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.”
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 A dense labyrinth that is obsolete and inoperable because it has been scaled up in a manner that lets the able-bodied viewer experience the exclusion that disabled people face in most domestic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.
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.
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.
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.
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.