The ADA Turns 30
27. July 2020
Not long after the Hunters Point Library opened in New York City last September, the books on these shelves were removed, since the terraced levels were inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
July 26 marked the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Among other things, the ADA ensures equal access to public buildings.
The photo at top, taken on the opening day of the library in Queens designed by Steven Holl Architects, makes clear that even though the ADA is three decades old, the spirit of equal access has not been fully embraced by all architects or clients. The terraced stacks reached by a straight run of stairs along a large window overlooking Manhattan are a stunning feature, but those levels are not served by an elevator and are therefore inaccessible to people in wheelchairs or with other physical disabilities. No wonder that the limited access to this and other parts of the facility led to vocal criticism overshadowing — and marring — the otherwise impressive design; New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, writing one week before it opened, called it "one of the finest public buildings New York has produced this century." But in a recent article by Kimmelman marking the ADA's latest anniversary he admits "there’s still a long way to go" and that disability rights advocates who called out Holl's design "were right. I was wrong."
For many architects accessibility equals ramps, as illustrated in the "Ramp" section of the Elements of Architecture exhibition at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
The Hunters Point Library complied with accessibility guidelines when its permit for construction was approved years before it opened — otherwise it could not have been built. (The initial plan was for librarians to retrieve books on the shelves not fully accessible.) But a lot has changed in society in the ten-plus years of the library's conception and realization, particularly in regards to inclusion and the rights of minorities and marginalized people. Now, the library design represents an approach that sees the ADA as a legal requirement to be met, not as a guiding light with inclusivity as a driver of design. The latter is embodied in the Robert W. Wilson Overlook at Brooklyn Botanic Garden design by Weiss/Manfredi, as called out in the Kimmelman article, and other projects that start with accessibility rather than simply meeting the most minimal accessibility requirements. Yes, there's still a long way to go, but for every example appearing to misconstrue the 1990 law, there is a bright spot shining forward to a more widely accessible future.