UC Berkeley architecture professor recognized for contributions to disability movement

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UC Berkeley architecture professor Raymond Lifchez (left) was recognized for pioneering the disability rights movement in architecture.

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UC Berkeley architecture and city and regional planning professor Raymond Lifchez was recognized Tuesday by the Center for Independent Living, or CIL, with the second annual Ed Roberts Day Award, which honors individuals who have made major contributions to the disability rights movement in the U.S. and internationally.

Lifchez received his architecture license in 1967 while teaching at Columbia University. In 1970, Lifchez began his graduate studies at UC Berkeley.

Two years into his graduate career, Lifchez began developing an innovative and unprecedented course for undergraduates a course centered upon incorporating accessibility into all their architectural designs. He invited people with disabilities to come to the class and act as his students’ “clients” for the buildings they were designing.

“It was a course that was basically my commitment to teach undergraduates introduction to architectural design. … In those days (it) was basically hand drawing,” Lifchez said. “Basically, when you draw, you’re imagining the environment that would be produced, … and you’re imagining that environment in terms of the people that will be using that environment. I wanted them to think about people unlike themselves.”

Lifchez went on to co-author, along with his fellow graduate student Barbara Winslow, “Design for Independent Living: The Environment and Physically Disabled People” in 1979. The book describes their experiences of introducing disability into architectural design. Lifchez wrote another book in 1986 on accessibility in design titled “Rethinking Architecture: Design Students and Physically Disabled People.”

Thomas Gregory, the deputy director of CIL, described Lifchez’s monumental contributions to the independent living movement and the reasons he was chosen to receive the award.

“(Lifchez) is … widely recognized as a pioneering proponent of universal living, which is … an approach to architecture that emphasizes accessibility for all,” Gregory said. “Universal living is an important development for the disabled community.”

Lifchez continues to shape the architectural world through the Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence, or BERKELEY PRIZE, which is an international design competition now in its 20th year. The BERKELEY PRIZE is an international essay competition in which students around the world compete for a $25,000 prize that is divided among the top three or four contenders.

Lifchez compares the competition to the very first design class he taught, which challenged architecture students to think more deeply about the individuals they were designing for.

“The main objective of the BERKELEY PRIZE is to give students who want to be architects an incentive to think broadly about the community and not just about clients,” Lifchez said. “To put in their minds that people are the seminal focus of anything you design.”

When he received the award, Lifchez said his immediate reaction was gratitude.

“I’m so grateful to Berkeley and the College of Environmental Design, … which was … unique in the world, because it was dedicated to architecture not simply as an art of building buildings, but as an art of accommodating the public — as awareness of the greater environment.”

Contact Shayann Hendricks at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shayannih.