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Women and Textiles: Warping the Architectural Canon

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Abstract

Textiles have long been a part of the canon of Western architecture—from the folds of draped female forms in ancient Greek temples to the abstract Mayan patterns “knitted” together in Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block houses of the 1920s. Yet just as any façade may conceal what’s inside, architecture’s shared history with weaving is often obscured. Today architecture sits at the top alongside the “fine arts” of painting and sculpture, while woven textiles occupy a less prominent position in the “applied” or the “decorative arts.” Appearing natural now, few remember that the hierarchy of the arts was not always so stable. Architecture and weaving were both at the bottom in the Medieval Period— positioned as “mechanical arts” requiring learned manual skill rather than individual creativity or intellectual drive. Eventually, through hard lobbying by Renaissance artists and humanists, the establishment of art academies dedicated exclusively to the teaching of architecture, painting and sculpture, and theoretical backing by Enlightenment philosophers, architecture separated from its mechanical compatriots to become one of the dominant “visual arts” of modernity, leaving weaving behind as handicraft within the category of the “decorative arts.” It’s no secret that women have been generally left out of modern visual art history and associated with the decorative arts. Through the lens of historic reexamination I present three examples of “weaving workshops” led by women, whose work not only intersected architecture at key moments in the twentieth century, but also challenged the hierarchical position and cultural agency of architecture.

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