If a fundamental principle of architecture is to give shelter and form to the life of human bodies, we are largely failing those whose capacities fall outside the normative. Accessibility is often considered as an onerous responsibility. In this interview, we speak to Zoe Partington — co-founder, with former Matrix member Jos Boys, of DisOrdinary Architecture — together with architects Lauren Li Porter and Takuya Oura from the practice Manalo & White, on the creative and generative possibilities of designing for accessibility and inclusion.
KOOZ Firstly I’d like to congratulate you on the publication of Many More Parts Than M!1, a compendium of knowledge and information drawing from The DisOrdinary Architecture Project’s storied experiences and narratives on inclusive design. Zoe, could you share with us a little of your journey in working with disability access?
ZOE PARTINGTON Well, I am a disabled person, and I’ve been working in this field since the mid-nineties. I studied architecture in Birmingham, but I was really more interested in the philosophical aspects and in art practice; in many ways I was a bit of a misfit. I ended up doing a lot of work with cultural organisations — because I loved art, culture and architecture — which was a really good grounding for me to start working in that capacity, training people and talking to organisations.
At the same time the UK Disability Discrimination Act came into force (1995, replaced in 2010 with the Equality Act) At the Royal National Institute for the Blind, under Peter Barker — who was very forward thinking — our department really considered cross-impairment around disability as a holistic thing: ideas like tactile paving, thinking about wayfinding, signage, lighting, colour and contrast, texture — all the different ways affecting how deaf or blind might orientate in environments. Nowadays that's more common but early on, charities focused on a certain area and didn't necessarily think about crossovers of intersectionality.
I was really interested in all of that, and through my work met a lot of disability activists — who famously stopped traffic on London’s Oxford Street, to make sure that their voices were heard; loads of incredible disabled people who were fantastic thinkers. Academics and disabled artists came together as quite a vibrant, radical force, which was really interesting. So a lot of my work developed out of that into disability arts.
©Manalo & White
KOOZ Could you give us a sense of how much the awareness of accessibility and ability has, in fact, permeated our thinking, since you started a few decades ago?
ZP Oh, it definitely has: disabled people are present on architecture and design courses, and very present in representing other disabled people in those environments. It’s probably not perfect in terms of full and proper access, but I started in the 1980s and we’ve come a long way in the UK.
Back in the day, I felt very isolated as there weren't many other disabled people in the room. There may have been men that were wheelchair users, but they had trained in architecture before they'd become disabled people. At the launch of DisOrdinary Architecture’s Many More Parts Than M! publication — it really collects 15 years of our work — there were so many people in the room. There has been a shift in how open people are, to listen and learn in a creative way.
"Disabled people are present on architecture and design courses, and very present in representing other disabled people in those environments. It’s probably not perfect in terms of full and proper access, but I started in the 1980s and we’ve come a long way in the UK."
- Zoe Partington.
This shift becomes very apparent to me when I go and work somewhere — like Armenia or Georgia, or Japan— where such conversations are still not happening, not on all levels. And then I suddenly find myself in a position that is not that accessible. Or when I’m travelling with other disabled people: cafes and restaurants aren't accessible. Public areas aren't always accessible. Street design is not accessible.
LAUREN LI PORTER I’m curious: is there anywhere that you've been — let’s say, outside of the UK — that you thought was sort of exemplary, in relation to accessibility?
ZP Yeah, in pockets, little bits here and there: Oslo in Norway has more level access, though not necessarily in all the older buildings. Singapore’s transport system is pretty accessible to people with multiple impairments, both on and off the trains. Even in London, they've worked on it in places — like for the Olympic Games.
"If you're the disabled person, it's quite shocking to come from an environment where your life is enabled, to suddenly be in a place that is inaccessible."
- Zoe Partington.
Copenhagen was interesting — but then it depends on your impairment. In Sao Paulo I found buildings were quite poor for a wheelchair user; on my last trip we had to adapt and build stuff, or bring rugs for the shower area so people didn't fall over. If you're the disabled person, it's quite shocking to come from an environment where your life is enabled, to suddenly be in a place that is inaccessible.
©Manalo & White
KOOZ As a disabled person, it can also be difficult to be the vehicle through which other people learn.I'm thinking of differently able students at the institutions where I teach; it's often through failing them that we learn what we have to do, and it’s a heavy burden to bear. Lauren, Taku: How did Manalo & White come into working in this sphere and what are your experiences of thinking around ability?
LLP I was thinking about the education I had in architecture school, which was quite poor in relation to accessibility. Not so much “how do we think creatively about this” — more like, how would you get around these rules. Access is not often presented as a creative opportunity, rather an inconvenience that you need to work around.
Getting involved with DisOrdinary Architecture and the way we started talking about accessibility has given us a really interesting approach: you notice the design more, become skilled in how you talk to other people and how to get them on board with a plan. It’s a really enriching process as a designer; you can get excited about providing access without this sense of imposition.
"Access is not often presented as a creative opportunity, rather an inconvenience that you need to work around."
- Lauren Li Porter.
TAKUYA OURA My partner has been working as a subtitler in films; she was in charge of an accessibility package for the deaf and hard of hearing, and also managing the audio description side of things for blind viewers. So we had a lot of conversation about this stuff before beginning this line of work. There was an opportunity for a project called Fran Wen, which is when I met Zoe and Jos, and we began collaborating.
The trigger to that was the first question in our quality report: “What's your approach to accessibility and inclusion?” Instead of writing a long text, we wanted to present our approach by actually doing it more creatively. Instead of sharing a difficult visualisation of the design concept, we made a sound portrait with audio description, which was quite a refreshing exercise. Normally, you finish the design and then you may ask all the describer to describe it. Well, we implemented this audio description during the creative process. So talking about it, and writing the script for the space became a design process, which was really interesting as there's so much more detail that we can focus on, without spending too much time. If you want to talk about a handrail and how it feels to touch and what you hear as you walk along the decking — you can't really get into that level of detail in a visualisation, but an audio description can do it in five seconds. She introduced me to Zoe, and that's kind of when I started thinking about other aspects of accessibility.
LLP I think there was something quite instructive about working remotely on this during COVID-19. Actually, there were some benefits to it: it opened up the conversation to many more people than would be able to attend a particular physical venue. It removes some barriers in terms of how people participate: were alternative avenues to speak out, and more of an exchange. Also everyone is placed in parity on the screen: there are lessons to be learned from that experience, not only for accessibility but also for the variety of voices.
KOOZ That’s true: this kind of consideration brings benefits in all sorts of ways that don’t pertain exclusively to people with varied abilities; inclusion is a bigger issue. Let me ask how you started working together.
"There was something quite instructive about working remotely on this during COVID-19, everyone is placed in parity on the screen: there are lessons to be learned from that experience, not only for accessibility but also for the variety of voices."
- Lauren Li Porter.
TO Our work with DisOrdinary began in 2019, with the artists’ commission for the Frân Wen project, which was funded by the local council to the tune of 1% of the total budget. We collaborated on workshops to bring awareness, and have been thinking differently about how accessibility and inclusion can be an interesting opportunity. We held a workshop to integrate that kind of thinking and process into the building, as well as the artistic mission.
©Manalo & White
LLP We then just kept trying to apply for work with Zoe and Jos as collaborators. We always suggest bringing them in; we know from experience how much it brings to projects. Typically these were Arts Council or other small cultural projects. In this way, we won the commission for the East End Women's Museum — which still exists as an entity. At one time, the museum had a unit in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham — the kind of site that would have been destined to be a supermarket: a single storey, fairly small unit with glazing across the whole front.
The intention was and is to make a very non-traditional museum: for most of their existence, they've been a completely non physical kind of body and their whole kind of remit is to be accessible in various ways. You can think of being accessible as creating a welcoming place that people will want to be, with a physical hub, but also a place that continues to exist as a source of information and support for women. They wanted to appeal to a much larger group of people, some of whom have physical disabilities — but there's a whole panoply of boundaries that might prevent people from feeling good in a traditional museum.
Their core mission is to make all women and non-binary people feel understood — the starting point being personal stories and their value, how you record that. Right from the beginning, we asked Jos and Zoe if they'd be interested in devising a consultation workshop program with us. These were structured around the idea of looking at how people interact with museums or museum-like places.
"Not talking explicitly about accessibility challenges, but rather sharing a personal story instead. It automatically enables a creative path into empathy."
- Lauren Li Porter.
In a way, it was quite a simple thing; not talking explicitly about accessibility challenges, but rather sharing a personal story instead. It automatically enables a creative path into empathy: just thinking simply how you might actually make something appeal to a much wider group of people? How do you make people feel welcome — how can you reassure them? Will there be someone to guide them? How do they know whether they can access support if needed, without them having to look too hard? We want to remove those barriers. Unfortunately, the project has not come to fruition yet, but we know that as an organisation, our work together changed their thinking around access and outreach.
ZP One thing about these projects — say, with the East End Women's Museum — is the need to address the whole picture. So there are functional, physical issues, but also there is the need to encourage people and make things accessible culturally. You're facilitating this journey where they should not have to think about access all the time. I kept thinking that there's a complete link missing here — between that experiential understanding of being in a space and designing it.
"The other thing is about understanding disability, culturally: disability history and heritage, because people are still very medicalised in their approach to it. For me, this is about redressing the representation of disabled people historically."
- Zoe Partington.
The other thing, the other link, is about understanding disability, culturally: disability history and heritage, because people are still very medicalised in their approach to it. In the collection, there was a photograph of the activist Rosa May Billinghurst, a disabled woman. For me, this is about redressing the representation of disabled people historically. I then developed an audio description of the image which to be shared with everybody to get people to start thinking differently. I think it's about actually being with disabled people who can share their perspectives, and maybe even explain why those other fearful rule-oriented ways of making people treat disability is neither useful nor relevant. Disabled people enjoy spaces! It might not be in the same way, but that doesn't matter. It can be in a different way; it can be as good, if not better.
As Lauren was saying, access features are often a silent add-on at the end, rather than — as Taku described — part of that buzz and creativity, from the beginning. And then it becomes exciting.
KOOZ At some point we will look back and think …
LLP …that the way we’ve been doing things is really embarrassing.
ZP So I've spent time working with disabled artists — and disabled architects — to start to develop the language around the subject, because the disabled artists we were working with didn't necessarily know much about architecture. We now have a lot of guidance, experience and maybe about 25 disabled artists that understand a lot more about spatial awareness, spatial issues, and how their practice might work alongside architects or with architects.
©Manalo & White
KOOZ Can you share a little bit about the school project that you’re working on in St. Albans?
TO Ah, that’s actually on site right now. The school project that we’re working on came through a connection of Zoe’s, another architect named Richard Docherty. He was looking for a collaborator to bid for this opportunity to build a school for deaf children — or rather, six new classrooms that would be added to a school, as part of a larger masterplan. He came to interview us — and it took off from there.
ZP We’re talking about things like sightlines; transparency, and shared space. Working with the deaf architect Chris Laing and Richard Docherty, we learned how important that is: visibility for deaf people who sign, or wider corridors so that groups of people can walk and chat using sign language, while being able to look at each other. There are all sorts of things like that; placing lights and mirrors to increase visibility — especially as a deaf person, you can't hear the person coming from behind, it's disorientating. So what are the compromises? How do you make it work?
"We learned how important that is: visibility for deaf people who sign, or wider corridors so that groups of people can walk and chat using sign language, while being able to look at each other."
- Zoe Partington.
KOOZ Presumably some of this learning is contained within your new publication, Many More Parts than M!, which refers to and critically augments Part M — the section of RIBA building regulations which addresses accessibility.
ZP The publication is a combination of works that Jos and I have developed and collected. You know, Jos is also very academic; she reads a lot of the literature from America and other places, and she's trained in architecture — that quite methodical way of doing things. Whereas I bring the artist's side — making sense of chaos. I think I realised really early on, as a disabled person, that you can spend hours getting really angry and frustrated — or you can use that in your work. Maybe because I come from art practice, I'm really quite excited every time something doesn't work for me: great, this is another project! But generally, if you're trying to get to work and something doesn't work, it's very annoying. One of the things that annoyed me was that all the books on accessibility seemed boring and awful. They were either documents about how to audit things, or they were about hospitals: having spent my entire life having to go in and out of hospital I really don't want to read about that.
Many More Parts than M is quite an important tool, but it only tells you so much — it does not really tell you about the practicalities of how many different disabled people need a fully accessible bathroom, or how the seating or why the wayfinding in the building doesn't work for you. Often people separate concerns into impairment groups, but we can start breaking it down in different ways. We might talk about wayfinding, or beauty; we can talk about imperfections. We need to find a way to talk about ability that is less medicalised; that conversation can often lead you down the wrong path.
"Often people separate concerns into impairment groups, but we can start breaking it down in different ways. We might talk about wayfinding, or beauty; we can talk about imperfections. We need to find a way to talk about ability that is less medicalised."
- Zoe Partington
KOOZ This close concern for experience does help with the burden of labour placed on people who have experienced disability, as it opens creative possibilities.
ZP A lot of disabled people train each other how to deal with it, to deal with the same questions and lack of understanding. You just learn tricks in the end; you find ways of trying to get people to understand. But then, a lot of disabled people go around thinking that they're the problem, that's how they've been taught to think. Really it's so important that you know, the disabled people are seen as real people and do the everyday things that everybody else does.
TO Unfortunately there is still segregation and on top of this, there are people's misconceptions of accessibility, or accommodating disabled people. It's such a pity to throw away quite rich opportunities rather than to consider what this thinking can bring to creative practice. You need to accommodate the challenges, and that in itself can bring enormous opportunities, and such a rich experience to everyone involved. Again, this is not just an issue for disabled people. This conversation needs to be mainstream.
"It's such a pity to throw away quite rich opportunities rather than to consider what this thinking can bring to creative practice. This is not just an issue for disabled people. This conversation needs to be mainstream."
LLP I think you put that really beautifully. We’ve got a copy of the Many More Parts than M! document on our lunch table at work: it's very joyful in the way it's written, also really practical and easy to read. And it’s not just the physical guidance — there arealso some really great accounts of frustrations that people have encountered in buildings. It's kind of noteworthy in that like yeah, everything else that you read is so dry and makes one fearful about doing something wrong, as opposed to something based on creativity, common sense and practicality.
KOOZ In some ways — bring in intersectionality back in — it feels similar in some ways to discussions on decolonisation and race. It would be nice if people didn't have to be chastised or shamed into addressing concerns, and actually instead to address them with joy and opportunity — because there's so much to do. Thank you so much, again, for making the time, and congratulations, both for your collaborative practice and for Many More Parts than M!
Manalo and White is a diverse and cohesive team of designers collaborating on architecture and interiors, weaving pragmatism with playfulness to create rigorous, inclusive and joyful places. Founded in 1999, the firm has completed an unusually wide range of projects around the UK, from hotels, museums and galleries to factories, schools and community halls, always with an emphasis on resourcefulness, materiality and sustainability.
The DisOrdinary Architecture Project is a not-for-profit platform that starts from the experiences, expertise and creativity of disabled artists. It works through co-partnering and co-design to bring together artists and built environment specialists on an equal footing. Through collaborations, it aims to generate creative and critical opportunities that open up innovative new provocations for thinking and doing disability (and ability) differently in architecture and the built environment.
Shumi Bose is chief editor at KoozArch. She is an educator, curator and editor in the field of architecture and architectural history. Shumi is a Senior Lecturer in architectural history at Central Saint Martins and also teaches at the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association and the School of Architecture at Syracuse University in London. She has curated widely, including exhibitions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2020 she founded Holdspace, a digital platform for extracurricular discussions in architectural education, and currently serves as trustee for the Architecture Foundation.
1 Part M refers to the UK Government Building Regulations, in which Document M refers to the access to and use of buildings. The Royal Institute of British Architects maintains the corresponding Part M, comprising a section of formal requirements and guidelines relating to accessibility.