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Building a World Fit for Women

A new Barbican exhibit examines the work of the feminist architects who broke down the barriers of their industry and the ‘neutral’ buildings it created to imagine a genuinely inclusive, accessible use of space.

From the 1920s through to the 1970s, a classic text given to newly graduated architects was H. B. Creswell’s The Honeywood File: An Adventure in Building. A fictionalised guide to the delicacies and challenges of working with clients, builders, and contractors, the book’s protagonist, James Spinlove, is an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (the book can still be purchased from RIBA’s website today).

Described by the author as ‘decently educated and technically well-equipped’, Spinlove is a mirror of the white, male, privately-educated architect who continues to dominate the profession. He also closely resembles the ‘prima-donna architect (usually male)’ who was mocked in the writings of Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative.

An illustrative example of the hostile architecture that marred women’s lives in many London redevelopments. (Credit: Barbican)

All-female, proudly outside of institutions like RIBA, and deeply critical of the patriarchal power structures underpinning architectural practice, Matrix aimed to expose the sexist social relations encoded within British urban space. The story of Matrix’s intersectional, non-hierarchical approach to urban design can be traced through the texts, models, and photographs currently on display in How We Live Now, an archival installation at the Barbican.

Active from 1981 to 1994, Matrix was formed in resistance to an architectural landscape defined by government-imposed redevelopment schemes still in thrall to the legacy of modernism’s monolithic concrete high-rises. Throughout the eighties, there were increasing protests by local groups against urban planning initiatives that seemed to be predicated on tired stereotypes which marginalised women, people of colour, and those with disabilities.

At the outset of the exhibition, a clip from the 1988 documentary Paradise Circus juxtaposes the failures of government town planning with Matrix’s alternative approach to urban design. We see footage of women forced to negotiate dank concrete subways underneath the road junctions of Birmingham, the result of a planning scheme that didn’t take into account how people without cars (likely to be women) would experience a city built around ring-roads.

In contrast, images of the Jagonari Centre in London, co-designed by Matrix and a local women’s group, are accompanied by an interview with a Matrix architect and one of the clients, in which they talk frankly about the challenges of an intensively collaborative design process.

The Jagonari Centre is Matrix’s best-known building, and arguably the project that most successfully embodies their objectives as a co-operative. Proposed by a group of South Asian women local to Whitechapel, the brief was to create a building that could provide space for childcare, community meetings, and adult education classes.

Posters from the exhibition. (Credit: Barbican)

A model of the building used in the design process has been reconstructed for the exhibition: made of rough cardboard, it could be dismantled and reassembled by the women’s group before final architectural plans were agreed upon. This process encouraged the group to work South Asian influences into the design, despite initial hesitation around the potential for racist attacks – something that all members had experienced.

By engaging the Jagonari group in a miniature act of creation, Matrix passed authority traditionally held by the architect back to the client, enabling oppressive ideologies—of the architect, of Eurocentric design—to be quite literally taken apart and reimagined in their clients’ hands. The finished Centre incorporated decorated window grilles inspired by Islamic architecture, and an entrance mosaic by artist Meena Thakor. A community hub for thirty years, the Centre later faced financial difficulties and is now in private hands.

Matrix’s interrogation of unequal power structures in design didn’t stop at the client-architect relationship. The exhibition is peppered with pamphlets and guides providing advice for women who wanted to train as builders, woodworkers, and bricklayers – jobs framed as inaccessible to women.

One of the pamphlets on show, A Job Designing Buildings, reads like a feminist reworking of Creswell’s Honeywood File: detailed information on how to train in building, engineering, architecture, and interior design is accompanied by interviews with a range of women who have jobs in these professions.

The educational materials on display imagine a world in which architects, builders, and contractors occupy an equal footing in the design process, redressing the assumption of the architect’s authority. In their valorisation of equitable collaboration and female-only practice, Matrix proposes nothing less than a revolution in the way architectural practices are run.

Matrix members working on a floor plate.

The influence of Marx on Matrix’s practice is evident in their inclusion of the Jagonari Centre’s building specification in the installation. Exhibiting a folder filled with several pages of construction jargon may seem like an odd curatorial choice, but its presence attests to how Matrix assigns as much value to the design process as they do to the built product. By foregrounding the production process, Matrix makes visible the labour it takes to create a building, and credit is ascribed to collective effort rather than the work of a single architect.

The exposed wooden structure that houses the exhibition drives home this message. Made by Edit Collective—an up-and-coming feminist design group—the timber studwork and visible joinery is, according to Edit, ‘inspired by political and community groups’ appropriation of informal spaces.’

The attention to behind-the-scenes processes is central to how Matrix envisages a feminist architectural archive, as is the self-conscious materiality of their artefacts. The bulk of Matrix’s archive is made from handcrafted, informal materials: scrap paper, torn clippings, cardboard, and glue. Here, each artefact is an ongoing embodiment of unfinished work, revealing what came before the object.

The feminist architectural archive also exposes the work that comes after: the exhibition finishes with an overview of recent work by several feminist design collectives. Projects by Black Females in Architecture, takingplace, muf, Part W, public works, and Manual Labours take on the contemporary challenge of resisting the neoliberal forces that operate in architecture, employing radical practices of their own to stem the slow privatisation of our cities.

Together, these collectives expose the fallacy of insisting on the ‘neutrality’ of architectural space. As David Graeber wrote, ‘the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.’