Forty years since they first questioned the concept of a built environment designed by and for men, members of a radical feminist design collective have come together to present an exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London, UK and bring the focus back to the need for creating inclusive spaces.

Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative was a women’s design and architecture collective that worked solely on state-funded, social building projects including women’s and refugee centres, facilities for women and children, construction training workshops, and lesbian and gay housing projects. Active in London from 1981-1994, Matrix also provided publicly funded architectural advice, helped establish educational programmes to increase access for women into architecture and building, and also highlighted the relationship between space and gender through a variety of events and publications. 

Presented as part of the Barbican’s Level G programme throughout 2021, the exhibition titled ‘How We Live Now: Reimagining Spaces with Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative’ is a multi-layered project comprising an installation, publication and events programme. Using the previously unseen archive of the Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, the project will explore a series of important social questions: who are our buildings and shared spaces designed for? Who is excluded from our designed environment, and what effect does this have on the communities who live there?

Co-curated by Matrix founding member Jos Boys, How We Live Now introduces archival and contemporary approaches to design that aim to empower voices and groups often excluded in the design of buildings, including Black and Asian women’s organisations, community and childcare groups, and lesbian and gay housing co-operatives, to propose and explore more inclusive ways of designing, building and occupying spaces.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only served to bring out the stark inequalities within our cities and homes, such as a lack of access to safe, affordable housing, community facilities and green spaces. With this exhibition, Matrix aims to explore of how these spaces can be reimagined in more equitable ways.

Highlights of the exhibition include a free installation designed by feminist collective Edit, featuring rare films, drawings, photos and architectural models from the Matrix archive to present the co-operative’s use of radical participatory and collaborative methods across a range of projects and programmes alongside more recent examples of feminist design practices.

The accompanying exhibition catalogue, Revealing Objects, is an experimental publication that combines reinterpreted materials from the Matrix archive with contemporary responses to the key themes of the project. Contributions include a manual for understanding how the layout of our homes impacts how we live in them, conceived by Edit; a map highlighting buildings designed by women in London produced by collective Part W; a poster by the research project Manual Labours reflecting on ideas of care and support in the workplace; and writing by Decosm (Decolonise Space Making) considering how the legacies of colonialism affect the design of our cities.

Matrix founding member Boys said, “At the core of the work by Matrix was a recognition that building and urban design often fail to consider the richness of our multiple ways of being in the world, or the various ways in which societies have devalued certain groups across different places and times. A persisting reliance on ‘standards’, ‘universals’ and ‘norms’ that often continue today, reinforce stereotypes about what certain people do and how they should behave – that a ‘woman’s place should be in the home’, for instance, or that it is possible to ‘be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Jon Astbury, assistant curator (architecture and design) and co-curator of How We Live Now, Barbican, added, “These stereotypes have, and continue to result in built surroundings that do not take account of people’s very different needs and desires. This might be as obstructive as a lack of wheelchair access, as obvious as a ‘poor door’, a separate entrance for a housing block’s socially-rented tenants; as seemingly innocuous as the way a door is hinged to control a room’s privacy; or the height of a kitchen worktop or chair. These decisions affect what types of buildings get funded and built, and who feels comfortable or able to use them.”

How We Live Now will also include a public events programme to further explore the historical and social context of Matrix’s practice. This will include a walking tour led by feminist spatial practice Taking Place; a discussion around women’s work by Part W; screenings of archival films; and discussions and workshops.

Photo: Members of Matrix in the 1990s: (Back L-R) Mo Hildenbrand, Sheelagh McManus, Raechel Ferguson; (Front L-R) Janie Grote, Annie-Louise Phiri, Julia Dwyer. Photograph: Jenny Burgen