Thursday, March 16, 2006

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the office tower... comes "fitness architecture"--buildings designed to make you climb stairs and walk long distances between the front door and your destination. The Wall Street Journal raved in November about a building under construction at Virginia Commonwealth University:

the elevators will be especially slow-moving. They will also be tucked away at the rear, while the atrium will feature a prominent set of stairs -- 28 to get to the second floor, and a total of 76 to get all the way up to the fourth floor.

Fear not--a "slimming mirror" will greet stairclimbers, to encourage them in their efforts to get fit. (Will they also put "fattening mirrors" in the elevators? Or just stamp "lazy" on the foreheads of elevator users?) It's probably a dream come true if you're a corporation trying to save money on construction--but look, it's also a benevolent idea, to improve the environment and public health: "in buildings that aren't hospitals, hide the lifts," recommends blogger Natalie Bennett. Oh, I see, it's progressive, and for public health--haven't people with disabilities paid disproportionately into that cause already (with institutionalization, dubious medical treatments, immigration restrictions, marriage restrictions, sterilization, etc. etc. etc. for the "greater good")?

So, if you're going to meet your lawyer, buy some shoes, vote, eat in a restaurant---plan to be fit, or get fit. But if you're on wheels....or have any other condition that make stairs impossible or risky....well, there's those "special" elevators way back there, behind the atrium--but give yourself an extra ten or fifteen minutes, they're really slow.

[T-shirt from Dan Wilkins' The Nth Degree.]

UPDATE 3/19: Bennett has this further clarification in her comments space: "I accept for some people with disabilities that would be inconvenient - those for whom walking a very short distance is possible but longer distances aren't - but that would, I think, be a not unreasonable price to pay for better overall societal and environmental health." It is an unreasonable price (and she seems to be under the mistaken impression that once you're on wheels, all distances are equal), but more to the point, does Bennett have the right to accept that price on behalf of the people who will pay it? People with disabilities and their allies should be very concerned when both the Wall Street Journal and a Green Party member can agree to accept their exclusion from any public spaces.

UPDATE 1/3/07: She's still at it. Some folks will never see the problem with building exclusion into the architecture of everyday life.


Mike Dorn said...

Great post, Penny. Disability presents for an undeniable challenge to today's liberal/progressive politicians and designers. "Hiding the elevators" has always been a a special gift of architects, who often devote much more energy to the stairs in their buildings.

Case in point: my office at Temple University is in Ritter Annex, designed in the early 1970s around an elaborate block O plan with a central elevator lobby on every other (odd-numbered) floor, and even-numbered floors forming rings around the exterior. On any given day, we are lucky if more than one out of the four central elevators is functioning. As a result, I have taken to telling our visitors to take the stairs up six floors to my office. At least they are less likely to get lost or stuck between floors that way. But what about my colleagues who use wheelchairs? This is simply not an option. There have been occasions where I have had to carry the up flights of stairs to get to meetings, or to use the restrooms. Surely this is not the sort of ‘preventative public health measure’ that the architects might have intended. Once we get into upper crust society settings, architecture all too often serves as a sorting mechanism that marginalizes people who fatigue easily or use equipment to enhance their mobility.

I also find it sad to see new coffee shops opening in my neighborhood like La.Va without a wheelchair accessible entrance. Apparently the city of Philadelphia’s code enforcement office tells these young entrepreneurs that they new establishment isn’t covered because it is ‘merely’ a renovation rather than new construction. Yet the Americans with Disabilities Act was been clearly written to apply the same access requirements to renovations. What are we to do when clear regulations have been passed and yet are not enforced?

Anonymous said...

This idea is absurd and greatly upsetting. It looks like new constructions are taking a step backwards in accessibility. This may sound naive, but to improve public health, why not encourage people to stay away from fast food and soda instead?