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A pioneer in urban studies with a gender perspective, Argentine […]
A pioneer in urban studies with a gender perspective, Argentine architect Zaida Muxi will speak at UIA2021RIO this April.
In order to let you know a little about Zaida’s ideas before her presentation, we published this interview that she gave us exclusively.
“Urban Planning is a Tool for Equality”
Born in Buenos Aires, where she qualified as an architect, Zaida Muxi was among the earliest explorers of gender issues applied to Urban Planning and Architecture. In Barcelona (her home since 1990), she set up a collective and a research network focused on this subject. She feels that cities are almost always established in ways that reflect and consolidate patriarchal structures and inequalities. However, Urban Planning is a tool that can be used to change this situation.
Having worked for the Junta de Andalucía and Generalidad de Catalunya regional governments, as well as the São Paulo and Buenos Aires Municipal Housing Bureaus, she today lectures at the Technical School of Architecture in Barcelona. She wrote a book on women, homes and cities (Mujeres, casas y ciudades – Más allá del umbral) and co-authored another on architecture and politics (Arquitectura y Política) with Josep Maria Montaner.
As the co-author of Arquitectura y Política, how do you explain the social and political roles played by architects and urban planners, or that they could play?
Written jointly with José María Montaner, this book on architecture and politics was prompted by an optional class we taught at the Barcelona School of Architecture more than ten years ago. Of course, there is no single way of being an architect or an architect, but we feel that engagement in any of the many variations of architecture is political; any action of ours is a political action. We cannot think that we are simply solving technical problems. There is no problem that is just technical. Consequently, what we want to convey is that architects must be aware of their responsibilities; each of us must focus on our own responsibilities, related to personal ideologies, beliefs and positions in the world. The book and the course also show different ways of doing architecture, other those usually taught, its major stars, architects who travel the world building constructions that are barely related to the people who live there. We think of an architecture that is rooted on site, springing from local knowledge and respect, steered by the quest for truly sustainable practices. This is our intention.
Do you believe that cities reflect and contribute to consolidating, reinforcing and perpetuating social structures that are sometimes undesirable (such as those based on patriarchy, gender and class inequality)? How is this apparent?
The spaces we inhabit, from our homes to our cities, evidently reflect social structures and thus mirror the hierarchies upon which our societies were built. Patriarchies are clearly present, and class differences are obvious. This is apparent in sprawling cities with no adequate planning for neighbourhoods offering full possibilities to their residents at every stage of their lives, for people of all ages, with their differing abilities. For example, there is no way of thinking about neighbourhoods with just housing, without mixed uses or mixtures of people. By definition, the city is a hub of diversity. So when we make homogeneous neighbourhoods, we are not making cities, we are making something else. We are physically constructing the segregation found in our society. And when we opt for roads and more roads instead of stressing public transportation, we are segregating, because only a minority of people commute in private vehicles and use roads. In parallel to class segregation, we also find gender segregation in societies. The female gender is absent from decision making and planning activities in cities, and women are not taken into account by our society. There is ample evidence of class, race and gender inequalities. How many squares or monuments pay tribute to women? Whose names are celebrated in public spaces, when not a member of the ruling classes or with a skin colour other than white? This is because the history on which these decisions are based has long been reported from a single stance – male and white – which is the viewpoint of the upper classes gripping the reins of power.
How can we change this?
The way to change these cities that are segregated by both class and gender is through the deployment of Urban Planning as a tool for equality, with the right to live taking priority over the right to own. We must thus work to change the ranking of the real priorities. Cities must enrich life, so that we can inhabit them safely. They must also consider and care for our surroundings and the environment. As human beings, we are embedded in an ecosystem. But so far we have lived under the mistaken belief the male of our species is the most important. We must change our stance towards the ecosystems around us and to which we belong.
What does applying a Gender Perspective mean in Architecture and Urban Planning?
It means opening our eyes and our brains to needs that have remained invisible until now. These needs are related to everyday life, with essential care for everyone. It means conveying this knowledge and information to new projects. And this knowledge and information is held by women. So it is necessary to work with women in order to pinpoint the needs to be addressed by Urban Planning and Architecture.
When did discussions of this topic begin?
In a way, talking about gender and the city is a logical consequence of all the many struggles that feminism has faced for so long. Since the XVIII century, there have been feminist struggles and claims urging the right of women to be “people with rights”, with access to education, for example. This was followed by calls for the right to vote, through universal suffrage, in parallel to the abolition of slavery in the mid-XIX century.
Are there examples of initiatives with this perspective?
We are talking about rights in some form, and this is evident from the so-called Third Wave in the 1960s. In the field of architecture or urban thought, this basically stems from two women, one a declared feminist: Betty Friedan; the other not, but certainly also feminist in her attitude: Jane Jacobs. Two books were milestones in this new approach: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by activist Jane Jacobs. This was when the lack of women’s rights became evident for the first time, linked directly to the type of cities being built. Calling this the ” problem that has no name”, Betty Friedan showed how the American suburb is a prison, a place that makes women ill. in turn, Jane Jacobs invited us to think of cities from an everyday standpoint, the commonplace. During the 1970s, groups of women began to complain about after-dark conditions, claiming the night as theirs too, saying that they should be able to move around in the city all the time, not just during the day, whether partying or working. The right to the city is related to with women’s right to safety and their autonomy.
In the 1980s, British geographer Doreen Massey began to reflect on unequal land distribution in cities and territories, with many more areas set aside for men rather than women. Recalling her own childhood, she recounted how she had to go shopping with her mother in London on Saturdays, glimpsing boys and men playing football or rugby through the train windows. They had somewhere to have fun, while she had an obligation to meet, an unacknowledged job.
In the 1990s, the city of Vienna adopted Urban Planning policies with a clear gender perspective, headed by engineer and urban planner Eva Kail, who prepared pilot projects for neighbourhoods and interventions in master plans from a gender-aware standpoint, as well as homes and housing estates with this perspective. There is also another gender-related line of thinking that focuses on safety. A project was conducted in Montreal during the 1990s, working with women in order to define aspects linked to safety and women in cities: independence, representativeness and others. I wrote an article on this study with the Collectiu Punt 6 collective.
How does the Collectiu Punt 6 Collective work?
The Collectiu Punt 6 collective is a group that we set up in 2005 after an Urban Planning and Gender meeting in Barcelona. On that occasion, I prepared an initial study of the gender issue with grant fellow Anna Puigjaner. Prompted by that first workshop, we began to gather together a group of women and a man, all interested in understanding what feminism was, what urban planning meant, with a gender perspective. Seeking information, we began to read, we began to educate ourselves on this topic, and this also coincided with some workshops run by the Catalan Women’s Institute for local women, focused on urban planning and gender. This was a great learning experience for us, with almost a hundred workshops throughout Catalonia, talking to all sorts of women in a wide variety of situations, and discovering so much about what diversity means in daily life, learning how this is vital knowledge for designing cities, but is generally ignored. So we have come a long way, to get where we are today. The group has already presented two doctoral theses, with a third on the way. Sara Ortiz and Adriana Ciocoletto have written their theses, and Blanca Gutiérrez is close to completing hers, with many books published as well. Due to incompatibility with work, I’m no longer part of this team, although we remain great friends, of course. Today they work in many areas; for example, they are advising Barcelona’s metropolitan transportation authority through recommendations at varying scales and for different situations, in order to include the gender perspective in transportation.
In your professional career, which jobs have brought you the greatest satisfaction and pride?
As my basic job is teaching, what gives me the greatest satisfaction is to see how the ideas that I have absorbed and developed since the Punt 6 Collective, or with Josep Maria Montaner, have been conveyed and expanded in class with my students, then seeing how these young practitioners put them into practice in their work, using something we discussed in class. It is really satisfying to see how these ideas are disseminated. This was especially evident in in the Master’s Degree in Housing, which we taught for ten years, qualifying almost 200 people, many of whom now hold important positions in cities and universities around the world. They are applying aspects explored in depth during the MSc in Housing course, such as the (de)hierarchisation of housing, the participation of male and female users, and the visibility of women in the profession. Seeing all this applied and extended gives me a feeling of great pride. Now, speaking of projects, I have designed a housing project and it is always fulfilling to know that people are living well and feeling at ease, of course. It is very good to feel that you have done something that people need. That’s how it was with my work in São Paulo and Buenos Aires, when I strove to present recommendations that would upgrade situations in their slums. Seeing how all this, although not having instant effects, has gradually been having an impact, with some of the aspects addressed becoming reality. Let’s say that there is no single issue that gives me satisfaction, but rather, more generally, the fact that I have managed to maintain coherence in thought and action.
What are your expectations for the 27th World Congress of Architects?
My expectations for the UIA2021RIO Congress are that the presentations – of projects, designs and papers – will highlight the diversity of our profession and showcase its practitioners as men and women committed to people and their surroundings. And even if seeking innovative responses, they should no longer come from the laboratory, understood as an enclosed place of self-generation, but rather from knowledge of reality. In other words, innovation based on social aspects, aspiring to equality and with care for the planet.
What do you intend to address in your presentation?
I intend to talk about the topics covered in this interview, the meaning of feminist Urban Planning and its impacts, the application of the gender perspective in cities and neighbourhoods.
What message do you have for inviting architects from all over the world to attend this event?
Because it is promoted by Rio de Janeiro, I believe that this event will offer many learning opportunities; on the other hand, it is also a meeting place for colleagues from all over the world, which is always very enriching. I also stress the approach proposed by this Congress, for expanding viewpoints, goals and professional fields. So I think everyone will feel included.
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27th Word Congress of Architecture UIA2021RIO
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