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Doing Disability Differently

Grounded in compliance, accessibility is rarely seen as a creative starting point for design. Jos Boys argues that rethinking ability and architecture offers a powerful tool to design differently

The way accessibility and inclusive design are embedded into education and practice is often experienced as dull, dry, and yet another regulatory pressure constraining designers. So let’s start somewhere else.
What happens if, rather than seeing disability as a problem that architecture is expected to solve, we ask basic questions about how diverse human bodies actually occupy built space. Can disability − and ability − help us think more explicitly about habitation, how we envisage a ‘typical’ user and what impacts buildings have on their many and varied occupants?

Contemporary geography, anthropology, phenomenology, science and technology, are looking at exactly this issue. Many argue that everyday life is less about our thoughts and feelings about the buildings and urban space we occupy, and more about doing − how we enact the ongoing intersections between our bodies, artefacts and spaces. ‘Doing’ entangles the personal and the social, the conceptual and the practical: it is the repeated performance and contestation of so-called ‘normal’ routines.

For the able, the work involved in repeatedly accomplishing such a routine is mainly invisible. Their experiences of built space are generally frictionless, but for disabled people the processes of everyday life − getting dressed, going out, shopping etc − may take varying amounts and types of effort; leading to a careful attentiveness which is itself an expertise. Disabled people often don’t fit with the commonsense assumptions that underpin the ‘normal’ everyday, unnoticed, ways of doing things.

‘How can thinking about dis/ability help us think more about ‘fitting’ and ‘not fitting’ in different situations, rather than relying on historically stereotyped divisions’

How then, can we begin to unravel the normal? How can thinking about dis/ability help us think more about ‘fitting’ and ‘not fitting’ in different situations, rather than relying on historically stereotyped divisions between disabled and able individuals? And what are the implications for architectural education and practice? How do architects imagine their users and clients, both in specific projects and more generally?

Many contemporary practitioners have recently been challenging the more mechanical aspects of architectural Modernism, especially its simplistic and functionalist concepts of the generic user. But as the body becomes re-thought within architecture, we need to explicitly ask what kinds of bodies are being imagined, and in what ways. This is not to note that a particular architect’s project may or may not be accessible to disabled people − it is to open up how current architects perceive their human subject as particular kinds of bodies-in-space rather than others.

OMA’s seminal Villa in Bordeaux, completed in 1998, famously for a wheelchair user and his family, combines the typically sophisticated formal manipulation of Koolhaas and his colleagues with a device, a large hydraulic platform, that literally puts the client at the centre as he moves through the three floors, completing the room at each level as he arrived. At the same time, his smoothness of  flow is expressed even more dramatically by juxtaposing it with deliberately awkward and challenging elements for the able inhabitants of the house. They are the ones who must negotiate space with difficulty as memorably shown in the Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine film Koolhaas Houselife where the cleaner is seen having to haul her vacuum up a tight and enclosed spiral staircase. As with much of OMA’s work the building plays with reversals, both in doing the opposite to Modernist architecture formally (upending the Villa Savoye), and deliberately flipping the spatial experiences of the able members of the household vs the wheelchair user.


Villa Bordeaux’s hydraulic platform puts the disabled client literally at the centre of the structure as he moves through the three floors

This house needs celebrating, because it goes beyond assuming disability is only about accessibility and compliance, treating it instead as a central design generator. But it is also troubling. Despite making a powerful commentary on disability, the project both reproduces disability and ability stereotypically as an unequal binary relationship (albeit reversed) and treats it as a ‘one-off’ − as an issue specific to this building because of its client − rather than building on any wider understanding or more general design approach. Architectural writer and theorist, Robin Evans noted that many architectural designs: ‘tend to be offered as commentaries on reality, as alternatives to convention, as eccentric investigations or as momentary escapes from the necessary banality of ordinariness. We still do not have the courage to confront the ordinary as such.’

So, how can architects better ‘confront the ordinary’ in their design practices? What would it mean to open up for explicit debate how diverse occupants are envisaged, conceptually and practically, within the discipline? We may have moved on beyond the functionalist Modernist man of the six-foot Corbusian detective to other kinds of figures − the flâneur, the skateboarder, the cyborg. But who is being left out here and why? When new mother Lisa Baraitser described herself as an ‘encumbered body’ experiencing the city, she compared herself to a freerunner. She wanted to capture both the difficulties and the ‘oddly generative’ qualities of negotiating space outside the norm.

‘We may have moved on beyond the functionalist Modernist man of the six-foot Corbusian detective to other kinds of figures. But who is being left out here and why?’

What would it mean to start from users, including disabled people, that do not fit norms, recognising the expertise this enables in creatively negotiating both physical space, and everyday routines? Bartlett PhD student, Sophie Handler, for example, worked with the elderly, developing small-scale urban projects that explore different ways of using the built environment in later life.

OMA undertook a project more recently where disability is again central. Their Maggie’s Centre in Gartnavel, Glasgow, provides emotional support and practical advice to people with cancer, their friends and family. Here the programmatic and formal juxtaposition is played out, not within the project as at Bordeaux, but between the new building and the ‘normal’ hospital cancer ward. Now it is the programme that is radical (as with all the Maggie’s Centres) leading to spaces that are not generated as commentaries on disability or illness, but instead provide a setting for enacting care done differently to standard clinical environments. Here this is orchestrated through a circular sequence of interlocking single-storey boxes that create many kinds of ‘homely’ spaces, with various degrees of privacy, connectedness and enclosure. As Koolhaas has said: ‘I don’t think it should be a building that challenges people to live better; rather it should have a direct effect on the people who use it.’

Arguing for making diverse bodies more central to design is not about blaming architects for failing to do accessibility or inclusive design enough, but instead to open up new forms of questioning. Connecting with, and even enjoying, the complex realities of different kinds of body could act as an unexpected design generator. Unlike much inclusive design debate, however, this is not to argue that designing for disabled people will somehow make an architecture that is better for everyone. Rather, by insisting on making dis/ability ambiguous, it puts disability back where it belongs. It cannot be left to regulatory guidance, but should − like every other aspect of design − be negotiated within a whole range of messy parameters. Disability needs to be rethought as generative and creative; as a radical − even avant-garde −approach to architectural education and practice.

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