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2011 Ideas Competition Calls for Housing with Universal Appeal

A site in Tokyo for the Olympic and Paralympic Games pushes universal design as far as it can go

By Nalina Moses

It would be very hard to find a housing site that could ever witness a more diverse march of humanity than the location for the AIA 2011 Ideas Competition. The event, co-sponsored by the AIA Young Architects Forum (YAF) and the Committee on Design (COD), invited entrants to create a master plan for the site in Tokyo that the city is submitting as its bid for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and as a regular housing development for Japan’s rapidly aging population following both of these events.

Within the span of a few years, residents might be a 100-pound, 5-foot figure skater, a 300-pound, 6-foot, 6-inch weightlifter, or a partially disabled nonagenarian. It’s not a surprise then that the key to making each of these plans work is universal design: the design of products and environments usable by all people with all levels of physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities.

The winning design, "Via Aequalitas," by a team from WDG Architecture in Washington, DC, was unveiled on May 14 at the 2011 AIA National Convention and Design Exposition in New Orleans. Two honorable mentions, from teams at Eskew+ Dumez+ Ripple in New Orleans and KGD Architecture in Rosslyn, Va., were also announced at the convention. And an entry from the design office AUS-Pasini Ranieri in Forli, Italy was received the TOTO Prize for Best Universally Designed Bathroom.

Universal circulation

Universal design, a concept first codified by Ron Mace, FAIA, founder of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, calls for architecture to work--quite literally--for everyone. It advocates for the design of environments that can be used without modifications by people of all ages, cultures, and levels of cognitive, physical, sensory ability, and size. Though the Center for Universal Design was established in 1989 with a specialized mission, its ideas have more recently entered the general design consciousness. They are truly universal--applicable to site design, architecture, product design, and other fields as well.

While the three top entries in the Ideas Competition take different approaches, all organize the site boldly to allow free circulation through it. Though they are strikingly porous urban environments, each still offers the energy and variety of a typical urban block. Juror Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA, of Studio Pacifica, Ltd., observed that for many entries, "emphasizing that efficiency of movement, human scale, and integration were key components of their design."

The first-place entry "Via Aequalitas" raises the site off the street to separate vehicular traffic, and then slopes the ground gently towards the water. The long, narrow, mixed-use buildings--set perpendicular to the water's edge--shape wide pedestrian passages (the “vias”) in between which offer park space and views to the water. One basic strategy was to ensure that all the outdoor spaces were accessible to all types of people. Team member Megan Shilley describes how: "The vias slope gradually and have plazas running down the middle, providing people with areas to rest along the gradient." Details like raised planters in the community garden and accessible paths through bioswales ensure that everyone in the community can move through the entire space.

"Warp & Weft," the honorable mention entry from Eskew+ Dumez+ Ripple, ties the site together with a lattice of crisscrossing walkways and passages that frame picturesque interstitial parks and buildings. The scheme offers people a more sensual, instinctual way to navigate the site. As team member Jose Alvarez, Assoc. AIA, explains, visitors aren't guided by typical signage. Instead, "textured paths, color coding, waterways, and massing repetition help the users find themselves in relation to the space as they move through it," he says.

KGD Architecture’s honorable mention entry "Urban Village" holds the site to one plane and fills it with a field of smaller hamlets, each organized around a green space. A wide, pedestrian boulevard winds through the entire area, providing access for those who require electric cars, and shaping a space for public gatherings. The scheme breaks down the scale of a typical city block to make it more intimate and manageable. “A single horizontal plane of intimate social spaces and varied residential buildings intends to provide a non-hierarchical framework that fosters many and multiple communities,” says team member Erik Maso.

"Tokyo Trusswork," the AUS-Pasini Ranieri entry recognized for its bathroom design, re-imagines this ordinarily small, hidden room as a "neo-bathroom"--an enlarged, central space for private meditation and rest. Team leader Roberto Pasini describes how this new notion of the bathroom "is more than a functional space for bodily hygiene, but rather a space for psycho-physical regeneration." Its sensual stone and mirror finishes, and high-tech fixtures offer the primal experience of the human body immersed in water and light.

Three phases

After the city’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics, Tokyo proposed a narrow, city-owned 76-acre plot along Tokyo Bay as the site for the Olympic Village. It's a recovered site, built on a landfill, and currently lies unused. In addition to working across scales--addressing landscape, individual buildings, and interiors--the designs must work across phases. First, they will house 16,000 Olympic athletes and staff for the 2020 games, then 16,000 Paralympic athletes and staff later that year. Finally (in a “Legacy Phase”) the development will be home to thousands of Tokyo residents, all with minimal modification in between phases. As 20 percent of Tokyo's population is older than 65, the principles of universal design are especially resonant.

The mainstream adoption of universal design holds profound implications for architecture. Its principles impact all aspects of building design, from overall floor dimensions, (which must furnish interior spaces with suitable clearances), to the levers on bathroom faucets, (which must turn with a minimal amount of pressure). The ideas of universal design expand upon federal and state legislation governing barrier-free design, including 1990’s ADA. And like the rules prescribed by the ADA, universal design promises to become fully integrated into any basic design project.

The application of universal design principles requires designers to accept and embrace additional restraints and limitations, which like the ADA, can sometimes be seen as the burdensome straitjacketing of design by new layers of regulation. But the selected designs from the 2011 YAF/COD Ideas Competition prove that embracing universal design tenets can inspire innovative new architecture. Like all of the best architecture, problems find their ideal solutions when each limitation and constraint is relished and celebrated.


First place--"Project Via Aequalitas" by WDG Architecture, Washington, DC.
Team members: Eric Liebmann, AIA, Tim Bertschinger, Megan Shiley, Alex Taylor, and Tom Zych.

Honorable mention--"Warp & Weft" by Eskew+ Dumez+ Ripple, New Orleans.
Team members: Nicole Marshall, Assoc. AIA, Jose Alvarez, Assoc. AIA, Marty Mcelveen, Amanda Rivera, AIA, Cristina Ungurea, Tracy Lea, AIA, Scott Simon, Assoc. AIA, and Michael Keller.

Honorable mention--"Urban Village" by KGD Architecture in Rosslyn, Va.
Team members: Erik Maso, Suttiruck Wongsawan, and Stephen Zuber.


Recent Related:

FabCab Offers Universally Designed Pre-Fab

TOTO Demonstrates Universal Design to AIA Leaders at Convention

ARCHITECT Magazine: Absolutely Accessible

Author Michael Litchfield on Turning One House Into Two: In-Laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats

Universal Design Living Laboratory Seeks to Break Barriers


AIA 2011 Ideas Competition Jury

Michael Graves, FAIA , of Michael Graves & Associates in Princeton, N.J.

Hansy L. Better Barraza, AIA, of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence

Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA, of Studio Pacifica, Ltd., in Seattle

Walter Hood of Hood Design in Oakland

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to “Universal Design Resources.”

See what else the Architect’s Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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