June 24, 2021

How to Build a Performing Arts Centre Which Succeeds in Being Open to All

Ever wondered What a Universally Accessible Arts Centre Would Look Like?

In June 2020 dancer and disabled activist Dan Daw came to studio three sixty and asked us the question:

“Have you ever wondered what a universally accessible performing arts centre would look like?”

In that moment I think Dan did something extraordinary, which was to bravely challenge us as a community of architects, theatre owners, consultants, building managers, artists, educators and designers to set aside everything we think we know about how to design these buildings. He invited us to imagine a building which is truly open to all.

Dan’s Provocation

Dan’s intention is to interrogate the violence of inaccessible architecture and design in performing arts facilities. And as a disabled performer, he vividly describes the anxieties he experiences around the venues he works in.

He wonders whether his journeys will be step-free, whether the seating rake will be too steep and whether he will be able to control the sound in the auditorium. He worries he won’t be able to navigate the auditorium and sit wherever he needs to, and that his routes around the wider building will be populated by physical barriers and obstacles to overcome. Dan is asking us to imagine a performing arts centre where he no longer has to worry about any of those things.

What shape will our building be if it is inclusive and designed so that everyone can have an equitable experience? What will the auditorium look like? Can we have rooms without fixed seats or auditorium rakes? What are the historical precedents we could learn from and the preconceptions we need to abandon?

Although the majority of theatre venues are compliant with current legislation around accessibility there is much more work needed if our cultural spaces are to be truly open to all. Architects often design buildings from the particular point of view of an imagined user. The best architects will try to make a conscious effort to avoid prejudice, preconceived ideas and acknowledge their own biases. But Dan’s dream is of a venue which is designed for many different individuals, all of whom sit outside the very specific norm that the majority of architects and planners are working towards.

“Borrowing” Space

Dr Kate Marsh, a dance performer and thought leader, talks about what it means to live in a culture where disabled people are essentially “borrowing” spaces which exist to serve normative bodies and normative lived experiences. She suggests that disabled people are embedded in a culture of “making do”, where it is enough just to be allowed in. For Kate, this project is an invitation to imagine what it would feel like to enter a performing arts centre which has been designed with you in mind, and over which you have agency and ownership.

Doron von Beider from our project partners Adjaye Associates talks about challenging the idea that in order to provide the best performance environment a specific set of ideas and conditions needs to be met. Some examples might be a raised stage, a tiered auditorium with seating arranged at several levels and accepted norms around circulation. Doron describes spending five years in architecture school where he was encouraged to invest a lot of time in trying to find solutions around how cars can park in a building, but hardly any time at all on how you use a building with a wheelchair, or what happens when a user has impaired vision. We need to offer different tools to planners and designers from the very early stages of their career.

So how do we translate this abstract dream into space, form and function?

We’ll start by consulting with historically excluded artists, participants, employees and audiences across the UK to identify the access needs that are often overlooked. We’ll gain data about the physical and attitudinal barriers faced and collaborate to share experience and understand what changes, both large and small, would have the most impact and share existing examples of good practice.

We’ll partner with the architects Adjaye Associates to design and develop ideas in response to the consultations following each session, and we’ll use the information we gather to create a virtual building; a “Disneyland” of accessibility, which says yes to everything our participants have asked for. Maybe there are fifty different entrance doors so every individual can cross the threshold in their own preferred way? Or more simple ideas which might have a massive impact, such as consistent door handle design throughout the building, which would enable people to encounter every door in the building in the same way. This stage is a moment to dream…

Legacy

We’ll document our findings in a series of Advice Notes and articles in collaboration with the Association of Theatre Technicians, which along with The Yellow Book and their monthly publication “Sightline”, form the legal basis for the design of all performing arts buildings. We’ll then distill our ideas in collaboration with our participants and work with the ABTT to create guidance which will extend far beyond the statutory minimums, providing a framework which all venues and organisations in the UK can use to improve their accessibility offer.

The pandemic has energised conversations about how excluded from venues local communities feel. The step up to co-creation and curation of these spaces and an understanding from those in power that this needs to become the new norm is vital.

In my career as a theatre consultant I have been involved in capital projects where accessibility has felt like an “add-on”, and I have participated in meetings where it somehow feels like there is only so much accessibility to go around. It’s time to address this systemic inequality and Dan’s provocation invites us all to disrupt the ableist logics that inform the design of public space in a positive and revolutionary way.

It’s an incredibly ambitious project, but it has to be, because it needs to include everything and everyone, in the best way possible. We will need radical solutions and we hope to become better designers and Architects, with a greater understanding of a wider range of experience.

We will proactively identify ableist practice to achieve equitable outcomes. Our aim will be to create a benchmark that will inform and inspire new architectural, institutional and cultural approaches to the design or refurbishment of arts buildings, looking towards a future accessible to everyone.

We launched Reimagined Futures at the London Festival of Architecture in June 2021, in collaboration with Adjaye Associates and the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT).

You can find a transcript of our launch event on the ABTT website here.

Drop us a line if you’d like to get involved and hear more about this project.