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Built to Scale highlights exclusionary principles in the built environment

ADA Defiant

Built to Scale highlights exclusionary principles in the built environment

The sculptures each serve to demonstrate the absurdity of the myth of "normalcy" by pushing the concept to its extremes. (Courtesy of Emily Barker)

Though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 30 years ago, we can still point to countless recently-completed buildings as testaments to the gap between the architectural profession and the needs of the people for which they are designed.

Built to Scale, a solo exhibition by artist Emily Barker currently on view at the Murmurs gallery in downtown Los Angeles, adds a critical and essential voice to the national debate concerning the concept of accessibility in the built environment. A set of sculptures the artist has placed throughout the exhibition space, in collaboration with designer Tomasz Jan Groza, challenge the hidden yet highly prescriptive status quo in contemporary architectural design that perpetuates societal prejudices against those considered “abnormal” or “divergent.”

“Those who deviate from the norms,” the press release for the show states, “have little space built to include them and can’t participate in most built environments.”

A tower of medical bills, titled Death by 7865 Paper Cuts, physicalizes the absurd debt placed upon people in need. (Courtesy of Emily Barker)

Many of the floor pieces depict seemingly “innocent” domestic objects rendered in commonly-used materials that become insurmountable to those with limited mobility, such as sand, dirt, grass, and steel mesh. A translucent set of kitchen cabinets, Untitled (Kitchen), partially hangs overhead in a manner akin to the fabric sculptures of Do Ho Suh. Yet where Suh’s are often tangible and enveloping, Barker’s are disturbingly unusable and alienating.

Many of these objects and materials, the exhibition suggests, have been standardized in the name of convenience for what turns out to be a minority of the American population. Yet perhaps the most telling piece in Barker’s ensemble is a neatly stacked tower of medical bills, titled Death by 7865 Paper Cuts, that “demonstrate[s] the sheer volume of bureaucratic labor required to meet your basic needs after experiencing unthinkable trauma.”

Normalcy is rendered as the faceless opponent throughout Built to Scale. A powerfully dangerous myth with fatal consequences, the cult of the normal has pervaded because of its ability to neatly complement modern standards of efficiency, mass production, and narrow definitions of progress. Like other architects, artists, and academics discover lapses of judgment in the construction of the built environment, exhibitions like Built to Scale will continue their mission of informing the public of the myriad relationships we have with the world around us.

Built to Scale will be on view at Murmurs until January 18, 2020.