The Gibbs Spotlight: Dr. Wanda Katja Liebermann

GCA Communications intern Kathlyn Dannewald (K) spoke with Dr. Wanda Katja Liebermann (W), a practicing architect and architectural and urban historian. She is also an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma. We sat down with Dr. Liebermann to discuss her upcoming book on architecture, disability, and accessibility. Read on for highlights or click the link below to access the full podcast. 

K: Hello everyone, welcome to the Gibbs Spotlight. My name is Kathlyn Dannewald, and I’m a Communications Intern at the Gibbs College of Architecture.  

Today we are speaking with Dr. Wanda Katja Liebermann, a practicing architect and architectural and urban historian. She is also an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma. Her upcoming book focuses on architecture, disability, and accessibility. It is titled Architecture’s Disability Problem and is published by Routledge. Thank you so much for joining us today! 

So, to start, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about your upcoming book? What’s it about? And how did you come up with the topic? 

W: Well, to start, thank you for inviting me to share my research with you, and the Gibbs College, and beyond. So my book comes from many years of research and practice in architecture, and before I even considered becoming an academic.  

And it emerged because I started practicing kind of soon after the time that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. And I think it’s possible that there is no profession that has been more profoundly impacted by the ADA, as it’s called. And yet, architects – certainly in its early days – and unfortunately, still continuing today, have really resisted making spaces accessible. Thinking about architecture as something that is meant to serve everyone and still kind of ends up being almost an opposition or a reluctance to deal with those issues.  

And part of that has to do with the fact that the building code itself is not sort of the funnest way to think through an architectural project. And that is primarily how accessibility is inserted or organized in architectural practice.  

And so, after practicing for almost a decade and a half, I also had an interest in doing more academic research. I had been teaching at UC Berkeley as an adjunct for many years in studio. And I just kept noticing that, among my colleagues and within academia and teaching architecture studio, that there just was very little uptake, or very little creative movement. Even as things like environmental concerns were really spurring all kinds of new academic and professional programs.  

And Berkeley, where I was both a student and a longtime resident, is kind of both the home of a lot of environmental movements and a disability rights movement. And so it was just hard to not notice that there was such a different uptake of these different kinds of movements or threads in architecture.  

And so my book is first and foremost an exploration of what currently is being taught in architecture and how architecture does border disability, and an analysis or critique of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s design guidelines. And also sort of thinking about the place in architectural education – the studio, which is really the center of learning architectural values for design that students encounter.  

And then I use three case studies that actually go quite a lot beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act and really think through how the meaning of access as it’s typically considered in design is quite limited. And these different case studies really explore, ‘What does it mean to create truly accessible spaces? How has access been defined by different groups of people? And what does it take to do that kind of access?’ Because it might actually mean a reorganization of architectural practice from its current form. 

K: Awesome. Thank you so much. It’s super interesting to hear about your background. And Berkeley, was it the first place that curb cuts were a big thing? Yeah, I listened to an urban planning podcast about that a while ago, and it’s so interesting to hear about that. So it’s cool to hear that about your background.  

So, you already touched on this, but is there anything else you wanted to mention about why you’re interested in the topic of architecture and disability? 

W: Yeah, well first of all, I think whenever you encounter something in the world or in your life, that just seems like an absence or a void or especially a kind of silence that is kind of an almost loud silence, I feel like it’s worthy of investigation. And so I just felt like there was really something here to explore. And in exploring, it reveals a lot of deeper values in society and in the design profession.  

And I think I think this is sort of if you’re thinking about looking through a queer lens, or a feminist lens, those things have also happened in earlier ways and continue to happen. And of course, most recently, there’s been also a kind of racial reckoning in architectural education and profession. And I feel like these are all like learning from the margins, as a colleague of mine said. So, the idea that you actually can see the center of something or the mainstream of something by looking at it from the periphery, and I think you have a clearer perspective.  

And I’m thinking also about my audience, or who I imagine my readership will be. And so for me, it’s really important foremost to try to explore some of these issues and their deeper social implications for designers. Because I really want designers who, frankly, are not always exposed to a lot of culture critique or political philosophy and things like that – I want them to really think deeply, and maybe be inspired by the kind of implications of their design decisions and even their design background.  

And then I also want to touch the minds of people who are in the disability studies and disability activism community, because I think those two worlds don’t have that much overlap. And I think really thinking about what it takes to do a design and how constrained an architectural profession actually is will hopefully also create a little bit of illumination on all the different sort of sides that are engaged in this process. 

K: That’s awesome. Thanks for sharing. It’s really interesting to see. I’m not an architecture student, but to hear from friends who are architecture students, and just other architects, about the problem of designing for everyone is kind of crazy to hear. You know, ‘Oh, we’re designing these buildings,’ but you have to think about the users of the buildings and stuff like that.  

But super cool to hear about why you’re interested in that topic. And you also touched on this a little bit, but what do you think the biggest problems are when it comes to architecture and disability? 

W: Well, I think the problem is, in some ways, bigger than disability itself. I mean, my kind of discovery and my time as an educator and as a practitioner is that I actually think that the body and various forms of embodiment as a whole are really under-considered. 

So when you were just saying that students are being asked to design for everybody, or everyone, what does that actually mean? And how can we as designers, learn what it means or learn how to do such a thing? You know, mostly things like the building code, or various kinds of graphic standards, or timesavers – which are sort of these bibles of architectural prescriptions and minimum and maximum or average standards. They are kind of flattening out the human embodied norms and experiences.  

And I think there is a very strong tendency in architecture to want to make beautiful objects. And by that I don’t even mean spaces. I think, in some ways, some of the digital tools we have encourage that even further, so because of the difference in scale, we are making representations that are smaller, much smaller, than the actual spaces. And so we keep thinking about them as objects as opposed to as future spaces. And I think that has a tendency to make the human body disappear.  

K: Thanks for sharing. Yeah, it’s super interesting to hear about the design process. Anytime I talk to anyone in architecture, it’s always interesting because I’m an outsider. So, hearing about it is always interesting and how the process has changed with digital mediums.  

I talked to students today who almost always work in digital formats and mediums. And they say they love making physical models, but they don’t get to do it as much as they wish they did. The interior design students this semester with their furniture studio told us, ‘Oh, we’ve been online for so long that getting to make things with our hands and getting to make a human sized furniture piece that someone will actually get to use versus a computer model is exciting.’ So, it’s interesting to see how that plays out in even bigger things with buildings and digital and physical models. 

W: I think there’s actually even a link. You said something very interesting. I think there’s actually a link with making things yourself. Being in your body and making physical things, I think even generates a different mindset that makes you think about or projects your own body into space in a different way when you’re designing. But the digital does not.  

And I know that sort of makes me sort of a Luddite or makes me sound like a Luddite. I’m not at all against the digital tools. I think it’s a problem, though, that people don’t recognize that digital tools come with pretty strong leanings in them, built into the software. And there’s not that much critique of how the software itself might shape your thinking about your projects as you design them. 

K: Yeah, I think in any field, it’s easy to fall into the trap of, ‘There’s no biases in digital programs,’ when someone had to make the program. So, there’s inherent biases built in. And I think that’s just a problem in all fields, not just architecture. 

W: Well, I think all the controversies over AI has definitively proven that there’s bias, humans, built into the machine.

K: Definitely. So, what immediate steps do you think should be taken to fix architecture’s accessibility problem? 

W: Well, like I said, one of the things might be to think about it beyond an accessibility problem, or to expand what accessibility means. I think it’s almost like architecture’s body problem or human problem in a way. But, I think OU is actually not necessarily a bad place to start. We’re recently starting to develop some inclusive curriculum that I am taking part in and working with others on.  

And I think it does take having faculty that are more open because the values for future practice are instilled often in studio. And so you have to devise interesting projects that have values embedded in them and objectives embedded in them. Continuing to have books, and other things – articles and stuff – that cross over between access and disability activism, and how they perceive the built environment versus how architects [do]. 

I don’t want to cast it so much as a binary or as an opposition. But there is a lot of that sentiment in those worlds, both worlds. And I think it’s a slow process. I think any kind of large justice question is always going to be a very long slog in a way, right?  

I mean, I don’t think that we could say that any of the social justice movements of the last many decades have at all achieved a kind of conclusive success. So they’re still works in progress. And, hopefully, the new generation of students will really think about how they want to contribute their sense of spatial justice to the field and include people with disabilities into the fold beyond thinking about questions of, for example, race, which is of course extremely important. But a lot of times, the tools of spatial justice for people with disabilities are closer to hand in some ways because there’s this very physical, concrete dimension of how to make spaces accessible for people with disabilities – that may be a little bit more abstract or less concrete seeming than in race. 

K: So, circling back to your book, and in the same vein of steps that could be taken, how do you think reading your book could help architects and architecture students improve their design practices? 

W: I hope that they will recognize themselves or their education in some of the things that I’ve written. And so that I hope that that makes it a very relatable sort of reading. I’m trying to make it written in a non-academic and more accessible way without simplifying complex ideas for people.  

I think the three case studies section, which is the largest section of the book, will be illuminating for people because I think there are less well-known areas of practice that I hope to shine a light on. I think my experience, both as a practitioner and as a scholar, enables me to make some connections between abstract ideas and really specific material details and spatial forms and things like that. And I hope that that will be illuminating, and maybe it’ll give people and students some ideas for wanting to pursue or investigate those avenues a little bit more. 

K: Awesome. Thank you so much for being here. Is there anything else you wanted to add before we go? 

W: No, but I want to thank you very much, and the Spotlight, for taking an interest in my work and my upcoming book. And this was a great interview from great questions. Thank you. 

K: Awesome. Thank you so much. But before we completely go, can you tell us when we should keep an eye out for your book and how someone could get a copy once it’s released? 

W: Yes. As you mentioned in the beginning, it is being published by Routledge. It should be out in very early 2024. So, it’s a little ways to go. I hope it will be in lots of libraries, and I’m sure it will be available on Amazon, and also from the Routledge website itself, not to plug behemoth online retailers. So yeah, and of course, maybe at that point, there’ll be another opportunity to hold some event at the Gibbs College about it.  

K: Yeah, I could definitely see us doing a follow up interview and definitely a blog plug for the book once it comes out. But thank you so much for joining us, and thanks for sharing your upcoming book with us.   

W: Thank you so very much. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length