Because these stairs are actually fu

n to talk about.

One of the many concepts that prompted me to start this project is stairs and ramps like this:

“Shortcut” by mag3737 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Robson Square, Vancouver, Canada, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1983. Source: creativecommons.org

I see images of these ‘stramps’ and others like them do the rounds on social media, accompanied with loads of praising comments like ‘this is so good for wheelchair users’ and ‘this is how you do great accessible design’. The problem is: it isn’t, and it isn’t.

This particular stair/ramp is Robson Square, at the Law Courts Complex in Vancouver, Canada; built in 1983 by architect Arthur Erickson and landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander. This aerial photo shows how great the stramps look in context.

These are beautiful, sculptural stairs. Erickson and Oberlander are two revered architects, each recognised with a multitude of awards and honours throughout their extensive portfolios. They both describe their design philosophies around harmony and inclusion, in both aesthetics and humanity. They’re both on my must-know-more-about-these-architects list.

I like this stramp for two reasons, and dislike it for one. I like it because it looks great; and it gets us thinking about integrating accessibility in beautifully designed architecture. I dislike it because it doesn’t actually work for its intended users.

It was Oberlander who conceived the stramps with accessibility in mind, and Erickson’s office ensured compliance with 1970s building code. This is Architecture as the original UX design: architects designing with a human-centred focus, within the parameters of a project and its context.

“… Erickson’s Vancouver office, had designed an elegant set of stairs. But when she asked [Alberto Zennaro] how a person in a wheelchair or with a pram might ascend them, he lacked a response. … She picked up a felt-tipped pen and drew a ‘goat path’ — a diagonal line across Zennaro’s stairs — and the stramps for Robson Square were born. By the following day Zennaro had perfected the stramp design and that can be seen today.”

Susan Herrington, in Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape. University of Virginia Press, 2013. pp 134. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wrjrr

The context of the Robson Square stramps was the late 1970s: the Disability Rights Movement was gathering momentum and disability activists began forming groups to raise awareness and influence legislation. The stramp designers responded with a design that expresses compassion through architecture. While commendable at first glance, the problem with the stramp concept is that it oversimplifies and homogenises the experience of people with disabilities, and prams.

The reality of living with disability unfortunately drowns the merits of Oberlander’s concept. There are many issues to unpack here, I really recommend reading this short post about stramps through an accessibility lens. Wheelchair users can immediately point out why stramps don’t work, as can many more people with disability who don’t require wheelchairs. Oberlander’s questioning of how two particular groups might use the stairs was too casual: without research into what groups need to be addressed and actual information from those groups, the concept misfired. The stramp design processing was regrettably assumptive and didn’t consult user groups — and as a result stramps are notorious.

How we use architecture is incredibly unique, and how we experience it even more so. No two people will use or experience a space in the exact same way. In designing anything, a number of assumptions must inevitably be made, and a degree of risk taken. And we must also consider the consequences.

UX design process mitigates those assumptions, risks and consequences and stacks them up against data, research, requirements and outcomes. It’s a simple concept that is anything but in practice. In many ways architects already do this, but they lack an effective process and business model that enables UX process and develops agility in an industry currently being redefined by technology.

As designers, we can exercise compassion and empathy to imagine what it would be like to use these stairs with a pram, in a wheelchair or in chronic pain, but this method on its own is woefully ineffective. Gathering data and researching in tandem with a logical compassion will result in a better user experience of the final design.

So next time you see the stramps doing the rounds, remember that they can be very nice pieces of public art, interactive sculpture or landscape elements, but they’re not accessible. Not by a long shot.

Further reading

Battle over “stramp” accessibility upgrades in British Columbia takes shape, Sean Joyner, Archinect, 3 September 2019

Disabled people don’t need so many fancy new gadgets. We just need more ramps. S. E. Smith, Vox, 30 April 2019

The problems with ramps blended into stairs, Nicolas Steenhout, Part of a Whole, 11 May 2018

Disability Rights Movement in Canada, Dustin Galer, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 5 February 2015

Robson Square, Canadian Architect, 1 May 2011

The good, the bad and the ugly – design and construction for access (2008), Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008

About Leonie Csanki

I am Leonie Csanki, a UX Designer based in Melbourne, Australia. I’m completing the Master of Architecture programme at the University of Melbourne, and hope to be running my own practice in the not-too-distant future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s