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All About Women—Spain’s Cities Exhibit

October 19, 2006

espana_slide_show España [f.] nosotras, las ciudades (Spain [f.], we, the cities) is an exuberant celebration of Spain’s cities though the voices of her women. It is Spain’s contribution to Venice’s 10th International Architecture Exhibition (aka the Architecture Biennale), which runs through November 19 and ranks among the profession’s most prestigious events. This year’s biennale theme is cities, a departure from the intense focus of the past on trends and celebrity architects. A major part of “Cities, Architecture and Society” consists of the free interpretation of the subject by 50 participating countries. One would never know that architecture is a profession dominated by men in a visit to Spain [f.] we, the cities. Walk into a pavilion, aglow with light. A large morphing portrait of a woman’s face greets you. Each visitor is lent an iPod nano. The large room and four side rooms are dominated by kiosks illuminated from within and topped with a video screen showing a half-length portrait of a woman. Point to the screen with your iPod nano and the woman speaks to you. As you walk through, you can listen in to nearly 100 voices. There is something extremely engaging about the intimate way in which you can approach each woman at her station. She appears at her height and size as in real life, eyes looking out at you or perhaps at the architectural model or drawings she references while being interviewed on camera. The backs of the kiosks are alive with photos and drawings. Some kiosks house architectural models. In the background you may hear the drift of other voices but you always clearly hear the woman in front of you, addressing you. Spain [f.] we, the cities has women of every age from child to nonagenarians, some of them national treasures. A large number are architects and planners, but others are art professionals, a nun, community organizers, taxi driver, bus driver, butcher, clerks, immigrants in their search for work, journalists, students, young people looking for good night spots. We can listen to a real estate agent talking of the boom in sales and elsewhere hear an ecologist lamenting that not enough is being done for the environment. The director of Google in Spain talks about the local and the global, and how one informs the other.

Ninety-four year old Matilde Ucelay—winner of the National Architecture Award 2006 and first woman to receive a degree in architecture in Spain—spoke of her difficulties becoming accredited in the profession.  But surprisingly Ucelay is the only one who focuses on gender and sex discrimination. The architects and planners address their projects with excitement, some with passion. Housing looms large for them, as it does for the nun who finds shelter for the homeless or NGOs who work in neighborhoods, or Spain’s minister of housing. A second nonagenarian talks of her role as organizer of the first neighborhood association in Madrid during the Franco regime, a process that encouraged other democratic actions and helped a demoralized citizenry.

Most surprising to me is that the commissioner/curator of Spain [f.] we, the cities is a man—Manuel Blanco, head of an architectural program at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and experienced exhibit designer. It is “normal” to be showing the city through its women, Blanco believes. He proposes through the pavilion that the future is upon us now, at least in Spain. Given carte blanche to design the exhibit, he first decided to present Spain’s cities and its architecture through its citizens. It suddenly struck him that the Spanish words for Spain and city are both feminine gender, and he had his answer. With Spain [f.] we, the cities he could present the cities’ growing diversity through the voices of their women citizens as chorus and as soloists. To capture spontaneity, he interviewed each of the women within 24 hours of making contact. With no advance topic, he asked each to speak for one to three minutes about her work or her city.

Spain [f.] we, the cities throws stereotypes out the window. Every size and shape of woman appears on screen—one with a shiny face and the next who apparently never even walks her dog without loads of mascara. Some of the portraits give us lovely character readings. Spain’s Carmen Maura, known especially to Americans through her roles in the films of Pedro Almodóvar, is here wearing a big smile and decked out in what could be a house-dress. The exhibit is refreshing in its presentation of women and exciting as they share their energy and optimism about the cities they love and the changes taking place in Spain.

The exhibit is well served by technology that is seamlessly orchestrated. The 50 odd computers and the kilometers of cable are hidden. Electronic maps, noting the architectural projects, take us from one Spanish city to another. The large face that greets us is a morphing of all of the faces in the exhibit. Sounds do not overwhelm as we listen to the soloists or step back to view the choir.

Blanco, who hopes to bring the exhibit to New York, commented that good contemporary architecture symbolized what is happening in society. Asked whether he intended the instillation to boost women’s position in architecture today, he answered, “Yes and no.” Yes, because women are still overshadowed by men and not given opportunities. No, because things are already changing. About 60% of his students are women. So, he repeats, his exhibit is “normal,” presenting the future now.