Today I find myself reflecting on some notes that I scribbled down, six years ago, in a rage about my “invisibility blues”, to coin an important term developed, by the scholar Michele Wallace, to describe the underrepresentation of Black voices, especially women’s, in US media, culture and politics. And here I want to speak about my anger at a kind of “spatial invisibility” that I have experienced on more than one occasion; mainly, as a consequence of the general absence of my voice in the making of any western manmade built environment (and related ideologies).
At times, I wonder if my “invisibility blues” are the result of my false thinking that an increase in my knowledge and professional growth in spatiality concerns, should be accompanied by greater visibility, plus some kind of public stature amongst my academic peers. But, perhaps, those are only my delusions of grandeur, set within a vicious “politics of space” that privileges European paternalistic thought over and above the millions of us who are yet still able to theorize on spatiality, simply because we inhabit it in embodied ways.
Let me provide further example, for this argument of mine, through an account of a small form of invisibility that I experienced, about six years ago. The scene of the crime, for my rage and “invisibility blues”, was at a VCU-Qatar talk in Doha. It was April 2012, on an occasion that, for me, was supposed to be a reunion with an old friend of mine, the field of architecture, but instead became yet another rude encounter with spatial invisibility amidst architectural peers. I describe it as a reunion because I had academically and professionally left the field of architecture in 1998, in order to enter into the education arena—where I settled for those fourteen years. And even if most of that time had been spent looking at the role education has to play in the “politics of space”, I was still academically out of touch with architecture. This is why I saw attending the VCU-Qatar talk, by Juhani Pallasmaa, as a form of return, a homecoming to architecture and its mode of thinking and being in the world.
I must admit that, at that time, Juhani Pallasmaa’s name did not ring a bell (perhaps a gap in my white-and-male lessons in architectural knowledge). So, I called an old friend, an ex-architecture colleague of mine, to ask about Pallasmaa—which is what anyone would do before the age of surfing the Net. She filled me in on Pallasmaa’s role as a renowned Finnish architect, while a couple of Google searches provided me with further details on his illustrious career.
But then I digress.
On that day, I was excited at the prospect of re-engaging with architectural theory, plus I was intrigued by the title of Pallasmaa’s talk, Space, Place and Atmosphere. His lecture topic had a rather appropriate venue in the shape of the grand VCU-Qatar atrium, and the bustling energy of young architecture students and their just-as-eager-to-listen adult counterparts.
Pallasamaa’s talk was aesthetically and technically sound, in the normative sense. It touched on all the great, white and male thinkers, while being interspersed with architectural and artistic images from the usual suspects, Frank Lloyd Wright and so on.
And that is where much silencing and violation begins.
There at that moment in time, it was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that twenty years after I studied architecture in the UK, there was still an absence of women’s spatial voices, as well as those of people of color—except the token of Luis Barragan, who got a look in during that talk. Worse still, was the type of mediaeval art work, used for the talk, in which nude white women were depicted in fantastical scenes; that is, white women set in place as part of the backdrop of historic manmade landscapes.
Now those women in the artwork, were not the focus of Pallasamaa’s talk. Yet they ironically served to underscore his arguments about making dignified architecture that does not manipulate, but instead liberates, within an “atmospherics of space”, where humans engage with each other through memory, perception and imagination.
Those women were one of the reasons why I had to ask Pallasamaa whether his “atmospherics of space” was ever inflected by gender, age, class, disability, or sexuality (and note I did not even touch on the contentious and false construct, ‘race’). I asked him, what were the politics in his “atmospherics of space”.
In response, I was told that my questions could literally not be heard, and this was in spite of me asking them from the bellow of a microphone. And hereon, for me, lay the familiar and subtle politics of space: For not only were Black women like me, absent in the making of the images and spaces re-presented—but indeed when even questioning the apolitical nature of the architectural ideas Pallasamaa presented, we could not be heard.
So, of course, I repeated my question—thinking, Why, do I stutter? to which I received a rather vague response from Pallasmaa about how we must construct an architecture that is liberatory.
Six years after this remote and problematic incident with architecture, as I knew it also to be in architecture school in the late 80s and early 90s, my “talking back” (here I invoke bell hooks) questions are still the same: When architecture is made neutral, or apolitical in architects’ approaches, how can it serve to provide liberatory spaces? How can it do so, when situated in a highly publicized and globalized ideological landscape that silences masses of Others? What are we teaching the next generation of architects to create, if a critical literacy of the “politics of space” is not seated on the tips of our tongues?
To this I say, we have to teach ourselves and the next generation how to critically read the spaces we design and inhabit, not so much to debilitate us with their contradictions, but rather to heighten our awareness of the contentious nature of what architects and other built environment professionals create. This is especially true, when it is work that serves to perpetuate the elitist Euro- and andro-centric character of our built environments, which currently persist on looking the same, irrelevant of their geographic location. Then, next, we must collectively re-write all of our many and diverse selves into those spaces, as well as re-construct the very spaces themselves.