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Unpacking The Spatial Implications Of Architecture’s Accessibility Failures | Features


Image courtesy of Murmurs and Josh Schaedel

There is a particular type of obliviousness to the built environment that most of us have the privilege of experiencing day-to-day. This obliviousness relates not to architecture’s aesthetic values, but rather to architecture’s  accessibility out in the world. Built to Scale, an exhibition by artist Emily Barker currently on view at Murmurs Gallery in Los Angeles, is designed to knock you right out of it. And for designers and architects, it’s a must-see. On view in a young gallery tucked between the nondescript buildings of LA’s Manufacturing District, Barker’s new solo show delves deep into the fundamental misunderstandings of architectural accessibility and its spatial implications, particularly in the realm of the home.

I’m lured into the exhibition by an eerie sound, the familiarity of which I can’t quite pinpoint until I’m inside a small fluorescently lit room crowned by a three-foot-tall sculpture that is made up out of a towering pile of medical documents. The music coming out of the speakers is that of being on a call to medical providers, on hold in a waiting room. The space is one of isolation, an intimate and faceless room that not all of us inhabit or wrestle with often enough to have properly register at first. Emily flips through the intimidating pages, noting to me the extensive hours they’ve clocked-in waiting in such spaces. In the main exhibition space, there is a quote on the wall that summarizes the room we are in now: “Imagine spending the majority of your time on hold being passed around to different departments whose job it seems is to deny you the services you pay for. Death by a million paper cuts.” 

The installation is marked by a tall stack of medical billing documents. Image courtesy of Murmurs and Josh Schaedel
If you haven’t seriously considered the reality of people fighting with an architecture built against them, this exhibition is a sturdy portal that provides the visitor with at least a glimpse of that understanding.

The interior is a brilliantly conscious reproduction of nauseating spaces of bureaucracy — it’s an embodiment of the socially constructed and mass produced architectural norms that define the built environment, a set of codes which, in turn, define our social environments. Standing here, I realize that I’ve managed to not encounter a person in a wheelchair in a very long time. It’s a reminder of real power that architecture wields, which is a notion that most designers still hold so close to their hearts, while simultaneously failing to grasp its true meaning. In our search for aesthetic solutions, we often forget about the underlying principles that define, rule, and limit them. In a system where design faculties only get to be channeled (or distinguished) through the narrowly defined concept of formalism, such romanticism often dies. Afterall, how can we continue believing in the power of architecture if architecture actively continues to discriminate against certain bodies? What is the role of impressive gestures if only a few of the rich and the able get to experience them? Emily Barker’s work points out the true potentials—both positive and negative—of architecture. And for this reason, the exhibition is both heart-wrenching and inspiring at once. Considering spaces like those recreated at Murmurs—complete with documents, cold lighting, and creepy tunes—is something few designers do. It’s an unglamorous territory that nevertheless has an unquestionably strong physical and psychological effect on those confined by it. The loop that cements cycles of oppression invisible to most is exposed through the exhibition’s vocabulary: the lighting, the heights, the textures, and the stiffness. This language also suggests the possibility for change, however. If you haven’t seriously considered the reality of people fighting with an architecture built against them, this exhibition is a sturdy portal that provides the visitor with at least a glimpse of that understanding.

An overall view of the installation highlighting the alienating kitchenette, over-scaled rug, and other elements. Image courtesy of Murmurs and Josh Schaedel.

Taking full advantage of every inch of the gallery, the displayed artwork is raw and careful in its formal and physical qualities. The proportions, the materials, the placement, and character of the objects in the room reflect an awareness that is rare to come by not just artistically but architecturally-speaking, too. The people that architecture hurts understand it more profoundly than anyone else does. Once you see it for yourself, it’s hard to argue.

Most of the objects displayed throughout the exhibit are very familiar; however, their scales and materialities are not. For example, the exhibition contains a ramp, a closet, and a rug. Seemingly innocent, when exaggerated, these elements expose their tyrannical qualities (of trapping, barring, or even hurting) to the able-bodied.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a thermoformed plastic kitchen set. A dense labyrinth that is obsolete and inoperable because it has been scaled up in a manner that lets the able-bodied viewer experience the exclusion that disabled people face in most domestic landscapes, where the standard 36-inch counter prevails, making cooking impossible for people in wheelchairs. 

For example, the exhibition contains a ramp, a closet, and a rug. Seemingly innocent, when exaggerated, these elements expose their tyrannical qualities (of trapping, barring, or even hurting) to the able-bodied.

Clothes hangers are placed just out of reach. Image courtesy of Murmurs and Josh Schaedel.

During the walkthrough, the artist fires off facts I’m embarrassed not to have known or already have in my arsenal, like the fact that most standardized furniture is designed for a man of average height, which is 5’9” in the US. What I do know is that in recent years there’s been an increased interest in revisiting those sexist parameters to re-image the world that could be more convenient and intuitive to women. In 2018, every major mainstream outlet churned out a piece exploring the issues pertaining to gender inequality in the field of architecture, from problems as mundane as air-conditioning to as far-reaching as the formal differences embodied by the work of female designers. There have been numerous essays, articles and exhibits contemplating design that doesn’t prioritize men. However, the discourse around a broader definition of inclusivity hasn’t gotten much new traction or creative attention. Why? Who designs the spaces we inhabit and who are they meant to accommodate? If women and their needs are becoming bigger drivers in design, when will this same consideration be extended to people with disabilities? And what about old people, stroller-wielders, package deliverers? The scope of users towards which most spaces are tailored is limited. It hasn’t been too long since architects and city planners even first became legally accountable for accommodating disabled people. In 2020, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will celebrate its 30th birthday and many of its visions are yet to be fully realized or developed.

Who designs the spaces we inhabit and who are they meant to accommodate? If women and their needs are becoming bigger drivers in design, when will this same consideration be extended to people with disabilities?

A close up of a steeply sloped and roughly textured ramp. Image courtesy of Murmurs and Josh Schaedel.

Furthermore, the sculptures in the room highlight assumptions about the essentially ableist nature of architecture at its core, where accessibility is an afterthought and not a fundamental approach. By translating the failures and limitations of ADA in the built environment to the universally accessible language of scale, Barker educates in a way that’s hard to forget.

“Disability would not necessarily exist if certain accommodations were made within the medical industry and the built environment,” says the artist, “My body would work perfectly fine if things were flat and things were at a certain height.”

The golden and rusted reach-extending grabbers hung on the wall are another item that instigates this new sense of awareness. The artist uses these tools daily in every domestic environment built violently not for them. Inspired by the one and only disabled Greek god Hephaestus, a name that roughly translates to “the crafty one of many devices,” these pieces ponder the prolonged absence of change, the patience required to live with disability. Every piece in the room breathes with a sense of responsibility that architecture has outsourced to its most vulnerable users. “Disability would not necessarily exist if certain accommodations were made within the medical industry and the built environment,” says the artist, “My body would work perfectly fine if things were flat and things were at a certain height.”
That radical concept alone could serve as a delightful minefield for designers for learning how not to fix-up but rather rebuild the foundation of their practice as currently accepted. The idea that buildings should do work on behalf of their occupants is not necessarily new. Previously, Le Corbusier, Cedric Price, and other architectural trailblazers have theorized of buildings as machines, for example; however, the ethics of their functions have primarily been left unexamined. 

Two rusted reach extenders are included as part of the exhibition. Image courtesy of Murmurs and Josh Schaedel.

One might ask, machines for whose living in? It has left us in a place where descriptions of Centre Pompidou’s stairs-centric formal qualities grace many academic texts, yet, designers are still using loopholes to avoid accessibility. Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel (a staircase to nowhere), for example, is currently scraping to add a lift to the $200 million sculpture two years after opening, and after much outrage at the fundamental inaccessibility of the design. In addition, Steven Holl’s newly opened library in Queens, a building that took $41 million and two decades to complete, was just slapped by a federal lawsuit, citing major accessibility issues. These are two prominent examples but hardly the only major works of architecture by major designers to embody glaring accessibility failures. Accessibility in contemporary architecture is exuberantly shown, time and time again, to be not an exciting priority but rather a sad consequence and sometimes, a total failure.

Accessibility in contemporary architecture is exuberantly shown, time and time again, to be not an exciting priority but rather a sad consequence and sometimes, a total failure.

Close up of the rug made of 20,000 ft of IV tubing and copper wire. Image courtesy of Murmurs and Josh Schaedel.

Aesthetically speaking, Built to Scale is quite bare and cold in its straightforwardness. This approach appears as a deliberate act of mirroring, of magnifying the existing visual language of accessibility and it’s mandated bleakness. In our conversation, Barker mentions that they want to see the built environment change functionally, and that the formal possibilities of those functional changes are rich and still largely untapped. Exploring the beauty of those new potential solutions is the artist’s next mission, now that the problem has been established loud and clear.

A butterfly-shaped night light offers a bit of hope in the otherwise solemn exhibition. Image courtesy of Murmurs and Josh Schaedel.

Before leaving, don’t forget to notice a butterfly-shaped night light. It’s at the artist’s eye level, and as they note, represents transformation and regeneration—a sweet little beginning, a totem of hope, although still limited to decoration. While looking at it, Emily tells me, “Why can’t we focus on what there is to change? Because people will forever be getting old and becoming sick and becoming disabled. No one is free from dying or something happening to their bodies. Bodies are fragile. And why don’t we make the world a place that we all can, not be so afraid of that? And where, my presence doesn’t represent your own personal relationship with aging and death.”

Built to Scale is on view at Murmurs (1411 Newton Street, Los Angeles) through January 18th.

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