In my recent review of the new Hunters Point library designed by Steven Holl Architects, I praised the building’s verticality and the way a “pathway of stairs and ramps works its way up and around the central void.” I did not mention the elevator that slices through that theatrical ascent, but during my tour I did mentally track the path that a visitor with a stroller or in a wheelchair would take to the children’s room or the teen hangout, satisfying myself that the building would comfortably accommodate people who find it difficult or impossible to negotiate stairs. But I missed something important. An article in Gothamist pointed out that part of the library is effectively off-limits to those visitors: three of the four levels in an area I described, approvingly, as “terraced stacks, like a vineyard of words.” I focused on the way study carrels and bookshelves were interleaved, making old-fashioned printed volumes a part of everyone’s experience. I did not focus on the fact that not everyone could get there.
The library was designed to satisfy the Americans With Disabilities Act, and it’s true that, even in that problem area, the level that can be reached by elevator is functionally identical to those that can’t: same counter, same chargers, same view. Except that there are books on those inaccessible shelves — books that not everyone can browse, or even reach without the help of a librarian.
As I recently wrote in a separate essay on the topic, meeting legal requirements is a false standard; even vertical buildings can and should always be designed so that they offer the same quality of experience to everyone. Staircases can be wonderful, providing drama, seating, exercise, and hangout spaces all at once — but they must never be the only option. Holl’s design, as sensitive as it is in many ways, fails to take that mandate seriously, and it’s a failure that I failed to notice. We all have blinders of one sort or another, but this is an issue that should have been addressed years ago, if not by the architects then by someone in the vast team of engineers, librarians, consultants, administrators, and politicians who had a hand in bringing the library into being and who are — in most ways, justifiably, proud of the result. Maybe there’s a workaround, but the design flaw makes it tougher for the building to succeed, a problem that people with mobility issues face every day.
I once asked the Irish disabilities activist Sinéad Burke what one message she would have for a roomful of architects starting work on a fresh design. “Make accessibility beautiful,” she said. She might have added the corollary: “If it’s not accessible, it can’t be beautiful to all.”