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The new Robarts Commons, a glass addition to the University of Toronto's Robarts Library, has five floors, modern furniture, and plenty of natural light.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The first thing you see is a set of stairs. As you walk or roll through the front doors of Robarts Common – the new wing at the University of Toronto’s main library – the staircase rises up behind the front desk. It’s lined by a set of large platforms where you can lounge, visit and study. Unless, that is, you have a physical disability.

This is a problem. This five-storey wing provides study space for students on the U of T’s downtown campus, and it’s designed for people to gather. Yet a major aspect of its architecture clearly excludes people with disabilities. This reflects an issue within the architectural profession and in Canada at large: We are still designing buildings that add barriers, rather than removing them.

The key issue at Robarts Common is the diagonal elements between floors. These combine a conventional staircase; a parallel set of oversized steps, which are large enough to sit on; and desk seating in stepped rows.

Gary McCluskie, a principal architect at Diamond Schmitt, described these elements as gathering space. The system of stepped spaces “allows you to see where you’re going and draw you in,” he said.

But that’s sales patter, the kind of thing architects use to convince their clients to accept a design.

Robarts Common is not a simple building. It is a relatively skinny rectangle that rests on two points in the ground, and reaches out across the loading dock of the library. Its structure involves steel beams joined into a complex triangular geometry, supporting a fully glass wall. (The glass is itself a weird choice for a building that gets a lot of afternoon sunlight.) Diamond Schmitt’s design increases the complexity of the space and structure by adding those diagonal elements.

The fact is that architects, in general, love these sittable steps. Also known as grand stairs, Spanish steps, or bleachers, they have been a trend for a decade. Architects like to design “in section,” as they say – in other words, with the movement of light and people from level to level.

The problem is that not everyone can take the stairs. And for a building to be truly accessible, it should not set up any unnecessary barriers; people with disabilities should have the same experience of a building as anyone else. This has long been a consensus among disability advocates.

Until very recently, however, architects and most of their clients have held themselves to a lower standard: that certain spaces don’t need to be accessible, as long as people with disabilities have a parallel option. That idea shaped the Robarts building, which has been in process for a decade.

On each level, there is an area at the bottom of the stairs designated for people with physical disabilities. Someone in a wheelchair could, in theory, linger here, and look up at classmates on the stairs.

But this kind of separate but equal experience should never have been viewed as acceptable, said David Lepofsky, a lawyer who chairs the advocacy group AODA Alliance. “That’s basically saying that students with disabilities are second-class citizens,” he said. “Human rights are human rights.”

The issue, when I raised it, prompted uncomfortable responses from the university and Diamond Schmitt. Mr. McCluskie acknowledged his firm’s current work – including Ottawa’s new main library – aims for a much higher level of accessibility. “The discussion around accessibility has evolved in the past few years,” he said.

A university spokesperson, by e-mail, made a different argument: “U of T strives to centre accessibility in everything that we do,” they said. “Tiered classrooms and informal collaboration spaces that connect levels of our multi-storey buildings are intended to maximize space.”

But that’s not true. The diagonal elements at Robarts Common take a two-storey section of the building and combine it into one. The result is less floorspace, not more, as Mr. McCluskie acknowledged.

This issue is not unique to U of T or to Diamond Schmitt. Grand stairs figure prominently in recent buildings at UBC (by Dialog and B&H), York University (by Cannon Design) and Toronto Metropolitan University (by Snohetta and Zeidler).

I wrote approvingly about the latter building, then called Ryerson Student Learning Centre, in 2015. Then in 2017, Mr. Lepofsky released a YouTube video which skewered its accessibility problems. Mr. Lepofsky, who is blind, found the building difficult and even dangerous to navigate. As he revealed, it has numerous design features – including sittable stairs – that are not accessible.

Then in 2019, a New York Public Library building by the prominent architect Steven Holl prompted a lawsuit over its stair-oriented design. The U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act is far stricter than its Canadian counterpart.

So: Some of us have learned a lesson about inclusion in the past five years. But Mr. Lepofsky makes two points: One, it shouldn’t have taken so long. “The Ontarians with Disabilities Act” – which sets out standards for accessibility – “was passed in 2005,” he pointed out. “Why were architects not paying attention?” The profession has much to learn in this respect. And the problems continue. The University of Toronto is currently renovating a building for its administration, designed by prominent New York architects OMA, which will have a prominent set of bleachers.

And two: accessibility problems often are self-inflicted. “Very often these features are not there because they’re necessary,” he said. “They’re someone’s idea of cool design.”

That is manifestly the case at Robarts Common. On my third visit to the building, I walked behind the ground-floor stair to see what was there. It turned out to be a forlorn little lobby, wedged in under the diagonal mass that the architects have imposed on the building.

This evokes a complaint I’ve heard from architects when it comes to accessibility: that these constraints crush their creativity. That position is unethical, and it’s also wrong. There are many ways for architecture to engage people without sending them upstairs: the modulation of light, the creative use of materials, graphics, even colour. Robarts Common is a hunk of undifferentiated glass and grey aluminum panel. Surely there is another way to access great design.

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