Can you imagine being a faux “oppressed” leftist in today’s world, desperately trying to find something, anything, to be oppressed by? It’s almost as if they are drawing random cards out of a hat with topics to complain about. Today’s outrage is architecture! Yes, tall phallic buildings that THRUST upward into the sky, which are now symbols of sexism, “toxic masculinity,” and chauvinistic male oppression! They even equate skyscrapers to literally rape.
Or at least that’s according to Leslie Kern, who wrote an article titled “‘Upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating into the sky’ – do cities have to be so sexist?” for the Guardian:
Toxic masculinity is built into the fabric of our urban spaces, writes Leslie Kern, author of new book Feminist City. And the results aren’t just divisive – they can be lethal.
Glass ceilings and phallic towers. Mean streets and dark alleys. Road names and statues of men. From the physical to the metaphorical, the city is filled with reminders of masculine power. And yet we rarely talk of the urban landscape as an active participant in gender inequality. A building, no matter how phallic, isn’t actually misogynist, is it? Surely a skyscraper isn’t responsible for sexual harassment, the wage gap, or even the glass ceiling, whether it has a literal one up top or not?
That said, our built environments can still reflect patterns of gender-based discrimination. To imagine the city and its structures as neutral places where complicated human social relations are staged is to ignore the simple fact that people built these places. As the feminist geographer Jane Darke has said: “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” In other words, cities reflect the norms of the societies that build them. And sexism is a deep-rooted norm.
As far back as 1977, an American poet and professor of architecture named Dolores Hayden wrote an article with the explosive headline “Skyscraper seduction, skyscraper rape”. Hayden tore into the male power fantasies embodied in this celebrated urban form. The office tower, she wrote, is one more addition “to the procession of phallic monuments in history – including poles, obelisks, spires, columns and watchtowers”, where architects un-ironically use the language of “base, shaft and tip” while drawing upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating light into the night sky.
If the disorder of cities was a threat to certain women, and the disorder of certain women a threat to cities, the suburbs could provide a solution. Early ads for the London tube depicted such areas as Golders Green as refuges where women would be safe and conveniently preoccupied with homemaking and child-rearing, while fathers could easily access the city via expanded underground routes.
In the mass suburbanisation of North America in the 1950s, this “fix” for gender norms that had become unstable during the war was quite explicit. “Developers,” says Hayden, “argued that a particular kind of house would help the veteran change from an aggressive air ace to a commuting salesman who mowed the lawn. That house would also help a woman change from Rosie the Riveter to a stay-at-home mom.”
She really starts going off the rails later in her article:
The consequences have proved deadly as Covid-19 rampages through our cities. Take the crisis in long-term care homes. Care for elderly and disabled people has been largely privatised in many countries, leaving homes dependent on a low-wage labour force, who must cobble together a living by working at multiple facilities, most likely taking crowded public buses and trains between them. This factor rapidly spread Covid-19, exposing the most vulnerable members of society to a frequently fatal illness. Because cities have failed to prioritise care as a public good, while perpetuating the notion that it is women’s work, employees have risked their lives for pennies, and the elderly have died because staff don’t earn a living wage.
Another deadly consequence is the global rise in domestic violence. If violence against women is ever given any attention in our cities, it is generally along the lines of women facing “stranger danger” in public: having to limit our movements, adjust our clothing, and travel in packs, avoiding dark alleys. Fear-mongering keeps women “in our place” and limits our access to the public realm. It also reinforces the idea that women should seek safety and protection in the nuclear family home – when nothing could be further from the truth.
The vast majority of violence, including fatal violence, against women and girls worldwide is perpetrated in the home, and lockdowns have exacerbated its every cause. These include stress, financial pressure, isolation, and a lack of interventions from family, friends and colleagues. Women are frightened to access shelter services and have little safe space or time to reach out for help. Not only is it almost impossible to move during the pandemic, loss of employment for many also means they can’t afford to leave anyway.
Yes, yes, in the minds of today’s modern deranged leftists, skyscrapers built decades ago by white males are responsible for rape, domestic violence, the coronavirus, and other crimes against humanity.
City planners, architects and politicians can make a difference, if the will is there. In the Aspern district of Vienna, all of the streets and public spaces are named after women. In Tokyo, trains have carriages set aside at particular times for women, disabled people, children and carers. In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, female street vendors have seen their safety and economic prospects improve with the building of secure, permanent mini-markets that include space for breastfeeding. In Stockholm, snowploughing schedules prioritise residential streets, school zones, public transport and bike lanes. These interventions say to women: “Your contribution matters. Your safety matters. Your mobility matters.”
The current situation offers an unprecedented opportunity for even bigger changes. One possibility comes via the anti-racism protests sweeping the globe: defund the police. Transfer that money to affordable housing, childcare and public transport, all of which would dramatically improve women’s lives in ways that increased policing never has. A second move: all those people suddenly deemed “essential workers” should be paid as if our lives depend on them, because they do. Third: reinvest in the public realm by creating accessible, barrier-free spaces and transport systems that would allow everyone full access to the benefits of city living.
Yes, that’s right, if we simply get rid of, or at least “re think” today’s architecture and city planning, all of the world’s problems would be solved.
But what would Art Vandelay have to say?