The Autobiography of a Timeless Architect: the story of gender and space in cultures and time through the architect’s eyes

Receiving the Pritzker Architecture Prize late last month really led to ponder the meaning behind it. Was it the physical aesthetic of my architecture that was taken as talent? Was this talent taken as the result of a vision I presumably had? Was this vision taken as a commitment to my trade and the art of a built environment? I am not foolish enough to think that the board of directors could see through the walls of my brain and witness my attempt to build throughout time. I myself have only just began to look around the walls that display my journey throughout time, instead of focusing on the windows into the present that my eyes create. Architecture is a product of a society, economy and chronological context, and at the same time perpetuates these ideas through a static pattern (Cevik, 1995: 39). My search for cultural meaning behind my creations has led me to reflect on past endeavours a few different locations. I figured the best medium for my reflection would be through this blog, so that it is publicly accessible and I no longer feel the guilt of hiding my knowledge.

Understanding life outside of one’s current situation is often difficult to properly grasp. Living in the present is an obstacle when it comes to dissecting what the present actually consists of. The past is somewhere we can go to look at ourselves, and this is where I would like to take you. Even though I descend this path for my own work and personal reflection, as a city architect, everything I create is for you and because of you, and so I find it necessary to bring you along. Humans are such dynamic creatures, and the struggle of architects has always been to provide a static space in which we can exert our influence and presence upon. Spatial organization is a medium that we use every day to express ourselves, and by doing so, this space also becomes a product (Haagsma, 1995: 57). Looking back on some of my past endeavours I realize the social, political and economic notions that influenced my decisions regarding structure and plan. I would like to take you with me, into the past, as I re-evaluate my varying styles over centuries within their separate contexts.

My work begins in Greece. I was an architekton (chief builder) from Athens in the fifth century and would later become a city architect in the Late Hellenistic Age (Coulton, 1977: 15, 29). In my early years I looked up to Hippodamus of Miletus as an urban theorist and strove to plan ideal cities to accommodate the ideal community (Cahill, 2002: 3). However it wasn’t until the last quarter of the fifth century when I managed to get my first glimpse of what it took to be an architect for urban space. The relationship between the city and the state influenced architecture and construction greatly at this time. I was commissioned, among many others, for the new housing initiative on the North Hill of Olynthus (Nevett, 2001: 53). I worked on one block of the 100 houses built and I would like to start, fittingly, at the beginning.

Housing block AV at Olynthus (Nevett, 2001: 368).

When I relocated to Olynthus to being work it seemed to be quite a popular city for migrants, resulting in the need for the construction of housing to be fast, efficient and suitable for the society (Nevett, 2001: 53). Traveling there from Athens took some getting used to, national unity was non existent within Greece back then and the community of Olynthus functioned very differently from Athens (Morgan, 2010: 17). Looking back now I recognize just how much of my own socio-political and economic upbringing I imposed onto the urban household of Olynthus through architecture. I saw their previous domestic construction on the South Hill as haphazardly organized, much like the other men who came with me. (Morgan, 2010: 31). This led to our consensus to resort to a basic design in effort to show more of a constancy in planning (Morgan, 2010: 31). In Athens were I studied architecture and philosophical literature, most houses followed a relatively standardized pattern of organization with a single entrance and courtyard (Nevett, 2005: 84).

This conversion proved to be easier said than done. The limitations of space and the high numbers of inhabitants we had to work with ended up being frustratingly complex. The obstacles where especially exasperating for a beginner like myself who had yet to have the opportunity to dip my toes into the wet mud brick of the domestic space of common people. Before the construction began in the anoikismos of 432 BCE, we had reserved time to create a plan for the space (Morgan, 2010: 32). I was a different man back then, my mindset had been molded by the patrilinear setting and culture, and this was apparent as I began carving domestic space for the citizens. Despite my fellow architects and my attempts to bring our own familiar organization to Olynthus, the space we had to work with and the varying patterns of the daily activities and interactions the community partook in, forced us to abandon some of the Athenian social ideals (Nevett, 2005: 84). The construction of the Olynthian oikos would not mirror the society of Athens, it would merely become an extension of the Olynthian polis. I vividly remember attempting to merge my vision of a single entrance, courtyard style house on a small scale with the irregularity of the Olynthian oikos, seen on the South Hill (Nevett, 2005: 84). The one aspect of domestic architecture that worked universally was the privacy of the home, but the physical separation of public and private spheres did not necessarily mean a separation of social organization and ideals; they are both aspects of the same socio-cultural system (Spain, 1993: 139). Much later Edward Hall would write in 1959 that space is a ‘silent language’ and just another way for a culture to communicate it’s own social constructions (Spain, 1993: 139). Although houses are considered to be basic units of society (in the production, socialization and consumption that takes place within them) they are private and belong to specific individuals (Cevik, 1995: 39) This means each unit’s spatial organization becomes a product of its inhabitants and their specific social, economic and personal values (Cevik, 1995: 39). There is clearly a relationship between the demographic consumption and my structural layout of the household (Cevik, 1995: 49). Back then architecture was a way to create a tangible object of ‘institutionalized patterns of behavior’ in specific locations (Spain, 1993: 137).

I planned for the dwellings I worked on at Olynthus to be two stories, accessible by a wooden staircase (to cut costs) and to have a pitched tile roof (Nevett, 2001: 36). These homes were of the smaller residential type, as I did not yet have a significant enough reputation to design the larger rectangular villas that were to be placed against the city walls nearby (Morgan, 2010: 36). My sites were approximately seventeen meters squared and I was told that there was a possibility that they would be used as spaces of production for either terracotta or textile (Morgan, 2010: 36). This is a concept I was familiar with, as the residential houses along the acropolis in Athens had similar purposes (Morgan, 2010: 36). At Olynthus there was a desire to keep the domestic space private and so my design incorporated techniques to obscure the view from the street and into the center of the house (Nevett, 367). This model had much to do with the desire to control and veil women, since their daily space was the home, therefore needing seclusion of the home. Due to the climate of the region the central location of activity was designed as an inner courtyard rather than a veranda because the latter would create friction with the desire for women and their work to remain out of site (Nevitt, 369). However there was also a need to entertain guests at times, and where could the men of the household take his friends without compromising the inner sanctuary that the house provided for the women? The answer to this was the andron, a room that could be specifically used for these occasions. To ensure privacy I added an anteroom, or at the very least designed the entranceway so that there was no direct line of sight to any other room (Nevitt, 369, 372). However the use of this room evidently ended up being the choice of the family and it is possible that my spatial design, although it physically affected movement within the household, was the product of different social organizations over time.

Plan of one of my house designs showing the andron in the bottom right corner, and its restricted sightlines to other areas of the house (Nevitt, 370).

I designed bedrooms to be placed either in the back of the first floor or on the top floor, as the rooms with most activity should take priority at the front and center of the home. All of these features were meant to unify the diverse community that made up Olynthus by regulating their homes while simultaneously giving them privacy from the neighbours (Cahill, 2002: 19). To bring down the expenses I designed my block of houses so that the north wall of every house was used as the south wall of the one beside it (Cahill, 2002: 40). Despite my acknowledgment of a different community with different needs than the one I was from, the design I created at Olynthus fit the “pastas” type which was a typical style for Classical Greece (Cahill, 2002: 75).

By the fourth century, as an architect, I was expected to be in control of payments and workmanship (Coulton, 1977: 16). This building plan at Olynthus was a great way to ease myself into the world of ancient Greek architecture, and looking back on it now I see that one of the biggest differences from today was the limited distinction between an architect and an engineer (Coulton, 1977: 16). I was satisfied with the outcome at the time and to this day I believe that I created the perfect balance of individual and collective spheres within the domestic space of Olynthus. The home reflected the social ideas prevalent throughout Greece at the time and was a continuation of the marriage ritual, as the home has always and always will be closely related to marriage (Larionescu, 2016: 1).

Fast forward to another realm of my existence to the beginning of the 19th century where I found myself in the United States of America. As I relay my experiences to you from another time and place where I was able to contribute my architectural education, I would appreciate if you kept something in mind. There is a progression, or at least a change, that is evident within the sociopolitical and economic framework and the subsequent alterations I made to my residential designs. Ancient Greece was a selective democracy that only privileged male citizens. The United Sates was very similar in these respects when I arrived, this was admittedly one reason why I chose it to be my next destination, a home away from home one could say. Transition was fairly easy for me, since at the time America was largely incorporating imported architectural styles, and much like the case in ancient Greece, married woman were underprivileged (Giedion, 1967: 23). Women were strictly excluded from the right to any of their earnings and therefore could not own property, which meant that my discussions and plans were going to again be isolated from females (Spain, 1993: 142). After arriving in this new atmosphere I almost immediately came across a man whom I would befriend a man named Andrew Downing and share an idea that I found quite interesting. The idea of a tripartite system, which derived from Hippodamus of Miletus (Cahill, 2002: 3). My new friend Andrew believed that every good American deserved a home and designed them within three categories, wealthy villas, working class cottages, and farmhouses (Schuyler, 2000: 4). We joined together to design what became a relatively standardized unit coined as the ‘Downing Cottage’, a unit that complimented society and was, accepted, appreciated, and popular amongst consumers (Spain,1993: 142). Why the name only reflects his participation is beyond me.

Things inevitably began to change within the social melee of society and the emergence of the New York State Married Women’s Property Act in 1848 and 1860 would alter my future as an architect. New cultural advances would force me to reconsider my motivations behind my architectural design and space (Spain, 1993: 142). At this time I begin to become conscious that it had not just been my talents of creativity and design, or my ability to conceptualize space that defined my work…it was the countless factors that conjoined to produce my cultural surroundings. I had been, and will continue to, mirror the image of the period and place I was find myself; my architecture treads the same path as society. They need each other to perpetuate our traditions and innovations and I realized that architecture is something that reflects the needs and aims of society (Giedion, 1967: 19). The next significant movements to come would include the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Fair Housing Act in the early 1970’s, and the conceptualization of space for my built environment was expanding (Spain, 1993: 142). Not only was my mindset different, so were the ones of the consumers. I had a new audience with different needs to design for and discuss architecture with: women. A census conducted in 1990 showed that the majority of people lived in suburbs rather than in cities and rural regions combined (Marino, 2014: 490). I would like to take you through my participation in the creation of these suburbs by bringing you to Levittown, Long Island.

In 1949 William Levitt and I meticulously decided upon the words “Levittown, A Garden Community,” to label our new development project. This label was meant to feminize the home, making the garden and yard an extension of the house in which women were to care for (Larionescu, 2016: 1). I will not deny that the social perceptions I conformed to at the time involved an implicit countermove against the growing momentum of women’s rights. Reflecting back on it now I do believe that in a way the campaign of a feminized domestic space did give some power to women, as they had an ability to both build and ruin reputations of husbands and households (Lavionescu, 2016: 2). The built environment we were designing was to cater to an upper-middle class where they would be able to reside away from noise pollution and commerce in private communities without having amenities inaccessible (Kelly, 1993: 37–40). Of course this concerned only a white demographic at the time, and so the complications of ethnic unity that I faced in Olynthus did not apply here. The Bank of Manhattan Company funded the project and was one of the groups that approved the two designs we presented to them, along with the Federal Housing Association (Kelly, 1993: 47). The suburbs incorporated ‘cape cod’ and the ‘ranch’ designs, the former having the distinguishing features of symmetrical lines, which we borrowed from colonial New England, and arched roofs (Marino, 2014: 491). The aim was to combine simplicity and the ambiance of summer, relaxation, and a beach house (Marino, 2014: 491). This design was so popular that our initial plan of development which consisted of 2000 houses more than doubled six months into construction (Kelly, 1993: 40).

Exterior view of Cape Cod houses ( Marino, 2014: 492).

By the end of the first phase of construction the community was pleased and we began to design phase two, which incorporated the ranch style home. The goal was to invoke a Californian lifestyle and the discerning features decided upon were a large ‘picture window’ and a wood burning fireplace (Marino, 2014: 491). These ‘picture windows’ allowed a glimpse into the homes from the outside world making it somewhat of a theatrical performance for anyone passing by (Marino, 2014: 495). This simple architectural feature was meant as a portal into the socio-culture of America giving an importance to the home based on who resided there (Marino, 2014: 495). These houses were not meant to be rented like the cape cod ones, they were meant to be purchased. This complimented the government’s facilitation and promotion of land ownership nicely, a value held dear to the Republicans in the white house (Marino, 2014: 493).

Exterior view of Ranch house. (Marino, 2014: 493).

Despite the variations between the cape cod and the ranch, the layout was kept generally the same. Upon walking through the front door the kitchen was to the left and the living room was to the right, further into the house were the less important bedrooms (Marino, 2014: 496). There was an emphasis of activity happening in the backyard rather than the front (which meant we did not implement a porch or veranda). These concepts I took with me from the days I spent in ancient Greece and Olynthus. The spatial organization and the cultural perceptions left middle class urban women to define the domestic space and industrialization altered women’s production functions from the home to the marketplace (Kleinburg, 1999: 144). Instead, domestic space became the environment for women to build a comfortable place for their husbands and a suitable location for reproduction and the raising of children (Kleinburg, 1999: 144). The American idealized benchmark for success, or the American dream, was buying a house and starting a family, and we created a space in which this vision was promoted and reflected (Marino, 2014: 496). I think the domestic space that we created in this America can now be seen to act as a physical structure of “capital realism” (Kelly, 1993: 47).

Reader, I implore you to look objectively at your domestic space in relation to your socio-cultural, political and economic context. Look around your current dwelling at the construction of your home, office or even doctor’s waiting room, the walls tell a story. As a timeless architect it comes naturally to evaluate every brick that is laid in the creation of an abode, but we are all members of the past and present and must strive to contemplate the significance of our built environment.

Work Cited

Cahill, Nicholas. 2002. Household and City Organization at Olynthus. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cevik, Ayla. 1995. “Social Meanings of Household Places: A modern material culture study in an Anatolian Villags.” Archaeological Dialgues 1: 39–50.

Coulton, J.J. 1977. Ancient Greek Architects at Work: problems of structure and design. New York: Cornell University Press.

Giedion, Sigfried. 1967. Space, Time and Architecture: the growth of a new tradition. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Haagsma, Margriet. 1995. “Social Dimensions of Domestic Architecture: A Comment from Mediterranean Archaeology.” Archaeological Dialogues 1: 51–56

Kelly, Barbara. 1993. Expanding the American Dream: building and rebuilding Levittown. New York: State University of New York Press.

Kleinberg, S.J. 1999. “Gendered Space: housing, privacy and domesticity in the nineteenth-century United States.” In Domestic Space: reading the nineteenth-century interior ed. Ingra Bryden, Janet Floyd. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 142–161.

Larionescu, Andra. 2016. “The House as Support of Gender Relations.” Agathos: International Review of the Humanities and Social Sciences 7.2: 142–156.

Marino, Michael. 2014. “Looking for History in “Boring” Places: Suburban Communities and American Life.” The History Teacher 47.4 (August): 489–509.

Morgan, Janett. 2010. The Classical Greek House. United Kingdom: Bristol Phoenix Press.

Nevett, Lisa. 2005. “Between Urban and Rural: house-form and social relations in attic villages and deme centers.” In Ancient Greece Houses and Households: chronological, regional, and social diversity ed. Lisa Nevett, Bradley Ault. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 83–98.

Nevett, Lisa. “Gender Relations in the Classical Greek Household: The Archaeological Evidence.” ABSA 90: 363- 381.

Nevett, Lisa. 2001. House and Society in the Ancient Greek World. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schuyler, David. 2000. “Andrew Jackson Downing,” American National Biography Online Oxford University Press. Doi: 10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1700235.

Spain, Daphne. 1993. “Gendered Spaces and Women’s Status.” Sociological Theory 11.2 (July): 137–151.