The architect, my sensualist.

I’m at two opposing points of view and attempting an impossible reconciliation, somewhere in the art versus design stream; creative freedom versus practical operation. I also have an infatuation with attempting to build bridges between dichotomies [shrugging emoji].

The good news is that after defining the purpose, theory and some assumptions of the WeWork case study, I’ve come to a method. The current plan is to briefly analyse a few common business models of tech companies and of architecture practices, then compare with what I can learn about WeWork. Do you think I’ll get some good insights from there?

But back to dichotomies. Part of the UXer’s role is to navigate the often opposing aspects of the users’ experience. Where there is only one end-user, this can be fairly straight-forward, but those projects are rare and typically private. Multiple end-users make designing the UX more challenging. And individuals are notoriously, well, individual.

This gets me thinking again about architecture’s obsession with the object. For the designer, the urge for creative freedom can be overwhelmingly constrained by every other part of a design process. Perhaps this leads to a need for controlling a design at the expense of anything that makes that too hard – like a user. It seems to me that within architecture (from my newcomer’s perspective), the focus is on how the building affects the user’s experience and behaviour: the external permeating the internal. Through materials, the architect orchestrates an experience to impose on and engage the user; to stimulate reactions; to effect the user. Sure, but is it just me or do I detect a sense of over-dramatic impending doom about this? People are tired of fetishised, ‘marketable’ architecture.

How architecture is informed must change, and the processes and methods must evolve. What influences space and experience must be given equal validity to the final design of a building. This could be better achieved by reversing the focus: the internal permeates the external; metaphysical determines the physical.

Users are people, and we need healthy spaces to function. Our life needs buildings that are designed, modified and constructed to cultivate healthy space (which, by the way, extends to a healthy planet). In truly considering what users need, first broadly, then specifically, and in parallel with what we already know about how space influences users, we shift to a process that empowers designers to properly integrate our tangible, physical world with the sensual and emotive. In fetishising the experience, the architect becomes the sensualist.

This is exciting, scary, even dangerous territory. It can explore how light and air delight our senses, but can also mean navigating discrimination, trauma, and oppression. It requires an amount of self-actualisation on the architect’s part, a responsive concept, a vast amount of research, analytical processing of that research, and collaboration with other disciplines; out of which will come the design.

This idea of the sensualist architect appears as a strong theme throughout my own research. A UX perspective provides an open and analytical process integrating both bodily and bodiless experiences – please let me know if these ideas remind you of more ideas and reading material. The opinions and criticism I hear around architecture’s obsession with the sublime and ineptitude of codifying it seem unnecessary through a UX lens. There can be method in madness.

Photographs used with permission by Tony Lin, Playing with Shadows.
This post originally appeared at on 27 FEBRUARY 2020.

Because these stairs are actually fu

n to talk about.

One of the many concepts that prompted me to start this project is stairs and ramps like this:

“Shortcut” by mag3737 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Robson Square, Vancouver, Canada, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1983. Source:”Shortcut” by mag3737 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Robson Square, Vancouver, Canada, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1983.

I see images of these ‘stramps’ and others like them do the rounds on social media, accompanied with loads of praising comments like ‘this is so good for wheelchair users’ and ‘this is how you do great accessible design’. The problem is: it isn’t, and it isn’t.

This particular stair/ramp is Robson Square, at the Law Courts Complex in Vancouver, Canada; built in 1983 by architect Arthur Erickson and landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander. This aerial photo shows how great the stramps look in context.

These are beautiful, sculptural stairs. Erickson and Oberlander are two revered architects, each recognised with a multitude of awards and honours throughout their extensive portfolios. They both describe their design philosophies around harmony and inclusion, in both aesthetics and humanity. They’re both on my must-know-more-about-these-architects list.

I like this stramp for two reasons, and dislike it for one. I like it because it looks great; and it gets us thinking about integrating accessibility in beautifully designed architecture. I dislike it because it doesn’t actually work for its intended users.

It was Oberlander who conceived the stramps with accessibility in mind, and Erickson’s office ensured compliance with 1970s building code. This is Architecture as the original UX design: architects designing with a human-centred focus, within the parameters of a project and its context.

“… Erickson’s Vancouver office, had designed an elegant set of stairs. But when she asked [Alberto Zennaro] how a person in a wheelchair or with a pram might ascend them, he lacked a response. … She picked up a felt-tipped pen and drew a ‘goat path’ — a diagonal line across Zennaro’s stairs — and the stramps for Robson Square were born. By the following day Zennaro had perfected the stramp design and that can be seen today.”

Susan Herrington, in Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape. University of Virginia Press, 2013. pp 134.

The context of the Robson Square stramps was the late 1970s: the Disability Rights Movement was gathering momentum and disability activists began forming groups to raise awareness and influence legislation. The stramp designers responded with a design that expresses compassion through architecture. While commendable at first glance, the problem with the stramp concept is that it oversimplifies and homogenises the experience of people with disabilities, and prams.

The reality of living with disability unfortunately drowns the merits of Oberlander’s concept. There are many issues to unpack here, I really recommend reading this short post about stramps through an accessibility lens. Wheelchair users can immediately point out why stramps don’t work, as can many more people with disability who don’t require wheelchairs. Oberlander’s questioning of how two particular groups might use the stairs was too casual: without research into what groups need to be addressed and actual information from those groups, the concept misfired. The stramp design processing was regrettably assumptive and didn’t consult user groups — and as a result stramps are notorious.

How we use architecture is incredibly unique, and how we experience it even more so. No two people will use or experience a space in the exact same way. In designing anything, a number of assumptions must inevitably be made, and a degree of risk taken. And we must also consider the consequences.

UX design process mitigates those assumptions, risks and consequences and stacks them up against data, research, requirements and outcomes. It’s a simple concept that is anything but in practice. In many ways architects already do this, but they lack an effective process and business model that enables UX process and develops agility in an industry currently being redefined by technology.

As designers, we can exercise compassion and empathy to imagine what it would be like to use these stairs with a pram, in a wheelchair or in chronic pain, but this method on its own is woefully ineffective. Gathering data and researching in tandem with a logical compassion will result in a better user experience of the final design.

So next time you see the stramps doing the rounds, remember that they can be very nice pieces of public art, interactive sculpture or landscape elements, but they’re not accessible. Not by a long shot.

Further reading

Battle over “stramp” accessibility upgrades in British Columbia takes shape, Sean Joyner, Archinect, 3 September 2019

Disabled people don’t need so many fancy new gadgets. We just need more ramps. S. E. Smith, Vox, 30 April 2019

The problems with ramps blended into stairs, Nicolas Steenhout, Part of a Whole, 11 May 2018

Disability Rights Movement in Canada, Dustin Galer, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 5 February 2015

Robson Square, Canadian Architect, 1 May 2011

The good, the bad and the ugly – design and construction for access (2008), Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008

This post originally appeared at on 23 January 2020.

Has Architecture forgotten its own history?

Architecture is the original UX design. At least, that’s what I thought, so I’m confused and asking: is Architecture forgetting its own history? As it turns out: maybe.

The historical connection

In my conversations, I’ve heard a few scathing comments that the Architecture industry is neglecting its historical and theoretical roots. While there may be truth to that, other industries are certainly not neglecting Architecture’s roots. So much so that new industries are emerging from those very roots. Architecture grumbles that IT has commandeered the word ‘Architect’, yet at the same time is continually distracted by what IT is doing.

From my initial searches, it appears to me that Architecture hasn’t made the connection that these new industries, technologies, and ideas are coming from, in large part, itself. The software design industry makes no secret of repeating its architecture-software analogy, to the point where if you ask an IT professional about theoretical links to Architecture, you get a look that professionally says ‘well yeah, duh…’.

While the average IT pro may not immediately recall where this theoretical framework comes from, it was spelt out for them in Mitchell Kapor‘s manifesto in 1990:

The Roman architecture critic Vitruvius advanced the notion that well-designed buildings were those which exhibited firmness, commodity, and delight.

The same might be said of good software. Firmness: A program should not have any bugs that inhibit its function. Commodity: A program should be suitable for the purposes for which it was intended. Delight: The experience of using the program should be pleasurable one. Here we have the beginnings of a theory of design for software.

Mitchell Kapor, A Software Design Manifesto, 1990

A micro-history of UX

I’ve speculated that UX craves the depth, history and wonderment of Architecture. But I don’t mean UX doesn’t have these things – it does! Jakob Nielsen of NN/g, globally recognised as a leader in UX design since the 1980s, introduces UX history in a keynote published February 2018. He cites examples of the Englebart Mouse in 1964; and the first international urban planning conference in New York, 1898 – the main issue? The great horse manure crisis of 1894.

History is brimming with examples of problem-solving products and issues of every kind where design thinking vastly improved a situation. User eXperience design has been around as long as design itself – the name UX was only just coined in the early 1990s.

So it bothers me when UX is described as ‘new’. It isn’t, the name is ‘new’. And it bothers me when UX is described as designing interactive digital experiences. It isn’t, that’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). If you experience it, it falls under the UX category and it can be designed.

UX Designers have fun with Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) design, while Architecture looks on like it wants to join in – without realising the threads of HCI design started within itself! What happens when they play together? Meme by @uxforarchitects.

A new direction of study and strategy

So I think I’ve outlined the basis of my confusion. It seems initially obvious to me that there is a strong connection here, and a new canon of architectural history just waiting to be built.

And that’s just the historical aspect. What about today’s business practices? And future strategy? How do we identify Architecture’s UX gaps and problems, and how do we re-structure and re-strategise our companies to solve them? If we take on a transdisciplinary approach, we can build the resource that addresses these future-focused questions and more.

Oh and yeah, in that keynote by Jakob Nielson, he predicts 100,000,000 UX designers worldwide by 2050: 1% of the global population. We’re already on our way – get on board.

Further reading

10 UX Challenges for the Next 25 Years (Jakob Nielsen Keynote), Jakob Nielsen, Youtube, NN/g, 9 February 2018

The Confused and Impoverished State of Architectural Research, Richard Buday, Common\Edge, 27 July 2017

A 100-Year View of User Experience, Jakob Nielsen, NN/g, 24 December, 2017

Bringing Design to Software, Stanford HCI Group, Stanford University, 1996

This post originally appeared at on 24 September 2019.

Isn’t UX design what architects do already??

Why is Architecture so interested in UX Design? Isn't that what architects do already??
Why is Architecture so interested in UX Design? Isn't that what architects do already??

When I started studying Architecture, I was surprised at the interest tutors, professors and AEC professionals showed in my past career as UX designer. It also confused me – isn’t UX design what architects already do?

I’m amazed that the response to my question over the past two years has been unanimous: the tutor, professor and professional all do the same thing: tilt of the head, eyes towards the ceiling, say “eeeh well…”, then explain their particular view on what is and isn’t happening with UX in AEC.

It’s been amazingly consistent the other way as well – UX designers and non-AEC people (i.e. everyone else) I’ve discussed this with are also surprised to learn Architecture finds UX design so attractive. They say it too: “I thought that’s what architects already do?”. What is happening?

I’ve learned that it’s very appealing for architects to leave AEC and become a UX designer in the IT industry instead. I’ve learned the AEC industry wants them to stay, but can’t convince them. I’ve learned Architecture wants what UX and IT have, and UX is in awe of Architecture. If I may reduce it to something very simple, it’s this: Architecture wants the agility and gratification of UX; and UX wants the depth, history and wonderment of Architecture.

I think this is entirely possible, and from the initial enthusiasm I’ve received so far, I know I’m not the only one! While I’m collecting ideas to get a scope of this research project, please feel free to share ideas in the comments below. Add value!

This post originally appeared at on 23 September 2019.

Architecture is the original UX design.

What can UX design processes reveal about the successes and failures of our built environment? View from fifth floor into atrium. Vibe Hotel Canberra Airport, Bates Smart, Australia, 2015. Photo: Leonie Csanki, 2018.

In response to recent trends seeing Architecture firms hire UX consultants, I was asked what I thought Architecture could learn from UX design. I think this trend is a good one – it’s a natural and positive progression as all kinds of industries become more nuanced and specialised. As for what can be learned, (and I do love a good metaphor), the learning exchange is akin to that of a grandparent learning from their grandchild.

Architecture and UX design are genetically linked. UX design grows from HCI design, which draws its foundations from Vitruvius. Architecture can learn fresh perspectives on its own history, and new methods of extrapolating information of how humans use space. At the same time, ever the wise grandparent, Architecture needs a period of self-reflection and ask some rather unflattering questions: Has architecture become too distracted by technology that fundamental principles of human experience are being neglected? Worse still, is Architecture forgetting its own history?

I love to see our architectural landscape evolve with parametric designs and sustainable structures. However, I’ve seen that in some designs, the celebration of or compassion for the human experiencing space is forfeited in favour of technological glamour.

Great architecture tailors the proportions of all its fundamental principles, new and old, for its complete context. UX design can show Architecture what the right proportions are.


During the end of October 2017, I hosted the Parlour Architecture Instagram account with my friends and uni buds Diana Panagakis and Dora Lin. Parlour is a forum for celebrating women, equity and architecture in Australia backed by vibrant discussion and research. For more information about this great association, see their full website at

Here’s an archive of my posts: check out the full gamut of inspirational posters over on @_parlour!