Access

/ Andrew Taylor / Conservation

An intrinsic part of a building is that you can get into it easily. Or so you might think. Many of our great historical settings are memorable as a result of the articulation of the entrance, often in the form of a cascade of steps surmounted by a colonnade to amplify the sense of approach and importance of the building about to be entered. That kind of approach suited its society with its clear view on social hierarchies and how building form could support it.

That all changed with the emergence of a more social democratic 20th century view culminating in the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 supplemented by the Equality Act of 2010 which placed the onus on building owners to make reasonable adjustment to their premises to allow access, key to the approach being that entering by a side entrance was unequal and to be avoided, particularly where public money is involved.

The challenge to adjust buildings whose approach raison-d’etre was to create a distinctive difference from the pavement to the entrance has been for many a major design challenge, with probably three general approaches being preferred. The first was the now ubiquitous prefabricated ramp, for the most part not particularly successful, complicating the entrance; the second was a mechanical approach with wheelchair hoist (at a recent conference Stewart Coulter of Adapt Access Services, remarked that on having carried out a survey of these lifts in Edinburgh they have, in his view, an average life span of three to four years before maintenance costs and neglect make them inoperative and redundant) and the third, our preferred approach, a reconstruction of the entrance sequence to incorporate a ramp.

Key to this approach is a reconceptualisation of the setting of the building, not only the means of access but crucially its wider setting. Probably the most exquisite example is Richard McCormac’s sinuous step and ramp entrance to the RIBA building in Portland Street London where the transformation enhances what otherwise was a conventionally daunting approach. Our work at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, the Lighthouse Glasgow and the McManus in Dundee build on that idea of taking a broader view of the setting, remoulding and reinterpreting these historic, restrictive modes of entrance. Where once buildings were deemed exclusive, they become welcoming, the buildings become a smile rather than a scowl without in our view, damaging their integrity. Buildings, like ourselves, can turn over a new leaf.

Looking forward at a number of our current projects, for Govan and Linthouse Church, Dunoon Burgh Hall, and the basement of the David Hume Tower and St Cecillia’s Hall Redevelopment for the University of Edinburgh, the setting of each demands a rethinking of the original building intentions but transformed to this new open and welcoming aspiration. Interestingly the word ‘access’ is not a word that limits itself. Access becomes limited only when it is qualified - limited access, controlled access. The sequence of the approach setting, arrival then linkage to internal circulation are all about an access which is unqualified and a fundamental influence on our understanding of the architectural and social intentions of the building.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery entrance