Curtained Windows to Curtain Walls

-Investigating Gender and the city of Amsterdam- a gynocentric commentary on public spaces and their gendered nature-

ISHITAS ARTICLE-page-001Public and Private have been different spheres with reference to gender, the latter being associated with women and the feminine and the former with the male and masculine, throughout the nineteenth century. This is a time-honored reality in Western political and social thought and Western institutions and culture with scores of literary references. Every city is a ‘gender regime’ where women battle, everyday, to overcome barriers built to keep them invisible or ‘protected’, assert many feminist sociologists. Urban studies scholars have termed spaces feminine and masculine.  Spaces that facilitate and sustain the expression of male based activities and power are called masculine spaces[i], that have a long-established association with public spaces (Sports facilities, gyms, bars, fraternal lodges, and social clubs, in some religions the place of worship), although, now in the twenty first century they involve women as well. The private, domestic domains were where the women evidently dominated- not that they didn’t venture out in public, they did, but they were deemed mere visitors. Elizabeth Grosz[ii] has identified Liquidity, Relationality, Proximity, Incoherence, Passivity, Space and Body as Feminine. Solidity, Separateness, Distance, Coherence, Activity, Time and Mind as Masculine, with respect to traditional dialogue on space and the physical.

To understand the differences in the way both genders perceive the city, one approach is to make public a type that explores the city, the Flâneur. It is one method to understand the social differences between men and women. Flânerie means watching people and being watched, but that definition would be insufficient and wouldn’t do the flâneur justice. This character is a paradoxical one. The contradictory versions of his experiences in the city make him a fascinating character. The female counterpart of the flâneur, the flâneuse, doesn’t experience the city the same way he does. He does so with detachment, being an idle person with an inquisitive mind, a solitary character who is only attracted to the aesthetics of the city. Many sociologists consider the Prostitute to be the flâneuse, or a version of her. But the flâneuse concept evolved with time. She was exposed to domains like the art forms at the beginning of the twentieth century, but she was still being objectified by men and patriarchal institutes. Some writers have critiqued her existence in the nineteenth century for middle class women were dedicated to the private spheres and women wandering in public were deemed Prostitutes[iii].

Along the original course of the river Amstel, in Amsterdam, run the roads Rokin and Damrak that meet in Dam square that marks the spot a bridge was built across the river in 1270. It had doors which were used to dam the river at certain times to prevent flooding. The Damrak then became a harbor and it was in this part that the red light district materialized. Prostitution has been unofficially legal in the Netherlands since 1830 and from 1911 till 1980 a law forbidding exploitation of working girls was enforced. In 1988, it was recognized as a legal profession. The most recent law put in force in October 2000, clearly made prostitution legal, subjecting it to municipal regulations to organize the practice of the trade. This was done in order to regulate prostitution, seeking the protection of minors, abolish forced prostitution and battle the phenomenon of human trafficking. It is regarded a business, requiring a license that certifies that it has fulfilled all the legal prequisites to function.

The Red Light area, today, or ‘Rossebuurt’, as the locals know it, is a particularly unique gendered space. In function it typically caters to the (sexual) needs of men but doesn’t render women invisible. Zuidas, on the other hand is a burgeoning ‘knowledge and business hub’ located in the south of Amsterdam, for that’s what Zuid-as means in Dutch- ‘South Axis’. “Zuidas is Amsterdam’s prime location, an urban hub with international allure.”- Proclaims the first line of a long and ratifying essay ‘About Zuidas’ on its official website. The rationale behind the selection of these two (The Red Light District and Zuidas) drastically different places as case studies was to demonstrate the position of the woman in the public scenario, on one hand we have the traditional ‘public woman’ representing the oldest profession in the world that would not exist without women and on the other hand we have the twenty first century woman who has fought her way into the habitual ‘Man’s world’ of business and international trade.

The Flâneur walks the streets, immersing himself in the sights and experiences the world has to offer him (often ‘losing himself’). This image of men that Baudelaire depicts pretty much sums up the stereotypical ‘Man’ of the 21st century who visits Amsterdam for the weekend (but spends most of his time at Rossebuurt). The attraction is understood if one searches for ‘Rossebuurt’ on Google, never mind actually visiting the district.


On exploring and observing the locale, one comes across an assorted lot (mostly men) experiencing this striking neighborhood. The older people walking down the streets of the Red Light District, usually in tour groups, are sometimes awkward, nervously laughing or amused. One could say that they are uncomfortable with the idea of unabashed sexuality and the openness with which the trade is carried out. You see an elderly woman clutching on to her partners hand-a sign of apprehension or insecurity? Younger women seem more relaxed in these parts although not entirely untroubled, owing to the large groups of young men going ‘wild’. They seem to prefer being in groups. The red light district seems to be a favorite destination for young to-be-weds to celebrate their last nights of ‘freedom’ for you see many giggling groups of girls in coordinated outfits. The atmosphere in the quarter is definitely tense, but that does not stop anyone who is visiting or living in Amsterdam from going there at least once. The reason for that being a cat called Curiosity. And why shouldn’t they be? What is convention in the Red Light District is unconventional almost everywhere else in the world.

The streetscape is indicative of the way of life in these parts. The open, big, gaping windows suggest the openness with which the city treats sexuality. The locale is an exceptionally gendered one in the sense that it is meant for male consumption, but the spaces are corporeally feminine- Liquidity in the form of the winding canals that sprawl across central Amsterdam that add to the Romance; Relationality manifests itself in the human scale of the quarter- the buildings are no taller than 3 storeys and the government has made conscious efforts to maintain the traditional facades of the buildings; Proximity in the form of row houses; the general vibe of the place is mysterious and incoherent; the landscape and built environment is Passive here and Life stands out- with the throngs of tourists, its array of bars, coffee shops, sex shops and museums, buskers standing on every bridge; and as for the Body, one could say that the district is a celebration of the hyper-sexualized Female Body, put on display behind glass windows. The lanes are quintessentially feminine, the prostitute has the upper hand and the Woman is the focus, yet your average woman avoids this neighborhood. The average 21st century woman does not identify with the image of the woman that is sold here. This is where branding, media and advertising play a role.

Anthropologists, sociologists and geographers critique the status of architecture and the role of the architect. They suggest examining all aspects of the environment, the built environment, the socio-cultural practices, etc., rather than isolating their site and catering to just function and aesthetics and that includes defining the users of buildings, taking investors into account and playing a role in the way spaces are sold to the public. The Rossebuurt wasn’t a “planned” neighborhood. Rossebuurt, by day fits in almost naturally into the cityscape of Central Amsterdam. Central Amsterdam demonstrates the vernacular architecture of Amsterdam. Some of the canal houses here, date back a few centuries. Historically prostitutes and migrants were attracted to the area because of its proximity to the harbor and it has evolved into what it is today from medieval times. Owners of the buildings have rented them out to the various brothels, sex shops, etc., possibly having to renovate and modify the house-front to accommodate the windows. The city has dealt with this taboo either by making it work to their advantage, working around it or just simply ignoring it.

In likeness to the modern work place of the historical, hyper-sexualized “public woman” found behind glass windows, the modern corporate woman works in hyper-phallicised glass containers. After experiencing Central Amsterdam, dropping in on Amsterdam-Zuid was like visiting a different country. It could be any country- any modern city with high-rise glass buildings, towering over you. The ‘I AMsterdam’ logo in the middle of the square, as you exit the railway station, is the only tell-tale.

140628-1208-I-Amsterdam-Letters-Museumplein-Amsterdam-The-NetherlandsI AMsterdam in Museumplein. (Above)

I AMsterdam in Zuid-as. (Below)

There aren’t people scrambling all over it like in Museumplein[v], just a few well-behaved men and women in suits sitting around it, immersed in conversation. By a few I mean, two or three groups consisting of two or three people. Just like the big beautiful green park on the opposite end of the station that leads to the residential zone. The public spaces were empty. Like the void in the master plan, only put there to compensate for the massive structures that are built. The people either prefer staying inside or are caged in for most of the day, venturing out only during certain times of the day. Unlike in Central Amsterdam that has people on the streets at all times, owing to the throngs of tourists that come here. Agreed that tourists can be seen as a hindrance but in this context, they do provide a buffer. The emptiness of the streets and nodes of Zuidas generates safety issues for women and children and becomes breeding ground for illegal activities. Then, there comes a call for surveillance, a call for the unresponsive eye of the CCTV camera.IMG_20150706_134214 As Huxtable asserts, architects don’t look beyond the facades of these buildings, they deem it unnecessary, they don’t take into account what happens outside the site they are allotted to design and they don’t consider the implications that their designs have on society. Similarly, urban planners look at zoning as a way of making things simpler on paper. Unfortunately, in reality zoning creates voids and boundaries- be it real, imaginary or metaphoric, made by human conditioning that is imposed, assumed, accepted and acknowledged. This kind of separation magnifies the time-honored divide between public (male dominated) and private spheres (female dominated). As mentioned before, the built environment of the Red light district represents the lifestyle of the users and consumers. Similarly the built environment of Zuid-as is meant for all modern professionals, supposedly taking in to account both the genders, but its physical built environment says otherwise. These tall glass boxes are standardized and solid. The sense of Separateness occurs in the form of the voids created, even in the physical barriers within the workplace, Distance from the home. The built environment is definitely coherent since ‘life’ takes a backseat. It is designed for activity of the Mind and the Body. “It romanticizes power and the urban condition and celebrates leverage and cash flow”[ii] over the last century. It corporeally manifests Masculinity.

IMG_20150706_140243Their built environment maybe poles apart but the place of the woman in public is unaffected. She goes from isolated, curtained, glass windows to gigantic containers encased in curtain walls. One is specific to male sexual consumption and the other facilitates masculine ideals. Housing the phallocentric ‘public women’ in house like structures and making women work in phallocistic structures are two sides of the same coin- male supremacy and dominance. Legalizing prostitution was a creative step that Amsterdam took to give exploited women their rights. The Red Light District has become a Tourist attraction and no doubt many benefit from it being so popular with the rest of the world, but yet it is looked down upon. Zuid-as, on the other hand, is an attempt to bring in international companies and employees but there is nothing unique about it, one of the repetitive mistakes of 21st century urban planning. In both these places there is no balance between the built environment and the people. Rossebuurt is based on an old profession, where people are being branded and sold like commodities. Zuid-as conversely is based on modern professions, completely ignoring the inhabitants and the effect of the spaces they will inhabit. Correspondingly, there is no balance between the masculine and feminine in public spheres.

If a completely egalitarian society is to be achieved urban planners must be more socially aware, taking into account people in the pluralistic sense and pay more attention to the spaces they are creating-  projection and void; masculine and feminine; keeping in mind the boundaries they are creating for women. There is an escalating need for gender inclusive architecture that promotes gender neutral environments, urban planning, design and advertising; where the relationship between masculine and feminine is symbiotic rather than parasitic- therefore creating environments where the yin meets yang to exist in harmony.


[v] Museumplein (Museum square) is a public space in South Amsterdam surrounded by three major museums- The Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum and the concert hall- Concertgebouw

[ii] Ada Louise Huxtable. The tall building artistically reconsidered. Nov 1982

[i] M. Gottdiener & Leslie Budd. Key Concepts in Urban Studies- (SAGE. Feb 2005)

[iv] Dr. Natalie Collie. Walking in the city; Urban Space, Stories and Gender. (Gender Forum. Issue 43.2013.)

[iii] Akkelies van Nes, Tra My Nuygen. Gender Differences in the Urban Environment, The Flâneur and Flâneuse of the 21st century, Faculty of Architecture, Spatial Planning and Strategy, Delft, Netherlands

I wrote this essay as a part of a Summer course at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) called Amsterdam Creative Cities: Media, Art and Architecture. It was later published as an article in the Architecture+Design (A+D) magazine (Dec’15 issue).

The images of Rossebuurt and the I AMsterdam at Museumplein are stock images from Google. The rest are credited to the author’s Nexus.


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