The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access | By David Gissen | University of Minnesota Press | $24.95
“In the United States, people with disabilities in the architecture profession and architectural academia are statistically invisible,” disabled designer and New School professor of architecture David Gissen wrote in AN in 2018. “Neither the American Institute of Architects nor the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture collect data on the number of architects or architecture students in the United States who self-identify with physical or cognitive disabilities,” he wrote. While in the past few years the discipline itself has made strides in becoming more inclusive, Gissen argued then that “it is time that we let people with disabilities partake in this important transformation occurring in American architectural education and the profession.”
Five years later, Gissen’s new book, The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access, marks a watershed moment in this ongoing struggle for disability equity.
Part manifesto and part memoir, Gissen’s book upends centuries’ worth of dogmatic thinking in architecture by inserting “impaired” and “disabled” bodies into focus, an overdue act, as they have been excluded by the Western canon with very few exceptions to date. The Architecture of Disability takes on some of architecture theory’s most widely read (meaning white, able-bodied, male) intellectuals, such as Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Pierre Patte, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Leon Battista Alberti, Heinrich Wölfflin, Marc-Antoine Laugier, Gottfried Semper, Charles Baudelaire, Henri Lefebvre, and Vincent Scully. Gissen’s scholarship reveals how deeply entrenched ableism is within Enlightenment and modernist thought.
Upending the Canon
Gissen’s thesis is in part that disability has historically been rendered largely invisible in famous architectural critiques about the city, race, gender, and class. In doing so, prior arguments alienate those who aren’t physically capable of rising “above the boulevard” and climbing “to the rooftops of Paris,” as Guy Debord and Jacques Fillon once called for in the revolutionary summer of 1968. Or, in Gissen’s own words: “As with race and gender, the integration of a disability perspective reveals key problems with the original premises of this critical tradition.” For instance, in his critique of the flâneur and Situationism—two hallmarks of urbanism postulated by Walter Benjamin in the 1920s and Guy Debord in the 1960s, respectively—Gissen reminds us that “only certain people can simply wander within a city in such a dramatic fashion to engage in this critical act of disobedience (which may not really be that critical at all).”
But Gissen’s ruminations go far beyond close readings of prolific thinkers. He launches epistemic critiques of how monuments, preservation, nature, cities, architectural form, physiology, anthropomorphism, the sublime, aesthetics, functionalism, environmentalism, and history itself have been theorized since Immanuel Kant, tracing these subjects back to their ontological roots in order to cast a spotlight on how ableism is deeply nestled within these lineages. Moreover, Gissen does justice to contemporary antiracist, postcolonial, postmonumental, and critical museum studies scholars, showing the interconnectivity between disability activism and broader struggles being faced down today. References to theorists of disability such as Jos Boys, Aimi Hamraie, Raymond Lifchez, Joel Sanders, and David Serlin are placed alongside contemporary figures like Nikhil Anand, Irene Chang, Julien Chapuis, Maurice Chebab, Charles Davis, Hassan Fathy, Mario Gooden, Georgina Kleege, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Tobin Siebers, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and Mabel O. Wilson, to collect some of Gissen’s erudite references.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Gissen’s work is how much ground he covers in just 142 pages, not counting the introduction, acknowledgments, or endnotes. According to Gissen, however, this wider political and philosophical purview is essential, which is arguably what bifurcates his text from those of previous disability scholars. Or, to put it simply: It is not enough to advocate for more curb cuts on sidewalks, although the author certainly pays his respects to groups like the “disability liberation activists” of Berkeley, California, in the 1970s, who have historically struggled to make the built and natural environments more accessible.
“Disabled people and their architectural advocates have often wrestled with this functionalist legacy,” Gissen writes. “Treating access as the sole form of disability representation and activism in architecture
is the source of innumerable limits and paradoxes,” he continues, with emphasis. For Gissen, “a disability critique of the city must also address other forms of circulation and exchange” beyond functionalist upgrades, “particularly the dynamics of property and real estate,” he writes, as well as “sound housing, guaranteed access to food, and the demilitarization of urban space.”
Against Regimes of Ableism
Vitriolic disdain for human bodies and minds that deviate from heteronormative European beauty maxims and Protestant work-ethic standards permeates architectural discourse. Gissen’s work directly confronts this trajectory. He notes that in the 1920s the German art critic Paul Schultze-Naumburg associated Cubism with “human maladies” because of the way in which it rejected the ideal physique in its rendering of human beings—an idea about bodies later championed by Leon Krier in his own attacks on modernism. Though Gissen doesn’t mention it, the prior examples recall the instance when Dutch modernist Aldo Van Eyck derided postmodern buildings as “transvestite architecture” in the 1970s.
Today, architects such as Thomas Heatherwick and Steven Holl design buildings like the Vessel in Hudson Yards and Hunters Point Library in Queens, respectively, that “express their inaccessible elements as central aspects of their formal meaning,” Gissen states. The lack of access is a slap in the face to anyone who isn’t physically capable of ascending these buildings’ highest peaks. Moreover, many professors and practitioners continue to stress the notion that to make good architecture, students must “suffer” by putting their bodies and minds through Promethean ordeals before they complete a design to the level of desired aesthetic or conceptual satisfaction, an expectation riddled with ableism and other problematics related to class, race, and gender.
In short, Gissen’s informed prose attacks this chauvinistic legacy. Citing historian Sarah Rose, Gissen notes that “disability” itself is a relatively new concept dating back only to the 19th century, a time when industrialization was taking hold in cities throughout Europe and the U.S. “To put this more simply, a blind person, an amputee, and a traumatized veteran do not necessarily have anything in common with one another,” he writes. “But such people, with an array of impairments, began to coalesce into an identity as governments and industries evaluated such people’s capacities or incapacities to work.” Against these protofascist regimes of usefulness, Gissen’s book highlights the narrow interpretations of being human that emerged during industrialization, thereby rejecting “the belief that norms and averages should define the character of an environment within which people are immersed.”
Toward an Architecture of Disability
At its best, critical theory does more than interpret the world around us. It can also confront us with our own unconscious biases and unchecked assumptions, which alters our subjectivity and the way we navigate the world. The result can be a vision of what a better, alternative world may look like. In a clear and succinct manner, Gissen’s The Architecture of Disability achieves the former goals while not elaborating on the latter imagination. Articulating precisely how this awareness could be applied in practice is not the main intent of the volume; perhaps that will arrive in a forthcoming offering.
Gissen anticipates and responds to the question of good examples to emulate by highlighting a few precious moments in architecture’s history as inspiration for those of us in the present. He gives kudos to Stanley Tigerman’s Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (1978) for employing a “postmodern” and “postfunctional” architectural approach “that subverted and in some cases ridiculed the literalness of anthropomorphic and functionalist aesthetics.” Gissen also points readers toward Austria’s “Red Vienna” period in the 1920s, during which impaired war veterans and widows built semiautonomous communes on the Austrian capital city’s outskirts after World War I, creating new innovative buildings and construction methods along the way.
The Architecture of Disability is an open invitation for us to collectively imagine what a new, better world could look like while at the same time offering readers a chance at their own introspection. Within minutes of opening the book, I was thinking about my own shortcomings as a critic and, specifically, instances in which I reviewed a new building or park and accessibility wasn’t on my radar. Like with other liberatory struggles, whether it is for greater racial, gender, or LGBTQ+ equity, Gissen reminds us that the most effective way to right these wrongs is by having impaired people at the vanguard of fixing the broken world they occupy. In his impassioned coda, he notes that the task at hand requires a group effort and communal creativity: “How can we (you and I) reimagine practice to relate it to those marginalized by it?”
Dan Jonas-Roche is a lecturer at Kean University School of Public Architecture. He lives in New York City.