At the end of 2021, on my way to Philadelphia's Center for Architecture and Design, a 20-minute walk from my house, my mind kept thinking about this photograph from the Designing Motherhood project and its possible connection to architecture.
The photograph is “Woman Wearing Sari,” taken in 2006 in Bengaluru (then Bangalore), India, by Philippe McLean, showing the profile of a pregnant woman walking down a sidewalk with a message discouraging public urination, written in Kannada, stenciled on the wall behind her. Not long after entering the exhibition space, I understood that the photograph—through its juxtaposition of the woman as citizen in the built environment passing a message directed and designed for men—discreetly howls two words, designing motherhood.
Initiated in 2015, Designing Motherhood is a multifaceted project—a book, an exhibition, a series of public programs, an Instagram account where the research began, and a design curriculum—by design historians Amber Winick and Michelle Millar Fisher. While the exhibition ran at the Center for Architecture and Design in 2021, it is currently on display through May 8 (Mother's Day) at the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, investigating 70 designs for birth and motherhood over the past 50 years. A few of these designs include the Egnell SMB breast pump, MyAnchor birthing pool straps—a weighty metal contraption, and 1950s architectural drawings of the maternity ward at one of Kaiser Permanente’s “dream hospitals” on Sunset Boulevard when birthing moved from bedrooms to hospital rooms. The exhibition will travel next to the MassArt Art Museum in Boston, running June 11 to December 18.
“There’s been some fantastic work in the last three or four years in architecture and design that points to why the subjects we cover in Designing Motherhood have remained taboo and under-researched,” wrote Millar Fisher in an email interview. “And the common thread is that decision-makers, from publishers to exhibition directors to many designers themselves have often been people who do not have experience lactating, giving birth, or needing access to contraception.”
Back in 2015, the same year when Winick and Millar Fisher were giving birth to the idea of looking at human reproduction through the design lens, architecture writer Nonie Niesewand wrote in her piece about women architects for Architectural Digest that “the number of women graduates still practicing after 10 years drops, as having children disadvantages women architects. Neither of the two women who won the Pritzker have kids.” (Niesewand was referring to Zaha Hadid, 2004 Pritzker winner, and Kazuyo Sejima, 2010 Pritzker winner.)
I was interested in knowing if Niesewand’s words still hold true after 2010: As of 2022, we have added four more “women architects” to that very short list of six, including one mother, 2020 winner Yvonne Farrell (who won with partner Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects).
Although the situation might seem to be improving, as Millar Fisher wrote via email, the first step for higher education institutions interested in more equitably supporting explorations of design for the arc of human reproduction is to include it in their course offerings and programming by inviting a more diverse set of teachers, students, and staff.
In fall 2020, team the Designing Motherhood team piloted a curriculum intervention with their long-term collaborator, associate professor of fine arts Orkan Telhan of the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. Students investigated Designing Motherhood exhibitions and were prompted to find a personal connection. Unlike a traditional design prompt, the class brief highlighted inequalities and injustices that happened in the history of motherhood and its relationship to design, using design as a methodology, not a field or a discipline.
“In a very subtle way, reproductive justice is an urban planning problem, too,” Telhan says. “If you are an architect or an urban planner, learning about the marginalization of certain communities and how historically they shaped the design fields and looking for more inclusive non-extractive practices of design, understanding social design and how community engagement works, can help take this conversation forward."
Some students who grew up in China responded to China’s one-child policy and its consequences while others chose the topic of being parented by a single mother, and others still examined inter-species mothering. The results varied because students come from different ethnic, racial, cultural, and interdisciplinary backgrounds and the curriculum encouraged them to find the language that connects to their own biography.
The team points out that everyone had a mother figure, whether through biology or otherwise, and thus designing for motherhood is a universal obligation.