In 1945, at the age of nine, Robert Lynch, FAIA, contracted polio. Later, while receiving daily therapy, his parents arranged for him to go back to school by hiring a full-time attendant. He dressed the boy, carried him to breakfast, drove him to school, carried him to class, drove him home for aquatic therapy and exercises, then put him to bed. This was Lynch’s routine from fifth grade until he graduated from high school. Wheelchair accessibility in public buildings was virtually nonexistent, especially in public schools, so being carried was essential.
By the time he was ready for college, Lynch could lift himself up and down stairs by wearing hip-length steel braces and using crutches. Yet it was a daily struggle. This influenced his decision to go to Notre Dame in Indiana. After all, the Midwest was flat, wasn’t it?
Not so. The architecture, not the land, was his Everest. Most of Lynch’s classes were on the second and third floors of buildings that had no elevators or ramps. Even getting to the front door meant painfully negotiating a flight of stairs.
I’ve begun this final Perspective column as AIA President with a story about one person’s heroic struggle to lead a mobile and productive life. Lynch’s story is not unique. His narrative belongs to all of us. We all began life by being carried and cared for. It’s also the future that many of us are headed for. Architecture can help us into that future, or it can be our hell.
Thanks to modern medicine, we live longer. This means that more of us are likely to be struck by one of the illnesses that befall the elderly. The good news: We’ll most likely be kept alive. The not-so-good news: An increasing number of us who do pull through will no longer be able to live in our homes. The only choice—if we can afford it—is assisted living or a nursing home. Otherwise, it’s move in with the kids—if they have the space.
And what about those lucky enough to stay healthy?
We’ll work longer. That’s already happening. Retirement at 60 or 65—who can afford it? (But how will we get to the workplace? And what will we find when we get there?) These are questions about how we embrace the whole community; these are questions about architecture. They reveal another aspect of how design either facilitates or obstructs inclusiveness.
For as long as I can remember, conversations about inclusiveness have focused on gender and race. These issues are important. Despite a lot of talk at every level of the profession—from the schools to the workplace to our own initiatives at the AIA—we still have a long way to go to embrace the gifts of talented men and women who could have a tremendous impact on how our profession is perceived and how it serves our clients.
Yet issues of race and gender are not the complete picture of what it means to be inclusive, whether as a society or a profession. They are important, yes, but are arguably subsets of what should be a much broader discussion of how we as a profession accommodate all of those who have the will and the talent to lead meaningful lives that contribute, such as Lynch’s, to the good of the community, however those contributions are made.
Inclusiveness, whether it has to do with the ability to enter a profession or navigate a steep flight of stairs, is not an act of charity or a gift we give to others; it’s something we do for ourselves. At some point in all of our lives, we literally or figuratively arrive at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs. The only way forward will be to go up. But what if we can’t begin that climb? Who will carry us?
Our work, and who we are as a profession, should and must be an example to others. Whether it’s extending the life of architecture already built, committing ourselves to a model of the profession that mirrors the society we serve, or using our experience and skills to shape welcoming environments that celebrate the dignity of each one of us—old, young, male, female, straight, gay, the physically challenged, the economically disadvantaged, and those of different ethnicities—architects and architecture have a unique role to play in bringing us together.
If we choose to fully engage the world as it is, if we grasp the privilege and responsibility of a profession dedicated to service, a great future lies before us.
I want to show my gratitude to you, the members of this great organization, for the honor of serving you this past year as president. What I have learned has been life changing. In the midst of one of the greatest economic challenges most of us have ever experienced, your courage, talent, and compassion inspire respect and great hope. Thank you.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President