Matrix: A Feminist Design Collective

Woman and the man-made environment.

In 1978, a Feminist design collective called Matrix was established in London. Matrix consisted of a number of women architects who were trying to challenge the ‘man-made environment’, which they saw as a physical manifestation of patriarchy.  According to one member of the group:

'The Feminist Design Collective, a group of about twenty women was started in 1978. Its title was consciously assembled: the use of the word "feminist" was contentious; no architectural practice in Britain had previously stated their political position so overtly. The use of "design collective", rather than "architectural practice", indicated the group's intention to value non-architects as highly as architects and was influenced by contemporary critiques of professionalism and of architects' professional institutions by groups such as NAM.'

- Julia Dwyer and Anne Thorne, "Evaluating Matrix: notes from inside the collective," in Altering Practices (London: Routledge, 2007), 42.

Matrix published a book called Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment, which served as the group's manfesto. The book is a brilliant analysis of architecture and space, which highlights the many problems women encounter in the built environment.  Focusing on postwar mass-housing developments, Matrix reveal that these spaces:

? Are designed for a car owning population; in most households it was only the man who had access to a car.  This placed severe constraints on the mobility of women.

? Pedestrian underpasses or elevated walkways are problematic for women with shopping bags, pushchairs and children.

? Stairs and revolving doors can form a barrier to women with pushchairs.

These problems restrict the mobility and job prospects of women. This has the effect of confining women to the home, and that seems to confirm the idea that a woman’s place is in the home, which thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In outlining these problems, there is a danger of reproducing the stereotypes, implying that this is the experience of all women. Redesigning the environment to make it easier for women to perform these roles may result in reinforcing the assumption that women have sole domestic responsibility and that a woman’s place is in the home. Amending these problems can only be a short-term solution – it does not challenge the accepted gender roles that caused the problems in the first place. In the long term a new approach is needed.

Matrix also designed spaces for women that improved upon the safety and accessibility of male architectural projects. This meant reforming the whole design process. Instead of architects imposing designs on the user, they advocated public participation. The role of architects should be to help the users to realise their own needs. The idea that people who use buildings should have a say in how their design is central to Feminist planning.

In particular, Matrix pointed out that women are not a monolithic category, they have different needs from each other as well as from men. One of the collective's major architectural projects was the Jagonari Centre, an Educational Resource Centre for Asian women in Tower Hamlets, London. It was intended as a refuge and educational centre for vulnerable women. It was funded with a £600, 000 grant from the Greater London Council. Matrix listened to the needs of women. In the design, British and Asian cultures are expressed together: with its brick execution and overall form it evokes a typical Georgian terrace, but merges it with ogee-arches and minarets. It has an Asian feel but does not reference any particular religion, because various religious groups use it. The metal grills over the windows are both protective and decorative – they are included because there was a threat of racial violence in the area. The interior is light and spacious, with an emphasis on safety and comfort. The canteen has facilities for Asian cooking: they are the kind the users would be most familiar with. They realised that people have trouble reading conventional architectural drawings, so they produced informal sketches with un-ruled lines and paper cut outs so that people could move them around.

In an era when architectural discourse was still heavily dominated by men, Matrix pioneered a means by which women could participate in the architectural profession and radically rethink the built environment.

Reading:

Matrix, Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment. (London: Pluto Press, 1984).

Matrix, A Job Designing Buildings: For Women Interested in Architecture and Buildings. (London: Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, 1986).

Dwyer, Julia and Anne Thorne, "Evaluating Matrix: Notes from Inside the Collective," in Altering practices: Feminist Politics and Poetics of Space, ed. Doina Petrescu (London: Routledge, 2007).

Grote, Janie, "Matrix: A Radical Approach to Architecture." Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 9(2)(1992).

Swenarton, Mark, "Guiding Lights." Building Design, (940)(1989).

Please see my other articles on aspects of femininity and space:

https://knoji.com/the-sphinx-in-the-city-womens-experience-of-urban-space/

https://knoji.com/washington-new-town/

https://knoji.com/sexuality-in-advertising/

https://knoji.com/life-in-a-victorian-department-store/

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