Image credit: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

David Gissen is a Professor of Architecture and Urban History at The New School’s Parsons School of Design. His new book, The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access, presents a new way to think about the history of architecture and architectural theory, which centers disability and defamiliarizes the way we look at the everyday built environment.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bella Okuya: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this book?

David Gissen: I have spent my entire career in the world of architecture as somebody with a disability. I’m a paediatric bone cancer survivor, I was treated here in New York in the 1980s. I’m also an amputee. I went to undergraduate architecture school as a disabled person, I was partially in a wheelchair and on crutches back then.I went to graduate school, did PhD work, was a curator, a practitioner, a practicing architect, and then went back to school to become an academic.

As somebody with a long career in the world of architecture, I believe that ideas about impairment, disability, and physical weakness are much more complex than simply making buildings more accessible. How we think about architectural history; ideas of nature and environment in architecture; how architects create and design through architectural form; and how cities urbanize and construct buildings, are all entangled with ideas about capacity, impairment, and disability.

I wanted to develop what I would call an architectural theory of disability rather than just focusing on making architecture more practical for disabled people. The genre of writing called architectural theory interprets architectural history, aesthetics of construction, and concepts about nature and environment. I aimed to provide a disability critique on all these subjects, particularly how I was taught, encouraged to practice, and how I’m encouraged to teach these ideas. Writing this book allowed me to express the thoughts I’ve had for a long time in one volume.

Okuya: Could you talk more about a key concept in the book, “the urbanization of impairment,” and how it’s related to this theory?

Gissen: Typically, contemporary disability critique of cities focuses on promoting more access for disabled people to circulate through urban spaces, such as sidewalks, streets, and public spaces. All of that, of course, is extremely important. However, in my chapter “The Urbanization of Disability,” I ask whether a disability critique of the modern city should aim simply to access the city as it is—or should it rethink some of the values embedded in urban spaces?

For example, many cities, like New York and London, manage water based on a European concept of hydrological management. Recent torrential rainstorms in New York City, have highlighted the limitations of our Western model of hard-paved streets with curbs. There are various environmental critiques of streets and sidewalks advocating for alternative urban wastewater management approaches. There is an opportunity for disabled people to form alliances with environmentalists and postcolonial urban theorists reimagining streets. Rethinking circulation in urban spaces would likely reduce the barriers experienced by disabled people and introduce a more complex approach to how they envision cities.

Disability activism also often overlooks how city navigation is governed by predefined ideas about property rights and trespassing laws. For instance, when I walk down Long Street in New York— which is 950 feet long—and come across a passageway between two townhouses or apartment buildings that would make my journey more accessible, I frequently encounter “no trespassing” signs, despite the possibility of walking through. This forces me to take a longer route around the block. This is a simple example, but it underscores that while many disabled writers focus on sidewalks determining our movement within cities—which is of course partially true—it is property rights, easements, and trespass laws that predominantly dictate urban navigation and determine the placement of sidewalks. 

The disability critique of the city that I write about extends beyond the physical infrastructure and delves into the values ingrained in urban space and questions ideas about property, urban movement, hydrology, and environmentalism. From my perspective, this holds the potential for an expansive political discourse that transcends the scope of access issues.

Okuya: After reading your ideas about “the natural”—or what we take to be “natural”—I saw my environment in a different way. What does it mean when you say, “nature is produced”?

Gissen: I began my architectural career with a keen interest in architectural environmentalism, also known as the green movement in architecture, environmental movement in architecture, or sustainable architecture. Over time, I grew increasingly disillusioned with the movement. Some two decades later, I’ve come to realize that my disillusionment was linked to what I’d describe as a form of “soft eugenics”—or an overemphasis on the valorization of capacity that I encountered in meetings where architects would propose changing building materials to “invigorate” people. Some even suggested designing office buildings to enhance worker health and reduce sick days, ensuring a return on investment through the use of healthier materials. I was troubled by the evaluation of elements of nature solely based on their capacities, especially the notion of biocapacity. For example, trees were deemed “good” because they absorb carbon and release oxygen, and certain types of shellfish were valued for their ability to clean urban river waterways. As someone who often feels incapacitated, I pondered who advocated for the “weak” aspects of nature. 

Then I read Concrete and Clay by geographer Matthew Gandy. His focus was on how cities both produce nature as a physical entity, such as Central Park, a completely designed landscape; and as an idea, valuing specific aspects of nature according to the demands of an industrial capitalist society. The book was so different from anything anybody was talking about in the environmental movement in architecture. I applied to be Gandy’s PhD student and spent six to seven years collaborating with him. 

The Architecture of Disability revisits much of this discourse but of disability critique. I begin The Architecture of Disability with a discussion of national parks in the United States, particularly Yosemite. National parks like Yosemite are constructed spaces, designed to offer specific aesthetic qualities and experiences to visitors. The oldest inhabitants, the indigenous Americans—who lived there for thousands of years—inhabited a very different landscape, one that would look more like an agricultural landscape than the idea of wilderness that has been built into it over the past 100 to 150 years.

Over the past twenty to thirty years, there has been substantial activism to increase accessibility in these national parks. One of the questions I pose is whether advocating for increased accessibility in national parks is the right route for disability leadership in the United States. Why aren’t these leaders considering forming alliances with those who are reevaluating the histories of these spaces, seeking ways to intertwine the land, landscapes, and resources with concepts of restitution and other kinds of politics? 

Okuya: What are your thoughts about gentrification and urban community regeneration?

Gissen: Right now, I’m working with my students and a little bit with the City of New York in the South Ridgewood Triangles, an area between Ridgewood and Bushwick in New York City. It’s an unusual neighborhood for New York City, in that most of the buildings are only one story tall.

The neighborhood is the object of a lot of development pressure because people have this idea that a one-story city is under-developed. As somebody who teaches a lot of architectural history, I know throughout history people have made one-story urban plans or one-story cities. 

Very often, the one-story city emerges as a response to the physical intensities of the multi-structured cities. It should never be seen as a less evolved city. People who live in this neighborhood have so much difficulty defending their right to the character of their neighborhood because of this idea that it’s undeveloped. A few years ago, people were protesting the building of multi-story structures, condominiums, and the like in the neighborhood. Not just because of the way that they gentrified the neighborhood, but because somebody from the neighborhood working on a site got hurt. They said the pressure to build these things so quickly has resulted in a lack of workplace safety.

The people that I meet from the neighborhood recognize they live in a very unusual place and they’re figuring out how to preserve it. Is there a way to imagine a dense but one-story kind of development that might help preserve the neighborhood? My students were examining some empty lots in the neighborhood, and they tried to reimagine them as either park space or an extension of a neighboring school. 

Okuya: How would you like people to “rethink the politics of access” after reading your book?

Gissen: I’ve hesitated until now to write about disability because many architects and urban designers approach it as a problem to be solved, making disabled lives easier. That’s fine, however I don’t see myself as a problem to be solved. To have a meaningful disability critique, one must consider disability historically, urbanistically, environmentally; in construction and in design education. For me the most exciting part of this book’s reception has been hearing from younger people with serious impairments who feel that someone understands their viewpoint. They are finding a sense of ease and a critical direction for reimagining architecture and urban design through a disability perspective.

Read an excerpt from The Architecture of Disability, courtesy of the author and University of Minnesota Press.

David Gissen is Professor of Architecture and Urban History at Parsons School of Design at the New School.

Bella Okuya is an MFA candidate in Photography at Parsons School of Design.