Ecofeminism in Architecture: Empowerment and Environmental Concern

Anandaloy Center / Studio Anna Heringer. © Stefano Mori

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The concept of sustainability emerged at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm in 1972 and was coined by Norwegian Gro Brundtland in the report “Our Common Future” (1987). According to this definition, the sustainable use of natural resources should “meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” However, despite the urgency of the concept and the constant evolution it has undergone over time, its application is often restricted to the controlled use of natural resources and the preservation of wildlife. In other words, it treats the situation from the perspective of “man versus nature,” as a dichotomous view, with the loss of a holistic perspective.

This dubious conceptualization of modern environmentalism is constantly tested and has opened up space for many criticisms, including feminist criticism. In the text “Ecofeminist Philosophy” (2000), philosopher Karen J. Warren analyzed the social construction of the “man-nature” dichotomy and its negative impact on women and the environment, suggesting that “women and nature have always been understood as the ‘other’ in patriarchal societies” and that the dichotomies of man-woman, culture-nature, mind-body, and reason-emotion in Western society have led to a predominance of supposedly “masculine” characteristics and a “logic of dominance.” A long historical precedent of associating women with nature, culminating in the oppression and marginalization of both.

Anandaloy Center / Studio Anna Heringer. © Kurt Hoerbst

Within the practice of the built environment, landscape architect Elizabeth Meyer observed that these hierarchies, when applied to projects, not only foster the exclusion of women and other marginalized groups but also perpetuate a separation between humans and other forms of life such as animals and plants. This separation, however, “puts people outside the ecosystems they are part of and reinforces an ethic of control or ownership, rather than partnership and interrelationship.” In this sense, to address sustainability and ecology from a broader perspective, which understands sustainable development from a holistic perspective and moves away from the dichotomy of dominance, ecofeminism emerges.

Although it is increasingly present in discussions, ecofeminism was coined by the French Françoise d’Eaubonne as early as 1974 and uses the basic feminist principles of gender equality, proposing a reevaluation of non-patriarchal or non-linear structures and a vision of the world that respects organic processes, holistic connections, and the merits of intuition and collaboration.

Ecofeminism also draws attention to the fact that women are disproportionately affected by environmental issues. According to a report from the United Nations, since women around the world generally have less monetary wealth than men and therefore depend more on the natural environment, they are more likely to be displaced by climate change and have to travel long distances to obtain resources, such as water, as dry seasons extend. In addition, women’s exclusive responsibility for children and the elderly, and as food providers, puts them on the front line in climate-induced disasters.

However, even though women are directly affected by climate change and are often responsible for setting up emergency shelter homes, they are constantly excluded from planning for reconstruction in disasters and conversations about climate policies. The result is that both architectural spaces and urban design end up being conceived exclusively from a male perspective. This means they are not meeting the needs of the marginalized – in this case, women and nature.

Anandaloy Center / Studio Anna Heringer. © Kurt Hoerbst

Based on these situations, initiatives have emerged that seek to offer mechanisms that contribute both to women’s development and to nature preservation. Many of them create bridges between women’s vernacular knowledge and their daily needs. Architect Yasmeen Lari is a recognized name in this practice, although she does not identify herself as an ecofeminist. Using clay and lime, Lari’s project for the Pakistani Chulah (typical outdoor stove) is low-cost, smokeless and replaces an extremely polluting structure for women’s health. An elevated platform of clay bricks also protects the area from floods and provides a more hygienic and ventilated workstation. Indigenous practices were essential to the project’s success, empowering illiterate women with the knowledge they already possess.

Building Chulahs: Innovative Traditional Stoves, 70,000 Self-built. Image © Yasmeen Lari/Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

Female empowerment and environmental concerns can also be seen in other projects such as the Anandaloy Center for People with Disabilities, built in Bangladesh. The center relied on mostly female labor working with local and natural materials such as earth and bamboo. In addition to the center’s important social mission, it also houses a textile workshop that sells its products at local fairs.

Ecofeminist precepts show sustainability goes far beyond solar panels and green roofs. As the term has developed over time, it has become increasingly complex. It is traversed by aspects related to culture, gender, social class, and economy, among others. This breadth shows us that true sustainability requires a cultural, not just technological, revolution that encompasses the needs of women but also those of other marginalized groups, being attentive to popular knowledge and its potential.

Anandaloy Center / Studio Anna Heringer. © Kurt Hoerbst

Camilla Ghisleni

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