On Buildings and Doors

One quality of Australian spatial design I have become more aware of recently is that places are often not simply designed badly – in that maximisation of flow and possibility is not well thought-through – but sometimes they seem to have been designed specifically to maximise frustration.

A particularly salient quality of many Australian spaces is a lack of doors and windows that can be opened and used. This is often not a feature of the original architecture, but has been added later: doors and windows are often physically there, but have been blocked, alarmed, locked, or disabled.

This is so pervasive that even I, someone who didn’t grow up here, didn’t realise how much our everyday movement is hampered. The moment of enlightenment came in 2011, when I spent a few weeks at Nagoya University in Japan, working on campus. I spent a whole week walking around the large building of the architecture faculty to reach the front door, ignoring the back door and the many staircases leading directly to the upper-floor studios, because I simply assumed that those doors were not there to be opened. Yes, some of it is a cultural perception: western spaces tend to prioritize front entrance, while Japanese spatial thinking privileges access in 3D (providing for access not simply from every side of the building, but connecting buildings underground and on upper storeys as well). But the very special Australian cultural assumption I realised I was employing was that of a closed door: purposefully disabled access infrastructure.

A case in point is the ERC library at Melbourne University. This building went through a renovation around 2011, which glammed up the third-floor entrance, but had otherwise left the circulation intact. ERC is a good building. It has 5 floors, and, built on a slope, two entrances: the ground floor entry from the Grattan St side, and a third-floor entry that connects to the walkway leading from Swanston St and its large tram stop. There is a staircase running through it, and a lift, connecting all floors. However, some time in 2012, all ways connecting the first floor with the rest of the building have been blocked. I returned from Germany to find a barrage of heavily sign-posted barriers to movement:


The particularly annoying quality of this design intervention, what brings an emotionally charged quality to bad design, is that there are clear lines of sight over these barriers. You can see the doors that are locked, the lifts and staircases behind them, and the exits that you cannot reach.


From the first floor, you are generously encouraged to leave the building, walk around it and up a long line of stairs, and then enter again. All while you are standing no more than 2 steps away from a fully functional internal staircase that used to lead up.


Similarly, once you enter from the third floor, and make your way down to the second, you can reach the same point from the other side. You can see the first-floor exit from the building. You just cannot get all the way to it.


I am sure there is some kind of reason for this change, possibly the security requirements for an all-hours access zone on the lowest level. Still, the way in which it seemed completely justifiable to someone to create such a huge impediment to movement (requiring users to walk around a building simply in order to go one level up), and not try to solve it in a more elegant way, speaks volumes for the kind of service design thinking that underpins so much of spatial design here. It doesn’t help that the building has been peppered with authoritative signs that neither apologise for the inconvenience nor promise a better solution in the future. They matter-of-factly, dictatorially, without argument and without explanation, state that THINGS ARE IMPOSSIBLE. Turn around. Walk around the building. Et cetera.

To encounter such barriers, in such a non-negotiable tone, in a building that largely caters to architecture students, creates a mindset of defeat before the undergraduates have even properly started to think about the ethics of good design. And, perhaps, just perhaps, it slowly prunes a generation of young people for living in a world in which unreasonable regulations cannot be discussed.


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