April 1, 2011
Universal Design/User-Friendly Skies
Metropolis Hits and Misses
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, it was not exactly embraced by the design community—indeed, many saw its requirements as hurdles to achieving their vision rather than spurs for creating inclusive buildings and products. Metropolis took a more optimistic approach. Inspired by the ADA, and by a universal-design conference held in New York City in May 1992, we published a special issue that fall devoted to the question of access. It was a multidisciplinary look at a fledgling discipline, with stories on wheelchair design, accessible taxis, senior housing, city planning, retrofitting historic buildings, and the promise of a “barrier-free environment.” Almost 20 years later, the design profession has come a long way—but we’re still working to fulfill that promise.
“Airplane interiors are ugly,” Aaron Betsky declared in this 1994 essay. “Not only are they cramped, but they are the most plastic-filled, confusingly designed rip-offs of Star Trek aesthetics you or I will ever find ourselves inhabiting for any stretch of time.” Fortunately, change was on the way! United Airlines was debuting spaces “as tailored as a Brooks Brothers suit.” Continental was planning cabin upgrades that would have “the discreet allure of Miesian minimalism.” And most promising of all, Boeing’s new 777 would be big enough to have a truly open, flexible interior. Betsky admitted that substantive, industry-wide improvement was still years away—and, boy, was he right. Today, more than 16 years later, we’re still waiting for the user-friendly skies.