Leslie Kanes Weisman is a feminist architect, educator and community activist whose work starts from the premise that the built environment is an expression of an established social order, meaning that space and the relationships it sustains reflect and reinforce existing gender, race and class relations in society. Weisman thus views access to space and its appropriation as political acts, and her research and teaching aim at subverting existing power relations in order to construct fairer cities. As a pedagogue Weisman has emphasised the role of both professionals and concerned citizens in ensuring the built environment does not exclude or discriminate. In the context of the women's movement of the 1960-70s, she co-founded the Women's School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA) in 1974, which fitted in with a wider move to form women's organisations in professions dominated by men. WSPA was organised as a summer school for women taught entirely by women, in which the content as well as the mode of teaching moved beyond traditional methods. The aim was to create an atmosphere where the hierarchies between teacher and student were broken down through simple and creative means such as allowing everyone to propose sessions with the help of a calendar to which all could add. Weisman also co-founded the Sheltering Ourselves education forum in 1987, which was an association of women involved in housing and community development. The network included architects, policy makers, grass-roots organisations, lawyers and housing cooperatives, taking the position that housing should be viewed as a human right.
For Weisman the relationships between women and the built environment are also seen as a prism for viewing the relationships between those who build our cities, and make decisions about them, and those who dwell in them. Her recent work takes these issues first raised in her book, Discriminating by Design published in 1992, and updates it with discussions on Universal Design, which advocates design solutions that do not exclude anyone, including those with disabilities. Universal Design has many resonances with the early work on signage and the provision of women's services that was carried out in the UK by Women's Design Service.
Weisman's approach to architecture has always been highly pragmatic and since 2002 has led her into a career in politics. She is serving as a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, in Southold Town, Long Island, a body that interprets planning regulations on a case-by-case basis. That change in architecture is inextricably linked with the need to adapt and revise laws and regulations is a stance she shares with a growing number of architects, such as Teddy Cruz. Weisman's move from an educator/activist to a politician demonstrates clearly these dependencies between architecture and politics and the need sometimes to gain a position of power in order to effect change, a position that is also demonstrated well in the example of Curitiba, Brazil and its architect/mayor.
Diana Agrest, Patricia Conway and Leslie Kanes Weisman (eds.), The Sex of Architecture, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996).
Leslie Kanes Weisman, Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man-Made Environment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
---, 'Prologue: 'Women's Environmental Rights: A Manifesto'', in Gender Space Architecture, ed. by Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner and Iain Borden (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 1-5.
---, 'Creating the Universally Designed City: Prospects for the New Century', Architectural Theory Review, 5 (2000), 156-173.
---, Our Architecture Ourselves, On The Issues Magazine, (Winter 2009), http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/2009winter/2009winter_3.php [accessed 9 March 2010].
---, Interview with Cristina Cerulli and Florian Kossak, ''Educator, Activist, Politician', field: a free journal for architecture, 3 (2009), www.field-journal.org.
Leslie Kanes Weisman et al., 'Making Room: Women and Architecture', Special issue: Heresies (1981).
Jacqueline Leavitt, 'Designing appropriate space: review essay [book review]', Journal of architectural education, 47 (1993), 113-114.
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