The Design Museum opened its doors in its new venue only a few days ago and as the curious architect with a passion for design I am, I could not resist the offer and join my husband and friends on a first visit.
Having heard many comments about Pawson’s design choices for such an iconic building, I was mentally prepared to like/dislike what I saw. What I was not prepared for were the invisible barriers (physical and social) I encountered throughout a building.
To say that the building is behind in terms of accessibility and inclusion is an understatement: Separate facilities and no access to the ground floor cafe for anyone on a wheelchair or pushing a pram, as well as narrow displays within vast empty areas connected by retrofitted mini ramps, are just a few of the things I noticed.
Furthermore, although the Design Museum had expressed the desire to make Design more accessible to the general public by offering free access to part of its collection, the layout seems to have disregarded basic principles of human nature such as belonging.
The arrival to the building, though an enormous foyer creates an invisible barrier which those of us who regularly visit museums often take for granted. It is difficult to see this but walking through it with a homeless person carrying his possessions around made me very aware of it.
The sitting which faces the entrance, overlooking anyone who enters the building; the distance between the front door and the stairs and the positioning of the free exhibition at the top of the building rather than in the ground are all decisions which rather than welcoming newcomers pose questions on belonging and. They ask “are you sure you belong here? do you want to go any further?”
If you think I am exaggerating, you are probably as unaware as I was 18 years ago and to be fair, most people are for we don’t often “walk in other man’s shoes”.
Wen I first came to the UK from San Sebastian, a town I soon became aware does not reflect the wider world for its inclusive approach to the arts and culture, I realised that the class/economic system governing the UK had created an invisible divide which stopped many people accessing its wide cultural offer.
At first, I was told it was the proverbial “chip on shoulder”, but through training and practice as an architect, I soon realised that urbanism, architecture and design must be held accountable.
I think that unless we take responsibility as designers and start thinking of others as we do of ourselves we will never achieve a truly egalitarian society where each one of us feels a sense of belonging and we will continue to experience the dissatisfaction we have experienced in the past year.