Newsletter | Mar/Apr 2011

Book Circle #2: Discrimination by Design

by Hourig Ayanyan

OWA Book Circles were formed to learn from the literature specifically linking women and architecture.

This is a report from the March, 17, 2011 Book Circle meeting.

Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man-made Environment
by Leslie Kanes Weisman.

We started our book circle with an open discussion about the author’s point of view on issues related to gender and social status influencing the use and designs of our built environment. Professor Weisman calls for much greater attention to the kind of spaces that are being built without fully thinking about the reality of women’s lives and lives that do not fit the nuclear family. She gives numerous examples of social changes in history, particularly with the home, and she describes environments where she sees patriarchal thinking as not always helpful to women or society. She calls for a renewed concern for the social issues that are part of programs, planning, and design. The following is a synopsis of our discussion.

Wendy Bertrand: This book may not of had photographs of elegant elevations,but Weisman was mostly talking about plans and I thought the ones she did include illustrated her points. She showed two floors of the Neighborhood Women’s Inter-Generational Housing, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York by architects Katrin Adam with Barbara Marks. For example I liked the renovated 7th floor where the floor was divided into 4 apartments that were easily expanded from the central 2 family apartment where each family has own entry, bath and bedrooms but they share living room and kitchen and the one family apartments shared the same entrance at each end of the double apartment; in other words, lots of bedrooms with fewer kitchens, entries, and bathroom. Weisman was looking for examples that address the different living needs of women, often single women or groups she referred to as “mingles”. Designing for mingles (may be men or women) would be a workshop in itself. Another idea she mentioned which I had not come across was the idea that when a family divorces, the woman often gets the house but she has a hard time paying for it’s upkeep, and would like to divide the house in two, for more income, but often zoning doesn’t allow it. This impacts women more than men. The book reaches deeply and I started to read it a second time. Professor Weisman discussed women’s issues on many levels, at the same time the built world stays the same while women around the world generally are so vulnerable. We need to look after the ones that have less and bring forward these issues in our everyday life. As for the age of her ideas, yes the book was written almost 20 years ago, but the floor plans in our suburbs of today are not more socially reflective of changes specifically for women. For those who are floating along with the status quo this is a good wake up read. The childbirth environment was giving as being better now than described in the book. Inge mentioned that I had worked on this idea as a graduate student in the 1970s. At first I didn’t think much of that comment, but then I realized that in 40 years the change in the childbirth environment is an important example of a gender specific environment being impacted by the feminist movement. And to me that is Weisman’s whole call: environments need to be more socially aware of the users – including women with many social realities different from men’s. There seemed to be a feeling by some members in the book circle that money was calling the shots and social issues didn’t have much of a voice because social issues would not be profitable, but that is not for sure or a reason to not bring them forward. I think we still need to bring up women’s issues in the environment and try to add more variety and thoughtfulness and this book gives the talking points to do so. Or… become a developer or get real rich and lead the way to adding social issues to architectural programs and designs.

Jamie Brown: This was a great source to read and a resource to find future readings from. This book was a good starting point for a discussion about social, spatial and gender status and its manifestation of social inequality.

Tammy Lin: The book was a good catalyst, connecting social and spatial aspects of our profession. It is a great place to start thinking about spaces we inhabit. It allows us to think about and be prepared with solutions to respond to these design challenges.

Shannon Devine: I like the depth of the author’s feminist analysis on the built environment. Although most thoughtful architects understand the concepts today, the author reinvigorates my commitment to inclusive design. She does this because of her historic references and attention to details.

Inge Horton: This book was the last book that was written by the author. The book was mind opening. I haven’t thought about in detail of language and space the implications of our social structure. There were some fun parts to the book for instance the house that moves in and out with one’s mood at the last chapter.

Leon Setti: Since the book was about design it didn’t have enough pictures. I felt some of the examples were a little outdated such as the example of the corporate office. In the book the author states that the male occupies the corner, well-lit offices while the women are all cramped in the center with no privacy and access to a view of any sort. If you look at offices today women and men are both under mistreatment by people who have more power.

Hourig Ayanyan McCray: I enjoyed reading some parts of this book. I came to learn about the implications of race, gender, and social status. It was interesting to read about the historic evolution of these spaces such as the birthing centers as well as work, home, and public spaces that we inhabit. Although it might’ve been of great relevance during the time this book was published it came across a little outdated in my perspective.

available at

View this page in your browser