PEOPLE PLACE RELATIONSHIPS

ISSUE 4

SEPTEMBER 2021

Conquering the Streets

Sofía Ghigliazza is an architect from Mexico City. She has a graduate degree in architecture from the Ibero-American University and a master’s degree on Housing from Centro. She has participated as a designer in various prominent Mexican firms and is currently studying History and Critical Thinking in the Architectural Association.

Flâneuse: French name. Feminine form of flâneur; the one who roams aimlessly, observing, through the city.

According to Virginia Woolf in her essay: Street Haunting: A London Adventure (Woolf, 1930),   to escape is the greatest of pleasures.[1] There are few essays like this one that refer to the experiences of women in the city, to the inner peace that can be found by letting go of the objectual relations found inside one’s home, and the rest from daily existence that observation and distant contact with other people can produce. The flâneur is he who approaches the city having suspended all his knowledge about it, in order to have a bodily experience of the places he visits.[2]

The act of walking disinterestedly through the city’s streets is the main process of appropriation, however there is not enough literature to portray women’s full experience. For some male theorists like Walter Benjamin or Georg Simmel, imagining the figure of the flâneuse is almost impossible, possibly due to preconceived beliefs inherited from the bourgeois Victorian views on a woman’s behavior.

The female body and the Victorian city were deeply intertwined through the shared condition of interiority. Women’s morality and their role as wives and mothers were important components to maintain the domestic sphere as a reflection of the public sphere. Both streets and taverns belonged to men. Therefore, the more respectable a woman’s status was, the further apart she remained from public life which was considered an immoral domain for most. For women, the streets represented a place where they ran the risk of losing their virtue, getting dirty, being dragged away…[3]

If Benjamin’s boulevards correspond to the male flaneur par excellence, for women they represent a place that endangers their integrity. Despite architects’ best efforts, urban design still does not consider binary relations and therefore excludes the possibility of the cohabitation from both sexes indistinctly.

Violence in cities toward women is mainly caused by the fact that the “spaces of appearance” still exclude and are not yet designed to inhabit, the female body. The constant state of alert in which a woman has to remain in the city modifies completely the experience from that of a man’s whose existence and determination has always been deemed as public.

Lauren Elkin in her book Flâneuse (Elkin, 2016) points out the double condition of visibility and invisibility that women face on the streets; Always observed and at the same time omitted in any account of urban life. [4] Even the way women walk is modified in the city. Since they must pick up their pace in order to reach their destination as soon as possible, it is impossible for them to get lost aimlessly as the street represents an unsafe space.

Inhabiting the city from a female perspective would imply modifying the mobility vs. time relationship as it was thought to suit the 20th century man. Baudelaire himself refers to the speed of a woman’s walk in poem no. 39 of Les Fleurs du mal (1857) dedicated to a woman who was thought to be a prostitute.

Spurn with light foot and with serenest gaze

The stupid mortals who have grudged you praise,

O jade-eyed statue, angel browed with brass!

The condition of staticity implied by staying within the physical limits of the home relegated women to the constraints of the domestic. Like Baudelaire’s corpse they were meshed with the permanent bourgeoise condition which existed mainly within the interior of the house. She who dared walk the streets alone risked being thought as a “streetwalker” in other words, a prostitute.

Still nowadays women cannot get lost in the crowd freely because their gender “condition” has historically marked them as objects of desire before the male gaze. The different norms of behavior imposed on them represent invisible limits, from the way they’re supposed to dress, the words they use and their body language, even the way they express feelings, are under constant scrutiny. It is only until these set of conditions have been met that women are considered appropriate to share the city with men.

Despite all their contradictions, cities of the 21st century are the places for women to develop to the full extent of their potential. The only space where it is possible for them to grow at the expense of men. Women in cities can embody the figure of the flâneuse, maintain a distant yet attentive posture. It is there where the possibilities of redesigning the dynamics of control and surveillance, to which most women have been subjected, are presented. The way we build not only reflects, but also determines who we are and who we will be. [5]

Reference   

[1] Virgina Woolf, Street Haunting: a London Adventure (Symonds Press, 2013), 20.

[2] Jean-Louis Déotte, Walter Benjamin et la forme plastique: Architecture, technique, lieux (L’Harmattan, 2012), 44.

[3] Richard Sennet, The Fall of Public Man (Penguin Press, 2003), 34.

[4] Leslie Kern, Feminist City (Verso, 2020), 38.

[5] Lauren Elkin, Flaneuse; Women walk the city (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), 33.

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