Editor's letter

Creating spaces for all

Why are people with disabilities still being let down by poorly designed spaces? Ensuring spaces are accessible for all shouldn’t be an afterthought, it should be part of the creative design process, says Magali Robathan


In 2017, artist Christopher Samuels was made technically homeless and forced to accept emergency accommodation in an inaccessible hotel room. “I couldn’t navigate around the bed in my wheelchair,” he told CLAD (see page 76). “I couldn’t get into the bed, I couldn’t use the dressing table. I couldn’t shut the bathroom door, or use the toilet or shower.”

This experience stayed with Samuels, and when art commissioning programme Unlimited put out a call for submissions to design a guestroom for an innovative arts-led hotel in Blackpool, UK, he knew what he wanted to do.

Art Bnb features 19 guestrooms-come-art installations, designed by different artists to get guests thinking.

Samuels’ room has been designed to be deliberately frustrating to use – the bed is surrounded by a high ‘lip’ that guests have to climb over, the bathroom door doesn’t shut, the television can only be viewed in the mirror and the shower gel dispenser is upside down.

“I wanted to make people experience the reality of what it’s like to be disabled: the frustrations of having to navigate a space which isn’t designed for them,” explains Samuels.

Unfortunately, Samuels’ experience is far from unusual. Twenty years on from the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the US and 15 years on from the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK, poorly designed spaces are still a reality for many.

Recently, a lawsuit was filed against the new Stephen Holl-designed Hunters Point Library in New York, with disability rights advocates arguing that the building was “designed and built with a total disregard for adults and children with mobility disabilities”.

Heatherwick’s Vessel also attracted protests and a complaint by the United States Department for Justice alleging that much of the structure was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Accessibility has now been improved at Vessel, and changes have been made to Hunters Point Library, but the question remains – why aren’t all users being considered at the design stage?

The Musholm holiday sports and conference centre in Korsor, Denmark, has won a host of awards for the 2015 redesign of the original site. The AART-designed venue features 24 fully accessible hotel rooms, a climbing wall suitable for wheelchair users, a relaxation room for people with difficulty concentrating, and a 100m athletics and wheelchair racing track leading up to a sky lounge.

Making spaces accessible shouldn’t be an add-on or an afterthought; it should be an integral part of the design process. It’s about the relationship between people and space; about engaging with how different bodies will use a space. Most of all, it’s about creativity, and that, after all, is what designers and architects are good at.

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