Architecture of Disability

Book Review: Access Measures

The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes Beyond Access

By David Gissen; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022; 216 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by Sara Hendren

Every rights movement carries a tacit “before” and “after” scenario in its theory of change, and global disability rights movements are no different: In the before, a nation’s normative legal policies, its structures of education and governance, its built environments have been inaccessible to people with atypical bodies and minds. In the after—the imagined desirable future—those same structures are newly loosed from these hindering barriers. The world goes from inaccessible to accessible. It is retrofitted, refashioned, its seams opened up for more flexibility, pliability, generosity, making smoother passage through the human-made world a form of civic enfranchisement.

It’s a worthy aim. And for designers, the before-to-after scenarios could not be more vivid and concrete: constructing ramps where stairs long stood, plunging into hardscape to make room for elevators to the subway, cutting the curb of each and every corner of a city grid. Each of these “afters” in the United States, some 30 years beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act, is worthy of celebration. But the singularity of this story—design for disability means access, a univocal call for more of it, more of the time—has muted the vibrancy of another bracing invitation: to see architecture shot through and alive with disability in its very bones, to rediscover our built environments in their paradoxical entanglement with the needful body in all its forms. 

David Gissen’s The Architecture of Disability takes us to the formative heart of the built environment—not merely as an outgrowth of a rights movement, or as an iterative project of greater inclusion in design. Whether observing iconic ancient buildings, national parks, or contemporary streetscapes, Gissen is pushing designers and scholars to look beyond the expected arguments for greater access, as though all design simply makes some mythical fixed tableau of the built world more “usable.” Something else is at work here: a close examination of the disabled body as the creative catalyst—or, sometimes, the stubborn, unresolved grit in the system—for making and remaking the designed world. The case studies offer inspiration for design practice, not so much as a how-to guide, but as a distilled and compact set of provocations for thinking otherwise.

The architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s Mechanical Application of Bone Joints from Histoire d’un dessinateur: Comment on apprend à dessiner (1879) illustrates the ways bodies are conceptually reduced and abstracted into functional elements.eugÈne-emmanuel viollet-le-duc, histoire d’un dessinateur: comment on apprend À dessiner (Paris: J. Hetzel, 1879)
The architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s Mechanical Application of Bone Joints from Histoire d’un dessinateur: Comment on apprend à dessiner (1879) illustrates the ways bodies are conceptually reduced and abstracted into functional elements. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Histoire d’un dessinateur: Comment on apprend à dessiner (Paris: J. Hetzel, 1879).

Take, for example, the condition of disability as it meets the landscape. Gissen takes us to Yosemite National Park, and to an event that embodies the typical access-led approach to thinking about nature: paraplegic climber Mark Wellman’s 1989 scaling of El Capitan, a historic first and an event that has been followed by “all disabled” group climbs at the same site. Adaptive encounters with nature like this can be read in multiple ways: as a vivid awareness campaign that signals the need for greater access to a treasured site, or, conversely, as a spectacle of athletic prowess, (unintentionally) reinforcing the message that with enough individual talent and will, the site is already usable and need not shift its shape. But Gissen wants the design observer to push past either interpretation and look more deeply. “[R]ather than simply agitating to access such spaces, or using them as props in athletic feats that overcome their physical features,” he writes, “disability activists might…stage a richer politics in these landscapes.”

Gissen shows that deploying nature’s palliative effect is inextricably linked to the well-being of the modern body.

How so? Gissen reminds readers that Yosemite is a famous case study of ambiguous “wilderness.” The site included cultivated farmland and year-round habitation long before its managed and reimagined life as a site of “untamed” nature became codified in, say, Ansel Adams photographs or John Muir–era imagery. These facts productively destabilize routine arguments for access, Gissen claims. “[T]here is nothing inherently inaccessible about Yosemite, because there is little about Yosemite that is natural,” he writes—at least not in the “hostile, inaccessible, nonhuman, and pristine character” that is a shorthand for the idea of nature-as-other. 

Invoking the very artificiality in the history of Yosemite would raise the larger questions that might begin with disability but soon imply a wider, more ambitious cultural conversation. More than “a literal effort to bring more visitors into America’s wilderness areas,” he writes, disability rights activists might lead in multidimensional conversations about “displacement and restitution” generally in United States history. Nature has long been employed as “rehabilitation” for the built excess of industrial cities. He reminds us that retrofitted gardens and parks or wide-scale beautification (often with broad health connotations) are tied up with disability and impairment. In a mix of vivid examples—the “ugly laws” outlawing the presence of disabled people on Chicago city streets, the “garden cities” in the United Kingdom as exurban sites for rehabilitation—Gissen shows that deploying nature’s palliative effects, how its “wildness” is recovered, imported, and managed, is inextricably linked to the well-being of the modern body. 

Gissen offers another case study in the social and landscape palimpsest of the Acropolis. He drops us at this famous site of cultural heritage and its laudable efforts to retrofit its structures for tourists, including its 21st-century additions of an elevator and Braille signage. In a standard design analysis, we might reasonably ask about the question of “balance” when encountering this meeting of architecture and disability: What are best practices for preserving the historical integrity of a site while also ensuring access?

Unlike an ancient ramp, present-day accessibility to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, is limited to a boxy elevator that brings a single passenger up the cliff to the ruins.Anton Kudelin, 2019
Unlike an ancient ramp, present-day accessibility to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, is limited to a boxy elevator that brings a single passenger up the cliff to the ruins. Photo by Anton Kudelin, 2019.

Here again, Gissen wants us to think with more restless curiosity. He points us to the ancient origins of this site, reminding us that the original structure was approached via a series of monumental ramps. Their cultural function is not fully known to historians and archaeologists, but scenes depicted on relics of the time include visitors using crutches and other assistive aids. Most of these original ramps were destroyed in the 19th century to make the site more directly adjacent to the surrounding city, but only on foot. Today, a wheelchair lift rises on a track up a sheer cliff to carry tourists to the site.

Here the before-and-after scenario takes on wondrous new complications, and the longer story reminds us of something important: that disability has been acknowledged (or perhaps accommodated, or perhaps tolerated) as a fact of life in many cultures long before the formal domains of planning and architecture came to be professionalized. The Acropolis—with its ramps built, destroyed, and then compensated for with elevator access—“demonstrate[s] how a site might have been more relatable to its impaired visitors in the past than it is in its present-day condition as a historic monument.” 

To understand these histories in their multiple dimensions, Gissen says, upends a “functionalist” or “mechanistic” view of disability in the built world, with its origins in the 19th century idea of the city as a machine for circulating bodies in measurable, manipulable fashion. In this paradigm, “disabled people were seen to function differently in a space than people who walk easily on two legs or see with two eyes.” In calls for access, he writes, too often “a space [is] viewed as functioning better for disabled people when such differences [are] addressed within it.” This pragmatic view colors so many design conversations about access that it’s difficult to estrange ourselves from it. But Gissen’s provocation suggests that the historical sediment shaping the Acropolis might be seen as arising from disability as a fact of life—not in present-day egalitarian terms (and Gissen’s use of “relatable” is imprecise here), but in the messy and embodied plain facts of the human animal in its many contexts. Disability could not help but be there, accounted for, in any historical context, even while understood with fundamentally different and culturally situated ideas about personhood, human worth, and civic belonging. Rather than cast an ironic, knowing glance at all historical times and places that operate without strictly contemporary notions of equality, Gissen’s attentive reader will find human variation, adaptive technologies, and social interdependence in many unexpected historical spaces.

West 8’s Salon de Pinos in Madrid (2009) demonstrates an aesthetic of infirmity with metal stanchions supporting trunks and branches in a pine tree allée.© Jeroen Musch
Metal stanchions support trunks and branches in a pine tree allée at Salon de Pinos in Madrid by West 8. Photo © Jeroen Musch.

In taking up unusual sites, surprising origin stories, and intersectional analysis, Gissen joins recent disability scholars—Aimi Hamraie, Elizabeth Guffey, David Serlin, Bess Williamson, and others—in refusing the tidy designations of pain points and design solutions, of pointing to “user” needs as the final story in making rights real. Access matters, to be sure—the qualities and features of our cities and buildings do facilitate or hinder human bodies and their movements every day. But the invitation of these more recent thinkers has brought maturity and variation to the field. Scholar Jos Boys writes that her edited volume called Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader (Routledge, 2017) proceeds from “a belief that starting from disability can open up innovative and unexpected understandings across the whole range of architectural education and practices.” 

Gissen, similarly, is interested in what he calls the “underlying concepts,” in the “ideals instantiated” in the built world. Where city planning takes for granted that human circulation should be “continuously extended, enhanced, and accelerated,” Gissen poses an “urbanization of impairment”—not the “street as a machine of flows” but a hardscape where the “idea of wheelchair iconoclasts, blind flaneurs, and autistic dérivistes enables disabled people…to understand their experiences and actions as critical contributions to urban space.” 

The great gift of a short book like this is its integrative character: setting out a series of concepts, illustrated by macrohistories that are bracing in their brisk scope and comparative in their brevity, raising and suspending questions about implications for scholars and practitioners alike. The text is unburdened by infinite details that might discourage the nonspecialist reader, but it does not sacrifice complexity. The result is a manifesto-like character, a historically grounded and rigorous look at critical concepts, but neatly woven and expressive in its provocations.

Disability, as a lens for understanding, points to the stubborn truth of a universal fragile existence, to the adaptive corpus at work in forming culture and politics and the built environment. This body, and this one, and that one—each with shifting and changing needs—add up to a whole demography of disability made visible, if aided by a curious, indeterminate, and open-handed historian’s approach.

Designers at all scales can take in this slim volume as a set of concepts for reinvigorating their work by productive defamiliarization. For practitioners, Gissen offers ways to see differently, to think differently, and therefore to practice differently.

West 8’s Salon de Pinos in Madrid (2009) demonstrates an aesthetic of infirmity with metal stanchions supporting trunks and branches in a pine tree allée.© Jeroen Musch
West 8’s Salon de Pinos in Madrid (2009) demonstrates an aesthetic of infirmity. Photo © Jeroen Musch.

In a 2023 conversation between violinists Itzhak Perlman and Julia LaGrand, Perlman offered a link between disability theory and its practice for designers. Perlman uses a motorized scooter to get around, and he’s spent time in his late career consulting with performance sites to figure out meaningful access for future musicians and audiences. Where might an electrical outlet anticipate an oxygen tank? How might seating give pride of place to wheelchairs? As in Gissen’s formulation, Perlman understands that cultivating an interest in disability is a more elusive, ambitious mandate than compliance with architectural code. He’s spent his career traveling, navigating back-of-house elevators and concert halls with bathrooms up a flight of stairs. 

But the matter is even more frustrating than that, he says: “You go to a hotel…when the room says ADA compliant, what the hell does that mean? That code book, it’s like a blessing and a curse with the Americans with Disabilities Act…because it basically takes away the thought of what really is necessary for somebody that has a disability.”

It takes away the thought. Perlman is not suggesting high theory here—where “thought” means something esoteric and obscure. No: The thought that disability invites is the most ordinary but vital combination of imagination and pragmatism. Code compliance is a legal requirement and valuable as such, necessary for enforcing access. But it’s not a substitute for imagination and commitment, for prototyping with lively disability histories in mind. The precedents are out there, waiting to be rethought, revivified for the present day. Efficient, attentive accessibility “audits,” site walk- and wheel-throughs, and ethnographic research can inform designers looking to make meaningful, animated access.

Still—the most powerful images Gissen offers invoke something more challenging and unsettling: a very “aesthetics of infirmity,” a poetics of the body, and nature, and the built environment with needfulness preserved, built in to the future. He points us to the recent project by West 8 in a park near Madrid’s Manzanares River. Where the canonical allée of trees is usually composed of hardy species known for their biocapacity and vigor, West 8 intervened otherwise. They chose a line of pine trees whose sprawling structures, subject to easy toppling, are usually rejected in favor of more geometric varietals. Each pine in the Manzanares park splays its crooked and unwieldy bent branches, elegantly held by metal stanchions that are planted alongside it. A tree and its prosthetic extension: the supported creature with its assistance unhidden, its parts and systems a thing of beauty. 

Sara Hendren is an artist, design researcher, writer, and professor at Olin College.

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