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Can buildings with special status meet special needs?

The challenge to make buildings universally accessible, in line with the Disability Discrimination Act, is more acute for listed buildings. Although some are making real efforts, they are often hindered by their status, writes Stephen Portlock

When last year I interviewed the art-house film-maker Peter Greenaway for the AJ, he lamented the way that the New York Guggenheim museum marked a drift from functional buildings towards works closer to sculptures. He was thinking at the time of exhibition spaces and commented how in some cases the galleries are totally unsuited for the hanging of paintings.

I am not sure how Greenaway feels about the Disability Discrimination Act but his comments are very pertinent to the current challenge facing architects. One of the key lessons of the AJ's recent 'Access All Areas' conference (see report on page 42) was that universal access should be seen as a creative challenge, not a crushing of creativity.

Where listed buildings are concerned, however, the challenge is all the more acute. To see how far this challenge has been faced as we race inexorably towards the 2004 deadline, I repeatedly visited three very different listed buildings: the Royal Court, the British Museum and the RIBA.

First off was the Royal Court theatre. The mere fact that it features sign-language performances of plays (one for each show) places it a cut above most West End theatres.

Both the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs and the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs use an infrared system for the deaf, and the former also has an induction loop.

I am not deaf but blind, but was not free to attend one of their audio-described performances since only three take place each year - far too few but still better than its competitors. As I accompanied a fully sighted friend to the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, one failing of the Royal Court became immediately apparent. Almost all the building is very dim.

This is excusable, arguably even desirable, where the bar or restaurant are concerned, but not for the basement or disabled WCs.On the other hand, unlike other theatres that are listed buildings - Wyndham's Theatre and The Albery, for example - the Royal Court has a lift. Buttons are at wheelchair level with no Braille but illuminated, tactile numbers and voices (those of actors and actresses) specifying the level. In principle the Jerwood Theatre Dowstairs and the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs can accommodate 11 wheelchairs between them, but having more than six constitutes a fire risk. Last off, there are Braille markings on the stairs to specify the level reached, and a TV in the basement on which the play can be watched by single latecomers if an alternative date is impossible.

Faults notwithstanding, the Royal Court is undeniably impressive and demonstrates the benefit of a constructive attitude.

It is hard to do justice to the vastness of the British Museum in a feature of this length but it is significant that after three visits I am still not convinced that I have seen all of it, despite my best efforts to do so in the name of research. Volunteers are available to assist the blind and partially sighted, provided that a fortnight's notice is given, but currently the only map available is for the fully sighted, and it does not inform wheelchair users of necessary routes.

One criticism made to me was that the marriage of the old and new parts of the museum was not wholly satisfactory where wheelchair access is concerned, and it is true that the Great Court and information points are more easily reached if entering from the front entrance. According to a wheelchair user whom I met in the Great Court, entry into the latter from the back entrance requires the use of two lifts and a trip through one of the exhibition rooms, and it is easy to get lost.However, this is only a temporary setback owing to building work, and the Great Court should soon be easily reachable from the back entrance.

On my first two visits, with wheelchair users, we entered through the front and, though one of my companions had difficulty finding the entry lift from the outside, she nevertheless appreciated being able to park near to the museum entrance. Like the lift that brought us up, the Great Court is pleasingly spacious and attractive. Large panels of glass are remarkably effective in ensuring that the court is brightly (and naturally) lit and the pleasure is compounded by an easily accessible cafe and library. In fact, I was sometimes dazzled by the brightness, so maybe more use of colour instead of the swathes of white might assist the visually impaired. On the other hand, if some exhibition rooms were very well lit, others, such as the African and American galleries, were rather dim.

Given its popularity, the museum has made laudable efforts to tailor to all needs. So wheelchairs can be hired, there are signed tours for the deaf or hearing-impaired, and the museum has attempted to adapt to the needs of those with mental illness by working in partnership with a further-education college for people with mental-health problems.

However, if those who run the Royal Court and British Museum have sought to rise to the challenge of adapting their buildings to make them fully accessible, the Royal Institute of British Architects appears to be facing a far greater struggle. The status of its office building as a Grade II listed building means that permission has to be sought from the local authority for any significant alterations. Yet those who understand little of such legislation might be bemused that the RIBA's own Art Deco design constitutes a triumph of style over practicality.

The RIBA commissioned an access audit in 2001 and has started work on the changes recommended, enlarging one disabled WC and installing another. The galleries now have extra lighting. The problems that I noted had largely been previously diagnosed but some are likely to prove particularly hard to overcome. Thus, on the day that we visited, my arthritic girlfriend and I waited downstairs while the receptionist squeezed our wheelchair-using companion into the lift and squeezed in beside him. That he accompanied our companion is due to the fact the buttons on the lift cannot be reached by someone in a wheelchair. They are not tactile nor in Braille, nor lit up, and there is no speech facility.

We followed in the lift and visited two levels, both too dim for me but adequate for my companions. The occasional exhibit was too high to be seen from a wheelchair, and the photographs in glass panels could definitely have benefited from some additional lighting. The latter, however, would not just improve the enjoyment for those with visual impairments, it might have ensured their safety. The first two steps of the flight up from the first floor were unusually wide and could potentially lead to a blind person missing the stairs and walking into a wall.

More worryingly, however, the inner rail of the spiral staircase was only just high enough when one reached the second floor.

At this point it is worth bringing up the issue of disabled WCs. In none of the venues visited were they adequate. Those at the Royal Court were hard to find owing to dim lighting and a small sign on the door, and on the inside it was still dim with a fiddly lock. The disabled WC we visited at the British Museum was too cramped, and the dispenser of sanitary towels was too high to be reached by a wheelchair user. Last off, those of the RIBA were let down by an inconspicuous sign. All of the WCs had to be flushed manually - little use to those lacking strength or arms.

As so often in life, the disabled visitor will have to decide whether his or her metaphorical glass is half full or half empty. On the one hand some venues are making very real efforts at universal accessibility. However, for others, the desire to change is hindered by the listed status of their buildings. Good attitudes may not necessarily be enough.

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