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Annmarie Adams on Contested Spaces

16 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2013) review ‘Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals’, Times Higher Education, August 1 2013, 46

One of my favourite modernist buildings in Alberta is the Kensington Clinic in Calgary. Designed by architect Andrew King in 2005, the modest abortion clinic showcases the same stark and clean geometries as his award-winning houses. King’s design is about discretion. ‘There was no front door’, recalls King. ‘The mandate was to de-emphasise the entrance, mitigating potential activist activity’.

What can architecture tell us about abortion? This little building speaks volumes. Lori Brown’s Contested Spaces argues that it is all about architecture. She examines the state of abortion in the United States, Canada, and Mexico through the politics of space. The project emerged, in Brown’s words, ‘from the desire to force architecture to confront the political’. She scolds her fellow architects for their non-involvement in political challenges and calls for better access to reproductive healthcare. It is an unusual take on an understudied subject. Perhaps because abortion remains so polarising, especially in the United States, few architectural researchers have dared to study it. It is also relatively hard to find the buildings.

Readers interested in how abortion clinics look or how to design a good one, for example, will be disappointed. There is zero information on the architects responsible for designing them. Photographs and floor plans of these ‘invisible’ structures are strangely absent from Contested Spaces, confirming Brown’s insistence that most clinics are found in buildings designed for other purposes because the opposition to abortion remains so fierce. Instead, she has produced dozens of diagrams and maps providing striking graphic evidence of the difficulty women still face in finding choices. Typical of these graphics is a diagram showing the responses in 2007 of pharmacists in Mississippi when they were called and asked if they sold the morning-after pill Plan B. Other diagrams show the distances required to travel to obtain abortions in various regions of the United States. This plethora of graphic analysis and the book’s informal tone make it feel like a Powerpoint presentation in places.

The most original parts of Contested Spaces are excerpts from interviews Brown has conducted with abortion clinic staff. Many of these interviews reveal shocking accounts of the harassment endured by healthcare providers on a daily basis. Because she is particularly interested in public space, Brown includes accounts of the deplorable tactics used by protesters outside the buildings to dissuade women seeking terminations from entering the clinics, including the use of megaphones for personal harassment and photography of the patients.

Annmarie Adams on Contested Spaces

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2013) review ‘Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals’, Times Higher Education, August 1 2013, 46