Architects, empathy, and imaginary conversations

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28 February 2017

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

I find it incredibly liberating to begin a piece with the wise words of someone with far greater intellect that myself. I relied on a similar process in my former life as an architect, particularly as a student. In this I refer to the idea of “precedent”, one of the three great “p’s”, like a list of holy commandments passed on to us on that fateful day one, there alongside “place” and “purpose”. No one at University ever expected a truly original architectural idea every single time, and there was no shame in drawing inspiration from monuments past, hence the importance of precedent. Sadly some of my peers took the precedent part quite literally and demonstrated in their work another word beginning with “p” – plagiarise, but that’s all in the past…. Understand these three elements, intoned the almighty design tutor, and you are well on the way to resolving the design problem.

I always thought that “people” might have been a great fourth addition to the “p’s”, but perhaps this was already bound into “purpose”? It would not surprise me, on entering my old faculty building today, to see more emphasis on “people” in the teaching, particularly as our society (sometimes grudgingly) transitions to being a more inclusive one.

One of the last things I did in my former life was attend some training, which turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my whole career. It was all to do with leadership, and how “emotional intelligence” can help you to be a better communicator and leader in your organisation. It’s a great subject, but what it really all boils down to is empathy, the ability to understand another person through a vicarious experience of their situation, feelings, and culture (refer to Walt Whitman above).

Most architects I know have a very developed sense of empathy, it’s easy to think of it as a mandatory job prerequisite. Whether this has come naturally, or through training, or merely as a survival response in the modern world, it is impossible to imagine success in the profession without an ability to empathise with the Client and end users. Of course, everyone in the game has a story to tell about a 5pm desk thumping tyrant who exhibited not a skerrick of emotional intelligence, but I’m sure these guys are going the way of the dinosaurs.

It has been a most interesting experience to work as an access consultant at MGAC and remain involved with architecture, but seeing things through a different lens. On a personal level I view this as being a continuation of my education in the field, which is never ending. An education in architecture is a wonderful thing to possess, and it equips you with a skill set to analyse and understand the workings of the world we live in, and how to make it a better place.

As I’ve mentioned, most architects I know (and even those I don’t know) have a very developed sense of empathy, which is why I feel a little let down when, as an access consultant, I’m asked things like “what do we need to do……..?”, as if everything is merely a reaction to the mandatory requirements “because it’s in the BCA”. I would much prefer, and welcome such occasions, when the questioning is more along the lines of “do you think this is a good way to get everyone into the building, can we do it better?”, demonstrating some awareness and empathy for persons with disabilities.

I believe it is our duty as access consultants, to tap into the empathetic abilities inherent in architects, and assist in the understanding that architecture, in all its forms, from the humblest abode to the most magnificent monuments, should be built for the delight of all citizens, regardless of their impairments.

When facing some resistance on an accessibility issue I would like to ask the architect to picture themselves late in life, in all likelihood carrying one or even several disabilities themselves, and possibly also at this stage living a life touched by grief. Have a conversation with your future self, picture you at that stage as your own Client, and build an appreciation of your future needs and quality of life.

Should we live so long it will surely come to us all.

John Ward

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