Angelo Muredda on David Gissen and The Architecture of Disability
Don’t ask David Gissen for advice about designing for accessibility. The disabled designer and historian of architecture’s frustration with the familiar question was on display in the Q&A after his recent lecture at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto, in promotion of his 2023 book The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access.
Gissen’s book begins with a personal story of fielding a similar question about how to improve architectural accessibility after a 2018 talk. His exhaustion with the treatment of disability as a design problem to be solved either through biomedical or environmental interventions, and his growing sense that many contemporary explorations of architecture and disability “focus almost exclusively on the pursuit of access,” Gissen says, spurred him onto the intellectual pursuits of the book.
Offering a guided tour of his introduction and first chapter on impaired monuments and historical preservation, Gissen gave a spirited, adventurous, and lightly barbed account of his effort to build out an architectural theory of disability driven not by accessibility audits and retrofits, but by what he calls “a more expansive spatial politics of impairment.”
Ever the historian, Gissen began with a survey of the way disability entered architectural theory through functionalist approaches to architecture, which focus on optimizing a space and maximizing its occupants’ abilities to perform tasks within it. This limited approach to disability in built environments has its basis in mechanical biology, he explained, hearkening back to diagrams about range of motion and rehabilitative discourses about restoring wheelchair users to some largely fictive standard of fitness. Against this functionalist obsession with use, Gissen finds some appeal in the postwar architectural theory of schools like the situationists and Italian neo-rationalists, whose critique of solving problems in mechanical terms strikes him as friendlier to an architecture of disability. Yet there too, Gissen does not feel at home in the world as a disabled architect, wary of what he sees as an extreme focus on fitness and the capacity of the architect to “hoist themselves over and under the city.”
The history of architecture, Gissen feels, is full of such “methodological athleticism” — the recounting of physically and mentally intense travels and climbs that supposedly confer an intellectual intensity to the work. Defining his own position as both a historian of architecture, and an amputee and former wheelchair user — who has recently had his own ability to ambulate and climb stairs evaluated by physical therapists and found deficient — Gissen articulated a different approach, centred on impairment and incapacity. “My point of view is weakened,” he said, framing physical incapacity as a parallel and arguably superior source of knowledge of architecture than arduous archival work or interactions with buildings and landscapes.
What that knowledge looks like in practice was left somewhat abstract in the talk, but elucidated in the book, particularly in the second chapter, where Gissen explores the way human theories of nature, which are often extended to the cultivation of landscapes and built environments, treat impairment as unnatural and seek to eliminate it from both natural history and the future experience of nature. “In an era of de-extinction,” Gissen writes of the unexpected affiliations between landscape planning, genetic engineering, and the enforcement of urban aesthetic values through historical legislation like the Ugly Laws, “it is virtually impossible to imagine a being with infirmities reintroduced into the world.” As an exception he points eagerly to the work of the West 8 Landscape Architects, who in 2009 deliberately incorporated non-viable pine trees with crooked and bent trunks, supported by stanchions into a garden alley in Madrid.
Gissen is drawn to such alternative practices because they embrace rather than elide or solve for the problem of impairment. They also attest to how impairment doesn’t need to be retroactively shoehorned into architecture through accessibility: as the original ramp to the Acropolis or the long-operating elevators in the Capitol building, which have long served Congress’s aged population, show, it was always there. Speaking of the importance of preserving not just historical sites but the history of impairment in such sites, which he terms “the preservation of disability,” he gestured to preservationists such as Maurice Chebab, Julien Chapuis, and Cesare Brandi, whose work preserves the brokenness and missing elements of marble sculptures and frescoes damaged by war and time rather than endeavouring to make them whole by erasing that history. He also pointed to Georgina Kleege’s innovations in art description and museology, whereby sighted guests are compelled to “gain blindness,” rather than simply bestowing access upon blind and low-vision patrons.
Gissen’s spatial politics of impairment might, as one audience member suggested during the Q&A, be enriched by a deeper engagement with crip theory. His ethos of weakness especially would be worth placing in context with the work of scholars such as Alison Kafer on crip time, the notion that disabled individuals have a singular relationship to temporality. But Gissen’s clarion call to uphold and centre the weak — in nature, in the built environment, in embodied experience, and in architectural interpretation — feels compelling and urgent in the face of the continued dominance of functionalism, and the ever-present threat of soft eugenicist ideologies that still insist disabled people prove their value at every turn.
Angelo Muredda is a Toronto-based teacher, film critic, and programmer. His writing on film has appeared in outlets such as Cinema Scope, The National Post, The Walrus, Now Magazine, SHARP Magazine, and Film Freak Central. He teaches in the Department of English at Humber College, where he is also Reviews Editor for the Humber Literary Review.