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Building the female image

Published on Friday, 27 May 2011

When Professor Meltem Gurel states that architecture is a male-dominated field, she is not referring simply to the long-standing gender imbalance among professionals in the sector. Her concerns go deeper in terms of the accepted form and function of many buildings that take inadequate account of the needs of women users.

"Each problem is specific, so you must understand the building and needs you are designing for," says Gurel, who heads the department of interior architecture and environmental design at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. "In a typical elderly centre, there will be more women than men and in some cultures, women are more likely to use public space. All of that requires careful research and consideration."

Gurel, who was in town recently as a guest lecturer for the gender studies programme at the Chinese University, describes her own research as historically grounded. It focused initially on the modern architecture style of the 1950s and 1960s, which led to a broader interest in women's contribution to the built environment - other than as architects - in Turkey and around the world.

"In the period after the second world war, there was a lot of American influence and a certain image of women was promoted globally - the glamorous housewife, the perfect urban, middle-class [mother]," she says. "The change in domestic space and apartment buildings was very much related to this, with the promotion of washing machines, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators."

Importing this image of the notional housewife may have reinforced the idea of women in Turkey being in the domestic, not the public, space. But in time it gave them the power to shape the built environment as consumers, creators and clients. Demand for modern amenities, reliable power and central heating accelerated the construction of new apartment buildings. Since these were designed for the nuclear rather than the extended family, this change was to have a significant impact on society at large.

Gurel studied architecture and interior design at the University of Illinois and now, as an educator, expects students to conceive projects that go beyond aesthetics and the technical. She wants their work to incorporate a clear social aspect too. That might be providing better accessibility for the elderly or less fortunate, using sustainable materials, or thinking about how to design "passive" buildings, where daylight and natural ventilation allow for considerable energy savings.

"Gender studies are also built into everything to make sure students ask the right questions and design accordingly," she says. "For example, you need to understand what an `equal' bathroom is, if biology and social conditions mean women will spend more time there. So if you look at a stadium, equality doesn't mean having the same number; it means building more for women."

Acknowledging that Hong Kong is a "very vertical" city, impressive for its ability to move so many people around so fast, Gurel sees certain similarities with Turkey, like older high-rise apartments that are at risk of becoming vertical slums, taking little account of fundamental human needs. "You detach people from the earth. They have nowhere to grow plants or dry their washing," she says. "But that is becoming a similarity everywhere."

Her world view

  • Inspired by an architect-uncle to pursue architecture
  • Sees hard work and dedication as pre-requisites for success
  • Does not have favourite architects; views any building as the result of teamwork


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