Architecture for Women

Architecture is for people, everyone – at least it should be. When you think of architecture you don’t necessarily think of gender. Sure certain curved lines and rounded volumes could conjure up images in your mind of the fairer sex, but you rarely look at a building and say “That building must have been designed for women”. There are however cases where architects have to design buildings specifically for women. While aimlessly wondering through Seoul, I have encountered two such buildings. The first being the Ewha Woman’s University new “campus valley” by Dominique Perrault Architecture and the second is the (Former) Seo Gynecological Clinic by Kim Joong- up. I thought it would be interesting to look at how the architects approached the respective projects specifically for women.

Ewha Woman’s University by Dominique Perrault Architecture, 2008

It is said that the building was both an architectural and an urban design response with the purpose of linking the greater campus to the surrounding urban fabric, while simultaneously creating a “centre” where people could gather and various activities could take place. We went there on a weekend, and while you are drawn towards the building upon entering the campus there weren’t that many students, but one can imagine that the void space and grand stairs lends itself to many different uses and social events.

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Being in the void with the dark glass curtain-walls towering up alongside you, evokes a feeling similar to what Moses must have felt in the Red sea. It’s a little unnerving being alone in that space, not knowing who is on the other side of the window looking out at you – though when there a crowd of students I guess that feeling would disappear.

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I did like the fact that the building sinks into the ground and creates two garden spaces on the ground level where students could sit and enjoy views of the city. I found it interesting that a building designed for a woman’s university took the form of a “valley” and did not rise to the sky as so many of the surrounding towering phalluses did. Maybe I’m just looking for metaphors where there are none.

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(Former) Seo Gynecological Clinic by Kim Joong- up, 1965

Kim Chung-up, who is regarded along with Kim Swoo-geun as pioneers of Korean architecture, designed this building in the 1960’s – a time of rapid development from which the city inherited most of its austere modernist relics. This building stands out because its curved form is unique given the time it was designed and built. Kim spent four years in Le Corbusier’s studio and Corb’s influences are clear in this building with its thick walls and curving lines as was evident in Corb’s later work.

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The enveloping cosy lines of the plan does give the impression that the visitor’s comfort was taken into account during the design process. The walls are curved and the spaces seem to embrace you, while the small punctures in the walls allows light in while still maintaining a certain level of privacy. Designed before the invention of the internet and mass media it seems that architects had more time to consider and evaluate every detail of the projects they were working on.

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In terms of user experience, I think Kim Joong-up’s clinic is probably more successful in conveying the designer’s intention to create a welcoming and secure environment for women going to expose their insecurity, while Dominique Perrault’s university building creates a secure, private space to study in, but doesn’t necessarily speak do women exclusively. I like the democratic ramp where able bodied, pregnant, and or disabled persons use the same circulation space.

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When you look at these buildings in terms their sustainability when it comes to life-cycle or ability to be reappropriated, the (former) clinic has over the years been inhabited by various businesses, with the façade being obscured with disruptive signage (thankfully having been removed and the facade restored). I find it hard to imagine any other business inhabiting this building and feeling that the space absolutely suited them. The university building can easily be adapted to accommodate any other programme, as it has simple circulation, an abundance of light and a clear organized layout. When you look at the respective projects from this position, the university building is probably less biased in its design.

Feel free to go see for yourself.

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