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Tourists hike around the Acropolis in Athens, Greece in May 2020. A trip to the famed site helped inspire architect David Gissen's new book, The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities and Landscapes Beyond Access.Byron Smith/Getty Images

When David Gissen climbed the Acropolis, it did not welcome him. As a trained architect, Mr. Gissen had been eager to see the Athens citadel that holds a crucial place in Western history. “So I walked up this meandering route that ends in a very steep and narrow staircase,” he recalls. “I found it extraordinarily irritating, and, in fact, impossible.” Mr. Gissen is an amputee with prostheses, and this experience left him tired and alienated, rather than awestruck.

However, his experience was not the fault of the Classical Athenians; the route he walked was built in the 1950s to the designs of a celebrated architect. Twenty-five hundred years ago, a broad ramp linked the Acropolis to the city. “We know that people who were ill or impaired came to visit and walked up,” he says. “There are representations of veterans, of pregnant women, of elderly people.” All of whom might now have a hard time making their way up.

This surprising anecdote plays a role in Mr. Gissen’s recent book The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities and Landscapes Beyond Access (University of Minnesota Press). A designer and historian at the New School in New York, Mr. Gissen brings a nuanced critique of the design professions. In his view, architects often make things worse, and the contemporary field of accessibility is important but too conceptually limited.

“If you look at architectural history, impairment is not just a contemporary issue,” he argues. “It has always been there.” But today’s architecture schools and studios see the issue as an imposition. Architects are trained to fetishize movement, he suggests. “We imagine our students aren’t really experiencing architecture unless they exhaust themselves,” he says, “exploring a city and climbing all over it.”

This subtle cultural norm translates into buildings that emphasize “circulation” – an architecture of clambering. This is common enough in Canada; it showed up last year in an addition to the University of Toronto’s main library.

Mr. Gissen cites two recent New York buildings as examples: the Vessel by Thomas Heatherwick, part of the infamous Hudson Yards development, which is essentially a set of staircases-as-public-art; and a public library by the venerated architect Steven Holl, which has many gratuitous stairs. These are technically accessible to a legal standard, in that they have elevators, and yet “are extraordinarily alienating to a person like me,” Mr. Gissen says.

On these matters, Mr. Gissen is in line with most accessibility advocates. He applauds the activism and regulation that have helped open buildings and urban spaces to all people – especially in the U.S., which has much stronger legal requirements for accessibility than Canada does. However, he suggests the cult of clambering even has an impact on accessibility. “When architecture engages people with disabilities … it is often about improving the mobility of people in space and improving the use of space,” he explains. “The focus is motion and mobility. But I would argue that disabled people can provide a far more powerful lens on the politics of the city.”

For instance, he parses the history of Vienna’s “settler movement.” In the years after the First World War, veterans, many of them “war-wounded,” joined poor emigrants in creating new housing around the fringes of the city. Their work directly inspired the architecture of social housing in “Red Vienna,” and disabled people helped lead conversation about how the city should change – including calls to remove military statues and demilitarize the landscape of the city. This is a model that goes far beyond accommodation and accessibility.

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An ascending series of bookshelves in the Hunters Point Community Library, in New York. The library, with interiors mostly of bamboo, spirals upward from a shallow lobby in a sequence of tiered desks, book stacks and social spaces.WINNIE AU/The New York Times

But Mr. Gissen’s book also provokes thought about some givens of contemporary planning. He notes the emphasis in 19th-century architecture on the healthfulness of light and air; as he argues, this translates into a “solarized aesthetics” that carries on today. Urban design in many cities, including Toronto, now aims to provide as much sunlight as possible on public spaces. Yet the experience of heat and humidity is often negative – for some more than others. “Disabled people, elderly people, very young children are more susceptible to heat exhaustion in the summer months,” he says. “These modernist city plans and ideas about blasting people with sunlight just don’t work.”

In this and other aspects, he argues, “the issue is representation – having people who are actually disabled involved with urban-planning decisions.”

And in his own teaching, Mr. Gissen has brought students to tour the city of Vienna and re-examine its history alongside him. “They’re not doing projects about disability necessarily,” he explains, “but they’re able to gain a perspective on potential problems with the city. It’s an opportunity to change all these things that were once seen as being visions of the future.” And, in so doing, to imagine a different one.

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