Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

So That's Why Air Vents Are Hidden in Walls

NEW YORK -- Tucked into the hollow walls of buildings, electrical wires do their work unsung and hidden from view. A few months ago Sheila Kennedy, an architect, gave wires their due. She delivered a lecture at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called "Electricity, the Fairy and the Hollow Wall: Rethinking the Spaces of Infrastructure in Architecture.''

The infrastructure of buildings, crammed into chimneys, stairways, hallways and hollow walls, she said, has been "feminized'' and "repressed'' for too long.

This kind of talk - animating architectural objects and, more importantly, assigning them a gender and a status - is not at all strange these days. Feminist critics of architecture, exasperated with the maleness of their profession, are waging a battle of metaphors. Every architectural term - from walls to plumbing, windows to cities - has been sexed. Which is feminine, inside or outside? Which is masculine, form or function? What about the walls themselves? And whose side are you on?

Take electricity. Traditionally it has been imagined as an "unreliable fairy'' dealing out help and trouble, Kennedy said. The electrical cord, the carrier of electricity, is rarely represented in advertisements, while the light bulb has become a glamorous star.

Heating vents have also been repressed, Kennedy suggested. If you imagine the house as a body, then heating vents are its respiratory system. It is no accident that the French word for air vent is soupirail, a thing that breathes or sighs. The vent brings in good air and bad. In the movie "Outbreak," Kennedy said, "the contaminating virus comes through the vents.'' The vent is an "illicit communication system.''

Metaphors have not always been a preoccupation of feminist architecture. In "The Grand Domestic Revolution'' (MIT Press), Dolores Hayden writes about a time, a century ago, when feminists pushed for buildings that would actually thwart "the economic exploitation of women's domestic labor.''

To insure that cooking and child care would be labor that was recognized and paid, they advocated houses without kitchens, neighborhoods built around cooperative child care and towns without the usual separation of private and public spaces. These early architectural feminists, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Melusina Fay Peirce, Mary Livermore and Ethel Puffer Howes, believed that buildings could transform society. Their movement, which Hayden calls "material feminism,'' was defeated in 1931, when the Hoover Commission Report on home building and home ownership came out. It led to the building of 50 million traditional single-family homes, Hayden writes. The revolution was over.

Still, some women battled on. From 1920 until 1960, a handful of wealthy, powerful, educated women changed the shape of domesticity. These women were, as Alice T. Friedman writes in "Women and the Making of the Modern House'' (Abrams), the patrons of famous architects.

Aline Barnsdall had Frank Lloyd Wright design a semipublic residence, theater and garden for her. Truus Schroeder helped Gerrit Rietveld design a place to live in which the "spatial divisions between mothers and children were broken down.'' Sarah and Michael Stein commissioned Le Corbusier to design a house with two equal bedroom suites for a non-nuclear family: a couple, and the couple's friend and her daughter. And it was for Edith Farnsworth, a single doctor, that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the first glass house, testing the limits of privacy. They proved that even if society could not be changed altogether, it could be changed one house at a time.

But now feminists seem to have largely given up on buildings. Two recent books of essays, "The Architect: Reconstructing Her Practice'' (MIT Press), edited by Francesca Hughes, and "The Sex of Architecture'' (Abrams), edited by Diana Agrest, Patricia Conway and Leslie Kanes Weisman, suggest that for many feminist architects and critics, making metaphors comes before making buildings. Even architects who design real buildings often let their metaphors determine their plans.

Why? Hughes suggests that women are obsessed with the terms of architecture because they have been excluded from building buildings.

So the metaphors proliferate. In the land of architecture everything belongs to one sex or the other. Who decided the sex of these things? Some terms have b een handed down from the Greeks and others have a more recent origin, but all have been taken up with a vengeance, literally.

Culture is masculine, nature is feminine. And space, as M. Christine Boyer writes, has had the "so-called feminized characteristics of passivity, inertness'' ever since Plato.

If space is feminine, then the buildings that inhabit space must be masculine. A house may be masculine, but a home is certainly feminine.

And on it goes. Form "has always been a male preserve,'' Martine De Maeseneer writes, and so "we are bound to place function as conceptive and female territory.'' And since function is feminine, naturally it is repressed. Remember the poor electrical wire and the sighing air vent, hidden from view.

Of all architectural terms the wall is the most provocative and, appropriately, the most divisive. As Francoise-Helene Jourda writes, the wall is a divider. People "are always trying to have the best conditions in their buildings,'' while ignoring "what goes on outdoors.''

Walls are erected to keep nature (feminine) and culture (masculine) separate. So what about the walls of a building designed by a woman? The walls that Eileen Gray put up in E. 1027, the house she built at Cap Martin, France, are less divisive, Sylvia Lavin suggests, because Gray included "escape hatches'' and "leaks.''

But unfortunately her wall also suffered a peculiarly feminine fate. In 1938, Le Corbusier took over Gray's house and painted his own murals all over her walls. "It was a rape,'' Gray's biographer, Peter Adam, declared. And today many people assume Le Corbusier designed the house. As Beatriz Colomina writes, the "defacement of the house went hand in hand with the effacement of Gray as an architect.''

No wonder the metaphors are flying. Like Joshua, the architectural feminists are hoping against hope that if they blow their trumpets loudly enough, all the walls - professional, metaphorical and actual - will come tumbling down.