Tatiana Bilbao and the Women in Design Commission of NGV International
It’s not often that laundry tubs and washing powder are elevated to art, but a new exhibit opening at the NGV on October 6 sheds new light on the mundane act of cleaning clothes . La ropa sucia se lava en casa (Dirty clothes are washed at home)2022, by Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, is an expansive multimedia installation that includes a mural depicting laundry scenes, 16 large concrete bins, and patchwork textiles that could well be hung from a Hills Hoist in the backyard. court.
The celebration in Bilbao of this traditionally feminine drudgery is the first of five annual joint MECCA and NGV commissions that will celebrate the work of female designers.
“We think of architecture as a shelter protecting the body, but the first physical layer of protection for our body is clothing,” Bilbao tells me, via Zoom from Mexico City. “In order for us to have clean clothes, to be able to protect our bodies from everything, there is a job that is often ignored. It was really important to talk about laundry because it involves both of those things.
“Architecture isn’t just the most interesting kind of somersault structure can do,” she says. “Maintenance should be the main concern of all buildings. We live in this fiction that to exist, we must produce. The city is completely, totally designed and abandoned for production.
Renowned for her inspiring low-cost social housing projects in Mexico, as well as her collaborations with international architect Jacques Herzog and artist Ai Weiwei, the Bilbao-based work is held by the Center Pompidou, the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. Ancient New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff classifies it among a “significant small group” including international Pritzker Prize winners Shigeru Ban and Alejandro Aravena “who sought, cautiously at first, to recapture some of the spirit of social responsibility of architecture”.
Simone LeAmon, Curator of NGV Design, describes La ropa sucia washed in casa both as a “provocation and a call to action”. “[It’s designed] engage the public with how architecture is informed by attitudes, beliefs, historical agendas and society at any given time. It’s also an opportunity to speak to the profession and say “why don’t you survey this site? It’s not implausible to rethink laundry. It was a radical move to go into an open space and knock down walls. Now we love it.
The debate about the impact of domestic spaces on women’s lives goes back decades. “A cozy concentration camp,” is how author Betty Friedan witheringly described the post-war single-family home. “Walled in the suburbs [women] sometimes seemed as infantile as their children. These talons fueled anxiety and a sense of inferiority in women, slaves to what the pioneering second-wave feminist called a “feminine mystique.”
Late 20th century feminists were not the first to rise up against domestic restrictions and patriarchal constructs. A century earlier, first-wave feminists were rethinking the design of domestic workspaces. In his book The great domestic revolution, urban theorist Dolores Hayden describes the work of “material feminists,” who designed spaces in which childrearing, cooking, and laundry would be shared. Surprisingly enough, their ideas were indebted to one man – the utopian socialist Charles Fourier. He not only coined the term “feminism”, but believed that the “[isolated] household can never represent the best development of human sociability, talent and culture”.
Nevertheless, the single-family home prevailed and suburbs proliferated, supercharged in the postwar period by industrialists retooling their wartime manufacturing to pump out a plethora of much-needed appliances and “labour-saving” appliances “.
The fresco at the heart of La ropa sucia washed in casa gets women out of the house and into shared spaces, from communal laundries to fountains and riverbanks. Created using Bilbao’s signature working process, collage, it is spread across the four walls of the NGV design gallery, depicting laundry scenes from Mexico, centering on the 18th century communal laundry located in the city from Huichapan, Hidalgo.
A stylized approximation of the laundry room, with 16 large concrete tubs configured in pairs, spans the length of the gallery space, along with clothesline typologies – from the Hills Hoist to the balcony clothes lines . Draped over them are six large patchwork textiles designed in the Bilbao workshops conducted in Mexico City, Berlin and Melbourne.
“Tatiana asked participants to bring an item that has great meaning for the individual, that evokes a strong memory of someone who washed clothes once, or an item that they have washed many times. for another loved one,” says Le Amon.
Cut, reconfigured and sewn to form a quilt, each textile is interwoven with an annotated ribbon bearing the name of the maker and the person to whom the piece of fabric is attached. If the wall collage of the washerwomen revives the traditions of Mexican muralism valuing noble workers, the quilts are reminiscent of the feminist collages of the 1970s by artists like Miriam Schapiro.
While Bilbao is “all in” with activist feminist roots from the 70s, she acknowledges that it is disappointing to still have to fight for equality. As a professor at the Yale School of Architecture, Bilbao sought advice from Hayden, his professor emeritus. “She explained that if we belong to a system that is absolutely dependent on something or someone being exploited, that will never change,” Bilbao says. “Not only is it not getting better, it’s getting worse.”
Bilbao believes that if households were redesigned, these essential tasks could be shared with more people and valued. “In Mexico too, the tradition of shared laundry has been lost,” she says. “People don’t have time. They need to produce. »
Yet, as the COVID-related lockdowns have highlighted, when we have free time and government financial support, people participate more in their communities, even when national stereotypes prevail.
“During COVID, men [domestic] work has gone up, but women have gone up again,” says Professor Lyn Craig, a domestic work expert at the University of Melbourne. “Also, it was much more often the woman trying to work online at the kitchen table with the kids in the same room. Men [tended to have] first claim on the desk or bedroom where you could work uninterrupted.
Whether design changes can also alter societal stereotypes will be a work in progress.
How residents share the load
Feminists weren’t the only ones experimenting and reconfiguring the home around shared tasks. In the United States – and to a lesser extent in Australia – cohabitation emerged in the 1980s as an antidote to both sustainability concerns and housing unaffordability. Local examples range from the pioneering Murundaka in Heidelberg Heights, which opened in 2011, to the recent Urban Coup in Brunswick. Winc in Daylesford includes a determined group of older women who are potential role models for their peer group – Australia’s fastest growing homeless demographic.
“The defining characteristic of co-housing is that it’s about intentional communities who control the outcome, it’s the project initiators and the building managers,” says housing diversity advocate Andy Fergus.
Fergus thinks Bilbao’s “radical” provocation of no-kitchen, no-laundry households has “niche” appeal. “The reality of this type of living is that it happens more in corporate cohousing and student housing than it does in cohousing. Most co-housing projects in the Australian context have a choice: fully functional private accommodation and an exceptional additional facility.
Rather than the intensity of cohabitation, co-housing finds an ideal place in 25 to 30 discreet households sharing a large communal house containing a commercial kitchen and communal living room in Murundaka. “Without it, you can’t really call yourself co-housing,” said co-founder Giselle Wilkinson. “It’s everyone’s extra seating area. We have reduced our individual footprints instead of the extra space we get from shared facilities and amenities.
The Women in Design Commission opens at NGV International on October 6. Tatiana Bilbao will give a keynote speech on October 5, reservations required.
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