What if things were different?

Women and External Space

I presented What If Things Were Different first as a talk for the revitalised Women In Architecture, during the London Festival of Architecture in June 2019. It was a wonderful reason to put together thoughts on something so close to my heart- women and how they use outdoor space. People said they found it funny and stimulating.

The talk was in three parts

  • The stories we tell ourselves about our present reality, about ourselves as women and about our own agency. Leaning on Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s poetic discourse on cities

  • What if things were different? Leaning on Killing Eve

  • Vision to reality, what can we do?  Feeling the Rage; taking the stage; making the stage

What should we tell our daughters?

What are the stories we tell ourselves?

Men are almost twice as likely to be victims of violent crime as women. 69% of homicide victims are men and 31% are women

Why do I want to impose a stricter curfew on my 15 year old daughter than my 13 year old son when statistically she is almost twice as safe outdoors?

‘Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to the comparison with the game of chess’

‘Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to the comparison with the game of chess’

I turned to my books. As a student, Invisible Cities lost me. Now I see how the book’s layers mirror the city’s duplicity and ambiguity, the idea of permanent renewal, of continual vitality, the opposition between having to develop and honouring the past and why people come to cities:

‘what drives men to travel up rivers and cross deserts to come here is not only the exchange of wares’; at night, ‘but the fires all around the market’

At the core, Invisible Cities tells how cities shape us as much as we shape them. Cities are not defined so much by design, as by events and the intentions of people living there. We see the instability of cultures, whole value systems and how they can all dissolve and the cities with them. What interested me was the idea that we are citizen actors and activists, subjects and recipients, as much as we are designers and masterplanners. Could there be a connection between this and why we love Killing Eve so much?

I was trying to drag the connection into the light. My friend Ann Bodkin beautifully rephrased it: Killing Eve creates a world with purpose where women are the actors who make it happen. We love it because, like all good stories, it illuminates what we already know.

In my talk, I told the story of how, when I was thinking about these ideas, I went into members club. I didn’t belong to it but I knew someone that did and I signed myself in.

I sat at a table and opened my book. A man opposite started talking to me. He told me about his business. He talked in a boorish way at great length. He went on and on about himself. He didn’t ask me any questions. After a while I ostentatiously picked up the book I had politely put down. He asked what I was reading. I showed him the cover.  It was this book about RAGE.


He showed no awareness that he was overbearing, that the mushroom cloud of his presence was intrusive. Every day, he explained to me, he talked to his woman neighbour at length and she was never friendly. In his view, when he was out doors he found that women were aggressors.

Which woman hasn’t had this experience? WIA Vice chair Sarah Akigbogun has, and we talked about intersectionality. For a white woman it’s one thing, for a black woman it’s another again.

Back to Killing Eve. By the way, said Ann, my old friend Linda is the set designer, why don’t you talk to her?

Linda and I agreed how we all dream of being Villanelle and how they all had it coming. I thought of the man in the members club where I wasn’t a member.

Series 2 Episode 2, Eve has stabbed Villanelle, who heads, in the boot of a car, for the safety and normality of the suburbs. She finds the most demented English normality.


In minute detail, a deadly serious, funny ironic world is constructed. Original wallpaper was found, doorways widened. We see gaslighting in all its ghastly claustrophobia. The time warp house in Basildon is sinister, peopled with disturbing china dolls. Villanelle’s knight in shining armour dresses her like a little doll. Our invincible psychopath anti-heroine is suffocating, she might even be dying, as Julian denies the truth of what she is feeling. The doors and windows are locked. There is a demented mother banging on the attic floor. Linda the set designer said that it was easy for them because they only need to construct a 2D reality and anyway:

we just don’t have time for concrete to set.

Do you want a hotty botty?

Do you want a hotty botty?

A million micro actions

At Futurebuild this year, Susan Smith, Mistress of Girton College said the answer to the housing crisis might lie in the accumulation of a million micro actions.

In my own corner of suburbia, along with a lot of other people, I am trying to do that and although it is arduous and sometimes dry (neighbourhood planning) it is with other people and we’re dreaming new cities, value systems and places, not just for women but for people that share our vision of the world. Micro allows people the space to be honest when you are crass. I have no doubt that in not always waiting for the concrete to set we blunder around but we couldn’t be doing more damage than the bores driving us to rage and anger by denying our own minds.

My revelation is not new but like not being able to see the meaning of a book when I was a student, I get it now. Start small, recognise the influence you can have and your responsibility to take action. Model the place and society you want to see. Above all, recognise the instability of culture and cities and understand that while you’re doing nothing, the good is dissolving and the better is unmade.

Take the stage, make the stage. Use your rage. We are all actors!

Thanks to Women in Architecture chair Anna Schabel and team for making this particular stage, don’t miss the next Three Colours: Blue White Red event.