Building in Germany
On conflicting aims and ramps in the wrong places
A column by Christian Holl
Mar 9, 2015

How a society deals with people with impairments says a lot about the prevailing social climate. Mind you, the way in which bureaucracy’s quaint logic often succeeds in thwarting aspirations for an ideal barrier-free world is just as insightful.

Conflicting aims. A beautiful expression that lends itself just perfectly to the purposes of this column. Horst Rittel once formulated, simply and profoundly, that in the case of wicked problems our understanding of them will determine the type of solution that is to be adopted. Building is one such vicious problem. For if different people have different ideas on how to resolve certain issues they will inevitably produce conflicting aims. Take energy modernization, for example: For some people it’s important to keep their pads cozy and their heating bills low, while others could not care less as long as the building’s frontage is swish and attractive. How to solve the conflict? Simple: The champions of our cultural building heritage tell the worshippers of warmth to put on an extra layer of clothing.

However, other conflicting aims can’t be solved as easily. Which is where accessibility and building for the disabled comes in. People with impairments cannot simply change their clothes – it is our attitude that has to change. A clever slogan once pointed to the fact that people are not disabled as such but that obstacles are put in their way. And they are hindered because the majority (and be it simply out of thoughtlessness) is not prepared to show them the consideration they deserve. Or has failed to do so in the past. And as a result created buildings with plenty of barriers that are nevertheless beautiful and useful and therefore maintained. Some such edifices were consciously outfitted with extra barriers, castles for example. In this regard the issue of accessibility is a wonderful demonstration of society negotiating how it wishes to give consideration to what problems. What are the issues at hand? How do we ideally wish to live together? Are we prepared to exclude as few people as possible from things most of us take for granted? Making sure that not every step and staircase turns into an obstacle that is impossible to overcome.

The constitution lays out with unmistakable clarity that we shall not discriminate against any one as a result of his or her impairment. Building laws are issued and regulations stipulated in national building codes to ensure compliance in this regard. DIN standards are put in place to aid implementation. Now regulation can be a blessing. As it creates a sense of naturalness that far outstrips any attempt to help, no matter how well-meant this may be. And even if it cannot solve everything it still draws our attention to the difficulties to which we expose some people. And that is very important, especially as the social consensus that manifests itself as a law cannot always be experienced in everyday life. Ask any person in a wheelchair and they will readily agree.

To return to our built culture and our architectural culture today: Sure, very few ramps and lifts can be considered architectural attractions, especially if they have been added to buildings as uninspired after-thoughts by planners who failed to use their imagination in the first place, and then simply went by the book. Now you might argue that these are eyesores we simply need to grin and bear. But that would be veering on the unfair. Maybe it would suffice to point out that the car (yes, it likewise relies on accessibility!) often requires far more monstrous solutions that eat up enormous space, both of which we are happy to accept without batting an eyelid. Have you ever taken a birds-eye view of a motorway junction and compared it to the center of a small town? Then you know what I mean. Yet we are prepared to tolerate such monstrosities. Even if we struggle occasionally.

Let’s take another look at conflicting aims. It is impossible to avoid them, no matter how many standards we introduce. If only because rules and regulations cannot absolve us from agreeing on the actual issues that need to be resolved. This too is part and parcel of construction and interacting with architecture. Anyone involved with building matters knows that there are plenty of conflicting aims. And occasionally the above lauded regulations artificially exacerbate the problem. Pushing matters to such absurdity that even the most avid advocates of accessibility would no longer be willing to endorse them. A case in point: A chemist is required to prove that his pharmacy has barrier-free access. If he fails to do so he will have to close it. However, in specific cases this may turn out to be either impossible for practical reasons or inadmissible on the basis of the building law, for example, if a ramp that is to provide access for wheelchair users can be fitted neither inside the pharmacy (impossible for practical reasons) nor outside the building on public ground (inadmissible as per the building law). What happens next? Those affected are forced to submit a building application, fully aware that it will be turned down. On the basis of this written refusal from the authorities the owner then hopes to be able to continue running his pharmacy without providing barrier-free access. What does this tell us? It tells us that bureaucracy enforces a peculiar concept of justice: by invariably making certain that we all have obstacles thrown in our way.
We take accessibility for granted in a certain way.
The radical solution looks only at first glance to be the easiest.
All photos © Christian Holl
Christian Holl