What happens when disability is not seen as a problem for architecture to solve, but as a potential generative impetus?
From Vitruvius to Le Corbusier, the mathematical proportions of the human form have historically been used to shape and define architecture. Man is, essentially, the ultimate measure of all things. The famous Modulor Man was originally based on the height of the average Frenchman (1.75 metres, or 5 feet 9 inches) but was later increased to a more strapping 1.83 metres (6 feet) because of Corb’s penchant for English detective novels in which (literally) upstanding characters such as policemen, were always 6 feet tall.
Contrast this with the experience of Melanie Reid, a Times journalist, who broke her back and neck in a riding accident four years ago and is now tetraplegic. She writes a darkly humorous weekly column about her physical and existential transformation, describing a world abruptly telescoped into a new normal so unimaginably remote from her previous life. It gives an intensely human perspective to a subject that most people would rather not countenance, until, of course, the unthinkable happens to them. How she uses, experiences and inhabits space is invariably more nuanced than the simplistic stereotypes of Modulor or Vitruvian Man.
Despite an increased political and cultural awareness of disability, architecture still tends to have an uncomfortable and edgy relationship with disabled people. Most see the built environment as an unforgiving terrain to be navigated, while most architects regard ‘inclusive’ design as, at best, a regulatory box to be ticked; at worst a mild irritant, stifling creativity. The ubiquitous International Symbol of Access, in circulation since 1969, depicts a static, supine looking wheelchair user, emphasising the notion of diminishment and passivity. Yet as the experience of the London Paralympics showed, many ‘disabled’ people are strong, active and militantly in your face. Every experience is different, and some lobby groups feel that the access symbol should be redesigned to reflect a spirit that is more David Weir than Ironside.
So what happens when disability is not seen as a problem that architecture needs to solve, but as a potential generative impetus? ‘Can disability − and ability − help us to think more explicitly about habitation?’, asks Jos Boys in this month’s Broader View. She cites the examples of OMA’s house in Bordeaux, arranged around a room-sized hydraulic platform for its wheelchair user occupant, which effectively treats disability as a design generator, and the less architecturally explicit Maggie’s Centre in Glasgow that subtly reconceptualises notions of care beyond the standard clinical environment. ‘Arguing for making diverse bodies more central to design is not about blaming architects for failing to do accessibility or inclusive design enough’, says Boys, ‘but instead to open up new forms of questioning’. We need to redefine Modulor Man for a new era of inclusivity.