Pinós & Chinchilla
Architects Carme Pinós (1954) and Izaskun Chinchilla (1975) meet at the offices of the Madrid-based magazine Arquitectura Viva to talk about the role of women in history and in architecture.
Izaskun Chinchilla: To start, and if you agree, let’s reflect together on how the gender factor affects architecture. I am asking first because not everyone feels comfortable discussing this issue.
Carme Pinós: Yes, I have things to say, and for several reasons, because the more you delve into history, the more you realize that it is told from a very male point of view.
IC: It’s true: history has been violence and strength, but many of the other things that have happened are not part of the official history, right?
CP: Yes of course. I think we have made great progress and, in this sense, I believe that when humans became sedentary, divinity – previously represented by the mother goddess – went on to become the god of war, and this gave birth to the concept of heritage, of patriarchy. The system was turned around: matriarchy gave way to a system based on the succession of heritage conquered through violence, and this was so despite the fact that, ultimately only the woman knew for certain who her son’s father was. As women were left out of war, of a world sustained by force, our gender was relegated, and the foreseeable result is that the history of humanity is written by men.
When I say that, in spite of this starting point, we have improved a lot, I refer to the fact that now war, violence, and the use of force that have traditionally sustained patriarchy do not occupy the absolute position they had before. Different aspects of women’s emancipation have contributed to this, such as sexual freedom, birth control or the rise of women to prominent social positions. This is a big step, but it is only the first. Other actions must be taken, like making men get more involved so that women can step fully into world management, or simply acknowledging that this world needs women. The world needs women because we are less arrogant, we have developed a greater capacity for listening and empathy, probably because we have spent thousands of years taking care of others, something that men have a hard time doing. In traditional societies, a woman listened without being able to act; she tried to understand; if a son became a murderer, the father disinherited him, rejected him as son, but a woman would still consider that son her flesh and blood.
“In my architecture, I try to make sure there is a dialogue, and not just one imposed discourse“
IC: You have said several things. The first is the vision of official history as masculine. I would put it differently. I think that male history is the official one, the history you find in books, in museums… But throughout this whole ‘official’ time there were changes in food and gastronomy, in people’s way of dressing, sexual habits and hygiene changed, the idea of medicine also changed… and I think that in these aspects of private life women were extremely important. From writing letters to creating a comfortable home, women have played a leading role in the greatest events in the history of humanity, although the official history hasn’t paid attention to them. In my view, there is a reassessment of the roles of gender in architecture, an acknowledgement of those aspects in the heritage of humanity that seem minor details in the discourse of major academies or museums, but which are essential to social progress. Those who went to war were able to go because someone had taken care of them when they were little, had provided them health, an education… In all those tasks women have played a prominent role.
That is why I think that perhaps another perspective of art and of history could make us see that we do have a female heritage.
CP: The relationship between architecture and feminity offers interesting examples. A Victorian house can seem very feminine, in the sense that it is very legible, filled as it is with human traces, footprints: you can immediately figure out where the reading, smoking, and cooking took place. It was the product, all of it, of an ethic of detail that followed a discourse, which could be linked, at the same time, to the female universe. Later on the house became more abstract: with Le Corbusier the dwelling became a ‘machine à habiter,’ but after that it was not even ‘for living,’ but simply a pragmatic way of tackling a program erasing all discourse. I would say the world has gradually given in to abstraction because the market has set more abstract guidelines and less connected to women’s traditional universe, which is more specific and has to do more with caregiving.
IC: Yes, I think the market is perhaps accountable for that shift towards the abstract, but also towards the epic: that situation in which only the great possession, the great feat, the great emblem, the great achievement seem to count, and less attention is paid to the details, to the elements of everyday life. As you were saying, the Victorian house is an example, and leaves traces everywhere of its daily activities. And that is what modernity has eliminated completely. I’d say the market has managed to make the most of that trend, but this has happened in complicity with the academy, culture, and architects in the sense that we still think about Ornament is Crime: we still deny that those everyday aspects are relevant.
CP: Sometimes I ask myself why the architectures I dislike deny their ties with people and things: buildings that, not by coincidence, are photographed without people. That’s why I always say that I look for a contaminated architecture, I want to photograph architecture that is alive, which reflects how people move, how they feel inside it. What’s sad is that these architectures that exclude the human are incredibly successful, also among everyday people, which makes me think that perhaps people are in need of that epic you are talking about.
IC: I have the feeling that precisely that praise of the more epic aspects, that denial of the importance of details and of everyday life, is somehow the origin of that separation between civil society and architecture as a profession. There is a temporary factor – we’re in an economic crisis, a crisis of the production model, an ecological crisis – and maybe the way in which women have been educated, their culture and their way of acting is part of the solution. This is not a call for protection, but a call for an opportunity and a strategy. I always say there is a first and a second feminism that advocate equal rights for women and for men: the right to vote, the right to take on public posts or the right to have a political role in society. And, next, the right to be part of an executive committee or of company management: the possibility of being part of the decision-making groups in society, but trying to make sure that equal rights involve equal roles, that is, making the woman perform like a man. We are in a situation in which there should be a revision of feminism associated to the idea that the environment and nature put us, as human species, in our place: a more vulnerable place where we might not want to be men. Perhaps I have no interest in being president of a political party or of a company if that means I won’t be able to balance my private life and my public life, if that means I’ll have to give up maternity…
“The way in which women have been educated, their culture and their manner of acting, is part of the solution“
CP: But society too, and not just men, maintains the traditional gender roles. Today we know what type of feminism we need to defend, but I don’t want anything given to me, so to speak. I don’t want to be chosen for a post just because I’m a woman. I consider myself a better architect than many other architects. I have a vision of the world that is complemented by other visions of the world. History, culture, genetics, or biology have led us to perceive things in different ways. In this context, women must claim the essential and active role of the female condition. I don’t want to be given half of something: I forgo charity and don’t want to be labelled or pigeonholed. I see life as a whole, and in life there are aspects that respond to a male vision and others that come from a female vision. So when you say you wouldn’t want to be a company director because you would have to give up many things in life, I think no one who steps into that role should be expected to give up certain things. That’s why I say that, in the end, the market is the winner in all this: the only thing that counts is productivity, short-term benefits which demand huge sacrifices… This is what we should fight for: a fuller life with multiple and complementary visions.
IC: Joining messages, I think that the transition of women into the labor market is a collective advantage, not for women, but for society as a whole. It’s a matter of vindicating, reasserting the value, and placing at the service of society a series of tools – which have been acquired and naturalized – for work and for dialogue, as well as a cultural heritage which up to now haven’t been part of the conversations about public life. Do we give immigrants permission just to live in our country or do we let them change the rules? Because maybe the right thing is not only letting them live like we do, but letting them change some of our rules so that society can evolve towards greater cosmpolitanism.
CP: Every time there has been a rise in knowledge, diversity, cross-cultural contamination, it has brought moments of peace and also of prosperity. But cultural exchange has always needed mutual involvement, otherwise the result is isolation, and, when you close yourself to the world and to others, prosperity ends. That’s why I think exclusionary nationalisms only lead to conflict.