Easy access for everyone
"Combining accessibility with a historic environment
requires empathy from the architect",
says Professor Miguel Usandizaga.
The School of Architecture at TUT has adopted the Design for All principle and incorporated accessibility into its curriculum. The school also holds a seminar on accessibility in cooperation with disability organizations every second year.
The theme of the seminar arranged last week was the often complex relationship between accessibility and cultural heritage.
"Years ago I visited a delightful, historical village. When I admired the beauty of the village, a local woman reacted to my words with outrage. It turned out that the conservation regulations imposed severe limitations to the everyday life of the villagers," said one of the keynote speakers, Professor Miguel Usandizaga from the Technical University of Catalonia.
Usandizaga's example led the audience to reflect on fundamental questions: Who do world historical sites belong to? What is most important aspect of architecture? Is it aesthetics or beauty or should it be happiness and good life?
Usandizaga warned about over-zealous efforts to turn historical sites into museums.
Future architects got to experience first-hand the
difficulties a person with impaired mobility may
face on a daily basis.
"We have to be able to design solutions that improve accessibility."
"Good architectural planning is conducted with empathy and subtlety. Perceptive architects are able to put themselves in the shoes of different users and integrate lifts and other new technology so that they do not undermine the aesthetic value of the building", he says.
Modern way of thinking
Senior Advisor Selja Flinck from the National Board of Antiquities noted that the new generation of architects seems to be routinely incorporating accessibility into their designs.
"Accessibility is a modern way of thinking and planning the environment and not an act of charity."
The National Board of Antiquities oversees the restoration and renovation of all historical buildings in Finland.
"We always make careful plans and investigate how to promote accessibility. It's clear where we stand: everyone must have the opportunity to visit historical sites".
"Sometimes it's enough to put up railings. But a lot of the time we have to make compromises and sometimes nothing can be done", she describes the demanding task.
Everyone benefits from accessibility
Architect, researcher and wheelchair-user Marta Bordas from the Technical University of Catalonia discussed built environment as a source of identity. Being young and active, Bordas travels widely. She shared with the audience her experiences and observations about big city traffic, hotels and other public places. Both the ease of mobility and people's attitudes differ radically from place to place. Bordas has encountered not only discrimination akin to racism but also equal treatment
Reputation draws talented students
The School of Architecture will launch a new International Master's Degree Programme in Architecture in autumn 2010. The programme will stimulate the already lively international activity at the department.
"We are waiting with interest for the results of the application process. Competition in this field is fierce in Europe, but our good reputation works in our favour. It attracts talented applicants. The bar is set high", says Professor Markku Hedman.
By establishing the new degree programme, the School of Architecture is seeking to enrich and develop its education and research activities.
Some 40 foreign students spend a short-term exchange period at the department every year. Making degree studies available for international students will further promote interaction between Finnish and foreign students. It is also certain to expand teacher and researcher mobility.
The content of the two-year MSc programme centres on the department's priorities and ensures that students develop all-round professional competence and become knowledgeable about history and culture.
The programme also introduces students to the distinctive features of Finnish architectural design, namely the human-oriented approach and respect for nature. These are valuable things to learn and hold a prominent position in ecologically sustainable building that is currently experiencing a boom in Europe.
"Graduates from the programme will obtain the qualifications required to work as an architect. This will enable foreign students, as they are familiar with appropriate legislation, to find employment in Finland. In case they return to their home county, they will act as ambassadors for high-quality Finnish education", says Hedman.
"I am not asking for special treatment, I'm asking for equality", emphasized Bordas.
According to Bordas, promoting equal access improves everyone's quality of life. As a good example of this, Bordas presented the High Line Park in New York that is built on an elevated 1930s rail structure. New Yorkers of all ages, shapes and sizes enjoy roaming in the popular park.
The structures built to promote accessibility can sometimes benefit surprisingly different groups, such as marathon runners and people with impaired mobility in Venice.
"Wooden bridges and ramps are built over the canals to accommodate the Venice Marathon. Every year the bridges are left where they are for a longer and longer period of time by popular request", says Marta Bordas.
Even one threshold may be too much.
Did you know?
High thresholds, buildings without lifts, steep ramps, narrow doors... For a person using a wheelchair, an urban environment can present insurmountable barriers and running daily errands may require careful preparation and planning.
The demonstrations held in connection with the seminar allowed architecture students to try what it is like to use different mobility aids. And how do we feel when our senses of sight and hearing are reduced? Many admitted that it made them feel surprisingly helpless.