Accessibility Watch: Q&A with Josh Safdie

When news of an ideas competition, focused on designing a neighborhood based on the principles of Universal Design and sustainability, arrived recently I was jazzed. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress two decades ago, we’ve seen a lot well meaning or uninformed attempts  and some really annoying remedies (like the Braille on hotel room doors: how does a sight-impaired person find this little protrusion?), and some worthwhile things like elegantly pitched curb cuts and architecturally appealing ramps. But there’s so much left of be done! And so I was happy to see that competition organizers and advisors–Brad Benjamin, chair of the AIA’s 2011 Committee on Design (COD), Anne Schopf, partner and director of design at Mahlum, and Josh Safdie, director of the IHCDStudio (Institute for Human Centered Design)–decided to tackle the problem of creating neighborhoods where people of every size and age, every ability and disability can call home, a truly supportive and humane home. So I asked Josh Safdie to tell me more about the big idea behind the completion, the organizers’ hopes for improving the cityscape, and the practice of architecture.  

 Susan S. Szenasy: The 2011 Ideas AIA/YAF/COD Ideas Competition is centered on the principles of Universal Design, in the larger context of environmental and social sustainability. I say it’s about time! Tell us why you’re focusing on the 2020 Games’ Olympic Village in Tokyo?

 Josh Safdie: Well, we say it’s about time, too!  The idea of focusing on Universal Design within the larger context of environmental and social sustainability is one that has been broadly embraced in other countries and cultures, but which has been slow to gain momentum here in the US.  However, I think the design professions in this country are poised to enter into a period of “Sustainability 2.0”, where the baseline values of environmental sustainability have reached the mainstream and architects, designers, and planners have acquired enough perspective to examine the fundamental precepts of sustainability as a whole (social, economic, and environmental) and to begin to seek out additional, complementary models for thinking about design.  Universal Design is certainly one of these models, and it dovetails well with the changing environmental and demographic frameworks within which we designers, architects, and planners are operating locally, nationally, and globally.

In the 2020 Games’ Olympic Village in Tokyo, we saw the opportunity to allow designers to play out a design problem that fits squarely within these frameworks.  The combination of the demographics of aging in Japan, the recent move toward inclusive design and environmental sustainability on the part of the IOC and IPC, and the broad-based support that Universal Design principles already enjoy within Japanese culture made the 2020 Village a natural choice for the competition.  The democratic, international context of the Olympic Games and the values of Olympism were also attractive to us, as they allowed us to put forth an implicit but fundamental suggestion through the framing of the design problem that Universal Design, like the Games themselves, belongs to all countries and cultures, and that Universal Design principles could be appropriately and beneficially applied to any social, cultural, or environmental context.

SSS: The site, a real place on Tokyo Bay, could really benefit from the competition’s ideas in its future development. What are your plans to circulate the winning proposals among local citizens, policy makers, and developers?

JS: Winning proposals will be announced and exhibited at the AIA 2011 National Convention May 12-14 in New Orleans, and on the AIA website.  In addition, the authors of the winning proposal will be flown to the 2011 COD & AIA Japan Northwest and Pacific Regional (NWPR) Design Conference November 13-19 in Tokyo and their work will be displayed there.  Most importantly, the competition has been sponsored by TOTO, Ltd. – a major Japanese plumbing manufacturer that has been instrumental in developing and promoting Universal Design principles first in Japan, and now here in the US.  Our hope is to work with TOTO and other corporations and professional organizations to allow the good ideas generated by the competition to become part of the ongoing conversation about urban development in the city of Tokyo.

SSS: Is Japan drawing up a public relations campaign that will “sell” the idea of a universally accessible village to Olympians, both to the able-bodied and those who need a bit more help? Or is this inclusivity already part of the Japanese culture?

JS: Universal Design is already a widely-recognized and valued part of Japanese culture.  I recently returned from a trip to Tokyo and Yokohama organized by the AIA and TOTO, and I have begun to explain the phenomenon in this way:  You know how here in the U.S., each major car manufacturer has developed their own “hybrid” or “flex fuel” logo to put on the back of their cars?  Well, in Japan most major manufacturers have a “UD” logo to identify their Universal Design line of products:  TOTO, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Toyota, you name it.  Cultural acceptance of Universal Design in Japan begins at the top, where even His Imperial Highness Prince Tomohito serves as the patron of the International Association of Universal Design (IAUD).  Rather than “selling” the idea of Universal Design to the Japanese, our hope is to “sell” American architects, designers, and planners on an idea that the Japanese have already whole-heartedly embraced!

SSS: There is some controversy around the idea of Universal Design when it comes to things like product and way-finding design. Do urban planning and architecture, because of the complex possibilities for barrier-free activities both indoors and outdoors, have their own, special definition to Universal Design? If yes, what might that be?

JS: Universal Design is a concept first put forth by the late Ron Mace, FAIA, an architect and wheelchair user and the founder of the Center for Universal Design at the School of Design at North Carolina State University.  Although Mace was an architect, his definition was one that intentionally applied to more than just the built environment:  “Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”   In my opinion, the key issue surrounding Universal Design in the U.S. today has less to do with agreement on a particular definition and more to do with the translation of a set of principles into a framework for design thinking. The biggest ‘barrier’ to a richer understanding and more widespread application of Universal Design here in the US – and in particular among architects and planners – is the conflation of Universal Design with accessibility and, more specifically, the ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

At the Institute for Human Centered Design, we have developed a broader definition of Universal Design that focuses on its role as a facilitator of human experience and performance, with an emphasis first and foremost on the idea that we are talking principally about design – not only of the physical environment, but also of information, communication, and policy environments. This definition builds upon the World Health Organization’s formal classification of disability as a contextual phenomenon which occurs at the intersection of the user and his or her environment(s).  For me as a designer, this is an incredibly powerful idea:  that through the design of thoughtful environments – ones which anticipate and celebrate the diversity of human ability, age, and culture – we have the capacity to effectively eliminate a person’s disability.  Of course, the flip side of the coin is the responsibility that comes with this capacity:  a responsibility that most architects and planners in this country unfortunately still have not taken on, albeit perhaps unwittingly.  It’s critical to understand that what we are talking about here goes way beyond “barrier-free” design.  This is about design as a human right; as a vehicle for social change.  This is about good design, period.

SSS: How will current practitioners and the next generation of architects benefit from the ideas brought forth by this competition?

JS: Our hope is that the exposure to the principles of Universal Design that this competition will bring to the design professions will help to nudge the national conversation about sustainability forward.  By encouraging entrants to explore the significant and growing overlap between Universal Design principles and the values inherent to the concepts of environmental and social sustainability we also hope to help practitioners understand that these ideas can fit comfortably within the existing frameworks in which many are already operating.  We believe that this competition will also provide an opportunity for design students to develop a way of thinking about design that moves beyond the narrow confines of environmental sustainability alone.  We have seen a real appetite for this at schools of design across the country over the past three to five years. Students and student organizations like the AIAS are beginning to ask, “OK – we’ve got this environmental thing down, what’s the next frontier?  How can we keep working to make the world a better place?”

SSS: And what kinds of conversations are you planning around the results of the competition? Sounds like there will be a lot to learn from the ideas presented.

We certainly hope so!  From an consciousness-raising standpoint, the fact that the AIA Young Architects Forum and Committee on Design have so warmly embraced this set of ideas for their 2011 competition means that those of us who have been promoting Universal Design for years suddenly have a respected (and well-connected!) set of allies.  Our hope is that even within the AIA this competition will be able to foster conversations among practitioners from across the spectrum of project categories and firm specializations – health care, residential, commercial, institutional, etc – through the AIA’s local and national Knowledge Communities.  Our organization also holds an annual one-day symposium on social sustainability and design each fall at Build Boston, the Boston Society of Architect’s annual convention and trade show.  My hope is to share the best results from the competition as a workshop on Green and Universal Design at Build Boston, and to continue to spread our message to anyone who is willing to listen….

Josh Safdie has served as director of the IHCDStudio since 2008, focusing on architectural and multi-disciplinary consulting and design projects which also enrich the Institute for Human Centered Design’s educational and research missions. In Somerville, MA, where he lives, Safdie is an active community member and serves on the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

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