SEAARC Symposium Abstract 5: “Architecture, Feminism, Gender: Relevance and Resilience in the Southeast Asian context”

by Dr. Lilian Chee, National University of Singapore

While postcoloniality arrived at the shores of Asian and Southeast Asian architectural discourse rather belatedly through the auspices of critical theory and literary criticism, the relationship, relevance and import of feminist and gender studies, frequent handmaidens to mainstream postcolonial discourse and criticism, have remained unremarked in the very same contexts. Excepting several figures who have inherently woven feminist positions into their research and writing such as Zeynen Celik, Gulsum Baydar, and recently Anoma Pieris, there are few published architectural discourse which engage feminist or gender politics in the Asian context, and practically none concerning Southeast Asia. This is an extraordinary phenomenon given that the objectives of postcolonial and feminist theories are often closely aligned, with specific focus on marginalized subjects and their agencies.

This paper is interested in the muteness and invisibility of such an architectural discourse within the Asian and Southeast Asian milieux. Is this absence due to the resistance of the subject matter i.e. specific and recurring architectural subjects dealing with nationalistic or canonic state figures which may be put at risk when surveyed under gender or feminist lenses? Or could it be that conventional feminist theories with their emphasis on bourgeois selfhood, tend to be oblivious to complexities of race and colour, and consequentially become irrelevant when faced with pressing issues of poverty, class divisions, filial associations, state patronage, religious norms and multi-cultural tensions? In other words, are these theories merely academic, and thus, rendered redundant in the Asian architectural context where developmental pragmatism is key? What would revivify their import within the Asian/Southeast Asian architectural spheres?

Conducting a close reading of existing Asian architectural discourse of this theoretical genre, and drawing from the work of African, American-Chicana and American Asian feminists including bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Rey Chow and Trinh T Minhha, as well as the theories of feminist philosophers Iris Marion Young and Nancy Fraser on the politics of difference, the paper attempts to unpick some of these questions. It will also test these provocations against the backdrop of Singapore’s hugely celebrated and highly politicized public housing, a national project subscribed by almost 85% of its resident population. Ultimately, the proposition is that feminist and gender perspectives are relevant and necessary given their operative mode of negotiation and reconciliation, as opposed to the theories of power which emphasize on dissent and opposition. These theories serve not only as alternative viewpoints but insist on the necessity of conscience in a built environment which is ruthlessly altered and cannibalized to the detriment of self extinction.


Lilian CHEE is Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore. Trained in architectural design, history and theory, her research interests intersect architectural representations, domesticity, and gender. Her recent publications include Asian Cinema and the Use of Space (Routledge, 2014); “Sustaining Publics and their Spaces” (2014); “The Public Private Interior” (2013); “Picturing the Tropics Within: Nature and the Alibi of Art” (2013); “The Domestic Residue” (2012), Conserving Domesticity (2012), and a research film, 03-Flats (2014). She is on the editorial boards of The Journal of Architecture (UK) and Singapore Architect. She is working on a manuscript about anecdotal evidence and architectural history.

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