Contested spaces: On abortion and design with Lori Brown FAIA
Ahead of next week's panel event, "Architecture and Abortion: Designing Politicized Spaces," we sat down with Lori Brown FAIA, co-founder of ArchiteXX and Professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture, to discuss her advocacy work.
To hear Brown in conversation with Shoshanna Ehrlich JD from UMass Boston, register for the event on October 26 at 5:30 pm at BSA Space. A virtual attendance option will be available. The event is part of programming for Now What?! Advocacy, Activism & Alliances in American Architecture since 1968.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
I’m an architect, academic, and activist. My work centers around the politics of space, and its relationship with gender and how gender influences the built environment. More broadly, I look at things through a social justice lens to examine how space can be more beneficial for the general public and how architects can engage a more broad demographic than we generally do.
Because I had been frustrated with what I perceived as a lack of political engagement within the discipline, I decided to explore overtly politicized spaces, which led me to reproductive healthcare and spaces of abortion. I think it’s important to look at these kinds of spaces—it provides opportunities to really question how and where architecture can intervene, contribute, and critique.
You've done a lot of research on the effect building codes have on the functioning of clinics. Can you talk a little bit more about how that could change after the Dobbs decision?
Anti-abortion efforts have been quite successful in finding ways to limit and close clinics. Prior to 2016, there were a series of states that began to change building codes for abortion clinics from medical facility codes to surgical center codes, which is absolutely not necessary. In Texas, half the clinics closed. Clinics operate with such a narrow financial bandwidth that what read as minor changes turn out to be incredibly expensive.
In 2016, the Supreme Court agreed that abortion clinics were being targeted with what are called TRAP laws, holding abortion clinics to a higher standard than other spaces. But now that Dobbs has been decided this year, the future of building codes, I think, is unclear. What’s yet to be fully understood legally is the question of interstate commerce. What does the future look like for people who live in one state trying to access care in another?
What this is doing is putting far more pressure on states where abortion remains legal, so that they can handle the millions of additional people who will be seeking care. That’s a huge issue—how will clinics be able to handle this influx? Will they need more space? Will they operate for longer hours? So space is still going to be quite important, but in states where abortion is legal.
I used to live near an abortion clinic that I remember as an
imposing building with little signage and windows. Reflecting on that, I
wanted to know: what are your thoughts on how to create a balance
between making a space feel comforting and welcoming while also
protecting the rights and privacy of its users?
That’s a huge and necessary concern. Some recent examples I want to highlight are two beautiful Planned Parenthood clinics that Stephen Yablon out of New York has designed, one in the Bronx and one in Queens.
It’s so clear that you can make beautiful clinics that bring in
natural light and work with more contemporary aesthetics, yet still
create very secure and private spaces for patients and for staff. It
requires working with people who know how to do this. Many clinics think
they can’t afford to work with an architect, so I wouldn’t be surprised
if the one you’re referring to didn’t have an architect involved. It’s
really unfortunate, because we offer so many things that can make their
spaces so much better.
You’re creating a list of architects willing to help assist abortion clinics. How is that work going, and what role do you think architects can play in helping people have access to reproductive healthcare?
One thing that has blown me away is that we’ve already gotten 200
people that have reached out to us, representing 36 states and
Washington D.C. The list includes the broadest spectrum of the
discipline you can imagine— boutique award-winning firms; large,
corporate firms; people working in government, small practices;
students; and even people in the building trades. It’s really renewed my
faith that people want to engage and participate when they become aware
of ways to do so. This database is continually being built—we’re in the
process of sending out surveys to architects in states where abortion
remains legal, since we know there’s going to be more significant need
in those states.
From a disciplinary standpoint, there’s a lot of things designers can do. Thinking about the asks we’ve received so far, they’ve varied—for example, a provider had to move to another state because abortion is no longer legal in hers, so she’s doing a whole new clinic. There have been requests for maintenance and upkeep needs, and others that are more aesthetic and exterior-focusing. There’s also issues around permitting and site conditions for those who are seeking new spaces and thinking about what’s around in the neighborhood and city. So what architects can do spans a pretty broad spectrum.
Architecture is a client-facing profession. What would you say to those who are concerned about the tension that exists between engaging in advocacy through their work and ostracizing future clients?
I’ll preface my answer by saying that I have the privilege of being in the academy, and because of that, I can push and say things more easily than some of those working in practice.
Saying that, I’ll also say that part of the success of the anti-abortion movement is because they’ve been able to create shame and silencing, and do things like conducting economic boycotts of businesses and organizations who do support abortion. The economics are real, and there could be pushback for architects willing to work with abortion clinics. It’s for each individual to decide where they stand. I encourage more architects to come out publicly in support of this, because the more they do, the harder it will be for the anti-choice movement.
That being said, I do think there are other ways you can operate
that aren’t as overtly public and still provide assistance to abortion
providers—if there’s more of an advisory role that is being offered, for
example. There are degrees of privacy and anonymity. But I think it’s
so unfortunate that more architects have not been working with clinics
You wrote about these topics in Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters, and Hospitals. Can you talk about what you say in that book?
The book was published in 2013, and at the time I couldn’t imagine that it would be as resonant as it is 10 years later. The book examines how legislative practices and judicial decisions impact access to clinics. I interviewed clinics across the country to understand how they’re dealing with protesters and spatially responding to situations that are sometimes very challenging. It also looks at case studies prior to the 1970s and Roe v. Wade in terms of how organizations and people were providing care, and speculating about how to provide care given the needs at the time of publication. All those things remain applicable.
This is clearly something that architects need to be more present for. There’s so many things that our expertise can contribute. That’s one of the things that has stayed with me. I think I’ll be doing this work for the rest of my life, because it’s going to be needed.