Femininity and Structure: Part 1

I feel obligated to begin this series of posts with a disclaimer to my regular readers. This series is a complete passion project for me, something I have wanted to write about for years, but feared it to be too esoteric. Oh well, I’m going to write it anyway.

At the risk of taking too long to get to my point, I would like to begin this short series by establishing some context.

Some of you may know that I majored in architecture. I never practiced, but the reasons for that are a story for a different time. Architecture is a fascinating field of study. What you learn from day one is that our entire lives from birth to death, from the womb to the coffin, are spent in the built environment. It’s obvious once you think about it, and after you do, it’s nearly impossible to go back to thinking about life in any other way. 

One of the basic needs of man is having a sense of place. We usually think first of food and water, but shelter is equal to them in terms of primary need. Growing up, the film Cast Away starring Tom Hanks was a family favorite. In case you are unfamiliar, the film showcases what life is like when someone is stranded on a desert island. There was a short behind-the-scenes documentary at the end of our VHS, and the survival experts who were consultants for the film noted that when faced with such a situation, the first thing a person will do is build some sort of shelter, even before looking for food or water. A place to call our own, even of the most primitive nature, is essential to our survival. 

Because our human nature is not just matter but also spirit, this basic need has been elevated to the high art form called architecture. Architecture is one of the primary pieces of evidence we use to understand past civilizations. It is the built expression of the ideas a culture holds most dear. Architecture, then, can be called frozen philosophy. In this light, it is easy to see then why our contemporary architectural language lacks any sense of transcendence or timeless beauty, when the thing we have enshrined as most dear is our own ego. 

Back to architecture school. If I had to describe the experience in familiar terms, I would call it boot camp. For four years, my previous way of thinking was broken down and remolded. I was challenged to find connections everywhere and to seek a deeper meaning for every aspect of my designs. It is after all the architect’s job to take the myriad problems presented by the client’s budget, the building type, parameters of site, building codes, and aesthetic preferences, and combine them all into a one cohesive, practical and beautiful design solution. 

In my second year, I lost all balance in my life. I shifted my focus entirely on school to the detriment of every other need I had, from my faith, to friends, to a healthy diet, even my very nature as woman. Some beautiful fruit came through that rather silly period of my life, chiefly that I returned to my faith with renewed fervor, and after a fateful conversation with my Dad, was determined to discover what Bishop Sheen had described as “the noble woman.”

Given my training in architecture, it did not take long after my reversion to see in the very nature of building a poignant allegory for the relationship between men and women and God, and thus provide a unique way to examine these relationships – and that is where this series began to take shape.

Let’s begin with the building.

Once a design is completed, a building is begun by laying a foundation. Great care must be taken, for example, when pouring cement, so that it dries evenly across the surface. If it is not properly mixed or poured at different rates, the foundation would be compromised, and the process would have to begin again. Following the foundation comes the structure, and the same level of precision must be applied to its erection. From the beginning of the design process, structure is the datum that dictates the arrangement and movement of the building elements and space in the completed design. It should go without saying that if the structure of a building isn’t sound, the building doesn’t stand up. A structural failure would be cataclysmic. The final stage of building is adding the cladding and coverings that we see: drywall, brick, windows, flooring, etc. These elements must of course be installed with care, but a failure in them would typically not undermine the entire building. 

The allegory should be fairly simple to draw out. God is the foundation. Woman is the structure. Man is the cladding. I hope I do not imply that as the cladding, men are not all that important. I, of course, suggest nothing of the sort. The roles of man and woman, though fundamentally different, are equal and essential. Structure without cladding is merely uninhabitable scaffolding, and cladding without structure is merely a pile of potential. As a woman, I do not feel comfortable addressing the role of men in depth beyond affirming that great men inspire great women, and that I owe the very subject of this series to some such men who I am honored to know. 

I will instead spend my time in the remainder of this series looking at how architectural structure provides an interesting way to examine the nature and role of women. 

Now, the structure, while absolutely essential, is usually hidden by the time a building is completed. You may thus be worried that my ultimate conclusion based on this allegory is that a woman’s proper place is hidden within the home. You will have to wait till my post next week to find that out. 

For Part 2, click here.

*This post was featured in the Theology of Home daily collection, April 2020