Sometimes you have to be stubborn

Magazin Der Autostadt Wolfsburg 04/07 by Stefan Scheytt, Translated by Lance Bermudez

She used to love stairs, she says, those provocative gestures, the building inviting her overpower it, conquer it. You can just imagine how she was, tall and slender and athletic. How she used to love doing that, two steps at a time. It's been 14 years since the last time she did that.

At her architecture office in Frankfurt am Main she sits in her wheelchair in front of the picture window which affords her an incredible view of the Frankfurt skyline. „Without the development of the elevator there wouldn't be any skyscrapers and no Frankfurt as we know it“, says Ursula Fuss. She glides through the room and comes back with a book about architecture, shows me Bruegel's famous picture of the Tower of Babel and points out the ramp which rises, winding its way around the obtuse tower. She talks about old opera houses and castles with gentle sloping approaches for the coaches. She tells of market halls with neither steps nor stairs, which would only hinder the dealer's business. And of curbs, sunk into the ground for the benefit of automobiles.

„The development of our world, that's my subject matter“, she says.

It was after a fall from a fifteen meter-high balcony that the development of the world became her subject. How she miraculously survived and awoke from a coma days later, only to find herself a paraplegic. That accident fourteen years ago, at the age of 33, has restricted her freedom of movement ever since, but has also simultaneously set her life in motion as nothing else ever had.

„I used to do what all architects did“, she says. „What I create now, buildings without barriers, that's really me“

By the time she finally realised that, she had asked herself countless times, „Why me? Why did this have to happen to me“? She couldn't accept her fate until, one day while watching television from her sick-bed, she heard the story of Job, the silent sufferer from the Old Testament. She says it now completely without pity. You simply have to believe her that understanding this story is what sparked her return back to life. From this story of the famously-tested biblical character, she extracted an answer for herself: that it would from now on be her mission to burnish walls and facilitate movement.

It is in this sense that, in the eyes of other architects, she speaks as an expert, judge and instructor for the „barrier-free systems“ at the Frankfurt Fachhochschule, University of Applied Science. At every opportunity she argues that it is not only those in wheelchairs who are hindered by stairs, ties and doors, but also mothers with prams, people with scooters, walkers and skates, the old, the weak, the injured. „At any one time, 30 percent of the population has limited mobility. It could affect any of us, at any time“, she says.

She maintains the situation has improved greatly, and yet still she can far too often find wheelchair ramps badly placed by rear- or side-entrances, barely-functioning wheelchair hoists and portable ramps, when found at all, hidden behind concrete walls as though they were garbage containers. This kind of architecture stigmatises because it signals that it is only there for „those people“ for whom we need to go out of our way to build a ramp just so they can be included. She can get so worked up about it no matter who is sitting in front of her.„Sometimes you have to

be quite stubborn to convince others; I don't let myself get discouraged when someone says it won't work.“ She has always displayed this characteristic, but now her perseverance has a goal. Ursula Fuss is convinced that „ramps can be a beautiful element when you include them in your plans from the beginning.“ Then barrier-free structures would not require a square-foot more, or be any more expensive.

„But to achieve that, a good deal more know-how and work is required.“

At a certain church in the city of Mainz, it took two years until the Gordian knot was finally severed. The approach to the church, with its incredibly-embellished arrangement of stairs before leading to the main entrance, was to have a ramp added to aid the wheelchair-bound and disabled. But those with whom the decision lay instead favoured a side-entrance solution off to the side of the church's central forecourt where the church-goers would gather before and after the service. Those in wheelchairs would be forced to detour around the main area, thereby being excluded from this important part of communal life.

In the end, Ursula Fuss designed a 66-meter long ramp whose first half leads directly through the church yard, while the second half winds up to the height of the main entrance. Soon after the dedication, the top churchman, once an opponent of her plan, commended the church's „new pilgrim path.“

When Ursula Fuss rolls her wheelchair, it flickers blue, red and green like children's shoes by each step. This flickering says, „Look here, don't look away!“ and means people in wheelchairs may not be able to walk, but they can do everything else as well and as badly as everyone else. They don't deserve to be driven from churchyards or hindered when visiting museums, bars, shops or cinemas. Unrestricted mobility leads to self-confidence, one of Ursula Fuss' mottos.

In the past she was a passionate dancer. That she can no longer be one frustrates her. But she does still go alpine skiing using a specially “Monoski”. And she still travels, having just recently come back again from Sri Lanka. Hanging from her office wall is the draft for a ramp for the hotel she frequents there. The owners are planning an expansion with holiday homes. Ursula Fuss' ramp, which would connect the far-flung facilities, would be 630 meters long, making it the longest she's ever designed. Upon seeing the plans, the owners found it „ingenious“. They immediately recognised how the inner and outer movements around a structure can coincide and said, „We could use the ramp as a meditation path for all the guests“

Architecture doesn't mean laying static stones upon static stones. Good architecture is in motion and makes motion possible, it creates spaces in which people with differing abilities encounter and make contact with one another.“ That is Ursula Fuss' credo.



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