The Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative Was Ahead of Its Time

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Matrix Feminist Design Co-Operative
From left to right: Matrix Design Co-operative members Barbara MacFralane, Anne Thorne, Susan Francis, Julia Dwyer, Cath Taylor and Kate Baker.

In 2021, at England’s Newcastle University, architecture professor Katie Lloyd Thomas was working with a group of second-year university students in a reading group. Lloyd Thomas’s choice for the group was Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment, a 1984 book written by Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, a collaborative of women who came together in the late 1970s to imagine what a feminist architecture practice might look like. For Lloyd Thomas’ students, the experience was transformative: Through the text, they began to see how gender shaped the built environment that surrounded them, uncovering deep-rooted features of patriarchal placemaking that Making Space helped to defamiliarize.

“The students started reading it thinking that there wasn’t discrimination around gender and space, and maybe even that they weren’t really experiencing discrimination in their lives, but they came out with all kinds of questions,” Lloyd Thomas says. “A lot of the students were surprised at how similar [their experiences] were to the 1980s.”

Lloyd Thomas was once herself a young student shaped by the book. Having discovered it as an undergrad, she later worked with several original Matrix members in a group called Taking Place, and says that the book has repeatedly played a critical role in her career.

As these students’ experiences suggest, Making Space contains an enduring relevance that still captures the need for a feminist understanding of space today. It’s a work that has impacted several generations of architects, urban planners, and feminists who want to transform their surroundings.

Now, with the creation of a digital archive housing Matrix’s efforts, a retrospective exhibit hosted at London’s Barbican center, and the reissue of Making Space by Verso in March, Matrix will have more opportunities to reach a wider audience, a trend that its founding members reflect upon with gratitude. While their initial work is now four decades old, the collective’s process-oriented approach, rooted in lessons learned from the feminist movements that inspired its creation, retains its relevance today.

“I’ve seen a campaign called ‘Make Space for Girls,’ which is about teenage girls in male-dominated public spaces, and another about sex workers and their use of city streets,” says Francis Bradshaw, a founding member of the collective . “It’s so pleasing to know our work is still useful for campaigning activities and is being taken in many different directions.”

What Is Feminist Architecture?

Rather than prescribing a fixed, immutable form of feminist architecture, the Matrix, which formed in London in 1981, insisted that all architects needed to understand the needs of their building’s users, incorporating their perspectives at every stage of the design process. in the Making Space chapter “Women, Architects and Feminism,” writer Jane Darke argued “that architects are out of touch with those who use their buildings, and that their professional training is part of the process that removes them from many of the people they design for.” Merely getting more women to become architects does nothing if those women are still trained in male-dominated methodologies. Instead, Darke wrote, “The possibility of women architects adopting a different attitude depends in part on the existence of a feminist movement, and on whether the movement stresses the problems of women in general or only those of a limited group.”

If a resurgent interest in the Matrix is ​​partially a marker of a burgeoning feminist consciousness that’s bubbled up in the past few years, its origins are firmly nested in leftist and feminist organizing of the 1970s and 1980s. The group grew out of the New Architecture Movement, a collective of left-wing architects founded in 1975. According to Spatial Agency, an online encyclopedia of architectural movements, NAM “set out to criticize the conventional notions of professionalism and the internalized structure of the profession, and in particular the system of patronage where the designer of a building has little contact with its user.” These values ​​were extended by Matrix, whose emphasis on the design process led to some of its most enduring influences on architectural practice.

Matrix members began organizing together in 1978 under the name Women’s Design Collective, moving beyond NAM due in part to the shortcomings in its analysis of gender issues. (Another offshoot of the Design Collective, the Mitra group, emphasized getting more women into the profession.) Almost immediately, its members began projects that expressed this dissatisfaction, like the curation of the “Home Truths” exhibition in 1980, which sought a question the “natural” qualities of the home as a domestic space. These projects set the stage for the creation of Making Spacea book that was written and reworked over the next four years, synthesizing the group’s divergent interests in criticizing existing architectural norms while exploring the ways in which the built environment could better serve women.

While it doesn’t appear in the text of Making Space, the early years of Matrix were also significantly influenced by the practice of squatting that was prevalent in ’70s and ’80s leftist urban organizing. Several members of the group lived in London squats during the group’s early years. For architect Jos Boys, who lived in a communal home for five years and worked around the corner in a cooperative office space, squatting created the necessary preconditions for her work de ella with Matrix to emerge. As she told Field Journal in 2017: “Squatting meant that I had access to this other space that was free and was very easy to rent, and so we used to have our meetings there, and Matrix, both the practice and the book, grew out of it.”

Jagonari, “Rise Up, Women”

While Making Space serves as Matrix’s enduring philosophical document, the group was able to complete several building projects together—funded primarily through government grants—before disbanding in 1994. The group’s first full-scale project, the Jagonari Women’s Educational Resource Centre, is still their best-known . Built in East London in 1987, Jagonari (which means “Rise Up, Women” in Bengali) emerged at the behest of a community of Bangladeshi women who sought to build a community center capable of serving a diverse set of needs. What began as a request for a modest, one-room portacabin soon became plans for a full-fledged community center. A feasibility study led Matrix and the Bangladeshi women’s group to ask for more resources, and the project was funded by the Greater London Council.

“We realized pretty quickly that they needed more than a portacabin, but when we asked them about their request, they said that they didn’t expect that they could get anything else,” Thorne says. “We said, ‘Well, why don’t we just put together all of the things that you’ve talked about?,’ and to everyone’s amazement, they said ‘yes.’”

The resulting building was a four-story structure, with a secluded, mosque-style courtyard at the building’s rear. Jagonari’s users helped Matrix choose its bricks by going on a “brick picnic” to look for inspiration around London, while designing the interior to offer flexible uses centering around childcare, support for domestic abuse survivors, language classes, and other resources. Due to concerns about racist violence against the building’s inhabitants, Matrix incorporated narrow windows covered with South Asian–inspired window grilles. Thorne also notes that the building was likely the first in London designed both by and for women, and was among the first to incorporate accessibility features not mandated until the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

Unfortunately, the center closed in 2015 due to financial problems. Efforts are underway by the British preservation organization The Twentieth Century Society to preserve the building as an important piece of architectural history.

Matrix’s impact on architecture, and its vision for a process-oriented, inclusive, self-reflexive design practice, resonates today in an environment in which the built environment remains hostile to large portions of society. Those ongoing concerns make the Matrix’s resurgence that much more impactful, as its founding members continue to offer guidance to younger generations battling similar conditions.

The effort to bring together the cooperative’s archives picked up steam in 2017 when founding member and Making Space co-author Sue Francis passed away. (Another member, Julia Dwyer, passed away in early 2020.) Other members, particularly Boys, sprang into action, pulling together photos, promotional materials, texts, and retrospective videos that stretch across the group’s lifespan. Tied together, the archives reveal an intimate, caring community of curious thinkers whose ambitious efforts to remake their profession never came at the cost of sacrificing each other’s wellbeing, always working in pairs so that group members felt supported and not overworked.

“Some of us had children, or other responsibilities, and we made sure there was always somebody who could pick up your work and knew what you were doing, if you needed to be somewhere else,” Thorne says. “There’s also this idea that if you can keep going [into] the middle of the night, you’re going to be the best architect, but we wanted people to go home, foster their relationships, and do what they needed to support themselves.”

eeded to support themselves.” Official recognition for the group’s impact is still lacking, but its recent revival has served as a reminder to the profession of its influence. The contemporary feminist design collective Part W included Matrix’s members in a list of women who merited consideration for the 2020 Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, which has been given to only one female architect, Zaha Hadid, since its inception in 1848. Still , the group’s merit is apparent, whatever their status is within the profession’s male-dominated hierarchy. As Solma Ahmed, former chair of the Jagonari center, wrote in a letter in support of the group’s nomination: “[Women] work hard, quietly mostly, dedicated to the core without any recognition. I sincerely hope this time they are recognized and rightly given the award for their pioneering, groundbreaking work.”

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