- October 17, 2019
Since antiquity, Western architects have presumed that the user of the designed environment is a prototypical body, one who is by default white, able-bodied, cis-gender, heterosexual, and male. From Vitruvius to Le Corbusier, architects have designed buildings based on the proportions of an “ideal” male body, one that people could aspire to but only approximate. Spurred by developments in science and medicine, in the 19th century, the notion of the “ideal” body that formed the basis of classical architectural theory since the Renaissance, competed and eventually gave way to a new conception, the “normal” body, one that could be studied and measured and that would form the basis of ergonomic design standards that have become encoded in architectural guidelines and regulatory codes that we have inherited to this day. This supposedly objective criteria has at different moments in American history, including our own, been used to justify who is allowed and who is denied access to public space based on different versions of a recurring argument: the unfounded claim that women, people of color, immigrants and the disabled possess innate physical or mental defects that render them unfit to enter the public realm.
If our objective is to re-conceptualize the relationship between bodies and built environments in ways that better serve the goals of social equity, then we must begin by looking at how design professionals—architects, interior and landscape architects—working in conjunction with lawyers, politicians, and code experts are accomplices to these strategies of inclusion and exclusion. First, we need to interrogate building “types,” the ordinary structures associated with specific activities that distribute bodies within formulaic spatial configurations that shape the way humans interact with each other and the world around them. Not only must we rethink the architectural typologies that we take for granted but also the building codes that govern them. Although we assume them to be shaped on objective functional criteria, both typologies and building codes are historically contingent social contracts that frequently perpetuate problematic assumptions about human identity and embodiment. For example, sex-segregated restrooms spatially sort people into two categories – men and women – that naturalize the gender binary. The display dimensions that govern the heights of pictures and pedestals at art museums are calibrated according to the standard average eye height of able-bodied men. Uprooting the problematic cultural assumptions that have shaped the design of the spaces of our everyday lives will then free us to give up outmoded codes and standards transmitted through architecture curriculums and the protocols of professional practice and replace them with new and innovative design alternatives that register the complex, fluid and intersectional nature of race, class, sexuality, and gender.
Achieving this goal requires us to adopt an alternative to the prevailing “separate-but-equal” approach to accessibility that focuses on physical accommodations like ADA-accessible ramps and entrances. Although well intentioned, this approach is ultimately patronizing and stigmatizing. It is predicated on an “us” vs. “them” mentality that spatially segregates those with “special needs” who deviate from the norm. We must implement a new approach to accessibility based on the awareness that each one of us is in some way, shape, or form a non-compliant body, one of many variations of being in the world. Only then can we create shared design solutions that allow the maximum number of differently embodied and identified people—individuals, friends, families and caregivers—to MIX in the public spaces that shape our everyday experience. The process of thinking through the lens of non-compliant bodies promises to be a catalyst for creativity that will generate unforeseen environmental solutions that will transform the lives of us all.
Joel Sanders is an architect practicing in New York City. Prior to joining Yale, he was an assistant professor at Princeton University and the director of the graduate program at Parsons School of Design.