"The Architecture of Disability: A Discussion with Architect David Gissen" - AbleBook

“The Architecture of Disability: A Discussion with Architect David Gissen”

Reimagining a city from the perspective of disability is much more than creating ramps on sidewalks,” says architect David Gissen. As an architect with years of disability experience, he speaks about the need to reconsider the values that shape our cities and to broaden our view beyond the concept of accessibility to include notions related to the intersections of disability critique in architecture with environmentalism and postcolonial perspectives on the city.

Interview with Bella Okuya

Translation: Editorial team of pass-world.gr

David Gissen is a Professor of Architecture and Urban History at the Parsons School of Design at The New School. His new book, “The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes Beyond Accessibility,” presents a new way of thinking about the history of architecture and architectural theory, placing disability at the center and changing the way we see the everyday built environment.

David Gissen

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this book

A: I’ve spent my entire career in the world of architecture as a person with a disability. I am a survivor of pediatric bone cancer, underwent treatment here in New York in the 1980s. I am also an amputee.

I went to undergraduate architecture school as a person with a disability, partially using a wheelchair and crutches at the time. I went to college, did a Ph.D., was a curator, a professional, a practicing architect, and then returned to school to become an academic.

As someone with a long career in the world of architecture, I believe that ideas about debility, disability, and physical weakness are much more complex than simply making buildings more accessible.

The way we think about architectural history, architectural ideas about nature and the environment, the way architects create and design through architectural form, and the way cities urbanize and construct buildings are all intertwined with ideas about ability, debility, and disability.

I wanted to develop what I would call a disability architecture theory rather than just focusing on making architecture more practical for people with disabilities.

The genre of writing known as architectural theory interprets architectural history, the aesthetics of construction, and concepts about nature and the environment. My goal was to provide a critique from the perspective of disability on all these issues, especially on the way I learned, was encouraged to practice, and was encouraged to teach these ideas. Writing this book allowed me to express thoughts I had long held in one volume.

Q: Could you speak more about a key concept in the book, the “urbanization of impairment,” and how it relates to this theory?

A: Typically, contemporary critiques of cities for disability focus on ensuring greater access for people with disabilities to movement within urban spaces, such as sidewalks, roads, and public spaces. All of these, of course, are extremely important.

However, in my chapter “The Urbanization of Impairment,” I question whether the critique from the perspective of disability in the contemporary city should simply target access to the city as it is, or if it should reconsider some of the values embedded in urban spaces.

Jon Tyson/Unsplash

For example, many cities like New York and London manage water based on the European perception of hydrological management. The recent torrential rains in New York highlighted the limitations of our Western model of paved roads with curbs. There are various environmental critiques of roads and sidewalks that support alternative approaches to urban wastewater management.

There is an opportunity for people with disabilities to form alliances with environmentalists and postcolonial urban theorists who are redefining the streets. Reimagining traffic in urban spaces will likely reduce barriers experienced by people with disabilities and introduce a more nuanced approach to how cities are envisioned.

Disability activism often overlooks how navigating the city is governed by predetermined ideas about property rights and trespassing laws.

For example, when I walk along Long Street in New York – which is 950 feet long – and encounter a passage between two apartment buildings or buildings that would make my journey more accessible, I often see signs that say “no trespassing,” which hinder my ability to pass through.

This forces me to take a longer route around the block. It’s a simple example, but it underscores that while many disabled writers focus on sidewalks that determine our movement within cities – which is certainly true to some extent – it is primarily property rights, easements, and trespass laws that dictate urban navigation and determine the placement of sidewalks.

The critique of the city from the perspective of disability that I am writing about extends beyond the physical infrastructure and delves into the values ​​that are rooted in urban space. It questions ideas about property, urban mobility, hydrology, and environmentalism.

From my perspective, this entails the potential for an extensive political dialogue that transcends the scope of accessibility.

Josh Appel/Unsplash

Q: After reading your ideas about the “natural” – or what we consider “natural” – I saw my environment in a different way. What does it mean when you say that “nature is produced”?

A: I began my architectural career with a strong interest in architectural environmentalism, also known as the green movement in architecture, environmental movement in architecture, or sustainable architecture.

Over time, I became increasingly disillusioned with this movement. About two decades later, I realized that my disillusionment was connected to what I would describe as a form of “soft eugenics” – or an overemphasis on harnessing capability that I encountered in meetings, where architects proposed changing building materials to “revitalize” people. Some even proposed designing office buildings to enhance the health of workers and reduce sick days, ensuring the return on investment through the use of healthier materials.

I was troubled by the evaluation of elements of nature solely based on their capabilities, especially the concept of biocapacity. For example, trees were considered “good” because they absorb carbon and release oxygen, and certain species of shellfish were valued for their ability to clean up urban river waters. As someone who often feels incapable, I wondered who advocates for the “weak” aspects of nature.

Then I read “Concrete and Clay” by geographer Matthew Gandy. It focused on how cities produce nature both as a physical entity – such as Central Park, a fully designed landscape – and as an idea, assessing specific aspects of nature according to the demands of an industrial capitalist society.

The book was unlike anything else the environmental movement in architecture was concerned with. I applied to become Gandy’s doctoral student and spent six to seven years collaborating with him.

The architecture of disability reexamines much of this rationale, but from the perspective of a disability critique. I begin the book, Architecture of Disability, with a discussion of the national parks in the United States, particularly Yosemite. National parks like Yosemite are constructed spaces, designed to offer specific aesthetic qualities and experiences to visitors.

The earlier inhabitants, the Native Americans – who lived there for thousands of years – inhabited a very different landscape, which would resemble more of an agricultural landscape rather than the idea of wilderness that has been incorporated into it in the last 100 to 150 years.

The last twenty to thirty years have seen significant activism for increasing accessibility in these national parks. One of the questions I raise is whether advocating for increased accessibility in national parks is the right path for disability leadership in the United States.

Why don’t these leaders consider forming alliances with those who are reimagining the history of these spaces, seeking ways to weave together the land, landscapes, and resources with concepts of reconciliation and other forms of politics?


Excerpt from the article published in Public Seminar.

David Gissen is a Professor of Architecture and Urban History at the Parsons School of Design at The New School.

Bella Okuya is a candidate for an MFA in Photography at the Parsons School of Design.

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