Local Jitters

Local Jitters

Los Angeles, CA


Meditations on the Harem

This project questions the social implication of interior architectural elements. We believe that architecture is never neutral but rather carries heavy implications of racial and gender dynamics. Influenced by architecture and feminist studies by female scholars such as Jane Rendell, Alice Friedman, Donna Haraway, and many more, we define gender as a socially constructed way of regulating intersocietal relations. This is seen throughout our built environment, from the toys we’re “supposed” to like, to clothes we’re “supposed” to wear, to spaces we’re “supposed” to inhabit.

The Harem is a traditional domestic space reserved for women in the Muslim household. In this space, women were excluded from the outside world and from gaining any individual control within the family and society [1]. This space of seclusion was not unique to the Middle East, but can be located in various societies and cultures from Classical Athens to Byzantium. In fact, a woman in Classical Athens had even less rights than one in the Middle East. [2] The fascination the west had for the east raised the issue of orientalism. This has not only enhanced a piercing power dynamic - the West over the East - but has done so in the name of liberation for women. Western powers justified invasion, war, and social engineering for social causes that are ever so present in women’s rights have, on average, gradually increased globally, it has stayed stagnant in parts of their own cultures. [3, 4] Of course, this is not to condone gender inequality in the East. While the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. 

As our collaborator, Cisem Saglam comments: Every woman learns to be second class citizens at a very young age. Although there is no proper Harem in Turkish houses anymore, women are still expected to stay indoors and relinquish their own opinions and decision-making. Daily femicide cases in the country are the most solid example of the oppressed situation of women. Women are being killed by their husbands, partners, and most intimate relatives. The main reasons behind these murders are women wanting to make a decision about their life.

Our built environment is oftentimes symbolic in reinforcing gender segregation and problematic definitions of identities within society’s gender system that allows unequal control of one over the other. The meaning behind our built environment is never independent from our agency to choose - the relationship between the two speaks volumes about the development of our societies and its adjacencies. We acknowledge that neither of us are historians and that our conversations are subjective. We also do not intend to universalize any experiences.

[1] Cevik, Gülen. “American Missionaries and the Harem: Cultural Exchanges behind the Scenes.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 45, no. 3, [Cambridge University Press, British Association for American Studies], 2011, pp. 463–81,

[2] Fay, Mary Ann. Unveiling the Harem : Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth-Century Cairo, Syracuse University Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Covid-19 Threatens Girls' Gigantic Global Gains.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 19 Dec. 2020




N: Let’s jump right in and talk about what we built.

C: Yes!

N: So we got really excited about the idea of a harem which is a space for only women. And it’s basically a really pretty and ornamental prison for women.

C: That collapsed with our initial interest in creating a space with mandalas. Since historically these cells were really ornamented with shapes, we scaled the pattern up. We were also investigating Carl Jung’s comments on mandalas and how the perfection of a mandala shows the wholeness of the spirit. So it made sense not to make a perfect mandala.

N: (Laughs) Yeah, we haven’t gotten there yet... in terms of spirit.

C: Right (Laughs). But also looking at the harem - if we were to look at the women who were occupying this harem space, how can one be whole if you are to be constrained to the interior.

N: Yeah, and of course this is our interpretation because for someone whose life has been a certain way, that is their world. That seemingly perfect world...

C: The space we created wanted to speak to that by not perfectly articulating the forms within perfectly. While harems are imagined to be so perfect, filled with color, large patterned lights and beautiful shapes, they were basically slave yards.

N: And by patterned lights, we mean that the space was surrounded by mashrabiyas which allowed women to see outside, and restrict whoever is outside from seeing inside. And by prison and constrained space, we don’t really mean one room. Women were allowed to move throughout certain parts of the house which also significantly include the courtyard - a way of going outside without going outside.

C: Yes, the courtyard. It’s a common architectural element in Ottoman and Turkish houses. The dwelling surrounds and, in a way, shields the interior courtyard.

C: So, initially I did think about maybe this was a space that allowed freedom - a space where we’re protected from the brutal patriarchal world we’re in. But this still means that we’re keeping women in instead of letting them out.

N: I agree, and the fact of creating more interiors to keep safe may not be tackling the root problem of why the outside is (apparently) unsafe for women. Attempting to put an issue in a positive light may also dangerously allow people to romanticize them.

C: Yes! That’s one thing - romanticizing! There’s so much romanticization of jealousy and violence in love. It’s like ‘oh wow if he’s showing jealousy, he must love me so much.’ And this affects how young girls think about gender and expression. And then they let this happen because that’s what they see from society, tv series, and movies.

N: Yeah, lots of ‘this is my girl!’ And I think to myself - why can’t the girl ever choose?

C: Exactly! And if a woman does choose, there are such harsh comments! For example, there was a real case where a ballerina was murdered on a public street. And I see on twitter that people are shaming HER - “look at her, how she’s dressing, she deserves it...” And she’s just wearing jeans like I am right now, and with a piercing on her lip. And some people were saying - “see she has a piercing... and what is she doing on the street at night.” And it was only 9pm. But even if it was later, you shouldn’t be murdering people...

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Status: Built
Location: Los Angeles, CA, US
Firm Role: Designer, Curator
Additional Credits: Co Designer / Artist: Cisem Saglam, ig:@cisemsaglam,
Co Designer / Curator: Nancy Ai, ig: @yea.mmkay
Fabrication Lead: Burak Celik, ig:@burak.celikk

Special thanks to Erik Ramon Valle, Chuwen Ong and Dex Wu