April 1, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 13

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    Conference will explore gender, social change and the built environment

    By Amy Rust
    News Office

    Exploring the relationship between gender and architecture at first may seem a strange task. But as the Center for Gender Studies will demonstrate in its upcoming conference, Embodied Utopias: Gender, Social Change and the Built Environment, the links between the two concepts raise some interesting social and political questions.

    “We hope to talk about how architects, urban planners, philosophers and activists think about the impact of city planning and architecture on people’s experiences with their gender and sexuality,” said Leora Auslander, Associate Professor in History and Director of the Center for Gender Studies. The conference will gather experts from a variety of technical and academic disciplines, including history, theoretical architecture, literary criticism, urban planning, philosophy and art history, who will look for “answers to how the aesthetics, form and process of building structures and cities are related to how people perceive themselves as men and women,” explained Auslander.

    As an example, she pointed to the session titled “Making Space: Women and Social Action,” which will include a presentation on how female patrons and architects transformed urban space in Berlin. “The session really asks ‘How does it matter whether patrons and architects are women or men, given the resulting space?’” said Auslander. In some cases, it matters a lot––space often affects people differently, depending upon their experiences as a man or a woman.

    Men and women may perceive and create spaces differently, said Auslander. “We can ask why architecture is a male-dominated field, and we can also ask whether we should care,” she added.

    Rebecca Zorach, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History and one of the conference organizers, said many of the conference sessions will look at the social and political results of progressive-era, “Utopian” social movements as well as contemporary international developments. Turn-of-the-century social movements, led by organizations such as Hull House, sought to alleviate urban poverty, said Zorach. Unfortunately, attempts to improve city slums often paid little attention to the needs of residents and resulted in projects that are among the worst disasters of 20th-century urban planning. “At the conference, we will see if it’s possible to imagine nonauthoritarian utopias,” she said.

    The idea for Embodied Utopias came from several sources. It continues the study of themes examined during a Center for Gender Studies conference held last year. That conference, University and the City, looked at how gender, class and sexuality have played out historically through the built space of the University and its neighborhood.

    Embodied Utopias also was a natural outgrowth from both Auslander’s and Zorach’s academic interests: Auslander does work in the politics of aesthetics and design, while Zorach studies gender, sexuality and politics in the visual arts, including architecture. Both women saw a possibility for highly interdisciplinary and interuniversity work as well, given the University does not have a technical school for architecture or urban planning.

    “We wanted to embody the Utopia in the planning of the conference itself,” said Auslander. “We have cross-university, cross-hierarchical speakers who represent the diversity the conference will examine.”

    The organizers also wanted to bring new voices into the discussion of built space. “The discussion of gender often remains outside the field of architecture and there’s a lot of talk of ‘space’ in the humanities and social sciences that doesn’t take into account the specificity of the built environment in physical terms. So, there is potential for cross-fertilization on both sides,” said Zorach.

    Through Embodied Utopias, Auslander hopes attendees will contribute to the ongoing debate about the past and present of gender, politics and urban planning. “What we learn from past urban projects can affect the politics of future design,” added Zorach.

    Embodied Utopias will begin at 1 p.m. Friday, April 16, with a session titled “Embodying the City: Beyond the Public/Private Divide.” The keynote address, “The Time of Architecture,” delivered by Elizabeth Grosz from the State University of New York, Buffalo, will take place at 6:30 p.m. April 16, and the conference will continue through Sunday, April 18. All events are free and open to the public and will take place in the Judd Hall Auditorium, 5835 S. Kimbark Ave. The conference is supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

    For registration information, contact Julia Nitti at (773) 702-9936 or via e-mail at julia@cheerful.com. Information also is available on the Center for Gender Studies Web site: http://humanities.uchicago.edu/cgs.