Monday, 19 October 2015

The traps

National Coach Museum, Lisbon (image taken from Boas Notícias)

Last month, it was reported by several newspapers that in the first four months of the new National Coach Museum in Lisbon there were a number of accidents due to deficiencies in the architectural design. By 'deficiencies' I mean solutions adopted (or, if you prefer, architectural elements created) which become traps for the users of the space (yes, they exist).

Interestingly (but, even though, not surprisingly), three or four days later it was also reported that this same architectural project, the new Coach Museum, by architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, received the Award of the International Committee of Architectural Critics (CICA). Ricardo Bak Gordon, the Portuguese architect who accompanied the project, reacted to the attribution of this distinction stating that this will be the first of several international awards that the museum will receive. "It is very important that the critics are giving recognition to the project. And seeing a museum that was inaugurated so recently and is not yet finished receiving this award makes me think that the Coaches have only just started their international career."

I was puzzled about the criteria professional critique uses to evaluate and reward architectural projects. Does functionality weigh as much as aesthetics? Isn’t architecture about this kind of balance? Or should we see it as something that is meant to be seen, but not to be used by people? In this context, it sounds ironic that the first statement of the journalist that did an interview with Paulo Mendes da Rocha for the Gazeta do Povo was this: "Your main characteristic is the respect for the people who will make use of the project and those living in the city. Even the jury of the 2006 Pritzker stressed this conscience of yours." Could this be nothing more than a beautiful theory?

Archipelago, Azores (image taken from Diário Imobiliário)

My feeling of perplexity regarding these issues intensified when, recently, I saw a picture of the interior of Archipelago, the new center for contemporary art in the Azores, by architect João Mendes Ribeiro. Is it just me see who sees here a “hole” (the staircase leading to the lower floor) ready to swallow people, a trap that will produce broken legs, arms or heads (if not worse)? Visitors will be circulating in this room. Visitors of various ages and statures, of different capacities, and more or less distracted. Visitors will be talking to their companions, will be looking at the works exhibited and not at the floor. Isn’t this what happens in exhibition galleries?

Last year, Access Culture organized a conference entitled "Architecture: opening or closing doors?". After the conference, the Board of the association received an email from an architecture student that read:

"We need to change attitudes towards the non-rejection of accessibility in the projects. It is not as if we were not aware of these needs. Everyone knows that there are such needs. It has more to do with being too lazy to think creatively with this aspect in mind (often regarded as a limitation, the castration of creativity). And, therefore, we notice that both teachers and students ignore these much more practical and, in a sense, social issues. Theoretically, architecture is a balance between the function (useful, practical, social), construction (technical) and symbols (including form and aesthetics) of a space. In the training I am having, I don’t feel there is a balance. Seventy per cent refers to requirements concerning symbols, 15% relates to technical aspects and 15% to functionality. Of course, I cannot generalize what happens in the whole faculty based on my experience there. However, it is still a reality that scares me. Having so many future colleagues completely indifferent towards a basic human right."

New generations of architects are entering the labor market without having developed, in college, some sensitivity towards the functionality of the buildings they will design and the fact that they are used by people; but also in relation to the requirements defined by law. And what they see in practice are examples designed by famous and award-winning architects, showing the same lack of consideration regarding the people who use these spaces. I will not say ignorance, any architect has the obligation to know the law. However, even knowing it, they go ahead with plenty of "but" hidden up their sleeve.

In fact, people use the designed spaces, that's why they were created. They use them as members of staff or as visitors and spectators. Do all these people have the same measures? Do they have the same capabilities? Are they moving around in the same way? Do they have the same needs? I remember from a visit to the new Coach Museum three years ago (at the time it was still being constructed) that the doors of the offices were about 70 cm wide and there was no WC for people with disabilities in the private area. Should we conclude that this museum’s team will never include someone in a wheelchair?

However, another question here is the responsibility of the "customer", that is the people responsible for the museums and theaters in question. We know that often, given the experience they have regarding the use of the space, they raise a number of issues but, curiously, they are not heard. We think, however, that these are requirements that must be included in the briefing, rather than trying to emend them later, and not with just a generic reference to "best practices". Both parties must have a clear sense of what these "best practices" are, as well as the requirements set by law. It is up to the architects then to give wings to their creativity, having from the outset taken into account these premises. Architects who most care about these issues say that these requirements always end up making the creative process richer, without a need to compromise the aesthetics. It makes sense.

Finally, there is a third element here, often passive or silent: the users themselves. They tend to blame themselves ("I was distracted") or have learned to consider the fact that public spaces are not prepared to receive them and don’t even respect the law as normal. It is not normal... And it is important that their voice is heard more and louder.


Margot Wallace said...

Excellent article suggests another museum stakeholder: the young older. All they really want are some places to sit along the way. They like to look long and reflect and they're a valuable market segment. They tend to join at higher levels, donate regularly, and come to events. They eat at the cafe, purchase at the store, and bring their grandchildren -- the next generation of visitors. I presume the architects remember to design space for the donor wall.

Maria Vlachou said...

Thank you for your comment, Margot, and for reminding us of this, often forgotten, stakeholder. The article mentioned in the beginning of the post (unfortunately only in portuguese), the one informing us of the various accidents that have taken place, also states that there have been a number of complaints on behalf of older people regarding the lack of seats. This is a peculiar case (a museum that opened without being ready - a "political" decision -, so no seats 'yet'), but the truth is that a number of museums, big and small, do not take this simple need, of both younger and older people, into consideration.