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Towards an Empathetic Architecture: Embracing Diversity & Inclusion

19 Jun 2019
Image Credit: Amir Azadeh
Architectural Credit: N/A

What I find amazing about architecture is its innate ability to crystallize, in built form, the intangible ideals of an entire society. It can encapsulate constructed sociocultural narratives that imagine a unique way of being in the world—an existential art form of the highest calibre that can serve as a mirror to our collective consciousness.

But if architecture is generated from a series of decisions made by actual human beings (at least for now), then is it not especially vulnerable to the biases of its authors?

Perhaps architecture’s greatest power lies in rendering visible to us our own shortcomings as human beings: the unconscious biases of our society, exposing the paradoxes and inequities that we build into our public and private spaces every day. It is only through identifying and confronting our biases that we may hope to affect positive change and to evolve toward more inclusionary practices. An empathetic architecture listens and anticipates the use by every member of a diverse society.

Diversity comes in many forms, but one common example of exclusionary practice is evident in the duplication of spaces that serve the very same function, yet are segregated to reinforce a status quo definition of gender. Public restrooms and change rooms are two great examples. These unnecessarily gendered spaces are a cultural production of a heteronormative society that separates physical spaces solely based on physical genitalia—male or female—and reduces a rich spectrum to binary extremities that leave out everything in between. Rather than creating inclusive spaces that welcome the variety of biological diversity and gender expression, this type of architecture segregates, isolates, rejects and discourages participation by anyone that does not fit into society’s limited definitions.

However, hope is on the horizon.

The many benefits of creating inclusive spaces for dialogue and diversity are increasingly understood. Not only are these spaces healing for social infrastructures, but they have proven to come with economic advantages as well. Why buy two sets of faucets, sinks and so on when we can share the same space?

As a queer architect with Middle-Eastern heritage, born in Europe and raised in Canada, I feel especially welcomed in fluid spaces that liberate the multiplicity of identities with which I resonate. As I strive to learn how to create more empathetic spaces through architecture, I find myself asking these questions to anyone who is willing to have this conversation: What is a truly self-aware and empathetic architecture that provides equitable access to everyone while recognizing their dignity? Are we creating kind spaces of social inclusion that challenge perceptions and change attitudes by proactively identifying and courageously confronting our unconscious biases?

I believe that anyone should be able to use any restroom, regardless of their gender identity or expression… as long as they wash their hands.

Amir Azadeh is an architect and a member of the Toronto Society of Architects (TSA). He works at Diamond Schmitt Architects in Toronto, and is currently serving as the Vice President, Communications at the OAA while also serving on the OAA Council. He has volunteered on a number of committees, including the Interns Committee, Communication Committee, Conference Committee, Awards Committee, as well as the Website and Logo Task Groups.


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July 10, 2019 10:48 by Anonymous
I disagree with the two ridiculous comments below! I don't even know where to begin with the religious one! It's exactly this kind of regressive bigotry that prevents advancement and promotes hatred. God? Has it occurred to you that not everyone may believe in the same deity(ies) as you? "Truth is truth"? Has it occurred to you that what you call "truth" is subjective only to you? Go educate yourself and get with the times, it's almost 2020! And for the second one further below, I hope you're not an architect! Architects may work for clients but is it not our professional responsibility to change the world for the better and to educate our clients?! Did you go into architecture school just to end up making others' vision come true for money, or did you believe that architects have some agency?! I think we can change the world for the better and that is the optimism that visionary architects share. So shame on you if you think only the market should drive our profession. It is our profession that should change the market. I thank the author for putting this out there, please keep it coming.

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July 03, 2019 19:19 by Anonymous
In the beginning GOD created them male and female, its so simple;
Truth is truth, and you can't bend it or change it like this article has attempted to do so;
Physically, mentally and genetically you are either a man or woman;
this will never change for any of us;
not matter if you change your clothes, cut off and add to your body parts, or say you are a woman, when you were born into this world as a man, and vice-verse.

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July 03, 2019 16:50 by Anonymous
Can the OAA not remain apolitical?

This is not a subject for discussion here. Surely the market will drive the need/lack of need for gender-specific/non-specific washrooms. At the end of the day, things like that are client driven, and since we are designers ought we not allow clients to build as they wish?

If the author wishes to promote this agenda, why not promote single-use washrooms as a safer alternative to potentially allowing men into women's washrooms. Surely safety for our children (which has already been repeatedly compromised by allowing men into women's washrooms) should trump adult convenience.

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June 21, 2019 09:30 by Anonymous
great article! This sentence should be framed on every restroom door: "anyone should be able to use any restroom, regardless of their gender identity or expression… as long as they wash their hands."

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June 20, 2019 14:49 by Anonymous

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June 19, 2019 23:27 by Anonymous
This is amazing ! A new enlightened OAA is emerging!!!

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June 19, 2019 17:05 by Anonymous
So great to see the OAA providing a platform for this conversation. Looking forward to more!

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