Women Writing Architecture
Taking the discourse on women in architecture to a productive level
The unequal position of women in architecture has become increasingly visible in recent years as numerous exhibitions, groups and individuals shine the spotlight on gender (dis)parity in a discipline that can sometimes be slow to adapt.
By shifting attention to the potential of architectural writing to challenge this situation, the website womenwritingarchitecture.org, online since summer 2021, provides a tool for action within a sometimes gridlocked discourse.
Text: Nicole Müller
During our interview, the website’s co-founder Helen Thomas is always mindful of presenting herself as part of a bigger group and network. This fact also becomes apparent when looking at the collaborators of the website: a list of dozens of people – mostly female – neatly arranged in alphabetical order.
The concept of Women Writing Architecture sprouted not as the idea of a single person but out of a collective process. An important influence was drawingmatter.org, an online collection of architectural drawings, which Helen Thomas has been involved with collaboratively since 2016. On this website the drawings are presented by texts, which range from long, scholarly essays to poems. It soon became apparent to the Drawing Matter team that the majority of the visual material shown was produced by men, as were many of the texts, and so the idea came about to deliberately include drawings and texts by women.
But instead of stopping at this point, these intentions evolved into an independent project. A circle of exchange between Helen Thomas and Sarah Handelman, who was also involved with Drawing Matter, resulted in an initial design brief that they developed into a tangible project with Lizzie Malcolm of Rectangle, who designed the webpage.
An advisory board was formed to guide and frame the approach to content collection, and since then, there has been several round-table-discussions to which women and men were invited. Anyone – women as well as men – was and is invited to suggest writings, the only precept: the text itself has to be written by a woman. With the growing number of people who have contributed to the project, the list of texts that forms this annotated bibliography grows steadily. “Ultimately, preoccupation with the problem has resulted into an opportunity, that then led to other things.” Helen Thomas sums it up.
Dealing with Complexity
Taking into account all the possible links and entanglements that can be made online, and the fact that those connections can be more spontaneous and coincidental than those made in books or magazines, the idea of a website was promising. In addition to the clear intention to offer a reservoir of texts about architecture written by women – an online archive that is constantly and mostly spontaneously expanding – one of the basic ideas was to enable a dynamic interweaving of texts, authors and readers.
“It is all about how to organize knowledge. Imagine having a tree of knowledge. Fundamental for our project would then be the fungal structures, which symbiotically connect the different tree roots and by that allow different trees to communicate with each other.”
One must admit that at first sight it is difficult to orient oneself, given the fact that the website is not constructed in a linear way but from the first revealing the idea of a network between texts and people in its structure. For a better understanding of how to navigate, explanatory videos help to manouvre around the complexity of the project.
There are different ways one can operate on this platform. First there is the home page, which lists the bibliographical references. Here one can search for specific authors, topics, text types, or titles. All writings in the list are either part of a collection – listed on the left side in a blue column – or there are comments or annotations on those writings – listed on the right side in a green column. In this way, one can move around the platform, perhaps starting by looking for a specific text by a specific author and then ending up with a collection, or by browsing authors that focus on a similar topic or worked around a similar approach. Or maybe one has an interest in a specific author, who then suggests other literature herself. And as it is the idea of the website to involve as many perspectives as possible, it is also possible to suggest literature on one’s own account.
Staying with the Trouble
In many ways, the website’s idea with its links and entanglements reminds us of the intellectual world of Donna Haraway, paper-shaped by the book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene – a writing listed in the archive of Women Writing Architecture. Haraway advocates for a thinking in interdisciplinary cross-references to constitute knowledge that includes a wide range of different perspectives.
A narrative on which the book is constructed is that of the string figures. This game is about picking up patterns, reshaping and handing on. In that way there is a new pattern, a new narrative with each participant. The same idea can be found on Women Writing Architecture: Each of the collaborators has a home within a specific field of knowledge, in a specific academic sphere, in a specific city of a specific country and inserts the resulting local knowledge into the net of texts and authors. “Nobody lives everywhere, everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.” 1 In that way, new intersections and entanglements are constantly arising – and therefore newborn knowledge. For this approach Haraway came up with the neologism sympoiesis: rooting in the existing, but further developed by novel catenations.
The basis, the core, is formed by the writings – made by women. By dealing profoundly with this very concrete topic, the field is widened in turn. Thereby, the knowledge collected on this newly created platform spreads out into diverse fields, similar to the tentacles of Donna Haraway’s tentaculars – sensitive and tentative. The website deals with the collection and presentation of women’s writings while the texts themselves deal with various present topics like postcolonialism, environmentalism, capitaloscene 2 and much more.
The platform Women Writing Architecture initiates a necessary debate about women in the field of architecture at a productive level. “It's about challenging the boundaries of what being a women is, challenging the boundaries of what constitutes writing, challenging the boundaries of what architecture is.” Helen Thomas says. Rather than steadily orbiting around the problem and the becoming entangled in the complexity of this very problem, the website enables opportunities. It combines and creates knowledge and brings together people. In the end this is also one of the main opportunities of this whole debate: it is about bringing together people who would not necessarily have worked or communicated with each other, it is about “encouraging a safe and inclusive community where women develop confidence and therefore become more present”.
“The website creates not a bridge between two opposites (the centre and the edge), but is a safe, desirable and encouraging place that provides an alternative to this binary, in which dialogue can flourish.” 3
1 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham 2016, p.31.
2 A term used by Donna Haraway in relation the era we are currently living in.
3 Quote from the initial brief at the beginning of the project’s development, on: womenwritingarchitecture.org