Design and the Gender Revolution

In “His & Hers: Designing for a Post-Gender Society,” Suzanne Tick makes a case for the employment of gender-neutral design by modern interior designers. She states that “Identity is no longer clearly defined as female or male, but by increasingly visible manifestations of sexuality or lack thereof.” Being one of the United States’ leading textile designers, she has the background to speak on the issue and the primacy to affect real change in the industry.

Tick describes a new era in the societal perception of gender. She states that “masculine and feminine definitions are being switched and obscured”*, and that individuality in identity are being widely accepted in many realms and institutions. Examples include the now commonplace appearance of androgynity, college students abstaining from identification on gender forms, and middle school students asking for unspecified or nonconforming identification. It is in her view that designers must keep up with the progression of institutions such as education if the field is going to stay relevant and appropriate.

She argues that designers must cleanly break from the modernist school of the twentieth century. She explains how this school is influenced by male thought from both the creative and the user ends. Male designers are creating public spaces that will be ultimately controlled by men. This means that the men who control office spaces and other structures will have their needs addressed while others must conform to the style. As women achieve parity in the workplace and nonconforming identities become commonplace, design must change to reflect the needs of the new demographic. This can be done through the employment of gender-neutral aesthetics. She demonstrates how this is already occurring in fashion, as female clothing takes on a masculine cut and male makeups become acceptable. Examples of its implementation occur elsewhere, such as the furnishing designs of Nika Zupanc and the art of Ernesto Artillo. With regards to interior design, she sees a public desire for the incorporation of nature, open floor plans, and soft texturing of colors and materials.

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The Public Restroom of this Century

In “Making Bathrooms more Accommodating” by Emily Bazelon, she advocates for greater acceptance of accommodation in the realm of bathroom equality. The central assumption of this is of a shift in the view on the concept of accommodation from one group making compulsory changes for the benefit of another to an idea of mutual concessions. This concept is explored through a brief history of the public restroom and anecdotes of concessions at different levels.

Emily Bazelon states that one of the most basic needs of a human individual is “to belong.” This belonging is often solidified by personal and public acknowledgement of membership in a particular group. For transgender individuals this often manifests in using the bathroom of their choice without threat or discomfort. In addition to the practical necessity of being able to fulfill their physiological needs, the use of their preferred bathroom signifies membership in their identified gender. It is difficult to gain acknowledgement as a female if regulation requires a transwoman individual to only use the male restroom. This is a reason for which the bathroom debate has reached such fervor: it requires society as a whole to acknowledge the existence of non-conforming gender identities and to put them on the same level as those in the binary system.

Other examples in the history of the public bathroom show similar meanings for the acceptance of particular groups in society. The first iteration is the creation of female facilities in public places. This was significant in that it meant society acknowledged the increased role of women in the public sphere and the requirement for their comfort at offices, libraries, and other spaces. It might be said that this was an accommodation to the increasing numbers of women in these spaces. Since the institution of gender-specific public restrooms, they have come to be recognized as an immutable aspect of public life, and even have taken on a culture of their own. Women’s bathrooms are seen as respites from the male world, where females can socialize without judgement of their male counterparts. Men’s restrooms on the other hand, are characterized as dirty and impersonal, where socialization is frowned upon. In regards to efficiency, women often lament that men’s restrooms move quickly or remain empty through the use of urinals while women wait in long lines for stalls.

Another instance of accommodation was the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. This legislation created means for disabled individuals to access public spaces that would otherwise bar them due to features such as stairs and complicated doors. In the bathroom, it creates a larger stall with bars and a private sink. This bill did not receive much backlash and has been successfully implemented throughout the country.

Emily Bazelon and activists argue that reasonable accommodation for transgender individuals is to allow them to use the restroom or locker rooms of their own choice. This has become a contentious issue as many women argue that it is simply a modern example of men imposing their will on women and having the all-female enclave of the public restroom be shattered by people with male anatomy. Another concern is that regardless of identity, transwomen maintain their male advantage of a higher average strength, leading to safety concerns. The author argues that “it’s about relatively small adjustments made for the sake of coexistence,” proposing that more unisex bathrooms can be established and privacy curtains can be put in locker room showers. She claims that this is helpful for all people who may have concerns of privacy or fears of undressing in front of others.

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Schindler’s Theory of Architectural Exclusion

In Sarah Schindler’s publication, “Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination And Segregation Through Physical Design Of The Built Environment,” she identifies the features of city design that intentionally and unintentionally contribute to the exclusion of so-called “undesirable” populations. These often include people of color and the poor. Regardless of intentions, this form of social engineering leads to the division of racial and class identities in ways that are difficult to reverse.

Schindler describes three ways in which cities what she describes as “regulation.” The first two are blatantly obvious to viewers of most backgrounds: the use of laws and ordinances, and the use of threats and intimidation. The third is what she terms as the theory of “architectural exclusion.” The first two are clear and unveiled attempts at discrimination, making them easy targets in civil rights suits and activism. Architectural exclusion is much more difficult to address because its causal effect on regulation requires much deeper investigation to ascertain (1942). In many cases, the architect or urban planner is not even acting on conscious biases, but rather on the mandate to improve efficiency in the city. Schindler identifies two major categories of urban features that contribute to exclusion. These include physical barriers to access as well as transit system placement (1953).

Physical barriers describes a wide array of specific features but all share in the fact that, by design or externality, they hamper a specific group’s access to another area. Often it is the case that lower-class citizens and people of color are unable (without significant effort) to reach attractions or neighborhoods that are designed for and populated by upper-class, caucasian residents. Schindler cites the example of a road in Long Island leading to a popular local beach (1953-1954). When an architect was tasked with designing bridges over this roadway, he lowered them to the point that it would be impossible to fit city buses under them. Thus, he was able to exclude the large group of citizens who rely on public transportation, usually people of color and the poor. Biographical evidence points to racial bias as being the largest motivator of this architect.

While this anecdote suggests racial motivations behind this decision, most related barriers can be attributed to oversight or overridden priorities such as efficient traffic flow. An example of this is the construction of one-way roads in residential areas to support continuous travel while coincidentally making neighborhoods more confusing and unnavigable by outsiders (1969). Another example of this is the lack of pedestrian infrastructure that allows foot traffic through the expressways that so often divide minority communities from commercial and recreational centers (1954-1955, 1965). This may be described as being for the purpose of public safety or efficiency but nonetheless is effective in what may constitute a “blockade” of minority communities.

The other major method by which architectural regulations are made is the placement and operation of metropolitan transit systems including buses, subways, and light rail systems (1960-1961). Rationally, access to public transit would be beneficial to residents, but many upper-class citizens actively campaign against metro systems to prevent an influx of undesirable groups into their communities. This affects job access, recreational activities, and commercial opportunities for lower-class citizens and people of color. Another administrative option to enforce exclusion is the imposition of parking permits on residential streets (1972-1973). This prevents outsiders from accessing a community without express allowance by a resident and restricts the ability to travel freely throughout the city. Both of these features are common to many American metropolitan areas such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.

The built environment carries with it a rhetoric that often goes unnoticed by the residents it affects. Nevertheless, it remains an integral part of the lives of millions of urban individuals throughout the world. Ostensibly, urban design may have the aim to increase efficiency and maximize economic output, but professionals in the field must maintain awareness of the externalities of architectural regulation that fragment communities and segregate groups into stratas of class and race.

Space in Political Theory

In chapter 2 of David Fleming’s City of Rhetoric, he contends that contemporary political theory largely ignores physical place in its conception of the Citizen. In this conception, the citizen is viewed as one in a sea of spaceless, homogenous entities. Fleming posits that modern advancement, rather than leading to the rapid de-spatialization of politics, has in fact reaffirmed the importance of space and place in the public. In view of this, past theories must be responded to in order to confront our shifting reality.

Fleming claims that the societies of Athens in its height, Venice, Genoa, and early Rome are the manifestations of Republicanism in its purest practical form. It is a temporal and geographic representation of the State in which the highest virtue and greatest responsibility of the individual is the active participation of the citizen in civic life. In fact, this is crucial as the political arguments of the individual are meant to steer society as a whole in new directions. This theory can no longer be wholly applied to any current society as it largely runs antithetical to what we now identify as the human right to act as an individual rather than a servant of the “common good.”

Liberalism would argue that societal direction and individual freedom comes not from argument and political action, but rather from laws, institutions, and procedures. The most salient objective of the individual is not participation in civic life, but enrichment and happiness in private life. A republican citizen works for the common good while the liberal one works toward their own ends.

Both of these theories maintain the importance of place in society. In a Republic, space is a small community in which all citizens are familiar with their fellow community-members. Life occurs in the public arena of forums, parks, squares, and stages. The conception of individual life is constant public discourse by which to ensure collective self-governing of the society by ethical and interested citizens. The spatial aspect of liberalism is private. It occurs in homes, at jobs, and in the pursuit of personal interests. This means that the places of liberal societies are insulated from its politics rather than guiding it.

Fleming argues that neither of these theories quite explain the postmodern societies in which we now live. Fleming believes that interconnection and intersectionality is the spatial aspect of today. This is the phenomenon of the network, decentralized yet interacting horizontally and vertically in a flexible structure of shifting and changing parts. It is the pivot to the digital age that brings the network into society. Fleming identifies three key spatial features of this new era: globalization, diaspora, and multipositionality. Globalization is the movement of entities across the points of a network. In the physical world this entails the global transfer of information as well as capital, labor, and products. Diaspora is the constant shift in demographics as migrants and tourists attain relative ease of access across the world. Multipositionality is the shift to identity as being varied and contradictory within each individual. This revolution in the components of society requires an equally revolutionary theoretical framework with which to understand it.