Histories of Architecture and Feminism
Undergraduate thinkers, when enabled, have tremendous potential to interrogate their world through research. Teaching architectural history through intersectional feminist approaches supports this goal, and redresses two perennial problems. The first is that the discipline of architectural history has neglected, and often rejected, the non-male or non-gender-conforming subject. The second is that it has overwhelmingly favored masculinist strategies for knowledge production. If these problems limit the critical capacity of architectural history and foreclose inclusive histories, they also hamper a student’s imagination of the past—and thus, the present and the future. Instead, an intersectional feminist approach to architectural research can upset a student’s impression of received knowledge profoundly. It can deploy grounded historical study of places, institutions, and infrastructures (however broadly or narrowly framed the aesthetic, material, social, and political terms of “architecture”) to help reflect on power. In this way, for undergraduate thinkers, who work within scholarly regimes and without the burden of academic professionalization, the experience of primary research can unleash potent expansions of thought.
How do we bring such liberating experiences into the classroom? I have attempted to, in “Histories of Architecture and Feminism,” an undergraduate seminar at Barnard College, Columbia University. The course asks students to theorize aesthetic and spatial histories through a reflexive practice, relying upon the situatedness of research. It poses the writing of history as an open, iterative, and collaborative practice. It depends upon and moves across forms of difference, considering the distinctions between separate perspectives not as something to be smoothed over, but instead as an enhancement to understanding. This process challenges “the often linear notion of history by approaching fractured objects and unfinished discussions,” as one student wrote.
The course is taught out of the reading room of the Barnard Archives and Special Collections, which holds Barnard Center for Research on Women materials and substantial collections on women in the arts, such as those of Ntozake Shange and Sabra Moore (figure 1). The seminar follows the iterative pedagogical structure of an architectural studio, but emphasizes inquiry through open-ended project-based research, rather than making a design. Students pursue an independent research question, studying collections in New York or elsewhere, and learn several methods for gathering primary material. They collectively produce an annotated bibliography of secondary literature. Archivists Shannon O’Neill and Martha Tenney and librarian Meredith Wisner assist them in studying the politics of archival collecting and accessioning, critical library database structuring, and public access.
At the heart of the course is an electrifying dialogue between students and authors. Scholars and practitioners representing a plurality of positions are invited to share a publication or writing in progress. Students correspond with them, sharing responses to that work, and then lead an in-person or video discussion with each participant. This exchange puts a face to scholarship for students, intended pedagogically as an interactive, responsive mode of confronting academic writing. It teaches scholarly hospitality—attentiveness to the work while making minimal demands of a guest. This practice grows and nurtures work discursively and collaboratively.
Rather than follow specific historical discourses or theoretical developments in the intersection between architectural and feminist thought or practice, the course emphasizes history writing as a contingent, confrontational, and collaborative practice. This praxis is developed through rigorous habits: responding to diverse primary and secondary sources through regular notetaking, periodic reporting, and direct in-person and written feedback. These practices are likened to the architectural processes of abstraction, representation, and critique. Part and parcel with this suite of exercises, students juxtapose their research with reading on feminist practice and thought. Students have been surprised by the possibilities this practice of alignment opens up. One student, reflecting on restrictions and censorship in her home country, wrote, “It is a rare opportunity . . . where we as students are given a voice to complicate established historical frameworks and narratives—a luxury, even, as many institutions around the world are experiencing governmental censorship of history, redaction of historical documents and denying of academic access to archives.” The spontaneity of discussions with scholars equally unsettles the expectations formed when reading a text. Students were shocked when Nicole King pulled out a carry-bag holding her “archive”—a group of rare papers from her family’s life in Harlem and the Bronx, including photographs of her father, an African American soldier in World War II. They did a double take when Delia Wendel asserted that she would not describe her work as strictly “feminist.” These encounters forced students to negotiate rapidly with assumptions, received information, and biases, and normalize the flexibility required to think with the primary and secondary source.
In addition to periodic research reports (in lieu of expository or argumentative papers), students display work in progress in the Barnard Archives and Special Collections reading room. This is intended as a model of quiet, emergent exhibition (figure 2). For a final project, students assemble materials from the research process into a composite report that illustrates the arc of all phases of an iterative research practice. Students also organize their individual and collective work into an archival bequest; this includes the annotated bibliography and the interview texts, responses, and videos (with contributions from participants who grant consent).
The authoritative event of archival institutionalization is transformative for bold students. The process-based approach empowers tentative students. One student contrasted her experience to that of a conventional unidirectional lecture setting in which a professor’s authority is hegemonic. “This seminar invites us to become co-writers of history by tapping into the fragmented narratives in archives and weaving them back together through research. In doing so, we are not only mere readers of history but also writers of history. History does not end when the textbook ends.”
Students in this course gather diverse histories of architecture and feminism. Natasha Abaza asked how feminist art movements excluded African American women while pushing for gender inclusivity. In dialogue with Samia Henni and Joy Mboya, she examined the Barnard Archives collection of Sabra Moore, a white feminist activist in the New York art world (figure 3). Cecley Hill mapped black performance space in New York City, assessing the disruptive and critical potential of the reclamation of terms such as “pest.” In dialogue with Rupali Gupte, Joy Mboya, and Martina Tanga, she studied the Barnard Center for Research on Women PEST newsletters, created by frustrated New York artists of color (figure 4). Eno Chen interrogated the gendered instrument of the kitchen as a domestic space of resistance. In dialogue with Sophie Hochhäusl and Barbara Penner, she studied New York City Housing Authority plans, American Institute of Architects National Housing Committee papers in Avery Library, and Museum of Modern Art archives of housing exhibitions (figure 5). Derrick Sibley studied interstitial “cruising” spaces for the expression of same sex desire. In dialogue with Lilian Chee, he searched for and found the privately collected papers of Horace Gifford, the architect behind several modern home designs that marked the queer culture of Fire Island, New York (figure 6).
If the diversity of projects reflected my students’ passions, it also marked the scope instituted by a course intended as a collaborative, open-ended possibility for researching together—for “writing with.” The ultimate aim? Scholarly solidarity and intellectual independence.
Author’s note: The course description, guests’ writings, students’ commentary, research reports, annotated bibliographies, and exhibition photographs may be consulted in the Barnard Archives and Special Collections.
 Several colleagues also take up this challenge. See the work of the course interlocutors Lilian Chee, Rupali Gupte, Samia Henni, Sophie Hochhäusl, Nicole King, Joy Mboya, Barbara Penner, Dubravka Sekulić, Martina Tanga, and Delia Wendel, and co-instructors Shannon O’Neill, Martha Tenney, and Meredith Wisner. On collaborative pedagogy, see Ana María Léon, “Crowdsourcing Knowledge: Cowriting, Coteaching, and Colearning,” Art Journal Open, November 20, 2018; Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (Ana María Léon, Tessa Paneth-Pollak, Martina Tanga, Olga Touloumi), “Counterplanning from the Classroom,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 76, no. 3 (September 2017): 277-280.
 Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, “Writing With: Togethering, Difference, and Feminist Architectural Histories of Migration,” E-Flux Architecture, in “Structural Instability,” ed. Daniel Barber and Eduardo Rega, July 4, 2018. See also Janina Gosseye, Naomi Stead, and Deborah van der Plaat, eds., Speaking of Buildings: Oral History in Architectural Research.