BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The pandemic that turned life upside down, will live beyond the actual contagion. Society worldwide will be retrofitted on a grand scale. And in one dimension in particular, the retrofitting will be literal. The built world, streets, homes, offices, transportation arenas, they're all destined to change. If you think about torn out theater seats and vacant office buildings, it's changing already, but history, like biology, is the story of adaptation. This isn't the first time our cities, buildings and public spaces have adapted in the wake of infectious disease. Writing in Slate back in April, Vanessa Chang explained how spatial intervention and innovation in a time of illness can be traced to the early 20th century. When cholera, tuberculosis and flu pandemics savaged the world.
VANESSA CHANG Until the discovery of the tubercle baccilus and towards the end of the 19th century, treatment was primarily environmental, and sanatoriums emerged as a way to treat tuberculosis because it was understood that ample exposure to air and sunlight were crucial in mitigating the worst effects of this respiratory illness.
BOB GARFIELD Wherever they were located, they all had essentially the same design. Can you describe what the typical sanatorium looked like?
VANESSA CHANG There were a lot of roof terraces and balconies. Healthier patients might ascend to these roof terraces if they were weaker. There were lots of open balconies where they could recline. In the best sanatoriums. They had lots of separation. For example, in the Paimio Sanatorium in Finland, each patient had their own handwashing station. There was a lot of really minimalist design as well to prevent the accumulation of dust that the TB bacillus could reside in and lots of opportunity for the movement of patients as well as air through the spaces that they inhabited.
BOB GARFIELD The design principles of the sanatorium spread outside of these health resorts to other structures and, you write, informed a good part of modern architecture for decades. How so?
VANESSA CHANG A lot of the major modernist architects were informed by this movement. I mean Le Corbusier and a number of other major modernist architects, even designed sanatoriums like Alvar Aalto, who did the Paimio Sanitorium and Jan Duiker at the Zonnestraal TB Sanatorium. These early modernist architects were really interested in rejecting ornamentation, for example. So you see that in a lot of this modernist aesthetic in the furniture, in the way in which space is designed trying to disavow clutter.
BOB GARFIELD The esthetic was also very clinical, minimal scrubbable, a lot of right angles and a lot of white.
VANESSA CHANG Yeah. And also a continuity between inside and outside. So large windows spaces as well. And opening windows. Ribbon Windows was a popular design feature for Le Corbusier. These are ways to kind of bridge the interior and the exterior world.
BOB GARFIELD Now you write that this went beyond hygene. That cleanliness and light and openness were deemed not just an aesthetic, but a moral imperative. Brocade and carpeting and ornamentation were poisonous to the soul.
VANESSA CHANG The philosophy that most embodies this idea would be Adolf Loos's tract Ornament and Crime. He was a an early modernist architect, and he designed a building in Vienna called the Loos House. And it really scandalized the Viennese because it had no eyebrows or adornment over its windows. He argued that the ostentatious decor of early 20th century architecture was a crime because it was a waste. That these would go out of style and become obsolete. And it was a crime to waste that effort when it would go out of style. He also suggested that ornament was immoral and he described it as degenerate. And it's a problematic text. In a lot of ways. There are some kind of troublingly colonial and racist ideas in it about what ornament is.
BOB GARFIELD There's so much to unpack there in the notion of ornamentation as degenerate. First of all, it anticipates things that Hitler and Stalin would say later in the century about various kinds of art. Is there any evidence, though, that modernism was, in fact genuinely helpful, physically, socially, morally, any which way? I mean, did it work?
VANESSA CHANG Some of these buildings, like Alto's Paimio Sanitorium were very successful and I think it's still a rehab center for children. You know, so the best of these principles, when put into practice and put in practice thoughtfully and in the right context, could be healing. But it was a vision of utopia that didn't actually take everyone into account, right? I think the most major failures of architectural modernism were in public housing. So it became quite popular in the 1920s, along with the rise of Le Corbusier, other major architectural figures. But the community's living in this housing, weren't consulted about their lifestyle and wishes. I mean, I think it really reflects some of the problems around sanitoria as well. A lot of these treatments for tuberculosis were pretty expensive, and so they weren't available to everyone. You know, you had to be fairly wealthy to be able to go and enjoy these treatments in these wonderful, lush, open spaces.
BOB GARFIELD Thomas Mann, yes. Joe Lunchpail, not necessarily.
VANESSA CHANG Right, exactly. So when you don't take those uneven class dynamics into account and you don't take into account the needs of different kinds of communities and you try to impose this vision of utopia and hell from above, these larger visions of healing fail.
BOB GARFIELD Vanessa, thank you for joining us.
VANESSA CHANG You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD Vanessa Chang is a lecturer at California College of the Arts and lead curator with CODAME Art + Tech.
Well, isn't this awkward? Eight billion people living in an environment constructed over centuries and suddenly that infrastructure is dangerous to us. Narrow passageways, cramped indoor spaces, poor ventilation, the virus is hyper contagious and the world is a gigantic subway car. So now we have to play catch up to retrofit the entire built world to accommodate a new biological reality. To some people, though, that's a movie they've seen before, namely those with disabilities for whom reconceptualizing the design of things is lifelong practice. And it begins with the simple matter of perspective. The model for defining disability - medical or social?
MIK SCARLET The medical model says, I am disabled by the fact that my legs don't work, that I have a spinal injury, and that left me paralyzed.
BOB GARFIELD Mik Scarlet is an expert in the field of access and inclusion for disabled people in the UK.
MIK SCARLET The social model says that's my impairment, but I'm disabled because when I go out in my wheelchair, the world around me is designed for people who can walk.
BOB GARFIELD In a COVID environment, Scarlet says, suddenly, more people than ever are comprehending what it's like to be at odds with the built environment.
MIK SCARLET It looks like that, non disabled people have finally got that idea of what it's like to be told, No, I'm sorry, you can't come in. Why? Oh, we don't have access for you. Well, that's exactly the same as being told I'm sorry you can't go out because there's this pesky virus out. It's having your world shrunk and it's not your fault. And it's been quite an eye opener to see people really not knowing how to cope with suddenly not having any control over their lives. Which is for many of us, this is what our day to day life, all the while.
BOB GARFIELD Having spent a career battling resistance from able-bodied skeptics and competing political constituencies, such as historical preservationists and bike path advocates, Scarlett cops to some ungenerous feelings along the: I told you so, toldya so, what goes around comes around lines, but mainly he's hopeful that his moment of vindication, it's also one of universal opportunity.
MIK SCARLET Actually, I'm really hoping that this whole terrible period for this virus has shown the world that we need a new way of thinking and that actually now's the time to listen to those disabled people like myself. An inclusive society would be much easier to lock down. It would be much easier to come out of lockdown and it would be much easier to socially distance.
BOB GARFIELD The activist. Alice Wong, the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, has described disabled people as modern day oracles. Heroically imagining our infrastructure future. Scarlet says that the comparison works for him.
MIK SCARLET We want to be, like Alice said - your oracle. We want to say when you come out of this, if you ask us how to get it better and how to cope, we can help. I also really hope that all the people that have had COVID and I really hope that we as a community, disabled community, are given the opportunity to help and support those people and bring them all of the stuff that we've learned over decades. They'll be blaming themselves and the disease for not being able to do the stuff they did before. And actually what we'll say is, no. It's society, If we build a better world, those people could come back into the world quicker. They can do more, we won't lose them, they won't disappear into this horrible, excluded world that, you know, we grew up in. Disabled people have grown up in. For them alone for them alone, we owe it to society to make a better place for us all to live.
BOB GARFIELD Scarlet is a consultant in the field of access and inclusion for disabled people in the United Kingdom. As Scarlet suggests, we can adjust to the new built reality by taking lessons from the disability movement, which has over the past half century yielded infrastructure accommodations, now so ubiquitous we take them for granted. Sarah Hendren, a professor at all in College of Engineering, is author of the new book What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World. She's reminded of the work of Ed Roberts.
SARAH HENDREN He was a college student in the 1960s at UC Berkeley. He was a polio survivor and someone who used quite a lot of complex medical equipment his whole life, and he attended high school by patching into his classroom via telephone and also to his local community college while living at home. But once he got to Berkeley, Roberts wanted to live on campus. So he worked with a doctor, Dr. Henry Browne, who was on staff at the Cowal Hospital, which is the hospital on campus at Berkeley. And he and Brown figured out that if he could turn what had normally been just a hospital room into a. Makeshift dormitory room that he could actually reinvent what it meant to be a student on campus. And so Roberts then was joined by a dozen other students who were newly able to come to Berkeley with their kind of medical needs intact. And once they finished at Berkeley, they thought, well, we need a way to make creative housing that's independent with help outside of the campus also. And in doing so, they were trying to say there are lots of things that we can't actually do physically for ourselves, but with help, we can be independent in a redefined way. That is, we may not be doing everything in a self-sufficient body, but we are enacting a kind of self-determination by orchestrating the help that we need. And so this was an idea that started with design and architecture in a key way, that became an idea that influenced the world.
BOB GARFIELD Well, to quote a cigaret ad jingle of that era, we've come a long way, baby. Public bathrooms, sidewalk curb cuts, ramps, they're now ubiquitous. Remarkable, really only when they're absent.
SARAH HENDREN That's right. Curb cuts, people may know, are just the cut that happens from the sidewalk to the street and then back up again. You go down a ramp now instead of a hard step down. That was a hard won fight and a legal guarantee that was rolled out at infrastructural scale. If you're somebody who pushes a stroller through the built environment, if you're someone who's dragging wheeled luggage behind you, if you're someone walking a bike, you participate in those politics, too. And even one generation behind, it's easy to forget just how improbable that seemed when people were lobbying for it, but also to see, like, wow, the built environment actually isn't as fixed and permanent as we might think. That it can be edited, it can be unmade and remade, and that is also the work of design. Not just shiny new products, but taking a look at the status quo and asking whether it might be otherwise.
BOB GARFIELD Some of this stuff like curb cuts, like closed captioning on television.
SARAH HENDREN Yeah,.
BOB GARFIELD They benefit not just the disabled. They're kind of crossover adaptations, no?
SARAH HENDREN That's right, and that's often called in my field universal design. So deaf watchers of television were saying, a long time ago, we want captioning to be a standard part of every television set. And a lot of people from the outside would say, well, this is a niche market. But it turns out that once closed captioning became a kind of feature of everyday life whereby if you're at an airport or a restaurant, you can follow along with the game or the debate, or you can watch videos on silent if your kids are in the next room trying to get to sleep.
BOB GARFIELD The point being, though, instead of thinking of these crossover benefits, is serendipitous. If you begin with the notion of universal design, you will be accommodating not just the disabled but the entire population. So why not start there? Is that the premise?
SARAH HENDREN It's certainly one call to take a look really at what are the so-called margins. It turns out, though, that disability is a particularly interesting case because for one thing, the WHO put out a report in 2011 saying that over a billion people globally live with some condition of disability. So it's not quite so abnormal as we might think. But also, if you think about the span of your life, you enter the world quite dependent on other people. We often, in the latter part of our lives, also experience greater and even acute dependance and interdependence on other people. So disability concerns are genuinely universal. If we see that is actually a feature of our everyday lives, then we start to see it not as something to be only pitied or avoided. Right, but instead to say, oh, I locate myself here too. I'm a human being with a body that has needs. And so I can ask myself, can I bring my body to the built world, or will I ask the world to adapt a little bit to me as well?
BOB GARFIELD Coronavirus has made the universality imperative all the more urgent. We are facing what wheelchair bound neighbors have faced their whole lives. An infrastructure, that just doesn't work for us anymore.
SARAH HENDREN It's true. And if you ask disabled people I've watched this closely in my own disability community, they will tell you we have been asking for things like more flexible, remote work options and things that we're seeing now suddenly made quite robust because they're needed in the mainstream. But disabled people have been asking for those for a long time. The key invitation here again is to say, where are the places where we might look to the temporary kind of rebuilding of the built world? And I mean things like seniors only shopping hours and shared street initiatives. Those are things that are being prototyped right now under the conditions that we're in. And the call to us is to say, might there be the glimmering light of a good idea in general? We want to continue some of these things in order to make a friendlier world for a lot of bodies. I must say, when I'm looking at the neighborhood listservs in my own neighborhood about shared streets, opening them up to pedestrians and bicycles and a more robust way, you know, those listservs, those discussion boards are full to the brim of people saying before it's even started, this will never work. The way things are is the way things must be. And I find we constantly need resources and reminders and indeed, like a basic social trust to say, what if we prototype a little bit? What if we try?
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask about silver linings. Is there anything in this suddenly urgent need for redesign that makes you feel, uh - hopeful?
SARAH HENDREN So many of the stories in my book are of people who not only found the status quo to be insufficient, but they were willing to do the kind of five or 10 years of bureaucratic work to see that new thing made real. And that, of course, is a longer story. And it defies the time scale of social media. It defies picking up the right books right now in this kind of fervor. I'm for reading good books, but boy, the thing I have learned watching disabled people is that the long work of structural change takes a kind of longer time scale and a commitment, and it takes that generous thinking. And there yes, you might say that that sounds Pollyanna. I think it's actually the deepest call for the deepest work we can do. It requires us to keep practicing trust, even in the face of deep pessimism and uncertainty. That is, history shows how we do get an edited world at the least, and and sometimes altogether new structures.
BOB GARFIELD Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH HENDREN Thank you. It's an honor.
BOB GARFIELD Sarah Hendren is a professor at Olin College of Engineering and author of the new book, What Can a Body Do? I spoke to her in July. Coming up, math, schizophrenia and the story of a life saved by the Internet. This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.