The Forgotten Feminist Architects Who Changed the Face of London

The Women's Design Service and other female-led organizations wanted cities to put women first, not second.

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Nov 12 2015, 4:50pm

Photo by Jovo Jovanovic via Stocksy

It is easy to forget that the buildings and streets we live and work inside were designed according to practices evolved by men over centuries. From minor inconveniences, such as not being able to reach the floor on your average-sized bar stool, to feeling unsafe as we walk home at night, women are forced to endure countless burdens as a result of a male bias in architecture, design, and urban planning.

This is the forgotten history of a group of women from London who came together in the '80s to resist it.

The Women's Design Service (WDS) was a British research collective that believed cities needed to be radically altered to cater to the needs of women. Formed in 1986, the group came at a time of heavy critique towards the urban environment. Disability activists, for instance, campaigned for greater wheelchair access on public transport, and the mandatory inclusion of white dots printed at eye-level on glass doors to help those with visual impairments.

At the same time, a concept known as the 'Defensible Space Theory,' coined by American scholar Oscar Newman, was steadily gaining ground in the UK. It maintained that crime and neighbourhood safety could be eliminated, or at least reduced, through design. The WDS rightly felt that the theory lacked a gendered approach, and that the causes of women's vulnerability in the city were still being overlooked.

"We saw well-meaning men once again deciding that their theories were best suited for meeting the needs of women," recalls Vron Ware, the group's co-founder and now a professor of criminology and sociology at Kingston University.

A book published by Women's Design Service. Photo courtesy of Vron Ware

The approach WDS developed in response was simple: Bring together groups of female residents and work with them to create solutions to the design faults and social issues affecting their security. They also worked as a technical aid agency, helping to house women's interest groups that were struggling to survive following the 1985 dismantling of the Greater London Council, the municipal authority that was credited with fulfilling the accessibility demands of the disability movement.

"Back in the 1970s when I first began studying architecture, there were very few women in the field," explains Wendy Davis, a former member of the WDS management team. "Though thanks to the GLC and the work of some influential architecture professors at North London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University), London began to produce a community of feminist practitioners and thinkers."

Going to the toilet is different for young women and older women, for women of different sizes and from different cultures.

WDS wasn't the only feminist group to emerge from the movement. The Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, founded a few years earlier, achieved acclaim for their work for women in the urban environment. Among their achievements was the Jagonari Women's Educational Resource Centre on Whitechapel Road in East London, whose reinforced railings—designed according to traditional, Bangladeshi patterns—allowed the space to function as a safe haven for women of the Bangladeshi community, which had been targeted in a series of racial attacks.

The feminist arm of what came to be known as the New Architecture Movement in London held at their core a few key gripes. One of which was the idea that the male body should be used as the primary reference point for design practices. Le Corbusier's influential Modulor theory worked on the principle that measurements should be made in reference to the height of an average man with his arm held above his head (approximately 2.20 meters). In contrast, women's (on average) smaller physical credentials had been used as a basis for exclusion right down to the construction process—from bags of concrete weighted to the strength of an average man, to bricks designed to fit in the palm of a man's hand.

This neglect of female biology extended to the way in which basic bodily functions were also dealt with. One of the first targets on WDS' hitlist was the humble public bathroom. At Your Convenience sought to answer a universal problem. Compiled by Vron Ware and Sue Cavannagh—two of the group's three co-founders—the publication explored all of the ways in which public bathrooms were failing to meet women's needs, calling on local authorities to create more facilities and to better equip those in existence. Until WDS came along, men and women's differing toilet habits hadn't been considered beyond the basic fact that one stands up and the other sits down to pee.

Photo courtesy of Vron Ware

"It was a prime example of how to think about women's issues in an intersectional way," Ware explains. "When you start to break the category of women down, you uncover almost every aspect of human experience which ought to have an impact on design of public facilities: Not just the usual questions of childcare, safety and accessibility but also age, cultural background, sexual orientation and so on." Ware's own child even featured in some of the publication's photographed re-enactments of the difficulties faced by young mothers.

At the time, only one company—Magrini, founded by two middle-aged men—was in the business of providing diaper-changing facilities. These were still of the most rudimentary, plastic drop-down variety. Off the back of the publication, several London boroughs installed more, better equipped, and easy-to-use baby changing facilities across the city. Now they are a routine feature of most public toilets, and even the logo denoting baby-changing facilities—designed by Ware and Cavannagh— is a standard in many parts of Europe. Cavanagh also carried out a full appraisal of the toilet facilities designed for the then-new Jubilee Line in the London Underground network.

WDS... fought for women to have a greater say in the design of crèches, playspaces, and nappy changing facilities.

In a glorious crusade, WDS brought to the public policy arena the largely overlooked issues of menstruation, bladder weakness, and pregnancy. They applied pressure on local authorities to take note of the monthly farce of synthetic cotton and plastic applicators that women are forced to endure, and asked for improved sanitary waste facilities. They also called on builders to sort out insanely long bathroom queues by designating more women's cubicles than male urinal spaces.

Small change perhaps, compared to debates on equal pay and political representation. But not when you consider that the public urinal is still only open to men. Women on the other hand are forced to keep on moving, thighs clenched in a bladder-defying dance until we reach the nearest McDonalds. This unfairness isn't just annoying, but limits many of us in what we drink, and in some extreme cases, the kind of establishments we are happy to visit.

WDS also fought for women to have a greater say in the design of crèches, playspaces, and nappy changing facilities. It wasn't always popular with some feminists, who argued that childcare shouldn't be treated as a solely female issue. But while WDS resisted misogyny, their task was also always about addressing the more immediate needs of women—however outdated and unfair they might appear.

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It might have been seen as a wilful act of gender stereotyping by some, but transformed the landscape of childcare in Britain, making life easier for women who were forced to bear the majority of parental responsibilities and arguably empowering them to fight the bigger fights.

WDS also published several reports on the changes needed in order for women to feel safer in the city, as well as how to make housing safer and more accessible to older women. It led to plans that were implemented across several London boroughs, as well as in Manchester and Bristol, to ensure that communal housing for the elderly was well lit and regularly maintained.

When Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government cut local authority funding, WDS and organizations like it failed to survive. The legacy of these efforts has been largely lost. In 2015, women are still forced to speed-walk between functioning street lamps, keys poised from between clenched fists.

As our cities continue to undergo radical physical, as well as social and economic change, it's never been more important for feminists to have a seat at the table. But with limited funding and limited political will from the municipal authorities to support such initiatives, it's a tall order making anything happen—which should give you something to think about the next time you're desperate for a public bathroom.