The Disordinary Architecture Project: A Handy Guide for Doing Disability Differently in Architecture and Urban Design

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Article published in The Funambulist 19 (September-October 2018) The Space of Ableism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

The DisOrdinary Architecture Project starts from the belief that improving the design of built space is not just about “adding” disabled people to existing environments to better meet their “needs.” It is about exposing and challenging underlying attitudes, assumptions and practices that frame disabled people in particular and limited ways, both in everyday life and through the education and practice of architectural and urban design. So, rather than providing yet more inclusive or universal design principles we begin by challenging ableist attitudes and practices. We hope this can open up alternative kinds of inventive interventions towards, not just better inclusive design “solutions,” but also better understandings of how the “normal” is constructed in everyday life, and how it can be critically and creatively contested, underpinned by a commitment to social and spatial justice for all.

Boys Funambulist (1)
Tatiana Martinez Soto’s Master architecture project as part of “Becoming,” curated by Atxu Amann. / Spanish Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2018.

Most crucially, we have to ask why disability has somehow remained stuck in a non-historical, atheoretical and seriously underexplored category in relationship to building and urban design practices. It is invisible in both avant-garde and mainstream architectural theories and discourses, just as it has been a persistent absence in critical and cultural theory more generally. Perhaps this illustrates just how deeply disability remains widely avoided, compared to other disadvantaged identities. It seems that we assume “disability” to be unable to bring any kind of criticality or creativity to the practice of architecture.

The DisOrdinary Architecture Project aims to change this through the accumulation of multiple small actions that together can create a substantial culture shift, both across built-environment disciplinary practices and in societies more generally. We do this by always starting from disability and difference as a means of revealing architecture and urban design’s deepest assumptions about who is valued and noticed, and who (and what) is marginalized and forgotten, in the processes of producing built space. We look forward to a time when starting from disability would just be an ordinary part of designing, an obvious place to start; and where ability (just like whiteness or maleness or straightness) would no longer be the invisible and natural side of the disabled/abled binary but, instead, a central part of the problem. Here we suggest seven steps to enable non-disabled people to better pay attention to their often unnoticed everyday attitudes, as well as offer ways to explore disability and difference as a creative design generator and as a powerful critical tool for investigating what constitutes “normality.”

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