Prague, October 15-17, 1987
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Aesthetic and Social Aspects of Architectural Barriers
Dr. Ala Wokoun, Prague, Czechoslovakia
As a graduate aesthetician and also a paraplegic who uses partly a wheelchair and partly crutches, I would like to give my personal view on some architectural problems in the renewal of inner cities.
Democratization of Staircases
Stairs are always a limitation for people with paralyzed legs. Because of hundreds of terribly steep stairs on the Mayan pyramids, I could never have been either a high priest or a meritorious human sacrifice to the Mayan gods. Lower, shorter staircases in front of mediaeval cathedrals were a little more democratic. Here, paralyzed beggars were allowed to sit at the sides.
Monumental staircases were built in front of many noble palaces, but later also in front of museums and universities. It was said that such stairs which had once uplifted souls to gods and high-born personages, now helped to uplift the minds of men to higher scientific aims. No doubt, young people full of energy experience an aesthetic uplifting to greater knowledge or a lofty career. Staircases were also built in front of public buildings of democratic governments. But people using crutches and wheelchairs have never been aesthetically or otherwise uplifted by staircases leading to knowledge or their rights. People with disabilities could be said to confirm the fact of aesthetic relativity, because stairs are simply barriers for them that discriminate against them not legally, but physically.
Some disabled people can manage stairs, given that they at least have suitable handrails. But many staircases in front of public buildings were built without handrails, even though frailer persons may need to grip a railing. According to aesthetic subjectivity, architects found narrow handrails aesthetically displeasing for monumental staircases, and only few of them have tried to develop aesthetic (or inconspicuous) practical handrails as well.
Democratization means accessibility for all. One can increase the democracy of a staircase with a suitable railing, but for wheelchair users, it is just as undemocratic, unless there is a ramp as an alternative. Czechoslovakian Public Notice no. 53/1985 prescribes the architectural accessibility of new and reconstructed buildings for wheelchair users. Nevertheless, many old buildings with only monumental staircases remain. Protectors of monuments and stylistic purity do not like aesthetically displeasing ramps and handrails and will, at best, grudgingly agree to a railing on one side only, although some people with supporting orthopaedic apparatuses, need a railing on the other side. If a side entrance without stairs for wheelchair users is not possible, a ramp as an aesthetic compromise is desirable in such cases. Aesthetic or stylistic purity is nearly impossible in any case: old architecture is frequently littered with people in modern dress and their modern tourist coaches stand nearby to add to the stylistic intrusion. And it is easier for a non-disabled friend of architecture to bear an aesthetic compromise than for a disabled persons to bear the stairs as well as the irony of being excluded from entering an important public building, with an elevator inside.
Socially Repellent Benches
On some wide pavements in city centers, we find simple benches; low horizontal benches without backrests. Old and disabled people who have lost muscle "springs" in their knees or who use high crutches cannot sit down or stand up without the support of their hands against the bench or chair. If benches are too low and without backs, this is impossible for them to do. Old and disabled people with weak back muscles also sit uncomfortably and bent on benches without backs (who doesnt?). Why do some architects find only low benches aesthetically pleasing where the knees support the chin, when, at the same time, they like high stools in bars? Why do some architects condemn benches with backs to obscurity? Why, oh why do they find them so aesthetically displeasing? But low benches without backs are socially repellent when they exclude the high percentage of old and disabled inhabitants of large towns and cities.
Hygienic Ditches and Tiles against the Disabled
Water moats around mediaeval castles were understandable. Nowadays, shallow moats are built around bathing pools. These are understandable too - hygienically - as protection for the pool water from people with dirty feet. But if the moats around pools are the only passage from changerooms and showers to the pool, such moats discriminate against even the cleanest disabled persons using wheelchairs, indispensable orthopaedic apparatuses on their legs, or amputees who cannot walk without prosthetic compensation. Furthermore, a person using crutches cannot risk the consequences of slipping and sliding on their crutches in the moat or on the wet tiles in front and in back of the moat, even if the crutches are fitted with non-slip rubber stops. These people who are excluded from pools by such moats, are those who need the free movement possible in pools more than other citizens. Water in pools is an anti-gravity paradise for persons with paralyzed limbs. At least one of the public pools in every town should be accessible to persons using wheelchairs and crutches.
People whose walking is unstable know some other common slippery situations. While children look forward to skating across ice-covered ground, old and disabled persons fear winter and its slippery roads and pavements. Even a pleasant, smiling cleaning woman becomes a dangerous witch as she cheerily waves her wet mop over smooth floors. People using crutches sometimes envy dogs for their natural rights, when they find themselves excluded from public rest rooms whose smooth wet tiles have become ice-rinks. These people are also not fond of the new pseudo-mediaeval paving which are used today to replace asphalt streets between buildings in old restored city centers, even though it conforms wonderfully to the basic aesthetic law of contrasts: adjacent plain and decorated surfaces, rough and smooth, etc.
The application of this aesthetic law, when restoring old areas of towns and cities, should be in harmony with the aesthetic relativity and practical needs of persons with disabilities, and not, as is apparent today, an aesthetic compromise between disabled and non-disabled people.