David Gissen on Designing Cities for Disability
Photo: AfriPics.com/Alamy Stock Photo
What would it be like to live in a city designed by, or at least with, people with disabilities? For starters, this metropolis’ main public library and its most august museum would not sit atop monumental staircases. Designer, historian and Parsons professor David Gissen opens his book The architecture of disability with a description of the day in 1990 when dozens of protesters dumped crutches and wheelchairs and hauled themselves up the steps of the US Capitol on their stomachs or backs. The Capitol Crawl, he points out, was more than about access: it showcased how remote people with disabilities feel from monuments meant to embody a democratic idea. Gissen envisions an urban environment that would do more than begrudgingly accommodate people who cannot see, walk or hear, or who have cognitive impairments. Rather than treating disability as a separate category of people with special needs, he aspires to a city that recognizes and draws its shape from the wide variety of physical experiences.
Gissen survived childhood bone cancer at the cost of his left leg, which was amputated as a teenager. At various times he had difficulty getting around New York in a wheelchair and on crutches; found relative happiness in Vienna; moved to the Bay Area, where he was fitted with an inadequate artificial limb; and, in recent years, he has returned to New York and received a transformative new prosthesis that has made him considerably more mobile.
“The West Coast disability culture is so accepting of physical difference that if you step on a terrible prosthetic leg, people say, ‘It’s okay, that’s who you are,'” he told me. .. “In New York, you walk into a doctor’s office, and they say. “Why do you walk so badly? »
He already knew that everyone’s disability is different, but experience taught him that even a person’s condition is not fixed. Proponents of universal design argue that a building, park, landscape, or sidewalk should be designed to serve everyone equally. Instead of treating accessibility as an add-on or extra expense, it should be “a fundamental condition of good design.” Gissen, on the other hand, focuses on variety and customization, rather than trying to please everyone at once with a generic paradigm. “The bodies and abilities of people with disabilities are constantly changing depending on the type of medical care they receive.”
In the book, Gissen discusses climate control, moving from history to personal experience to politics. After the era of 19th century houses with heavy curtains, wood paneling, low ceilings and small windows – designed to keep the warm air in and the moist, soot-laden air in – the era modern has turned around. Science had determined that the sun and the breeze were weapons against tuberculosis; the architects responded with large windows and white walls. New York’s 1916 Zoning Code and its 1929 Multiple Dwellings Act enshrined the pursuit of light and air in strict regulations governing building heights and setbacks. A century later, it is time to take another look. Cities have become warmer, glass facades have maximized interior glare, and shade is often valuable. COVID has pushed indoor air quality much higher up the list of basic needs, but it still doesn’t work the same way for everyone.
“A reduction in ambient temperature alone may not always cool me, but the movement of air around my prosthesis” does, writes Gissen. When he’s warm inside, he gets up and starts moving quickly – exactly the opposite reaction of most people. The cars offer the possibility of adapting the temperature and the air flow to the level of comfort of the passengers seated a few centimeters from each other; office buildings should also allow individual users to regulate their own small areas.
When President George HW Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, he ushered in an era of conformity. Buildings had to be made accessible according to a set of minimum standards, and owners had to absorb the costs and produce design solutions. It was a huge change, and the result is that post-1990 apartment buildings, office towers, arenas, concert halls, museums, courthouses, and all manner of public facilities are much more navigable than their predecessors. It’s not enough, and Gissen envisions a much more ambitious future. But it also delves into historical examples to show how the realities of disability can affect the texture of city life. At the end of World War I, for example, more than 150,000 veterans, widows and refugees – most traumatized, many seriously injured – flocked to wooded encampments on the outskirts of Vienna. The city government appointed architect Adolf Loos to help make these communities permanent. “Loos,” writes Gissen, “studied the work of injured veteran builders and developed a comprehensive building system based on their abilities.” As part of the effort to honor and upgrade these DIY neighborhoods, he designed a house with one wall, “achievable with minimal physical effort”. (More than a century later, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena won the Pritzker Prize for a similar concept: a group of cheap, expandable, customizable houses that every family can complete on their own, whenever the time and money permitting.) Interwar Vienna, disabled veterans were a powerful political force and their influence continues to shape the legendary city social housing program, its widely accessible public transport system, its abundant urban gardens and even its cutting-edge prosthetics industry. Vienna is, Gissen reports of the years he lived there, “a remarkable place to be a disabled person”.
Gissen uses the term urbanization of disability to describe a sea change in perspective – a change you could achieve simply by including more architects and planners with disabilities. It starts with the recognition that physical comfort means much more to people with disabilities than to those without. Construction noise can disorient the awning. The beating sun on a sweltering sidewalk can weaken wheelchair users, who tend to overheat, so street trees and shady bus stops become necessities rather than urban frills.
He also hopes to change the metaphors we use to analyze and shape cities. Since at least the 18th century, city planners have seen the city as a magnified representation of the human body, with quasi-animated circulation and breathing systems, well-defined boundaries between public and private property, distinct circulation and pedestrian zones, the whole thing. organized to manage the movement of people, vehicles, water and money. The architecture of these cities relies heavily on symmetries and proportions derived from intact human bodies and average physiology – windows as eyes, doors as mouths, cornices as hair or headgear, etc.
The results make life harder than necessary for many people with disabilities. Wide boulevards are difficult to cross. Stop to rest along a sidewalk in New York, and you suddenly become a human obstacle, a log stuck in a stream of fast-moving pedestrians. (“People have no qualms about saying, ‘Move!’,” Gissen remarks.) Flow is not a useful concept when movement is a constant challenge.
Gissen values exceptions to these ideals of urban vigour. He loves an avenue of gnarled, leaning pines in Madrid’s Parque Rio, because designers at landscape architecture firm West 8 embraced the trees’ natural idiosyncrasies, rather than selecting only specimens with the most military posture. Along the same lines, he argues that streets should be less segmented into efficient channels differentiated by vehicle and speed. Instead, the public space could be more mixed and amorphous, even a bit anarchic. The book’s illustrations include a print of Piranesi from the Roman Forum as it was (or as Piranesi intended it to be) in the mid-18th century. “There is no street in the modern sense, just empty space between buildings,” says Gissen enthusiastically. “There are trees, places to sit, animals, piles of hay and dirt, ruins, monuments. There is no strict separation between the spaces in which you move and the spaces you occupy. You can sit in the middle of the street!
The pre-modern utopia of public space he describes bears a strong resemblance to the pedestrian plazas that began to dot New York in the Bloomberg years – places like Gansevoort Plaza or Times Square, which began as lawn chairs arranged in the middle of Broadway. There are other instances in which Gissen seems to envision a future that has already begun to exist, at least in isolated instances. A dozen years ago, the Department of Transportation began commissioning and installing thousands of steel benches on the sidewalks of New York City, ultimately transforming it into a city a little more seated.
Urban design is conditioned by laws and property boundaries, and most landlords insist that the public roam – rather than cross – their estates. Gissen presents a supposedly radical alternative, based on a looser definition of property. “You can imagine a city block where the owner has to provide an easement or a private public space to let someone through and reduce the intensity of those long walks.” Yet such a thing already runs through midtown Manhattan from 51st to 57th Streets, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, a stretch of connected spaces that the city in 2012 named 6½ Avenue.
We should learn from the success of these examples and consider the benefits they bring, not just for convenience and busy New Yorkers, but for anyone who finds walking a challenge. This population includes those who consider themselves permanently disabled, as well as the diverse and changing collection of the very young, the very old and the extremely tired; injured marathon runners and women in high heels; shoppers carrying heavy bags; people with chronic sciatica; patients recovering from surgery; etc If you are not in one of these categories right now, you almost certainly have been or will be. This is what makes Gissen’s book so important: disability, in one form or another, is an almost universal experience.