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Entanglements of women and code


Author's own illustration, 2020.

‘I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman’


The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Code, in the form of scripting languages and software is playing an increasingly defining role in architectural design and built environments. Often used synonymously with terms such as computation and parametric, the definition of code is fluid and continuously challenged by evolving design methods.  However, the largely phallogocentric histories and current architectural discourses surrounding code remain consistent in their lack of female voices.

Woman, as Agrest points out, has historically inhabited the peripheries of society, often dehumanised in their exclusion as witches, hysterics, and outsiders.[1]  However, Agrest also asserts that it is this externality to the traditional architectural body that allows not only for an objective critique of existing practice, but the ability to operate and produce in alternative ways, something recently described as ‘alterities’ by Doina Petrescu in Altering Practices (2007).[2]  The status of the outsider formed the basis for several architectural collectives including NAM, and its splinters, including Matrix: one of the first explicitly feminist design collectives.  Their work exposed ways in which the built environment reproduced social inequalities, and forms the basis for this dissertation’s understanding of feminist architectural practices, as those which aim at inclusion, care, and kinship.[3]  Although extensively addressed by such collectives, and later in academia, the coinciding development of computational design, the women involved and their roles in feminist spatial practices, have been largely ignored.

In response, this dissertation looks at the temporal and material intersections of women and code in the fabrication of feminist environments. Viewing code not just as a metaphorical, but a physical string for entanglement, the conjoined histories are traced from the 19th century practices of botany and floriography, to contemporary female designers located at various stages of the architectural profession. Through investigation of these material structures, similarities led to the re-examining of code impact on domestic, collective, and planetary environments.

Initially examined are the changes which took place in the relationship of women to environment during the 19th century, including the separation of women from the botanic through the institutionalisation of nature.  In implementing a material feminist methodology, the natural environment is given a physical, material importance, with agency in social power relations.  Through this, issues such as social status, mobility, education and domestication are raised, providing contextual threads that extend into areas of current architectural practice such as sustainability, institutionalisation and working from home.  The nature of code reintroduces themes of exclusion, and offers a new position from which to view women’s status as outsider to the institution, spatial restriction of the domestic and codification of gender roles. 

Largely using first-hand experiences and interviews, contemporary female architectural practitioners are relocated within the context of the institutional body.  This begins to define the location, scale, and structure of existing organisations, whilst understanding how the female designer operates within those environments, the physicalities of coding, and experiences of the everyday.  By including subjective narratives, the question of Who are the women involved? begins to be answered and evidence is contributed to an area of feminist history yet to be thoroughly explored.

However, in addition to building feminist histories, this dissertation further asks Why does it matter? by proposing how code is, and can be, used in the production of alterities and development of feminist design principles. Materiality plays a central role in this, forming the basis for an entanglement of structures and semantics.  Reflected in Judith Butler’s assertion that the ‘association of femininity with materiality can be traced to a set of etymologies which link matter with mater and matrix (or the womb)’ matter is seen as a fluid and active site of both production and reproduction.[4]  From these links of mater and matter, the notion of code is further introduced as a matter-ing: the process of fabrication, inherent in both computational design and the material feminist becoming-with proposed by Donna Haraway.[5]  A conceptual thread for joining women, code and environment, becoming-with suggests relationships constituted through interaction and exchange, provoking material transformations that I propose have widespread implications for both feminist history and architectural practice.[6]  Represented by Haraway’s use of other-than-human kin, termed ‘oddkin,’[7] the notion of becoming-with gains further relevance due to their proposed inhabitation of the ‘n-1 niche space,’[8] a computational equation originating in Deleuze and Guattari’s defining of the rhizome.[9] Adopted by Haraway as a method of exploring material agency in establishing ‘multispecies’ relationships,[10] the rhizomatic formula underpins the theoretical framework in linking material feminist principles, computational thinking and ‘the wisdom of plants,’ and encouraging development of a feminist architectural practice concerned with environments of inclusion and sustainability.[11]

Linking back to the 19th century definitions of matter, the rhizomatic plant logic raises current global issues of environmental sustainability and limits.  Furthermore, with plant structure becoming increasingly integrated into design methods, such as biomimetics, the often economic and political disjunction with existing feminist practice is raising questions of feasibility for plant-code solutions to equality and climate change, highlighting the need for a computational feminism that extends beyond the human to the inclusion of digital and environmental oddkin.







[1] See Diane Agrest in Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner and Iain Borden, Gender Space Architecture: an Interdisciplinary Introduction (London: Routledge, 2000), 367.

[2] Doina Petrescu, Altering Practices: Feminist Politics and Poetics of Space (London, New York: Routledge, 2007), xvii.

[3] See Matrix, Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment (London: Pluto Press, 1984).

[4] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter (London, New York: Routledge Classics, 1993).

[5] Fabrication or digital fabrication, defined as the physical material process of manufacturing through the transference of data from virtual 3D modelling software to CAM software.

[6] See Petrescu, Altering Practices.

[7] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 2.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1987)

[10] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 11.

[11] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 10.

Copyright of image: © Bronte Allan

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