Sunday, April 14, 2013

On Deficient Elevators and the Bomb

Last week I noticed a curious post on Facebook about the design of the eco-friendly Bullitt Center in Seattle. The post slammed this visionary environmentally sound structure for discriminating against the disabled. I clicked on the link provided to find out more. As it turns out, the architect (Hayes) purposely had a lousy elevator installed in the building. This is the way his choice was described in the article:  Another signature feature [of the Bullitt Center], a glass-enclosed stairwell that Mr. Hayes has named the “irresistible stairway,” rewards climbers with panoramic views of downtown and Puget Sound. The behavioral carrot, aimed at promoting both health and energy conservation, has been juxtaposed with the stick of a slow and less conveniently sited elevator that requires key card access. (Here is the link to the full story about the Bullitt Center should you wish to read.)

If you have not already worked out why this article sparked outrage, it was because the ignorant architect designed the slow and inconvenient elevator with able individuals in mind and with utter disregard for those who can’t use stairs. One of my disabled friends used this as a prime example of “able-ism.” For a visionary designer, Hayes certainly disappoints with his dis-ability to see past his nose. The Bullitt Center sounds wonderful in every other respect, but it’s quite astonishing that Hayes failed to recognize that a great many people who use elevators have no other choice in the matter and are not using elevators out of laziness. Not only people in wheelchairs and people with physical disabilities that preclude the use of stairs, but also our large aging population, which has issues with knees and hips and feet (making stairs a painful endeavor).

The conversation about this slow and inconvenient elevator in an otherwise brilliantly environmentally friendly structure was serendipitous for me. I am presently wrapping up a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for funds to establish an endowment at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest that has a five-star agriculture studies program. The endowment will be used to create a multidisciplinary program that seeks to combine the science of food/agriculture studies with studies in the humanities. Agriculture students will not only study biology and plant genetics, but will also study ethics, philosophy, religion, and history (and how these humanities topics intersect with the study of food and agriculture). Central to the proposed project is the notion that to practice sound agriculture, our future agronomists must have a firm grasp of ethics. In other words, while learning how to develop genetically modified organisms (GMOs), students will also research the consequences of doing so and will be asked to think about whether or not GMOs are such a hot idea. Students will do field research into topics such as how lack of access to fresh produce in the inner city contributes to obesity, and the environmental justice implications of this.

In short, the college for whom I am writing the NEH grant believes that scientists must be educated to think critically about how their scientific work will impact the human environment. Otherwise, we wind up with boneheads who design ecologically miraculous buildings that create barriers for the disabled rather than using all the technological advances at our command to further remove such barriers. And we wind up with worse, such as physicists who invent a nuclear weapon so powerful that it has the ability to wipe out all of the human race. That took brilliance, indeed. And then they give this weapon to politicians and the military. Go figure. And the science becomes available to the minions of the likes of Kim Jong Un. And the politicians are mystified as to how this could happen so they politely ask Kim Jong Un not to develop this weapon. They ask politely because if they piss him off he might blow us all to smithereens. Time for my meds (oh wait, I don’t take meds).

No matter how brilliant a person might be, or how knowledgeable, unless s/he has a moral compass, a sense of the difference between right and wrong and the desire to do right, then that brilliance is useless; more than useless:  dangerous.

  The staircase at the Bullitt Center.


Divora Stern said...

Amy love this piece. When I grow up, I wish to write as well as you.

jgartin said...

When I was a new mother in Berkeley and walking around the city with a stroller, I was continuously grateful to the Americans with disabilities act.

I felt so lucky to be living in a place that early on that made my life much easier by making it possible to roll up a ramp instead of hauling baby, stroller up stairs to get into the post office and easily negotiate curbs when crossing the street.

Good job calling this architect out for his narrow vision of the world!


Amy at Woza Books said...

Shucks Divora, thanks for the compliment. Glad I struck a chord. Janice, I so HEAR YOU! You can check out the thread of comments on Jim's original post of this article on his Facebook page, just look back a few days on his timeline. Very interesting conversation from the disabilities activists and friends. What fools we mortals be, eh?