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How the AA is well placed to bring disability into design

Jordan Whitewood-Neal, commended in RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition, considers whether the AA can reconcile its progressive agenda with its inaccessible building to make disabled inclusion central to architectural education

AA Diploma School technical studies tutor Andrew Walker Giving a tutorial to students (1988)
AA Diploma School technical studies tutor Andrew Walker Giving a tutorial to students (1988) Credit: AA Photo Library, Photograph by Bennett, Valerie

It seems fitting to be writing about the domestic and discontinuous as I sit here in the same flat that I have done for 11 months, studying and teaching, only leaving for a tentative and anxious wander a handful of times. If anything, shielding has demonstrated the potential of this restrictive spatial condition in engendering adaptable behaviour and a more intimate awareness of the social and spatial needs of a co-habitor; especially when life is condensed into a small space for a long time.

Disability and the domestic scale have always had a troubled relationship (for me anyway) so when researching the place disability holds at the Architectural Association, I became fascinated by the idea that the uncommon domestic spatial conditions present at Bedford Square have shaped the pedagogy of that institution. At the launch of his new book ’The Architectural Association in the Post-war Years’, Patrick Zamarian described how the intensity and intimacy of Bedford Square (and subsequent expansion) have fuelled pedagogic and architectural innovation between students and faculty. Whereas most schools of architecture use large open studios, here the scale of a living room, dining space and entrance hall make for a familiar and bizarre space – where narrow stairwells host crits and discussion.

Within architecture, disability is, as David Bohm would say, of the implicate and explicate order; it sits both as a fundamental issue of space and at the neglected peripheries of spatial design. Within the AA this discourse manifests as both: explicitly through a forward-thinking pedagogy and curriculum, but implicitly through the inaccessible nature of the building itself, which creates an uneasy backdrop for a school that prides itself on the design skills of its students and staff. It can be argued that the AA has been at the forefront of design discourse, even discourse on the value of accessibility. An example of this pedagogy is the Environmental Access course led by Andrew Walker which ran during the late 90’s, from the Communication Studio which at the time was the only wheelchair accessible room in the building. Even earlier there is the pioneering work of Selwyn Goldsmith who as a Polio Research Fellow at the AA began working on Designing for the Disabled, a now somewhat outdated but still vital work on universal design.

The temporality of these exciting and important moments highlights the difficulty with embedding serious conversation and action on disability into architectural education, and the AA’s domesticity provides both an explanation of this past and cause for hope for the future of a discipline which both acknowledges and embraces disability. The domestic scale of Bedford Square reflects not only its independence from the typical built form of educational institutions and the purpose-built architectural school building (like the Bartlett’s 22 Gordon Street), but also its entanglement with the complexities and politics of its urban setting. Bedford Square contains the dynamism of its frequent student installations and exhibitions, alongside its life as an artefact of heritage, with a need for conservation. As such it is subject to incongruous banalities such as a complaint from The Bloomsbury Conservation Advisory Committee that an access ramp into the building was an eyesore – which led to its removal and precluded a permanent access solution. A NIMBY move if ever there was one.


The domestic condition of Bedford Square provides an opportunity to nurture a dialogue on how it can not only become a more equitable institution but make a case for the embodiment of disability discourse within architectural education and practice

The expansion and evolution of Bedford Square throughout the 20th century shows a conflict between the desire for an accessible and diverse school, and one which is grappling with issues of heritage, conservation, and the propagation of a valued learning model. It is a model which may feel threatened by any potential move away from the small scale, high intensity school which has historically been so successful.

Domesticity also evokes the nature of the architectural studio – not only as a place of work and study, but as a second home to many students who (before Covid-19) embraced the liveability and familial nature of the studio space. With this in mind, disability cannot be relegated to one dimensional, abstract, and codified ways of being, and accessibility must refer to the multitude of sensory, agential, and tacit understandings of how one uses and engages with space at a domestic scale. The domestic implies an ability to make one’s space one’s own; where intimacy, privacy and boundaries are positive traits; but the characteristics which make the AA such a rich pedagogical environment mirror the difficulties that those with disabilities have in their own homes.

Yet the home, and the production of homeliness and adaption, are what give us agency in the spaces in which we live; we develop a language and set of idiosyncratic tools that enable us to use and function within them. Therefore, the domestic condition of Bedford Square provides an opportunity to nurture a dialogue on how it can not only become a more equitable institution but make a case for the embodiment of disability discourse within architectural education and practice.

Like race and gender inequality, disability is a systemic issue at the heart of design discourse and has been addressed only sporadically within architectural education. Limited, unimaginative, and codified approaches have prevailed within curriculums even today – although there are signs of change with projects such as the Bartlett’s Architecture Beyond Sight, which tests new and more diverse pedagogical models for designing with disability. There is still a hesitation, however, to embed these ideas into existing curricula and disrupt the system which so desperately needs to change. As a school of architecture that sits independently from the rigid systems of university governance, and one that inhabits a space of such troubling domestic scale and familiarity, the AA can play host to new conversations and new action on disability and architecture. It can begin to establish and embed these actions into an already rich pedagogy, where addressing and critiquing its own spatial shortcomings and evolution can now manifest in the inclusion of new, diverse, and empowered voices. There’s a well-laid table at the AA, but it may well need to build a new table that we all can sit at.

Jordan Whitewood-Neal is a Part 2 at University of Brighton he was also commended in the 2020 RIBA Dissertation Medal 


This competition was run in collaboration with RIBA Future Architects Network

Read more of the best entries from the RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition