Beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’

Working with Year 5 and Year 6 students from the Manchester School of Architecture in the &rchitecture atelier has been a fantastic experience – they are very engaged (and engaging) and have been thinking and working hard on how we might think differently about inclusive design beyond it just being an ‘add-on’ and ‘retro-fit’ to so-called normal design. But one thing that keeps happening is a defaulting in conversation to the common sense  language of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Such everyday remarks construct relationships between disabled ‘others’ and the architects who design for them in a particular – and I suggest – limiting way. This use of ‘them’, however well meaning and empathetic, does two things simultaneously. First, it assumes there are no ‘them’ within architecture, that architects are obviously all able-bodied. Second, the ‘us’ becomes non-problematic. It assumes a neutral term/place, which does not have to be critically challenged. Its just normal. Only the ‘them’ need to be interpreted and designed for.

For me, the most revealing and important aspect of this is that we can only really begin to unravel how disability and ability work in everyday life by investigating the changing relations between both. Rather than seeing disability (or ability) as a straightforward representational category, we need to focus on the relational in-between spaces, that is, on changing and partial processes and practices that come to frame dis/ability in different ways through time and place. 


2 women and a man sitting at a table, face the camera smiling; each holding up a book.

Zoe and I had a very interesting meeting yesterday (over afternoon tea at the Wellcome in London) with Zaza Merchiaur, an MP from Georgia, who is committed to improving access and inclusion to theatre and culture in his country for disabled people, both as audiences and creators. He and colleagues seem to have a very impressive engagement across disability arts, inclusive provision and accessible design – in what are difficult, often entirely inaccessible, circumstances – so thought-provoking to be be talking about where to start and what to do.

Non-compliant bodies in Wales!


View looking down from a balcony at a group of students sitting in comfortable sofas in an old barn-like space. Recently back from a fab 3 days in a farmhouse in Wales, working with Stefan White and colleagues as part of an Manchester School of Architecture Diploma atelier called &rchitecture. The underpinning aim is to rethink assumptions within architectural education and practice about what is ‘normal’, through the inter-linked themes of bodies of work, collective bodies and non-compliant bodies. So, rather than a conventional field trip to exotic places to look at buildings, this event involved creative workshops and lots of discussion. Noemi Lakmaier was a guest tutor, talking about her work, and leading a project on ‘body extensions’.

Going forward (4) – making equitable spaces for architectural education and practice


A group of students from the Accelerate programme, aimed at widening participation into architectural education at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

A longer-term action research plan is about exploring how to make more equitable spaces for architectural education and practice. This is still at a very early (and vague) stage. It is about investigating the multiple and intersecting aspects of our learning and working environments to better understand how everyday normative social, spatial and material practices act to disable some and enable others in becoming architects and other built environment or associated professionals. Such as investigation needs to interconnect the conceptual and ‘procedural’ spaces of the discipline with the actual spaces in which it takes place – the built designs of university campuses and design offices.

There are many innovative, radical and exciting initiatives going on in this field – within for example, higher education, architectural practice, student activism, disability studies, race and queer scholarship – but it feels like this remains quite fragmented and doesn’t necessarily cross disciplinary boundaries – for example across disability studies, inclusive pedagogies and curriculum design.  I feel like I am moving towards two initial questions:

1.) When and how does built space matter in moving towards more equitable post-compulsory education? How do issues of architectural design intersect with more inclusive curricula, services etc? And how can we do this in ways that are nuanced and recognize contestation rather than being merely ‘aesthetic’ or ‘metaphorical’ interventions?

2.) Rather than inclusion meaning just adding disadvantaged groups to ‘normal’ architectural education and practice (enabling more people to join the club), how can and do non-normative groups challenge the assumptions within our discipline – that is, aim to change the very nature of the club? How would that affect the ways architecture is currently inculcated in terms of curricula, design methods, organizational frameworks, assessment processes, working practices and so on.

For now, I have started collecting examples of radical re-thinking of architectural education. This includes from Prof. Alan Penn’s Architecture Beyond Sight and Accelerate initiatives at the Bartlett, to work being developed in making architecture an equitable discipline at the University of Michigan by the Dean Jonathan Massey, and the innovative work of Lesley Lokko at the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) University of Johannesburg. Happy to hear of any examples you are involved in, or know about, to add to a developing list that can help inform and – ultimately – shift architectural education and practice more widely into a more equitable space.

Going Forward (3) – building new partnerships

A group of disabled artists and architects sit around a table discussing design improvements to the space.

It has felt very powerful this year to be doing more and more work with students and educators in architectural education. In 2018 The DisOrdinary Architecture Project has given talks, run workshops, co-designed projects and had artists-in-residence in 20 universities and related institutions both nationally and internationally. The amount of interest and engagement has been very energising.

Interestingly though, we have found that – working into architectural education – where educators are ‘required’ to work with us, for example by a superior, the response has often been both instrumental and lacklustre (that is, seen as merely paid-for teaching that at least fills up time in an always frantically busy schedule). This can be exacerbated by a ‘just-in-time’ mentality that leaves little room for dialogue, and by a more common problem of resisting ‘outsider’ influence on students.

Since this results in very unsatisfactory outcomes for DisOrdinary we try not to work in this way; but rather want to make sure disabled artists are co-designers in a shared, engaged and negotiated process that builds on their specific artistic practice and on finding new creative ways to do dis/ability differently, beyond simple compliance or ‘special needs’. So, for the moment, word of mouth seems our most productive way forward; building not access and inclusion, but transformative social and spatial justice, one very small step at a time. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss a possible collaboration with us.

Going Forward (2) – working with disabled students

Blind artist Lynn Cox explains her design proposal to workshop participants

One important – and expanding project – for next year is to find ways to work with disabled students, educators and practitioners in architectural and built environment disciplines. Only one percent of architects disclose as having an impairment, most probably because to admit to a disability so adversely and severely affects educational and employment opportunities. The actual number is likely to be closer to 10% – mostly hidden disabilities, since the blocks for those with ‘obvious’ impairments are even greater.

So what does this involve? First it is about developing safe spaces and networking mechanisms for disabled people within the architectural field to be comfortable with disclosing and enabling ways of working collaboratively towards forcing change. Then, it is about getting more disabled people into architectural educational and practice, to normalize the actual variety of human diversity across the profession. This, of course, links with the continuing difficulties for women and non-white students and practitioners to make their mark, and needs to be an integrated and emergent process. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is about challenging what counts as normal in architectural education and practice. How can design methods, curricula and office practices change, for example, so as to not perpetuate normative assumptions about who and what gets valued in the design process?

Ultimately, until we have more disabled people within architectural and the built environment working as creative design generators, it seems unlikely that designs for the built environment will become more equitable. If you are interested in being involved in this project – a collaboration with Danna Walker and Built By Us – then please get in touch.

Going Forward (1) – dis/ability into architectural education

Students collaborating together by holding hands, to enable one of their group to walk out onto a 'gangplank' suspended over Copehagen harbour

Thinking about plans for next year. Most immediately we are completing our 2019 Arts Council England (ACE) funded work into architectural education, called Moving to the Next Level: disabled artists make dis/ordinary spaces (for more go here.) Deaf artist Aaron Williamson will be working with Manijeh Verghese and Inigo Minns as part of their Diploma 12 unit entitled Material World at the Architectural Association London in February 2019. This is to creatively and critically explore what Manijeh calls ‘Scripted Spaces’, or the scripts that determine how people behave in space. Students will be asked to design events to disrupt existing scripts and make people question how they inhabit space. Another ACE-funded activity is a collaboration between artist Rachel Gadsden and Judit Pusztaszeri, first year coordinator for interior architecture at the University of Brighton, which aims to develop some of the Architecture Beyond Sight themes. In addition, Dave Dixon will be working at the University of Westminster with Richa Mukhia and first year architecture students, through a workshop to introduce key themes for the semester.

We are also looking to extend this work – first by finding funding for continued engagement with courses (University of Manchester and CASS Foundation in the pipeline at the moment) and second, to make new links with educators and students across the country. So if you are interested please get in touch. In the meantime, I am already booked to give talks next year at the Glasgow School of Art, Sheffield University, University of Innsbruck, and (arranged by students) at University of the Arts London (UAL).


Critical Professional Practices workshop

Interior view of a large, industrial-type warehouse, with a view towards a mezzanine.

Pleased to be involved for a second year at the University of Westminster with Samir Pandya as part of his MArch Critical Professional Practices course. I will be giving a lecture on Dis/ability Beyond the Regulations, which this year will connect to part of the students’ assignments. We want students to together and individually to reflect on the underlying assumptions of architectural professionalism, its values, attitudes and approaches; and to consider what ‘counts as normal’ within architectural practice, most particularly what kinds of bodies are valued and designed for, and who or what is left out.

This is supported through an interactive workshop at the beginning of December held in the fantastic Ambika P3 space (pictured), where artists Zoe Partington, Mandy Redvers-Rowe, Noemi Lakmaier and Joseph Young will work in diverse ways with students to explore some of the implications of ‘being professional’ as an embodied practice.

Embodying space at the Royal Academy of Arts

Activity showing blindfolded dancers at the British Pavilion in Venice, organised by the British Council with Kate Goodwin from the RA

Just had a very informative and enjoyable meeting and site visit with Kate Goodwin (Head of Architecture and Drue Heinz Curator) and Molly Bretton (Access Officer) at the RA here in London. Lots of interesting things going on there, around sensory and embodied experience and inclusion. Missed Clod Ensemble unfortunately, but Kate curating some great things with the theme Alternate Languages with the British Council at the British Pavilion in Venice; and Molly doing some really expansive and interesting access work.

Visionary design beyond the visual

Screen shot from video by Tim Copsey of Architecture Beyond Sight workshop

Still processing the multiple implications of our recent Architecture Beyond Sight (ABS) workshop at the Bartlett School of Architecture in September. Most immediately this is about the value of starting from disability – paying attention to, and learning from different, non-normative ways of doing things. Co-designing with creative blind and visually impaired people extends and even transforms architectural languages and design methods. It means working from close multi-sensory engagements with site and situation; centralizing touch and experience in making, and designing in through tactile sketching, word pictures and performative interventions. You can see the video here.

Now looking forward to taking this forward. We are planning to run a short course in summer 2019 for blind and partially sighted people interested in studying architecture, and then developing that into a Foundation course at the Bartlett.