Glass ceilings and phallic towers. Mean streets and dark alleys. Road names and statues of men. From the physical to the metaphorical, the city is filled with reminders of masculine power. And yet we rarely talk of the urban landscape as an active participant in gender inequality. A building, no matter how phallic, isn’t actually misogynist, is it? Surely a skyscraper isn’t responsible for sexual harassment, the wage gap, or even the glass ceiling, whether it has a literal one up top or not?
That said, our built environments can still reflect patterns of gender-based discrimination. To imagine the city and its structures as neutral places where complicated human social relations are staged is to ignore the simple fact that people built these places. As the feminist geographer Jane Darke has said: “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” In other words, cities reflect the norms of the societies that build them. And sexism is a deep-rooted norm.
As far back as 1977, an American poet and professor of architecture named Dolores Hayden wrote an article with the explosive headline “Skyscraper seduction, skyscraper rape”. Hayden tore into the male power fantasies embodied in this celebrated urban form. The office tower, she wrote, is one more addition “to the procession of phallic monuments in history – including poles, obelisks, spires, columns and watchtowers”, where architects un-ironically use the language of “base, shaft and tip” while drawing upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating light into the night sky.