Femininity and Structure: Part 2

One of the casualties of my education as an architect was the ability to walk into a building and just be in a building. I am constantly looking up, down, all around, trying to glean everything from whether the design makes sense, to whether I can easily find elevators, or even where the air conditioning vents are. To an architect worth his salt, no detail is too small to carefully integrate into the larger scheme. One of the most telling pieces of information is the structural bay, or how the spaces are organized against the structural system. 

As I stated in my last post, the structural system becomes the datum around which the entire building revolves. It determines the flow of the space, and the placing of all the elements of the building itself. But typically speaking, the structure of a completed building is hidden. 

When I first began digging into this allegory, I found myself butting up against this uncomfortable implication. If women are the structure of society, and structure is largely hidden, must I conclude that women must also be hidden in order to be good?

Of course the answer is no, and that answer has been definitively set by Scripture, the lives of the entire canon of women saints, and innumerable statements by holy men. The question is not whether women should go out into the world or stay home, but how and why they do either.  

The truth is structure is not always hidden in architecture. When it is exposed, it is done so very intentionally, for arguably good and bad reasons. It is not more commonly done, for example in the average home, simply because it is more costly, as the design and the execution of its installation must be visually pleasing as well as functional. 

Historically, structure has been purposefully exposed for the following reasons: structural honesty or rationalism, sensationalism, or to serve a higher purpose. 

In this post, we will take a look at what structural rationalism can reveal.

Rational to a Fault.

Let’s look specifically at the Seagram Building completed in New York City in 1958. It was designed by German architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, one of the leaders of the modernist movement in the early 20th century, and this building is considered a modernist masterpiece.

The Seagram Building, facing Park Ave. in Midtown Manhattan

The architects who developed the modernist school of thought were responding to the massive destruction caused by the First World War. The tragedies of that war drew existential questions about patriotism and practical ones about how to go about rebuilding entire cities. 

Modernism sought to answer both with a culture-less architectural language that was purely functional, devoid of ornament, that could thus exist anywhere. It sought to reduce a building type to its essence, removing ornament and pageantry, and replacing it with a sensibility of building that was “honest”. It was championed by a few pivotal architects in Germany, France and South America, and spread from there. 

In the Seagram Building, the structural steel is expressed on the exterior of the building, and its copycats now define the skylines of all of our major cities. Stripped of all ornament, it is rendered purely rational, or structurally honest. Upon reflection, we can understand what that translates to realistically – it lacks anything that uplifts our senses. Its rationality means it’s efficient by nature, but it is flagrantly devoid of anything human. One look at this steel and glass monolith can bring into sharp focus the necessity of beauty, not as a thing to confound or seduce us, but as a concept to draw our thoughts Heavenward. In its stark absence, we can understand that we need beauty to be fully human.

This hyper-rationalism is fundamentally masculine. When God looked down and saw that man was alone, it is the only time in the creation story that God saw something that it was “not good” (Gen. 2:18). The inspired writer didn’t tell us why, but he made one thing crystal clear: masculinity needs its helpmate femininity.

Part of the doctrine of women’s liberation was to convince women that men were not their complements but their competitors. Women began to enter the workplace, not with the intention of using their feminine genius to make the workplace more human, but to outdo their male counterpart. I have often heard it argued that many of the things women are chastised for in the corporate environment would be accepted if they were men, and thus cry sexism and the need to overcome the double standard. In a way, they are right. We intrinsically expect that a woman will be more concerned with a person’s well-being than with accomplishing tasks, and rebel when the natural order is offended. Double standards exist because the sexes are different.

Women who stay at home are not immuned from this hyper-rationalism or competitive mindset. Many can fall prey to a “keeping up with the Jones” mentality, and accept the cultural emphasis on production and output, exerting undue pressures on themselves and their families. Structure, order and myriad extracurriculars become valued above the needs of the person, and the individual and the family suffer. It resembles the Von Trapp home, pre-Maria: highly functional, very clean, but lacking in warmth and love.

Slightly tangential, but of note to point out in this context is a remark by the French modernist architect, Le Corbusier, who later in life developed the architectural style called “brutalism”. Early in his career, Corbusier stated he wanted his buildings to be “a machine for living”. Probably no other single statement so perfectly encapsulates the dangers of hyper-rationalism: the reduction of man to a machine of production that becomes paradoxically sterile through its denial of human nature. Nowhere can we see this idea expressed more clearly than in the prevalence of hormonal birth control use. 

Woman, stripped of her feminine genius, forgot that what makes her different is actually her great strength, that the whole realm of the human person is uniquely in her charge. As she forgot her gifts, the world within and without the home has been gravely affected.

Next week…. I’ll be back with a look at the sensationalism… and the Centre Pompidou.

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