A few days ago, I found myself, not for the first time, trying to figure out how to occupy a couch that had obviously been designed for someone with much longer legs than mine. These deep couches and armchairs offer those of us less than six feet tall with three choices; none of which is ideal for either comfort or looking graceful.
We can perch precariously on the edge of the couch, with our feet on the floor but nothing supporting our back, which means we will eventually collapse into the couch in a decidedly unattractive and uncomfortable way. If there are lots of cushions available, we can stack them behind us, so our feet are on the floor while also having some back support, a strategy that doesn’t stay comfortable for very long. Or, we can hoist ourselves to the back of the couch and leave our feet swinging in the air like children, hoping that someone will be around to give us a hand when we are ready to extricate ourselves.
French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier can take some of the credit – or blame – for the fact that so much of the world around us is not designed for most of us. In the mid-1940s, he created a proportional system called Le Modular, which was based on the body of a six-foot tall man:
“His system would go on to shape the entire postwar world, dictating everything from the height of a door handle to the scale of a staircase, all governed to make everything as convenient as possible for this 6 ft. ideal man. Its influence extended to city blocks, since these responded to the size and needs of the car our imaginary hero drove to work.”
Whose needs matter?
Forty years ago, in England, the Matrix Feminist Design Cooperative decided it was time to move away from designs that did not take into account women, children, the elderly or those with disabilities – indeed, anyone who fell outside Le Corbusier’s idealized model.
In its book, Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment, the collective wrote:
“We are women who share a concern about the way buildings and cities work for women. . . . Our intentions were to work together as women to develop a feminist approach to design through practical projects and theoretical analysis, and to communicate our ideas more widely . . . to help us all develop an understanding of how we are ‘placed’ as women in a man-made environment and to use that knowledge to subvert it.”
Matrix looked at many aspects of urban design—streets, overpasses, access to public transit, buildings — from the perspective of women and the ways they occupied and moved around those spaces.
Unfortunately for all of us, in the mid-1980s, Margaret Thatcher abolished the funding that had supported much of Matrix’s work. The co-op remained in existence until 2008 but, with no government funding, it was not able to continue its large-scale urban design projects.
While its design work made urban space more functional for women and others, Matrix is also important for how it did its work. It operated as a workers’ co-op, using an intersectional, interdisciplinary and integrated approach as well as participatory design methods that ensured the end-users of the space being designed were involved throughout the process. It also supported women to move into careers in architecture, design and construction.
As the Co-op wrote in 1981:
“Through lived experience, women have a different perspective of their environment from the men who created it . . . we want to explore the new possibilities that the recent changes in women’s lives and expectations have opened up.”
Embedding women’s interests in urban design
The world is still largely designed to meet the needs of Le Modular. In Chatelaine’s recent series How to Build a Feminist City, Emily Matthieu talked to city councillors, violence against women and anti-racist activists, feminist designers and urban planners to explore the ways in which the design of cities does not reflect the needs of women and other marginalized groups.
Many of the themes are all too similar to what Matrix learned 40 years ago: urban planning is focused on the needs of men who drive cars and have 9 – 5 jobs.
As spoken word poet El Jones says:
“Space is racialized, space is gendered, space is classist . . . Who gets to listen to their music in public spaces?”
Amina Yasin of the Vancouver City Planning Commission notes that (primarily) women often spend long periods of time on public transit getting their children to and from child care on either end of their working day:
“Women’s movements are not linear in public space – especially [those of] racialized and low-income women.”
More accessible and safe public spaces encourage people to spend time in them where they have “eyes on the street,” according to Wanda Dalla Costa of Phoenix’s Tawaw Architecture Collective. People begin to care about their communities and the other people who occupy them, and everyone is safer and happier.
Back to Matrix:
“Consciously or otherwise, designers work in accordance with a set of ideas about how society operates, who or what Is valued, who does what and who goes where. The question is who gets included, whose values we prioritise, and what kind of world we want to create.”
Surely it’s not too much, in 2021, to imagine cities in which non Le Modular types could move around comfortably and safely, engaging fully in their communities, and then return home to relax into a couch that fits their body.