, a large part of the feminist approach is that [my projects do not reflect] my lone voice as the authoritarian architect. I don’t live there in Jackson — I’m an outsider. So I think about how I can develop the users of the clinic’s respect and their collaboration in this process. One of the most important aspects within feminist [architecture] is creating partnerships and collaborating, and wanting that aspect to be the foundation of how the process evolves. It’s a longer and more difficult process because you are not the only one making decisions and don’t have as much sole authority — but I think in the end it will provide greater voice for those who may not feel that they have as much design agency.

The Jackson Women’s Health Organization — Mississippi’s only abortion clinic — has become a central battleground over reproductive rights in the South. How do Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws and safety for people who use the clinic factor into the design?

It’s one thing to identify those dynamics, but things change when you translate them into something that you want to make in the world — there are a whole other series of issues that arise.

One is how to get permission to actually do the project. We’re not yet at a point where we’ve had to file for any kind of permit in Jackson — we still have to get the final OKs from the clinic and then raise funds — but that’s going to be a whole other series of orchestrations. Because there’s how the city and state codes read, and then there’s how they get interpreted by the city’s planning department, and then there’s how we interpret them. Then we have to find the common ground between what they say is allowed and what we’re saying is allowed. When we talk about ambulatory surgical codes [for abortion clinics, which stipulate design factors such as room size and the width of hallways], it’s pretty clear-cut: you need certain dimensions, certain numbers of closets, etc. But in areas where we’re talking about the [exterior] and the types of enclosures and materials that are allowed, it’s not always explicitly stated in the code.

Another project I’m working on is with an abortion clinic in Huntsville, Alabama. I’m in correspondence with the building department, and it’s amazing how people there will tell me things have to be a certain way, but there’s nothing in the code that states it has to be that way. So we’re about to embark on negotiations on how the changes we want to make can happen there. It’s about figuring out how to politically engage, knowing full well that some of these people who have the power to grant permits are not in support of the clinics’ existence at all. So to have on-the-ground allies is critically important to help us negotiate and cleverly engage these codes. The goal is not to be adversarial, but to collaborate.

I also want to talk about your project designing housing for single mothers who were recently released from prison in New York. I imagine that you want to offer more than simply a roof over their heads — what was your approach to that project?

[I made] a proposal that unfortunately never received the necessary funding, so the project never went beyond the drawings. But the opportunity and the idea behind the project was something I would love to be able to take on again.

One of the things that became important for this proposal was to create a space that could help foster community. The idea was not just that there would be single-family houses, but that through creating common spaces adjacent outside — a garden and children’s play area — there would be a way that space could help facilitate more interaction and engagement within the families to help with, say, being aware of where their children are when they’re outside. I also thought about ways that the backs of the homes could open up and become more communal, but then also be able to close down a bit and be more private.

The idea was also to foster pride in having your children in your own house. These spatial relationships were what I was most interested in — and were not a part of the original design brief — [but] this is not a new idea, it’s very much something that has been incorporated in planning for decades from earlier feminist architects.

What do you think some of the feminist design priorities will be under Donald Trump’s new administration?

To ensure that spaces like abortion clinics remain open is one of the most important things we as feminists in the field need to be thinking of. We need these facilities to remain open during the upcoming administration. That’s one of the most disconcerting aspects, for at least the reproductive justice issue, is whether more restrictions are going to be created.

The role feminist designers can play is to continue to speak out, and speak out loudly — I think it’s going to require us to be far more vocal than we have been in quite a while. And that’s scary, considering how many anti-choice laws have been passed in the last couple of decades. It’s not necessarily that we’re going to be designing more, but that we’ll be observing and critiquing what the influences of the built environment are or are trying to become, and really pushing back on restrictions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.