|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2021|
[ID:586] SENSORY ACCESS: THE LIBERTY SWING
Your entire body is being propelled rhythmically forward and back like a pendulum. The mass of your body anchors the movement at the centre but at each extreme, just before you are thrust in the opposite direction, there is a moment of levity and suspense. In this micro second of weightlessness all is frozen, then time thaws and your movement continues to slices through the air. This is the sensation of swinging.
A video testimonial on the Liberty Swing webpage depicts a little girl shrieking with glee as she is propelled through the air. In the subsequent interview, with a hint of astonishment in her voice, she wonders how she could remain seated and yet feel ‘like a bird’. The comment is particularly potent as this little girl is bound to a wheel chair. Until the development of the Liberty Swing her participation in this common place activity was unthinkable. The Liberty Swing enables people with a disability, specifically those confined to wheel chairs, to experience the freedom of movement and the sensation of levity. Moreover, the swing supports a paradigm shift in our definition of disability access. The example moves away from the traditional notion that disability access strives purely to break down barriers to a physical setting and acknowledges that barriers also exclude people with a disability from sensory and emotional experiences.
Liberty Swings are scattered across my home city of Melbourne in parks, schools and hospitals. The chunky, bright yellow capsule of the Liberty Swing is not incongruous amongst the other playground equipment. The swing relies on a sturdy form; it can carry up to 250kg, to ensure it can support both the user and their wheelchair. The front of the capsule can be connected to a ramp bridging the gap between the ground and the three sided pod. Once inside the ramp is detached and lowered into a depression in the playground surface.
For me the sensation of swinging is ingrained in childhood memories of play. As an adult sneaking onto a swing conjures up feelings of guilt; should I still enjoy the sensation of hurtling through the air? Am I intruding in a space designated for children? Simultaneously, swinging revives a string of childhood memories; the Sunday afternoon ride to the park on my pink bicycle replete with tassels and basket, the old stone drinking fountain, my older brother jumping off the swing as it reached its apex and me being too scared to copy him. However, before the development of the Liberty Swing many children were excluded from both this experience and the subsequent memories. The Liberty Swing was conceived by Australia inventor Wayne Devine. After 13 dedicated years of testing and development the first swing was installed in Old’s Park, Forest Road, Penhurst New South Wales. It is easy to underestimate the positive impact of this single piece of playground equipment. The design not only creates joy for individuals, but it also contributes to a broader discussion on disability rights.
For a child with a disability the Liberty Swing offers a playful and dynamic experience. The users’ emotional accounts attest to the joy the swing fosters. People with full mobility have long been captivated by the rhythm and suspense of swinging. For someone with limited mobility, excluded from other acts of physicality, such as running, cartwheeling, jumping or swimming, surely the speed and dynamism of swinging would be all the more thrilling. The children smile, shriek and laugh as they glide through the air. The inventor, Wayne Devine admits that these reactions are incredibly rewarding. In particular he notes the reactions of parents who, as they watch their child on the swing, ‘openly weep, because their child’s face just lights up instantly’ (Liberty Swing Webpage). A testimonial on the Liberty Swing website, from a woman in New Zealand, talks about the experience of her son, Josh: the Liberty Swing ‘gives Josh a great sense of freedom and he loves swinging through the air…you can hear him cracking up laughing which is just gorgeous’. The use of such forceful words is telling. The Liberty Swing is not only praised for the joy it engenders but also recognised for its principles of freedom, access and inclusion.
When analysing the Liberty Swing in terms of these fundamental principles, its design appears all the more significant. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (used as inspiration for this competition) recognises, in Article30(d), that it is a fundamental right for children with disabilities to ‘have equal access with other children to participation in play, recreation and leisure and sporting activities…’ Play is an integral aspect in childhood development contributing to a child’s ‘resilience across adaptive systems - pleasure, emotion regulation, stress response systems, peer and place attachments, learning and creativity’ (Lester and Russell 2010). The significance of play can be seen by the broad use of the term, outside the traditional boundaries of childhood, to connote a process of engagement. Margaert Wertheim of the Institute for Figuring (IFF) promotes a method of understanding physics and maths through making. Her most notable project is a crocheted coral reef; the mathematical principles behind crochet allow it to mimic the complex hyperbolic structures of coral. She describes the institute as a ‘play tank’ where the act of doing is an important step in understanding. Play teaches children the fun and satisfaction of engagement. A playground is a designated space for this activity. Playgrounds provide a space for children to interact, move and imagine. The play equipment enhances and challenges play. However, by adding greater challenges to the physical aspect of play, children with physical disabilities are often excluded. And they are not simply excluded from a physical activity, but a social, sensory, creative and emotional experience. If play equipment is not available for varying degrees of mobility, we are not meeting the principles of the United Nations Convention. The Liberty Swing doesn’t achieve the holy grail of universal design; the Liberty Swing user must be pushed, making it less attractive to children with full mobility. Indeed, it is not always possible to cater to the full range of human abilities in every individual design. However, this range of abilities should be considered and accommodated within the overall playground design.
When viewed from a traditional perspective, disability access is often synonymous with public transport and building accessibility, aimed at improving the mobility and self-sufficiency of adults with a physical disability. A plethora of regulations exist in building codes to ensure that people with a disability can enter, exit and move through a building. These standards help ensure minimum requirements are met; however, too often architects approach disability access by simply complying with regulations. In other areas, such as sustainable design, designers strive for innovative solutions investigating historical practices along with the latest technologies, but when designers are confronted with issues of disability access, compliancy rather the creativity dominates the thinking. As public transport and building accessibility rightly become standard practice in first world countries, it is possible to build on these minimum requirements. In particular disability access can be extended beyond the breaking down of barriers to a physical setting, to include barriers to emotional and sensory engagement. The Liberty Swing is a noteworthy example of this extended definition as it allows users to engage with play and a sensory experience.
Disability access should engender fresh thinking, not textbook solutions squeezed into a design. OMA’s (Office of Metropolitan Architects) Maison Bordeaux is a family house adapted to the client’s limited mobility; the client sustained spinal cord injuries in a car accident and is now confined to a wheelchair. Rather than creating a house on a single level – an obvious solution to the client’s physical disability – the house was designed with a ten by ten foot central moveable platform which transports the resident to the different levels. This ‘itinerant room’ (Riley 1999) pushes up through the house supported by a single metal column. The open platform sits flush with the floor, completing one level while leaving a void in the other two. The design for the house was driven by the client’s assertion that ‘contrary to what you would expect. I want a complex house because the house will define my world’ (Riley 1999).This is an example of innovative design that uses disability access to create rather than curtail. The architectural response is personal and thus avoids the rigid demands of design by regulation. The design was completed in 1998 and continues to feature in publications and design blogs. The design is worthy of praise, however, there does not seem to have been a subsequent debate in architecture on disability access. In the last 15 years digital technologies have seen 3D printed concrete structures big enough to live in, but is there a comparable innovation in disabled access?
The Liberty Swing exists in the world of ideas; it does not rely on the supremacy of the visual to achieve its expression. However, this does not negate its links to architecture; its strong concept and its focus on the experiential are all key concerns of architecture. Like good architecture the Liberty Swing promotes engagement, and significantly it seeks to engage an audience that was previously excluded. Sensory experiences are integral to architecture. Liz Diller (of DS +R : Diller, Scofidio + Renfro) asserts that ‘aside from keeping the rain out and producing some usable space, architecture is nothing but a special-effects machine that delights and disturbs the senses’ (Ted talks). This comment by no means undermines the importance of architecture. Sensory experiences, be they art, music or architecture, are enriching and integral to humans. Architects are taught to design and analyse buildings with a sensory experiences in mind. The low portico and entry of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ward Willits House at Illinois compresses the space juxtaposing the light filled and spacious dining room at the top of the stairs. Frank Gehry’s architecture is notable for evoking movement. Dancing house in Prague completed with Vlado Milunic seems to capture buildings in a lively tussle for space, the central glass shaft bulges as if being squeezed from either side. Forces known only to the architects drove the development of this dynamic design.
Yet, having visited the Ward Willits house, I know that someone confined to a wheelchair would never be able to get up the stairs to experience the changing qualities of the space. Even if a lift was added to the older building, the same effect would not be felt unless the two spaces were visited simultaneously. A lift stuck in the back corner of a building may comply with regulations but is the intended experience of the building still achieved? Moreover, I wonder, only every having seen photos of the Dancing house, how much this design relies on sight. As architects we need to consider disability access to the sensory experience we seek to create. How often in an architectural project do you consider moving around the building as someone who is visually impaired? Can buildings be multi-sensory, drawing on touch, smell, sight, hearing even taste? It has been done. DS + R’s infamous blur building used 35,000 high pressure nozzles to convert the lake it is situated on into a mist shrouding the structure in this ephemeral building material. For me visually, it evokes a late Rothko painting that has been bleached and incarnated in three dimensions. The visual ‘low-definition’ (DS + R Webpage) of the building contributes to the heightening of the other senses: Touch - the dampness of water droplets on the skin, Smell – water and moisture, Hearing - the white noise of the conversion process of liquid to mist and Taste – the building bottled to drink. Even though this example is an exhibition pavilion, not a habitable structure, multi-sensory architecture is possible. Designs can consider the feel of direct sunlight, the sound of footfall on different materials, the smell of the surrounds.
Over the past years much has been done in Melbourne to improve disability access. The public transport system has adjusted to create a more accessible system; no longer are trams designed with steep steps leading up to the carriage, announcements are visual and oral, buttons to request a stop can be reached by a person in a wheelchair. Buildings too, use lifts, automated doors and account for the turning circles of wheelchairs. For a person with a physical disability all these considerations make it easier to move through Melbourne. But for architects this should not be the end to the debate on disability access. Architecture that seeks to evoke a sensory response imbuing space with atmosphere should take into consideration variations in human conditions. If an architect claims to have been inspired by ‘x’, that ‘x’ has permeates every detail in the building design and yet the sensation that ‘x’ generates is inaccessible to a large portion of the population are the public not justified to cry foul? Creating meaningful designs that are accessible to all levels of physical disability is not simple, but as it stands this complexity is rarely considered. This is a question for professionals and students. The Liberty Swing can be used as a paragon; design has enabled a sensory experience to be accessible to people with a disability.
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, Blur Building 7 Jan 2013,
Liberty Swing, viewed Jan 25 2013,
Riley, Charles Nov/Dec 1999, ‘A Fine Bordeaux,’ WE Magazine, Vol. 3, Issue 6.
Prellwitz, M & Skär, L June 2007, ‘Usability of Playground for Children with different abilities,’ Occupational Therapy International, vol. 14, no. 3, pp133-155, DOI: 10.1002/oti.230.
Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell, Dec 2010, ‘Children’s right to play’, Bernard van Leer Foundation Working papers in Early Childhood development, vol. 57.
The Institute for Figuring, viewed Jan 25 2013,
TED talks, ‘Liz Diller plays with architecture,’ viewed Dec 12th 2012,
United Nations, ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ 6 December 2006,
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