Beyond Accommodation for Oculus

Beyond Accommodation: Architects Are Learning that Physical Design Solutions Are Only Part of the Answer, Oculus, Winter 2023

The ideal of inclusive architecture implies an accessible, welcoming space for all. We imagine the architect acting as a mediator, deliberately eliminating barriers to entry, appealing to a myriad of potential users, and transforming narrow programs into coherent forms and encompassing visions. Yet we experience countless examples of the opposite: Designers hired by private clients to flaunt amenities that by definition most of us cannot access, armed with deterrences to exclude those who potential buyers may consider undesirable. Brooklyn-based Interboro Partners created a 440-page encyclopedia of such details, practices, and policies in its 2017 The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, now in its second edition, which remains a salient expression of design at the threshold of belonging.
In David Gissen’s The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access, published this winter by University of Minnesota Press, he dreams of another way of designing. Instead of an approach that identifies specific groups, needs, and hindrances, ensuring inclusion or non-exclusion by complying with guidelines layered onto forms conceived without disability in mind, Gissen imagines an architecture that transcends an additive approach. Up to now, design in the modern tradition has emerged from metaphors and symbols shot through with notions of deformity. What if disability itself became a motif, a generative starting point?
Gissen offers as an example the Sal√≥n de Pinos in Madrid RIO—a park designed by Burgos & Garrido, Porras La Casta, Rubio & A-Sala, and West 8, along a recovered river in Madrid—in which a section of plantings is composed entirely of pine trees that had been damaged, repaired, and reshaped into beautiful, resonant forms. As an amputee with a prosthetic leg, he can think of almost no other examples. In his essay “Disabling Form” (e-flux Architecture, May 2022), Gissen argues that the modern discourse of form itself relies on terms such as aberration, disfiguration, deformity, and imbalance to aggrandize “an expressive overcoming of gravity and physical force, optical and mobile perception, and the kinesthetic production of architectural ideas and spaces.”
“One theme of the book is that the reason why buildings, nature, and history are inaccessible in the first place is not because people don’t care about disabled people or ignore their needs,” says Gissen. “It’s because the very idea of history, nature, and form actively positions impairment as a negative. There are ideas of incapacity within the very ideas that understructure what history, form, environments, and construction are and what they do.”
In this sense, the seemingly neutral framing of inclusivity may position the already-included as a tacit “norm” and the excluded as an “other” to be paternalistically allowed in, but only if we comply with a mandate of conformity to an existing order. “I wrote The Architecture of Disability with younger practitioners or students in mind who may have impairments and may doubt they can find a place in architecture,” Gissen says. “It’s a book for my younger self that I wish I had starting out in the field, written as a way for people with disabilities to find a place for themselves in this discipline—a place that is forceful and shows them how they can change it as well.”
In lieu of notions of inclusivity, it may be more precise—if rather clumsy and unpoetic—to talk about “those who have historically been discriminated against” to emphasize that individual projects, small or large, do not in themselves portend a larger change to structural and institutional norms that tend to make the society as a whole extremely unequal. For example, New York City has a 0.5149 “Gini coefficient”—a standard measure of income inequality, which can range between 0 and 1. (A coefficient of 0 indicates a perfectly equal distribution of income, while a coefficient of 1 represents a perfect inequality.) New York’s value is the worst in the U.S., alongside the District of Columbia, making it the 15th highest in the world, comparable only to that of developing nations.