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Danish Architecture Centre uncovers women’s role in its architectural history

The Women in Architecture exhibition at DAC, Copenhagen, fills the gaps in what could easily be considered the first draft of an architectural history.

by Dhwani ShanghviPublished on : Sep 10, 2022

In the 1970s, women's enrollment in colleges offering professional courses such as law, medicine and architecture was on the rise in the United States. Despite this, women designers did not find proportionate space in recorded architectural history. In 1977, the Architectural League curated an exhibition titled, Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, to take stock of this gap. Guided by Susana Torre, the exhibition aimed at showcasing the range and quality of women’s work in the fields of architecture, planning and design. The Women in Architecture exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC) in Copenhagen aims to accomplish a similar task, that of uncovering women’s contribution to Danish architecture from the 1930s to the present.

Uncovering Lost Histories | Women in Architecture | Danish Architecture Centre| STIRworld
Uncovering Lost Histories Image: Courtesy of Laura Stamer

The architecture exhibition is designed across four zones, and reveals not just the role of women in the history of Danish architecture, but also the unchanging status quo at present. An archival room exhibits “Untold Stories” of domestic (kitchens) as well as public buildings of Danish architects Karen Clemmensen, Ragna Grubb, Agnete Muusfeldt and others. In a separate space called "Voices of Today", contemporary architects in Denmark like Dorthe Mandrup and Lene Tranberg express their views on questions of equality as well as architecture. Bringing within its folds the voice of women architecture students, the third zone throws light on questions of equality for a generation of professionals-in-training. The fourth zone, “A Room of One’s Own” is themed around Virginia Woolf’s eponymous 1929 essay and is the only section that exhibits installations.

Voices of Today: Women in Architecture| Women in Architecture | Danish Architecture Centre| STIRworld
Voices of Today: Women in Architecture Image: Courtesy of Laura Stamer

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” –Virginia Woolf

Elaborating this concept, curator Sara Krogsgaard tells STIR: "Woolf spoke critically about the social constraints on women’s lives and pointed out that a woman must have her own money and her own room if she is to be able to create something of value. Woolf’s room is both a physical room and metaphorical room – a room to work in and room in which a woman can be free to express herself.”

Woolf’s theory on the significance of financial emancipation and a physical space thus finds its application in any creative process. Architects Tatiana Bilbao, Siv Strangeland and Débora Mesa explore this idea of a liberating space - a space that enables creativity - through their respective installations. On the selection process, Krogsgaard explains, "The studios have quite divergent approaches to design: conceptually, process wise and in the materials, they work with - which was a conscious priority in the curating: to show the variety in architecture and celebrate women architects.”

Tatiana Bilbao of Estudio Tatiana Bilbao | Women in Architecture | Danish Architecture Centre| STIRworld
Tatiana Bilbao of Estudio Tatiana Bilbao Image: Courtesy Ana Hop

Tatiana Bilbao of Estudio Tatiana Bilbao, Mexico, aims to eliminate the binaries between shared and private spaces and believes that a body should be able to decide and define their own way of existing. The pavilion, titled “A Room, You and Us”, is an exploration in brick whose tectonic quality allows the creation of a composition of environments that create personalised pockets of intimacy. This concept dwells deep in the ideology of the studio, explains Bilbao while speaking to STIR, “We decided to express architecturally an idea that we have been reinforcing in our architecture since very long. And that is, the necessity of each human being to have a space of their own to get the nourishment it needs to grow. Intimacy provides a lot of things for the mind, for the soul and for the body.” A varied notion of intimacy and shared spaces results in a pavilion structure with staggering heights of patterned brick walls, enclosing spaces with dissimilar degrees of privacy and collectivity.

Staggering brick walls of A Room, You and Us | Women in Architecture | Danish Architecture Centre| STIRworld
Staggering brick walls of A Room, You and Us Image: Courtesy Laura Stamer

The inspiration for this pavilion comes from the spatial qualities of monasteries. Bilbao continues, “I think this is the only typology that really understands the necessity of holding a physical body in order for the body to exist. And the understanding goes in all its extents, in all the necessities of a body - of being nurtured in several stages and in several ways, the necessity of the body to understand the individual as well as the social. The monastery is perfectly orchestrated between very intimate spaces as well as social ones. It is orchestrated in a way that there are never binary relationships. There's always a transgression progression of the space that really allows one person to go from the most intimate space to the most social one in stages - meaning in part, in moments, in different moments of the day, in increments and decrements. It understands the necessity for someone to get used to that socialisation that is needed for the body to exist or the other way around in order to get used to that isolation that is also needed for the body to exist.”

Siv Strangeland of Helen Hard | Women in Architecture | Danish Architecture Centre| STIRworld
Siv Strangeland of Helen Hard Image: Courtesy Laura Stamer

Siv Strangeland’s Body, Spa Prototype: A Space for Contemplation is an assemblage in timber through an intricate weave-like pattern. The pavilion is designed as a room to deepen the relationship between the self, others and the surroundings, and its womb like interior provides spaces of contemplation. Based out of Norway, Helen & Hard’s installation derives its concept from this Norwegian landscape. Siv explains, “A great deal of my own creative spaces comes from my childhood - sea houses, boats of timber, tree crowns. They are all spaces and structures relating closely to the coastal landscape of the Norwegian west coast. I recall images and senses relating to wombs of wood, soft, and sweet scents, dark against light from small windows, wooden planks holding together new planks, layers of history making, and repetition but never the same pattern. The transitions have the quality of nature, slightly adjusted to each tree’s pattern of growth, respectfully integrated, a language of lines and connecting knots expressing tension, weight, growth and life. All woven together in whole nests, gaps and irregularities creating patterns of life – and on top of everything, silence -  a protective, but transparent space for imagination.”

The womb like interior of Body, Spa Prototype| Women in Architecture | Danish Architecture Centre| STIRworld
The womb like interior of Body, Spa Prototype Image: Courtesy of Laura Stamer

A combination of timber, natural crystal and hand-made silk leaves, manifests what the architect calls a Relational Design - where spatial and material organisation enhances the interactions between different users and their environment.

Débora Mesa of Ensamble Studio| Women in Architecture | Danish Architecture Centre| STIRworld
Débora Mesa of Ensamble Studio Image: Courtesy Laura Stamer

Débora Mesa and Antón García-Abril, leading the Ensamble Studio in Madrid call their installation simply The Room. Ironically this pavilion sets out to dismantle all preconceived notions of what a room is. A series of explorations using paper and cardboard results in a pavilion that changes, that reacts and has emotions. Speaking to STIR, Mesa explains, “Ensamble Studio took a cardboard box - representing a typical room - deconstructed it, and then put it back together altering the previous logic. Instead of the traditional four-walled space of the box, the studio created an entirely new architecture. Fundamental elements such as floors, ceilings and walls are no longer presented as distinct; instead they blur together. You could say that the studio has researched what a room consists of. When is something a room? What makes you experience it as a room? How much can you remove before it ceases to be a room? Perhaps we can alter our perception of what a room is, and instead perceive it in a more sensuous manner?”

The merging elements form a skin, brought closer to the body by virtue of its flexibility and malleability - allowing it to react to the elements - wind and light. The architects believe this quality allows it to protect its users without sealing them away.

The dismantled box: The Room| Women in Architecture | Danish Architecture Centre| STIRworld
The dismantled box: The Room Image: Courtesy of Laura Stamer

The Women in Architecture exhibition fills the gaps in what could easily be considered the first draft of an architectural history - considering the eliminations. But it fails to explore the idea of a feminine architecture - outside of the domestic realm. The installations all have an endemic feminine quality - in materiality as well as in form - but are not displayed as such. 

In the Introduction of the book Architecture and Feminism, Debra Coleman offers a critique of the Women in Architecture exhibition of 1977. She points out that while gender, gap, discrimination, bias, equity etc form part of the discourse on women and architecture, there is a strong dissociation with feminism, in favour of professionalism - following neutral standards. These neutral standards of intellectual rigour often fail to separate the domestic from the feminine and by extension, domesticity from women. In its attempts to maintain the status quo the architectural discourse itself has a role to play in preserving gender-based relations of power. Since the 1977 exhibition, multiple attempts have been made to disclose women’s role in architecture.  Along a similar vein as the exhibition at DAC, and running parallelly, Good News. Women in Architecture at the MAXXI Museum in Rome, and the Frau Architect at Goethe-Institut, Cyprus, set out to achieve a similar goal - of unveiling the role of women in the ‘history of architecture’. But for as long as architectural discourse doesn’t take a political stance on the gender question, it will continue diluting and sanitising the message of equality. As Colemen states in her introduction, the resultant is “this message becomes just another patient - and compromising - reminder of how far the profession has yet to go.”

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