Caterpillar Cove by Lekker Architects Courtesy Darren Soh

Lekker Architects Offers a Fresh Approach to Inclusive Design

In a recent exhibition during Singapore Design Week, founders of the Singapore-based firm curate the best examples of inclusive design.

In 1992, the American educator Vivian Paley launched an experiment in her kindergarten classroom. The directive, which later became a short book, was simple: you can’t tell a child they can’t play, and you can’t stop another child from joining a game or activity.

Paley’s radical approach to empathy was recently the anchor of an inspiring exhibition on view during Singapore Design Week. Titled FI&LD, the exhibition featured a vast collection of inclusive products, games, buildings, and concepts from Singapore to Israel to New York City. In one corner, I got to see what Singapore’s subway map looks like to a colorblind person (I could barely make out the various colors); in another, I watched a group of people experiment with “talking benches” that let you pick up a sign and convey if you’re feeling social (“willing to discuss cats”) or not (“I need space”) by simply slotting it in where you’re sitting.      

Play-Play. Courtesy Don Wong
Kindle Garden Preschool. Courtesy Darren Soh

Behind this colossal endeavor lies none other than Lekker Architects, a local studio founded by husband-and-wife duo Ong Ker-Shing and Joshua Comaroff. Over the past decade, the duo, who also teach architecture at the National University of Singapore and urban studies at Yale-NUS College, have built a strong reputation for inclusive design have built a strong reputation for inclusive design. Today, they boast an impressive portfolio of projects including Singapore’s first inclusive preschool, a hospice daycare center, a quiet room in an art museum for people with sensory processing disorders, and a much-needed guide to dementia-friendly design, which they created in collaboration with Studio Lanzavecchia + Wai.  

At FI&LD, Lekker picked out one particularly poignant quote by Paley: “If someone can’t play, you have to change the game.” The thesis was simple—if a game doesn’t work for everyone, then it must be redesigned—and it set the tone not only for the exhibition, but for the field of inclusive design more broadly. If blind people can’t use certain kitchen utensils, we must redesign them. If a subway car isn’t fit for neurodivergent people, we should design one that is.

For Lekker, inclusivity is a spectrum, and designing for inclusivity means striking a balance between no rules (which is just confusing) and too many rules (which is guaranteed to exclude someone.) The key, says Comaroff, is to design spaces that have the flexibility to adapt and allow people with contrasting needs to coexist in the same space.

The Quiet Room. Courtesy KHOOGJ

This doesn’t just mean throwing your doors wide open and letting everyone in. “That works great until you design an inclusive school, and you actually sit down with inclusive educators,” he says. “These kids have radically contradictory needs. One kid with autism has hypersensitivity, the other [kid with autism] has hyposensitivity and needs background noise, visual stimulus, constant engagement. And those kids have to occupy the same space.”

One (wrong) solution might be to just build enough separate rooms to cater for people with various needs, but the kids wouldn’t interact or learn about each other’s differences. At the Kindle Garden preschool, for example, the architects designed an accessibility path on the floor that looks like a computer circuit and is made of a vinyl that is different from the rest of the floor so you could feel the difference when you walk on it barefoot. When the school first opened in 2015, Comaroff says there were no kids with visual impairments, so the path was seen as a fun decorative feature. Then a blind girl joined, and once the educators showed her how to navigate on the path, everybody else started walking on the line alongside her. “You see over and over again that kids try and minimize uncomfortable differences between each other,” says Comaroff. “And if there are differences, they just kind of ignore them; it’s an amazing form of empathy that they learn and if we separate them, they’re not going to get that.”

Over the course of their career, the architects have learned to design not just “expecting misuse,” as Ong puts it, but encouraging it by designing spaces and experiences that act less as prescribed models and more as prompts. For Singapore Design Week, Lekker  also designed a web app called Play Play, which is a game generator that lets you set parameters that suit players with various needs or disabilities, then proposes games that fit those parameters. You can choose to play without looking, speaking, or using arms or legs, and if a new person enters the game, you can go back to the menu and change the rules so that everyone is on a level playing field from the get-go.

Vivian Paley likely would’ve been proud.

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