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Design reimagined: How We Live Now exhibition at the Barbican is challenging us to reconsider the architecture of our cities

An exhibition at the Barbican takes the work of the Matrix Feminist Design Co-Operative as its starting point, with many of the issues the group grappled with in the Eighties still relevant today.

Walworth Garden
By
04 June 2021
D

isorientating subways, unlit alleys, endless flights of steps and a dearth of play areas for children. “Can a building be sexist?” asks an architecture exhibition at the Barbican. The answer certainly seems to be yes.

The display, called How We Live Now, takes the work of the Matrix Feminist Design Co-Operative as its starting point. The all-female architecture practice was founded in 1981 with a mission to speak up for groups usually excluded from the process of designing buildings.

They challenged assumptions about class, sexuality, race, disability and about women’s “proper place” in our cities and homes, and questioned planning decisions made predominantly by men for able-bodied men.

They noted that when women were taken into consideration, it was in their capacity as housewives, to derive the ideal height of a counter top, domestic appliances and spatial layouts for childcare.

Matrix archive

“Much of our environment has been designed on the basis of stereotypes of women’s and men’s work,” wrote Matrix in its 1984 publication, Making Spaces.

“The design of houses in Britain reflects the oppression of women in society. In the final decision-making, women’s real needs... are not taken as seriously as male-dominated ideas about the ‘appropriate’ house for the family.”

The group designed a number of spaces for women and marginalised groups, as well as running training courses, research and creating publications.

Matrix’s Jagonari women’s educational resource centre, built in 1984-7 for a Bangladeshi organisation in Whitechapel, sought to address some of those issues by designing in collaboration with its users.

This involved some off-kilter design processes, including a “brick picnic” that visited buildings around London to help the women commissioning the building to determine the right specimen for the warm-toned facade. Decorative green window grilles hinted at the users’ Asian identity while also providing security. The spaces within were created to be flexible for a wide variety of activities.

Building on Matrix’s legacy

Four contemporary projects designed with a social ethos

Cuckooz Nest, by Kinder Design (2018) and Second Home London Fields, by Cano Lasso (2019)

These co-working spaces with crèches offer rare family-friendly workspaces in the city, where childcare for the self-employed has been largely overlooked.

Green Park Station entrance by Elsie Owusu Architects with Feilden+Mawson (2011)

A ramped entrance offers a step-free connection between the station and park, while an elongated copper canopy set over a further entrance doubles as a bus shelter.

Mount Pleasant by Peter Barber (2014)

An extension to a homeless hostel places a mixture of single-occupancy, shared and accessible apartments off a courtyard, where people meet on the way to the shared kitchens and laundry rooms.

St Mary’s Centre by Erect Architecture (2020)

The community centre in Stoke Newington works with marginalised people in the local area, offering a shelter, food bank, migrants’ centre and Jewish faith group.

The women from Matrix went their separate ways almost 30 years ago, but the issues they grappled with are still relevant today.

The free exhibition, co-curated by Jos Boys — a founding member of Matrix — and curator Jon Astbury, looks at the legacy of the co-operative and how its contemporary counterparts are still fighting to give city dwellers a voice in their design.

“A persisting reliance on ‘norms’ reinforces stereotypes about what certain people do and how they should behave — that a ‘woman’s place should be in the home’, for instance,” says Boys.

“These stereotypes result in built surroundings that do not take account of people’s very different needs and desires,” says Astbury. “This might be as obstructive as a lack of wheelchair access... as seemingly innocuous as the way a door is hinged to control a room’s privacy.”

Matrix promotional postcard

/ Matrix Open feminist architecture archive

The pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, an increase in reported domestic violence and poverty have intensified the spotlight on these inequalities. But Boys sees success in the community projects that have survived challenging times to provide inclusive and welcoming spaces for groups in central London.

Among them are the Calthorpe Community Garden near King’s Cross and Walworth Garden near Elephant and Castle, which was originally designed by Matrix as a city farm.

A raft of activist groups such as Black Females in Architecture (blackfemarc.com) and Part W (part-w.com) has picked up the baton, advocating for race and gender equity in our built environment.

How We Live Now: Reimagining Spaces with Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, is at the Barbican and online to Dec 23