Philobiblon: Architects just don't get it

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Architects just don't get it

Had cause yesterday visit the shiny new University College London, completed less than a year ago, which I look out at from my window every morning,(and have a nice little haematoma in my arm to to prove it). It left me reflecting anew on how really, really poor most architects are, particularly at getting the details right for human and environmental issues. (The weird sickly green colour of the outside of the building is another subject altogether.)

Sure it has a lovely airy atrium - that's well enough (although the fancy main electronic door was out of order, in a rather permanent-looking way - so you had to push open the heavy side doors. I can't imagine how little old ladies on sticks manage that, since they are seriously heavy.)

Most of the main out-patient facilities are on the first and second floor, sensibly enough, but when I approached reception I was directed to "lift to the left". So, wholly unnecessarily, I took one of the large bank of lifts up one floor, with a flood of other people.

As you'd expect in a hospital a good percentage of these were frail aged, in wheelchairs, on crutches etc - people who needed the lift. But a majority of them were like me - people who had no need for lift, whose health would have benefited from the stairs.

Out of curiosity on the way out I went looking for them. It was a serpentine path, through several sets of doors, having to dodge trolleys outside the lifts dedicated to them. And the stairs are already dingy and uninviting. They might as well have a sign on them "Don't Use Me!" There were no more than half a dozen people on them, all staff.

This is what you call designing to damage the environment and public health. Put the lift beside the stairs - stairs first in most people's path - and you help both. It isn't rocket science. (And in buildings that aren't hospitals, hide the lifts and make the stairs highly prominent.)


Blogger clanger said...

The History Faculty, Cambridge. Their website describes it as "a celebrated building by James Stirling". Clanger describes it as "an ugly piece of architectural shit and no picnic to work in".

And then there's the University of Sussex. What were these people on? If there's an uglier university this side of Google Mars, tell us.

It's not just the style of the time. Kent is vaguely acceptable, although hardly eye candy. No, with Sussex they went out of their way to make it ugly, and they even included a modernist quad with an ill-lit concrete water-less moat. Just what a vaguely inebriated student requires of a dark night.

Hopefully they have filled it in to avoid any more 'incidents'.


Google Mars eh? So demmed useful. Why didn't anyone else think of that eh? ;-)

3/15/2006 11:06:00 am  
Blogger clanger said...

Aesthete that he is, Clanger begs forgiveness for his architectural judgements based as they have been, so overwhelmingly, upon 'look and feel'.

Taking the biscuit for all-round crap architecture (looks and functionality award), and we aren't talking a plain old rich tea here, no we are talking a chocolate hob-nob balanced on a wagon wheel, oh yes...

*drum roll*

The Scottish Parliament Building.


If truth is beauty, and beauty, truth, then this is very much a building to cage politicians in.

It cost £431m (ten times its original budget, which is a greater margin even than a typical defence contract), and opened 3 years late.

And it won the Stirling prize (its that whacky James Stirling dude again!).

[Before Clanger is accused of anti-modernism, he must admit to having a soft spot for the London Gherkin. Its just so dildotastic.]

3/15/2006 01:21:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Yes, I confess to a certain affection for the Gherkin, which I used to cycle past every day. (Although perhaps not for quite the same reasons...!) At least it is distinctive, which makes a change for London office blocks.

3/15/2006 01:27:00 pm  
Blogger Penny L. Richards said...

No, I'm afraid I can't agree on the elevator (lift)/steps question. The "where'd they hide the elevator THIS time" game gets old really, really fast if you're on wheels. Airports are particularly delightful in this regard.

The idea of Universal Design is that you want a public building to be useable for everyone. Everyone CAN take a lift; everyone cannot take stairs. So the lift *should* be more prominent. As the population ages, this will become more and more important; and it's far more efficient to build in Universal Design elements than to retrofit later.

3/15/2006 09:44:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Afraid I don't agree with you there, Penny. Certainly I'm not advocating "hiding" the lifts so they are hard to find for the people who need them, but the stairs should be more prominent than the lift, because we will be a healthier, (slightly) more environmental sound society if people are encouraged to use them.

3/16/2006 01:57:00 pm  
Blogger Penny L. Richards said...

Don't assume that all the people who look ambulatory can safely climb or descend stairs--there are plenty of hidden disabilities you can't guess from looking. Such folks don't need your approval or "encouragement," they just need a way to get to their appointments (which don't just happen in hospitals, btw). Universal basic access has to be the first priority.

3/16/2006 04:09:00 pm  
Blogger Susan said...

I can appreciate that stairs should not be hidden, but people who need elevators often also need proximity. If I know there is an elevator near the entrance and the elevator is near where I want to go - I will walk, but if I am going to have to take a long walk to get where I want to go - then I will use my scooter. So I actually get more exercise when the elevator is placed more conveniently than less.

3/17/2006 07:34:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just STOP the STEPS and put in the ramps!

3/18/2006 04:01:00 am  
Blogger Sally said...

(And in buildings that aren't hospitals, hide the lifts and make the stairs highly prominent.)

I know this may come as a big surprise, but these days they let disabled people into buildings that aren't hospitals! It's shocking, but it's true. And when you argue that lifts in buildings other than hospitals should be hidden, you kind of seem to be implying that people who need them should be hidden, isolated, kept in our nice little ghettoes with the other pathetic "frail" people who aren't as entitled to public space as you are. It's fine by me if you want to make stairs more prominent and appealing, but "hiding" elevators is thoughtless and cruel. And that is what you suggested in the original post.

3/19/2006 01:24:00 am  
Anonymous LN said...

Although I am fully in favor of making stairs more appealing and clean, "hiding elevators" is detrimental to those who need to find them on a routine basis when going about their ordinary business in the world.

3/19/2006 03:02:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

OK, I'll accept "hide" was an unfortunate verb to use. What I meant to say really, to spell it out in detail, is that the steps should be, say, 10m closer to the main route than the lift. You could probably do all sorts of studies as to what the minimum distance required would be to encourage people to use the stairs.

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.

Before I get flooded, let me quickly add that I think in many other circumstances - like the London Tube - the lack of disabled access is a disgrace. There should always be a lift - just not one that encourages people to use it as a first option when they don't need it.

3/19/2006 10:50:00 am  
Blogger Penny L. Richards said...

"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."

The thing is, it's not your price to accept--you're accepting the price on behalf of people who have already, historically, been forced to pay huge prices for "overall societal and environmental health." "Overall" meaning, apparently, "you folks will suffer physical pain and social stigma, but the rest of us will have better resting heart rates." Which can be achieved in other ways, without erecting architectural barriers.

3/19/2006 03:59:00 pm  
Anonymous Julian said...


I know exactly what you mean. I work in an office that is mostly male. We are in the process of constructing a new building and, despite the fact that the majority of us are men who can hold our bladders and don't have to go powder our nose every hour, the architects have the audacity to require women's restrooms on every floor! Even worse, the women's restrooms are closer than the men's. How am I going to remember to use the loo if its not right in front of me? I hear they are even going to include a "special" device that holds those girl products that they need during those times of the month when they are sickly and weak. I mean, gee, I am totally for that type of thing at a gynecologist's office, or perhaps a nursery school where they are all employed, but why should the majority of us have to build things to accommodate those types of individuals with whom we have no interest in associating? Even worse, one of the (female, of course) architects talked about creating a parlor area and a nursey where women could bring children and nurse. (makes me ill just to think about it--to encourage women in their deformed and unnatural states to be out and about, ugh). The worst part is, they had been talking about using that space for gym equipment so that we could work out during late nights at the office. Our plan was to turn the opportunity into a way to provide civic leadership by inviting the entire neighborhood to come in and use our equipment. It's very important that our community be physically fit. Unfortunately, it looks like the majority is going to have to once again lower ourselves to include the needs of the weaker sex in our building design. Why can't a woman be more like a man?

3/20/2006 09:17:00 pm  
Blogger Trevor said...

And in buildings that aren't hospitals, hide the lifts and make the stairs highly prominent.
I guess people who need elevators don't belong in buildings that aren't hospitals?
While I agree that stairs should be easy to find and access, it's taking a lot of control for me not to be rude about the idea of hiding elevators. How remarkably short-sighted of you.

3/24/2006 01:53:00 am  
Blogger laura said...

Making the elevator harder to find? You don't think it is hard enough already? I know of several buildings where, to find the elevator, you have to go around to the back and travel through a service hall. If you don't of the existence of the elevator, you will never find it. And it is exhausting to have to go on such a long journey just to get to the elevator. You should try it on legs that feel like they are tearing apart with every step.

3/25/2006 02:53:00 pm  
Anonymous Gail said...

I visited this blog because I'd heard about "hide the elevators." When my father was dying of cancer and even a short walk was taxing, he was grateful for anything that put him on more equal footing with the rest of the world, including convenient elevators.

After reading the comments, one thing struck me. We have free will. We don't need to be manipulated into making a healthier choice by proximity. We can exercise our bodies and our spirits. Decide on your own to take the stairs.

3/26/2006 02:31:00 am  
Blogger The Angry Gimp said...

"You'll also find me on My London Your London"

Your London, maybe, but not my London - I'd get too frustrated trying to find an elevator in your small world.

People who don't have anything wrong with them physically just don't get it. Your body may someday fail you, and you may be cursing the fact that you can no longer use those beautiful stairs.

4/03/2006 02:56:00 am  
Anonymous Christopher said...

You know, I work in a corporate setting in the States, as some of you non-Yanks call the U S of A, and our relatively new 11 year old complex probably does sport more elevators than stairs. But, in many of the buildings, the stairs are obvious and right near the elevators. Yet, folks will wait 5 minutes on an elevator to arrive instead of walking 1, 2, or 3 floors (only 4 floors and a "basement" in the complex). In fact, many people step onto the elvator with me and get off on the very next floor. They usually grin sheepishly and say something to the effect of, "I just didn't feel like walking today."
As I look up at them from my Amigo scooter, the one I'm in almost every waking hour and damned glad to have, I wonder if now is a good time to add one more person to the Disabled Vote Constituency. Then, I realize they're already disabled.
Yes, I agree, if you've the ability, you should take the stairs for health and making stairs more obvious is maybe a good idea. But, hiding the stairs or making them less obvious? Do you think those of us with disabilities like treasure hunts?? Ma'am, if you had to push/ride your mobility device, or use some other ambulatory aid, around inside a building to find the "serice elevator" while everyone else steps up the handy staircase, you might not have written your blog entry quite the same way.

4/05/2006 04:27:00 pm  
Anonymous Penelope said...

Very few elevators I've seen are more conveniently (or as conveniently) than the stairs. This includes not only in the US (where I live), but in the UK (where I've traveled extensively). This may seem like a small problem to you, but when I walked, this often prevented me from being able to go out. Now that I use a wheelchair it means that if I go somewhere new I must schedule in an extra 20-30 minutes so that I can find the elevator and know that I can get to/from it in time for any appointment. Even more priceless are the elevators you can't get to without walking up/down stairs. And for someone who has chronic fatigue and chronic pain, all this extra wheeling means that the more hidden or farther out of the way elevators become, the more likely I am to have to return to not going out.

Oh, and just to note, stairs are not necessarily healthier due to the stress they put on one's joints, especially the knees. But I'm sure you've got an answer for that, too?

4/06/2006 10:22:00 pm  
Anonymous body building said...

I just hope my blog turns out just as good as yours
body building

4/27/2006 02:03:00 pm  
Blogger Susan said...

It sounds like YOU don't get it.

Ever hear of the ADA?

5/03/2006 03:35:00 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home