To the editors:
I share James Krohe Jr.'s concern regarding the social responsibility of architecture ["Designing a Better World , " August 141, so I wonder in the name of who or what is he taking such offense at our work at the Des Plaines adult day-care center. He charges that we "might have asked the residents" about their concerns. We have conducted over 60 hours of taped interviews with the older participants and the staff, whereas he interviewed neither me nor the staff nor any of the participants at the center; nor does he even seem to be aware that elements of the project have already been installed. He might have asked the director or assistant director of the center what they thought of our work, but then he might have discovered how engaging they and the participants find it. And then it would not have been so easy to set us up as straw figures (the "self-absorbed academic architects") to knock down.
To most users who need to use a handrail, it is a necessary but uneventful part of the environment, a place you go to when you have no other choice. Is Krohe really suggesting that there is something wrong with providing a handrail that, in addition to functioning as a standard handrail, also provides something more, something to look at (photographs or texts), touch, or interact with, something that attempts to suggest a place of dignity, or an even more interesting place to be than standard "nondisabled" places? Is Krohe really suggesting that there is something wrong with connecting one form of support (a handrail) to other forms of support (a bench, a physical therapy device, an archive, a coat rail)?
Krohe worries that we are having something more than "harmless fun" at the expense of real needs. Since the first publication of our work, a week has not gone by that we have not received an inquiry from a public works manager, a community group, an architect, or an educator precisely because they see the intensive attention we are paying to these issues. I received a call last month from a wheelchair assisted architect at one of the major architectural firms in townregarding the possibility of a collaboration with us--who said how wonderful it was that someone was having some fun with the condition he inhabits, rather than treating it as some onerous problem.
But pleasure and imagination do not seem to be attributes that Krohe wants to allow into architecture--"maintenance-free" and "common-sense" seem all that he will allow. I consider that just another form of discrimination, another form of lowering the expectations of what every person--whatever their mixture of ability and disability--deserves.
Contrary to Krohe's view, all buildings, whether architect-designed or not, can not help but both reflect and reflect upon their social context (just by the way they modulate social behavior). Unfortunately what many buildings reflect is exactly the attitude that reduces "social design" to a problem to be "solved" (by standard guidelines) rather than an opportunity to be imagined.
School of Architecture
University of Illinois at Chicago