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How “Soft” Architecture Could Change Lopsided Gender Dynamics

Architect Sheila Kennedy has just won a $100,000 prize to advance world-shifting design that empowers women.

I’m sitting at a desk on the 29th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan as I write this. When I look out the window, I see “architecture” in the form of tall buildings, the ongoing construction of One World Trade, the Manhattan Bridge. But then there’s another side to architecture, too. There’s the software that times traffic lights, the pattern of sun and shadow bouncing off of glass and metal façades, the fuel that keeps our screens bright.

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Sheila Kennedy, a principal architect with the firm KVA Matx, just won the $100,000 Berkeley-Rupp Prize and a semester of teaching at the University of California Berkeley for using architecture to advance female empowerment. She also specializes in this kind of “soft infrastructure.” To Kennedy, soft architecture holds an enormous amount of potential energy to change societies all over the world. “It’s like putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world in a different way,” she says. “And then you realize, ‘Whoa, I can’t take these glasses off.”

A woman in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest works with one of Kennedy’s Portable Light designs. Credit: KVA Matx Luz Portatil Brazil

For nearly a decade, Kennedy has been traveling to remote mountain villages in Mexico, favelas in Rio de Janeiro, and fishing towns on the Nicaraguan coast to work with residents on developing a kind of soft infrastructure economy built around light. In practice, that meant designing portable LED systems that could be built by expert craftswomen with locally available materials. In places where plugging into the grid would be extremely expensive, people are limited by daylight hours; for women, that often means little opportunity to study and decreased safety at night.

When traveling in Mexico, Kennedy met women of the Huichol tribe, a traditional society nestled high in the Sierra Madre mountain range. Mining projects have encroached on and devastated Huichol land in recent years, making eking out a traditional living off of farming more difficult than ever. Poverty is endemic, and communities have little access to electricity. But when Kennedy started working with Huichol women, who are skillful spinners and sewers, they developed a series of flat-pack, fabric-encased LED lights that can be unfolded anywhere. Since 2005, the Huichol have been manufacturing lights that can be wrapped up and opened to cast light in the dark.

Kennedy uses principles of soft infrastructure to inform designs like the Soft House, which harvests energy from light. Credit: Michael Moser

But Kennedy doesn’t see projects like Portable Light as tools to merely empower women in the developing world. She’s noticed a disconnect between genders in the United States, too. Women are graduating from architecture school, she notes, but few are involved on the manufacturing and fabricating side of production. The gender balance remains lopsided when it comes to the actually working on-site.

“Part of what I’d like to do with the Berkeley program is bring more attention to that issue, and celebrate women makers,” Kennedy says. “There are some excellent women makers in the Bay Area and all over the U.S. We’re going to be bringing them in, and also celebrate the work of the women in the developing world in these communities.”

D. Sella

During her teaching program at Berkeley, Kennedy is hoping to work with students to build more soft infrastructural prototypes. In places where power to refrigerate food or vaccines is scarce, what about a fabric, flat-pack refrigerator? Or, perhaps UC Berkeley students will modify solar street lamps. While solar street lamps certainly have good intentions, they also rely on materials that have to be shipped from far away. Is there a version to be designed that could be fabricated using local know-how and resources?

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Part of building these systems, Kennedy adds, means rethinking structures of power. “It may be that people are thinking just about the objects–they’re not thinking about the system, the delivery, how the object is going to be put together, if it’s something that can be adapted to local conditions, local labor, and local skill-set,” Kennedy says. “I think it’s important to think of design, of infrastructure, as the whole experience–how that comes to the marketplace, who makes it and who uses it, and how it returns.”

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.

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