The Bartlett


Transcript: Blocked by Design

How spaces can be designed to let people in...or keep them out. 


people, disabled, bartlett, building, architecture, space, barbara, buildings, blind, workshop, thinking, architects, disability, barriers, partially sighted, environment, non disabled, design, important, issue


Zoe Partington, Christoph Lindner, Barbara Penner

Christoph Lindner  00:03

Hello and welcome to Building Better, a podcast about life and research at The Bartlett and how we are trying to build better. My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I am also the Dean here at the Bartlett. In each episode, I'll be sitting down with other members of this community to explore a topic that captures a snapshot of what happens here. From innovative techniques to interdisciplinary ideas to groundbreaking results.

Christoph Lindner  00:38

In this episode, we are considering accessibility and how spaces can be designed to let people in or keep them out. And to explore this question, I'm joined by Zoe Partington, and Professor Barbara Penner.

Christoph Lindner  01:00

Zoe Partington is a contemporary artist and creative consultant. Her installations explore and communicate the experiences of disabled people and their journeys through space, and her work is informed by her own sight loss. Zoe is a co-founder of the DisOrdinary Architecture Project, and works with various researchers here at the Bartlett, and Disabled and D/deaf artists to do disability differently in architecture and urban design.

Christoph Lindner  01:32

My second guest this month, Barbara Penner is a Professor of Architectural Humanities at the Bartlett School of Architecture, her research seeks to understand how everyday spaces and buildings informs social and cultural identities and she has studied a wide variety of different spaces, from bathrooms to honeymoon resorts. Barbara has worked on the DisOrdinary Architecture Project with Zoe, as well as Architecture Beyond Sight, which was a Bartlett project that brought together researchers and blind and partially sighted people to radically rethink the design of the built environment.

Theme music  02:11

Christoph Lindner  02:16

So we want to be talking today about accessibility and inaccessibility in the built environment. And I'd like to begin by asking you, what are some of the things that make buildings inaccessible? Zoe?

Zoe Partington  02:31

I think, for me, and for a lot of people that I work with this quite a huge list. But one of the things that I think is really important, because it also crosses over to older people, is how the acoustics work inside a building or a space or even a room. And that can be very... it can make your time in that space, very unpleasant and I think we probably all recognise that in cafes and restaurants. So if you can't have a conversation with the other person on the other side of the table, and I don't think that's just for disabled people, that can be for many people. But if you are a disabled person with an impairment, it can be significantly difficult to continue that conversation and to have a nice meal and a nice evening out.

Christoph Lindner  03:15

So acoustics is one on a long list of things that can contribute to making a space inaccessible, what else is on that list, Barbara?

Barbara Penner  03:23

So as Zoe said, certainly things like sound levels, light levels, obviously, barriers, doors, staircases and steps, but it goes beyond the physical, it also enters the realm of the psychological and the symbolic. And so things like signage, for instance, would would perhaps be the best example. But buildings give you cues in all sorts of ways about whether or not you're welcome, as a user of the building. And so it's those cues, they can sometimes be incredibly subtle. They can do with how you are oriented through a building, they might be to do with environmental controls, at what temperature is a building set, all of those things together, convey this message to users about whether or not the space is meant to be accessible to them. And so very quickly, I think you start touching on issues of citizenship. Are you a full citizen? Are you fully able to enter into the experience of a building. And this is why accessibility is so often talked about as a social justice issue.

Christoph Lindner  05:11

So inaccessibility is then about barriers. What I'm wondering is how do those barriers come into being? So I'm thinking Zoe, a little bit about what is the distinction between deliberate and accidental inaccessibility, when are buildings hostile to our presence? And when are they welcoming?

Zoe Partington  05:32

Well, I think for disabled people, those buildings that are hostile, you know, the barriers start before you even get through the front door, when you arrive at that building. There's also I mean, a barrier for disabled people is also about attitudinal access. So you can have a fully accessible building, but people in there can be quite dismissive of you as you get into that environment or that space. And that's also really, really important. But I think for me, it's very much about understanding the journeys of people through buildings and through spaces, and how those barriers interact with you. So it can be... if I go into a building and the lighting is quite poor, and I'm tired trying to negotiate the spaces within that building before I've even got to my meeting, or to the cultural event, or whatever it is, I'm going to or walking through a rail station network. And it means that you're exhausted and tired a lot really, a lot of the times and that, you know, that's a barrier because you're negotiating hazards, barriers, whatever you want to call them all the time. And it's really hard work. And I think people don't understand the level of tiredness that it creates. And then you don't feel like an equal when you come to the table to that meeting, because you're absolutely wiped out.

Christoph Lindner  06:50

I hadn't really thought of accessibility in terms of energy and exhaustion. And that's really helpful to hear. You also use the phrase "attitudinal access" and that's a new phrase for me at least, could you tell us a bit more about what attitudinal access is?

Zoe Partington  07:05

Yes, well, it can be as a disabled person, you arrive with a non-disabled person, and the staff at reception will talk to the non-disabled person. And that's just you know, there's there's all sorts of stuff that goes on attitudinally that sometimes I think non-disabled people unless you're with a disabled people, and you see it in action, you're very you don't know it's happening. And it's vast, actually, I mean, it's quite horrible. It's really important that people become more aware of Disability Culture, Disability Heritage, and how disabled people orientate through spaces, because sometimes you can put barriers in that you're very unaware of, and it's now described as ableism. I mean, in the past disabled people for the last 40 or 50 years because of Vic Finkelstein, an incredible academic, along with Mike Oliver talked about the Social Model of Disability and talked about actually, what are the barriers and the barriers are not, you know, located with the disabled person, it's not my impairment, that's the issue - it's the treatment and the way that I can't access things within society within buildings. But I think there's still an issue around this language and the way that we're describing this, so an ableist, you know, I'll say that somebody is an ableist the way that they don't listen, or they ignore what I'm saying, as a disabled person, but it's that thing about as an ableist, it's all still about that person, about the non-disabled person, it's still not about the disabled person. I mean, I use that term ableism because I think people are beginning to understand it, but it's still setting you apart from the disabled person.

Christoph Lindner  08:30

Your comments, Zoe, I think, connect quite powerfully with Barbara's comment about how accessibility is also a social justice issue. And I'm wondering, Barbara, what we're already hearing in this conversation, are the extreme differences of experience of being valued that our interactions with buildings can have? And I'm just sort of wondering, why do we design buildings in this way? Why are we not more aware, more conscious, more active in trying to fully consider accessibility when we create new space? And why haven't we been historically?

Barbara Penner  09:13

Yeah, I think it's a very good question. The entire trend of architecture for let's say, the 20th century into the 21st century, has been towards standardising environments. And so you have building regulations, building codes, and their purpose is to standardise our environments, partially to reduce construction waste, for instance. And of course, ironically, this is all done in the name of improving building quality, but I think what's insufficiently recognised here is that these processes also standardise users. And so anthropometric figures in architecture, for instance, are built on the dimensions of white abled bodies. So if you go back, for instance, the case I know best is the Architectural Graphic Standards, which is this architect's handbook that architects will turn to when they're initially designing spaces. And the body measurements that are provided in the AGS came from American military studies. And so they're heavily biased towards white abled male bodies, there's a gender issue here as well. And so it's very hard, even with the best will in the world, it's very hard to sort of work outside of these standardising systems, because they're so intrinsic to the way that architects design. But unfortunately, what it means is that exclusion is actually built into building standards, and typical practices of design. This is why they're so deeply rooted and this is why it's so hard to design in alternative ways.

Theme music  11:43

Christoph Lindner  11:49

So we've talked about what makes buildings inaccessible, we've begun to talk about why they're inaccessible and I'm wondering Zoe, could you imagine ways of designing, occupying, using spaces that are not oriented around exclusion and control?

Zoe Partington  12:07

Yes, yes, you know, there's several different ways that we can work to help that happen. One is about, which we try and do through DisOrdinary architecture, as Barbara will know, is about training and development and thinking differently, and introducing disabled artists and disabled creative people to architectural students to embrace a different way of designing those spaces and understanding why because I think that's the bit it's the connection between humanity and a human being using the space. And you can have standards and you can have rules, and you can have sets of tools to help you do that. But if you still don't know why you're doing it, you're still sometimes excluding people. And I think it's, it's really important. So we have to start, you know, in primary school, really, because if you look at the way equality provision is still put in place for children in primary schools, it's still really poor, and those children are still set apart from other non-disabled children. So it starts very early on this inequality. Then the other issue is the tutors, you know, the lecturers, the people that are in charge or teaching you, we don't see role models, we don't see disabled people in those institutions as our role models. So the other issue for me is about any environment you work in, so any architectural practice, any architectural training center, you know, any university, that the culture embraces the social model of disability and embraces difference in a very positive way. And it doesn't just mean then that disabled people are part of that. And part and parcel to the discussions, the dialogue, the changes, all sorts of people are.

Barbara Penner  13:44

And I I just also wanted to mention Jos Boys who is our, my amazing colleague at the Bartlett, but also co founder with Zoe of the DisOrdinary Architecture Project. And her mantra is that architects need to learn to start from difference as a creative generator. And I think this is very powerful, this idea that working with diverse bodies and experiences and making that the starting point for design processes that can - rather than trying to deal with disability as a sort of compliance issue that you turn to at the end of a design process, but it's a much richer way to work and a richer way to deal also with disability.

Zoe Partington  14:48

One of the issues, Jos is fantastic because she works with disabled people and myself and listens to what we're saying and then puts that into a language in a format which non-disabled people understand. So disabled people have been saying these things about opportunities, about disabled people, you know, the generating things from a creative perspective and difference for a very long time. And disabled people are still not listened to. So I think there's still a real issue there about where are the disabled people with the expertise to come forward, they're there, but they're not asked really to come and share their views and their perspective.

Christoph Lindner  15:25

I'm so glad, Barbara that you brought up Jos Boys, because she was our guest on the previous episode in which we were discussing how buildings are gendered. And one of the things we touched on there, and I think it also applies in our conversation today is we can talk about how we can do things differently in the future and how we can design more accessible, more inclusive building spaces, communities and so on in the future. But we still have all the buildings that already exist. And what do we do with our existing built environment that is so incredibly inaccessible, in its current form?

Zoe Partington  16:06

Yeah, I mean, one of the things is to capture and to, you know, have some fantastic archives and images and conversations and evidence that what you'll find is there are specific things, one or two things inside each building that are absolutely fantastic. And disabled people may point out things that maybe other people might not notice. So I think it's capturing those. And then thinking about how would you bring all of those elements together to improve each building, so someone will be looking at maybe sensory access in the building. But what we need is a lot of these elements to be combined together and then thinking about when you're designing a building, that the issues... when you're looking at lighting that can affect all sorts of people. So it's not just about blind or partially sighted people, it's not just about older people, there are people that get sensory overload, say for example, just people with diabetes, they need a space to if they're having a low blood sugar level, or a high blood sugar level, they need a space just to get themselves together before they move into the next space or parts of the building. So it's even thinking about little things like that. And then that would then relate to people that are having chemotherapy or other treatments. So I think it's beginning to think that there's a whole cross section of things like acoustics, like lighting, like the materials that you use in the building, like the airflow, the temperatures, I mean, all of these things are really important for all sorts of different reasons for people with different impairments. But actually, they can they can impact on you in all in the same ways. You know, if people started thinking like that, that would also help. I mean, it's very difficult, because I mean, say, within the visual arts sector, trying to locate and find the funding to do this research is also very difficult. And sometimes people are funded, but they're still not including disabled people in those discussions in the dialogue and in the evidence trails. So I think it's really trying to look at how do we get some proper amounts of funding together to enable that to happen. So for example, you know, I work with Jos, both of us really, on DisOrdinary Architecture in a voluntary capacity, we have other jobs that we also do, and we try and make change happen. So you know, we're constantly looking at how do we do that, it's not really rooted into our, you know, the history of architecture, the history of design, the publications, giving disabled people time to be able to be part of that is really valuable. And that would change an awful lot of things.

Christoph Lindner  18:28

We've mentioned a few times the Architecture Beyond Site project that the Bartlett hosted and that DisOrdinary Architecture, created and led. And this was a workshop program aimed to make architectural design more accessible for blind and partially sighted designers and students. And reading about it, this was before my time at the Bartlett, so reading about this, I was really inspired by how this program really challenged the over-privileging of sight in a discipline like architecture. And that's just one sense. But it is one that really, really dominates the discipline. And I'm wondering a little bit about what we learned through that process. And what were some of the ways in which the architecture beyond site project helped to challenge and change some of our assumptions about architecture and about the value of site in architecture.

Barbara Penner  19:23

We actually ran three separate events between 2017 and 2018. So there were two workshops, and then one conference as well. And each of these events was trying to do something different and connect to a slightly different audience. The first of the workshops was called the New Standard. And just very briefly, we worked with disabled artist Damian Toal and we worked with a group of 20 students from the Architectural Association and the Bartlett and it was actually quite a simple exercise, we had the students map their bodies onto the spaces of the AA and the Bartlett, very different buildings, the AA's buildings or Georgian buildings, the Bartlett it was our new building at that point, the Hawkins\Brown building, and they mapped themselves into the buildings with masking tape and chalk, they got into a bit of trouble with the Bartlett's facilities manager who wasn't that happy. But nonetheless, it was really interesting, because we were just trying to get these students to, again, question the dimensions on which buildings are built and, and really think about the fabric of buildings. So the dimensions and the materials, and so on. And so that was like our entry point into this discussion. Then we had an international conference that brought together disabled architects, artists, and the wider Bartlett community. And that was sort of about exposing the Bartlett community to some of these ideas. But I think what was just amazing about that event, you know, there was the formal aspects, but it was just the opportunity for people to talk and exchange. But also the Bartlett lecture theatre had to be completely reconfigured to accommodate disabled visitors. So we needed to locate couches, for people so that people could lie down if they wanted to, to listen to the talks or not wanted to needed to, we had to set aside a room for guide dogs, we had four guide dogs on site, we had to clear paths so that people in wheelchairs could get into the lecture hall. And that actually set a new, we wrote in the wake of that event, a new set of protocols for how we host events at the Bartlett so that we could accommodate a far wider range of users than we had done previously. So that was a sort of unintended consequence. But it was quite incredible to see how people were using our very standardised lecture space. And anyway, and then we the third event was Architecture Beyond Sight, and perhaps I should hand over to Zoe because that was our workshop, which we thought about how to design a short course that would bring together sighted and non-sighted architecture students to work alongside each other to develop conversations and design skills.

Zoe Partington  23:22

I mean, it's been amazing working on the Architecture Beyond Sight with with Bartlett. So we ran a pilot workshop, first of all, with blind or partially sighted people, artists that we that we knew quite well through DisOrdinary and looked at what would that course be? And how would it work? And one of the interesting things was that each blind or partially sighted person was teamed up with somebody like Barbara or architects from practices that support change and development. And those people worked in pairs to think about answering particular questions about designing a space or an element of a building. And how then, and I think this is the very important bit, how would you then translate that back to the group of people that are blind and partially sighted, so I know that Mandy Redvers-Rowe worked with an architect, and they performed the space because she's blind they performed how they want that space to be and what it would feel like. And I think that was the key to Alan and other people thinking, actually, you could do this in a different way. It doesn't have to only be drawings or technical specifications, you can understand quite a lot. By being much more creative about it. Some of the groups were very much using physical objects to create physical structures, you know, not sort of elaborate three dimensional building spaces, but just to get a feel of that space. And I think one of the things I realised during that, which I think I'd known anyway, but it's about it isn't about changing the blind person. It's about changing the culture at Bartlett to make sure things could be done in a different way. And that whilst you're doing what you've always done, you're excluding people. So blind and partially sighted people can be studying at the Bartlett and some people are and that you could think about, because I think one of the things is for blind and partially sighted people, materials are very important. Temperature is very important. And Barbara, I remember we went to the Materials Institute, isn't it at UCL. I mean, that was just phenomenal, and all the blind and partially sighted people we took to there and the team that run that place is just fantastic. And it was so exciting to be mucking about with materials, touching things, engaging with it, understanding where it might be really useful to use that material, why you might not want to use another material, when you touch something, why you might reject it, or why you might engage with it. So I think that was something that was really important. And then one of the other things for me, and I knew that this would happen was about blind or partially sighted people going in the workshops downstairs and going into an environment which you know, you have to be very careful, because you've got drills, saws, all sorts of kit, which can be seen as, as dangerous. I'd met somebody called Duncan Meerding out in Tasmania, who's blind is a craft maker uses all sorts of dangerous machinery, has been through University studying, and he's just got things changed. And because he's very methodical, very straightforward, incredibly good at measuring things, very aware of what needs to be put in place to make sure he can use all that equipment safely, I thought was really important, I know, it's an awful long way, but really important to have Duncan there leading the workshop staff and the technicians and the management teams, to say it is possible but you have to put these things in place and you have to think differently about the environment. And one of the challenges was during that was that I think management were quite worried about some of the things in that workshop area. But the technicians were fantastic, very quickly, they were saying things like "having a blind person in the workshop makes it a lot safer for all of us, not just for blind people." and I think for me, that was the jumping point because that is, when it's not, it's not about the blind person anymore, it's about all the external things. If we get those right, all sorts of people can be included rather than excluded, and it can actually make it safer. So I thought that was a really, really interesting relevant point during some of that process. And then I think it was really good that we then went on, and had three or four blind or partially sighted architects or people that wanted to go into architecture came on the course. And one of the issues for them was they didn't feel very confident about going into the workshop, because maybe on their A Level courses on their other courses, they'd been really not allowed to do that, or their parents were worried about it, or they were worried about it. Because they saw Duncan in action and I think because I was down there as well. And then they had a go at everything, their confidence increased. So some of them are not necessarily studying at the Bartlett, but at other institutions. I think it made them in some ways be a bit more challenging to the institutions where they're now practicing. And they're, you know, able to say, "well, hang on a minute, why can't you do that, because we did it on the pilot course for Architecture Beyond Sight." So I think, you know, there's several layers of things going on. So it's about enabling blind or partially sighted people to challenge the spaces or the environment, so the things that they're involved with. I mean, I know they shouldn't have to do that, but we're still in that stage of having to do that. And then also for the environments to think very differently about changing their culture, because that's key really, to things really developing for the future.

Christoph Lindner  28:20

Thank you so, so much for sharing all of that. And it's great to hear about what that project actually achieved on the ground. And what I find so inspiring is it just demonstrated that change is possible, and also showed one way of starting to create that change.

Theme music  28:36

Christoph Lindner  28:41

In your view, looking to the future, what is one thing that we need to change so that we can build better?

Barbara Penner  28:48

Well, I think on the back, actually, of what Zoe just described and our experience with Architecture Beyond Sight. I think it's just so crucial that we somehow get across this message consistently and loudly, that designing for a wider range of users, a wider range of abilities, a wider range of senses, that does not impoverish space, it enriches space. And I think that we just need to constantly reiterate this point, you can't state it often enough. But we need to think about the end user in less abstract ways. We need to think really carefully about these diverse ways of moving through space, of orienting ourselves in space of using materials and I think we just need to remember that disability or designing for disability does not create a less complex spatial experience, it actually creates a much richer one.

Christoph Lindner  30:10

And Zoe the same question to you, looking to the future, what is the one thing that you would change to help us build better?

Zoe Partington  30:17

I think it's having more examples, isn't it of that fantastic accessible environments work for everybody? And they're not, you know, they're not like hospital settings. They don't have to be like that at all. And I think disabled people and architects agree they're saying the same things really. They want environments to be you know vibrant, innovative, stylish and sexy. You know, that's, I think people haven't thought about that it can be possible to do this in this particular accessibility field. So people have avoided it in a way but why not, you know, let's, let's make it fun and inspiring that that's what we want. And that'll change things as soon as people think, well, this is definitely a great space to be in.

Christoph Lindner  30:59

That is a lovely note on which to end. So thank you, Zoe, and Barbara, for joining me in this discussion.

Christoph Lindner  31:13

You have been listening to Building Better the Bartlett podcast.

Christoph Lindner  31:17

This episode was presented by myself Christoph Lindner, produced by UCL with support from the Bartlett Communications Team, and edited by Cerys Bradley.

Christoph Lindner  31:28

It featured music from Blue Dot Sessions.

Christoph Lindner  31:31

Today I was joined by Zoe Partington, and Professor Barbara Penner and if you would like to hear more of these podcasts, please subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter. And of course, you can follow us @theBartlettUCL.

Christoph Lindner  31:53

This podcast is brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's Global Faculty of the Built Environment and UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone.

Christoph Lindner  32:11

We'll see you next month.

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