‘Private Choices, Public Spaces’: Can Architects Save the Last Abortion Clinic in Mississippi?

Hosted in a small space at Parsons and that looks directly out onto Fifth Avenue, Private Choices, Public Spaces is less an exhibit than a staged brainstorm. There’s no artwork on display, or even building plans — surprising for an event organized by ArchiteXX, an organization of women in architecture dedicated to “bridging the academy in practice.” Instead, the space is filled with hundreds of postcards responding to a set of questions intended to prompt ideas for ArchiteXX’s latest “design action”: staging an “architectural intervention” at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last remaining abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi.

Speaking before a panel discussion at the exhibition space last night, co-curator and ArchiteXX co-founder Lori Brown described the project as a response to architects’ “reluctance to deal with inherently political space.” An associate professor of architecture at Syracuse and the author of Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters, and Hospitals, Brown began researching the intersection between design and reproductive rights almost a decade ago, when she reached out to her local Planned Parenthood. After a year and a half, the branch told Brown they weren’t interested; she then decided to “scale up” her research to the state level, where most restrictions on abortion are legislated, focusing particularly on the South. She’s been working with the JWHO since 2011, and hopes to have a plan for the space within the next year.

To the casual observer, the intersection between the day-to-day struggles of an abortion clinic in a hostile environment and the cerebral, often abstract world of design isn’t exactly obvious. Brown’s the first to admit that architecture can be a “very myopic” field, but claimed that demonstrating that intersection to the general public, who were invited to both send in postcards and participate in last night’s discussion, is part of the project’s motivation.

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As Andrew Beck, an attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project and one of Brown’s co-panelists, explained, design and architecture actually play a central role in the wave of abortion restrictions that have cleared state legislatures in the past three years — 205, compared to the 189 passed in the previous decade. The new regulations aren’t just more numerous; known as TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) laws, they’re also more aggressive, attempting to shut down providers under the guise of protecting women’s health.

One major category of TRAP laws, known as ambulatory surgical center requirements — “I get bored just saying it out loud,” Beck cracked — affect the physical facilities of abortion providers by instituting regulations such as minimum hallway length or operating room size. There’s no grandfathering in, of course, but providers also have no incentive to invest in renovating their existing facilities since the requirements could be tweaked again at any time, forcing them to start from scratch. Often, the solution is to simply move into a compliant space, but ideally, the issue could be integrated into the clinic’s design from the start in the form of a flexible floor plan.

The issues Beck outlined also made the case for another of Brown’s major points: the need for architects and designers to involve themselves at all stages of the political process, even the seemingly dry ones. Architects can put laws “into terms people can understand,” Brown explained; lawyers have asked for her help in explaining why TRAP laws are unconstitutional, for example, by drawing out their effects on providers’ facilities.

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In the JWHO’s case, the law isn’t the only barrier to access or safety for its patients. A pink, concrete structure on a gentrified street, the JWHO uses black tarps to put up a visual barrier between the clinic’s property and the protestors outside. Its neighboring buildings use Plexiglas to drown out the noise; the clinic employs escorts to carry boomboxes. Because neighboring residences have been bought out and their street parking eliminated in order to hinder access, the JWHO also faces a parking shortage, forcing patients to leave their cars and walk through protestors on their way to the clinic.

To begin solving these issues, Brown sent out the postcards that line the space with four prompts attached: “How do we create safety within zones of protest? How can personal experience inform design in ideologically charged spaces? How much space is needed to provide secure zones of access to reproductive care? How should separation of public and private areas in an abortion clinic be defined?”

The responses on display ranged from personal accounts (“I’ve had one abortion in my life… I don’t recall being bothered by [the protestors’] presence since I felt comfortable with my decision”) to practical suggestions (“Sound-proof construction, glazed windows, headphones to listen to recorded stories”; “raised beds of plants”). They’ll remain on display for the next week, accompanied by events such as a Friday night screening of The Last Clinic, Maisie Crow’s documentary on the JWHO.

Synthesizing activism, creativity, and crowd-sourcing, Private Choices, Public Spaces makes a compelling case for using creative expertise for political ends as well as aesthetic ones. And as Dean of Parsons’ Constructed Environments Brian McGrath pointed out, the project’s also a unique opportunity for those lucky enough to live where accessibility isn’t an issue to stay involved. “It doesn’t bother anyone that there’s an exhibit on abortion on 5th Avenue,” McGrath reminded the audience. “But we have to understand people are still fighting elsewhere.”

Private Choices, Public Spaces runs through October 2 at Parsons’ Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, located at 66 5th Avenue.