Ghost Of Our Cities II: Discussing Urban History with Gregorio Astengo


The issue of gender inequality in architecture is a topic that deserves more attention and discussion, as highlighted by the insights shared by Gregorio Astengo, an architect and historian who holds a Ph.D. from the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. 

Despite the growing recognition of the importance of gendered spaces and gender studies in architecture, it is still essentially a topic of theoretical debate rather than practical application.

Regarding the fundamental principles that underlie our design and thought processes, it is unrealistic to disregard the influence of our limitations and biases. As a result, issues’ persistence and profound impact can be attributed to a deficiency in knowledge or an inclination to incorporate social sciences into architecture.

“I have to start by saying that this is not my expertise, which is certainly part of the problem you’re looking at. So I’ll try to be as honest as possible,” shared Astengo at the beginning of our talk, before our Q & A.

Let’s see what Astengo has to say, now…

In today’s practice, to what extent does an urban planner consider gender studies?

I am an architect. I studied architecture. I’ve worked briefly on it. However, my expertise is mainly in history. I have gained insight into current trends by observing my surroundings. 

In urban planning, cities remain largely planned according to priorities that have mostly stayed the same in the past few centuries. Issues related to mobility, public space, and domesticity continue to be discussed similarly as they were in the postwar period. 

While gender studies and the importance of gendered spaces are being recognized, they remain a topic of theoretical debate rather than practical application. The work environment is still male-dominated despite most architecture university attendees being female. This highlights the need for a discussion and attention to the issue. 

To address the problem of gender in urban spaces and planning, it is essential to look at the city differently and change the priorities of urban planning. This would give legitimacy to the practice and prevent it from being instrumentalized or seen as a form of greenwashing.

To what extent do our built environments reflect patterns of gender-based inequality?

The built environment reflects gender-based inequality, particularly in the design of homes. 

In Europe, for example, houses are still designed along traditional principles that follow a male-oriented paradigm. The kitchen, for instance, is designed for specific purposes and roles. These conventional notions of family and home must change to achieve gender equality. This issue extends beyond the home and encompasses the city as a whole.

Gender inequality is connected to other forms, such as racial and class inequality. To plan a more inclusive and equal city, we must expand our understanding of equality to include all minorities, including those affected by gender bias. 

Architects can propose changes to these traditional notions and offer more flexibility in the design of private and public spaces. However, it is essential to note that different contexts will have other traditions and customs that must also be considered.

Since you are already talking about some residential issues, I would like to ask you, when mass suburbanization, particularly in the North American 1950s, occurred, to what extent do you believe that gender inequality played a role? And how much was there a sort of agenda that architecture wanted to participate in?

Indeed, the issue of gender inequality is evident in the design and use of domestic spaces, with traditional female roles within the family unit dictating their layout and function over generations. The suburban home is a clear example, designed to cater to a middle-class families of a specific social and economic status. This social inequality is inextricably linked to economic inequality, with the system of production embedded within domestic spaces sustaining a capitalist system. 

Gender inequality is thus connected to broader social problems, with the two issues consequentially connected. 

It is possible to embed gender studies within an architectural curriculum, but it is not an easy and challenging without justification. 

However, it is already present to some extent, and there is room for improvement. The problem lies in the fact that is architecture and the city are still being discussed through the same academic principles as before. Courses need to change at a deeper level to deconstruct the city and rethink it differently, and traditionalist ways of looking at architecture need to change. 

The curriculum of ideas has potential, but there is a lot of scrutiny on the grander scale. To transform, changes need to happen at different scales. The studio courses provide an excellent opportunity to experiment with and apply theories in design.

Do you believe the qualitative or quantitative study of social issues should be a matter of bachelor’s or master’s degrees in architecture?

The question is significant, and I propose that architecture students receive fundamental knowledge of spatial manipulation, structures, and technical understanding at the bachelor level. 

However, design-oriented knowledge becomes less crucial as the course progresses. Architects must prioritize qualitative and quantitative expertise to address social and political issues such as gender inequality, sustainability, and urban development. Architects should act as social mediators to address these concerns, recognizing that design is a tool to materialize problems rather than solve them. 

Ultimately, architects must acknowledge how these problems should be tackled and focus on social, political, and economic issues instead of design for design’s sake. While it is challenging to effect change within a capitalist market, the first step is acknowledging the problem and attempting to address it.

To what extent does urban planning consider urban mobility and solve the gender discrepancies in the urban fabric?

Yes, there is a clear gender bias in urban mobility that stems from the fact that cities were historically designed with a car-centric focus, a traditionally male-dominated object associated with capitalism. While this bias may not be explicitly addressed in urban planning, it is undoubtedly present and must be acknowledged. Urban planning must be more inclusive and explicitly consider the diverse needs and perspectives of different social classes and racial and gender groups. 

The citizen cannot be viewed as a neutral figure but as a complex individual with unique needs and experiences. Urban planning must embrace complexity and problematize issues to create more inclusive and equitable cities. This is a critical challenge that requires attention and action.

I would like to thank Gregorio Astengo for his valuable time. It is meaningful to note that the issue of gender inequality in architecture is a complex and interconnected problem that requires a concerted effort from the industry and academia to address. 

It is time to prioritize the design of gendered spaces in urban planning and take a more inclusive approach to create a built environment that truly reflects all individuals’ diverse needs and experiences.

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