Intersectional Design: Rethinking Architecture for the Future

Design is based on nuance, empathy, and understanding. The best solutions are based on the context, identity and context of the client and their place. These realities will inform the designer’s responses. Intersectional design is a way to think about how identity factors (gender and race, sexuality, gender, class, etc.) interact. Understanding how these factors interact allows us to better understand the context and individual users’ priorities.

Photo by Gianluca Stefani. Image Courtesy of EVA Studio

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe individuals who may be subject to multiple forms of structural discrimination. We can create more equitable and inclusive environments by incorporating the experiences of different communities with culture, policy, and design. The process is easy with many resources. Outreach and consultation with key groups is possible through toolkits such as Joanna Simpson’s Guide to Applying Intersectionality. There are also inclusive policies, representation and training. Intersectional design is based on a willingness and ability to examine one’s biases.

Prefab Vertical Gym. Image Courtesy of Urban Think Tank

The 2018 Annual Symposium of the Association for Women in Architecture + Design was about intersectionality. Intersectionality is difficult. It is not like the existing frameworks – our culture, politics and law – will automatically make people conversant with intersectionality. Intersectionality calls attention to the invisibilities in feminism, anti-racism and class politics. It is a difficult task to constantly challenge yourself to pay more attention to those aspects of power we don’t experience. It is my belief that white feminist allies should expect women of color to be open-minded, fluid and willing to question power.

They wanted to acknowledge and embrace these diverse practices as an integral part of intersectionality. The intersectional approach recognises different forms of discrimination as points that overlap or as joining at a point. They point out that intersectionality in architecture or the built environment is more than a political concept. It also involves collective responsibility and actions to create inclusive, egalitarian and socially-just practices. It can be used at all stages of the design process as both a methodology and a method.

Courtesy of Andres Jaque / Office for Political Innovation

Andres Jaque, the founder of the Office for Political Innovation in New York and Madrid, also provided an alternative approach to intersectional architecture. They considered not only the students’ daily lives but also the wider context in which they would be operating. They designed an ecosystem that reduces its consumption and teaches sustainability to students. “We are also currently building a house on an outer island near Corpus Christi in Texas. Our proposal provides solutions at different levels. It will be a place to escape from the daily grind for a Dallas-based family. On the other hand, it will collect rainwater to water the mangroves around it, which is an important defense against erosion and rising sea levels. It can be used to satisfy the owner’s almost sexual desires, while also protecting its environment. In our practice, we are realizing that architecture must simultaneously address multiple realities in a single response. Design can address many different elements and perspectives.

Matri-Archi, an architecture and design collective explained that they view intersectional space as a reaction to the paradigm shift towards a more sustainable built environment. Matri-Archi is a collective effort to identify, fix, and evaluate the failures that hinder our profession’s ability to promote and celebrate diversity in spatial education and practice. Design can create Intersectional Space by fostering symbiotic relationships between people and their interactions. This is a landscape that reflects a polycentric heterogeneous landscape in which idiosyncratic thoughts continue to catalyze nondiscriminatory shared FUTURES. Intersectional design can be described as both context and action. It is a combination of digital, physical, and discursive elements.

LocHal Library. Image © Stijn Bollaert

Jacquie Shaw took a deeper look at intersectional design to see how it is evolving in design and research. Through this approach, her work explores how designers might confront their privilege and power. This allows for greater understanding of how designers can best respond to the changing world and the complexity of practice. Jacquie’s work involves sensitivity to diverse issues such as gender, gender identity and race, class, age/ability, sexuality, immigration status, religion, sexuality and others. It is clear that we all deserve to be heard and have our unique experiences and cultures reflected in the built environment.

Architecture can reflect different perspectives, material conditions and scales, as it is a multifaceted process. The discipline is by nature not a single practice. Its focus is both functional and aesthetic, as well as economic, political, and environmental. Architecture is beginning to reconsider the discipline through an intersectional lens. This allows them to address social and environmental justice issues using an intersectional lens. Intersectional design is a way for architects to challenge their privileges and power in order to revolutionize architecture. They can then better serve their clients and their communities.