Lekker Architects offers a new approach to inclusive design
Behind this massive endeavor lies none other than Lekker Architects, a local studio founded by husband-and-wife duo Ong Ker-Shing and Joshua Comaroff. Over the past decade, the two architects, who also teach architecture at the National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS College, have built a strong reputation for inclusive design. Today, they boast an impressive portfolio of projects, including Singapore’s first comprehensive preschool, a daycare centre, a quiet room in an art museum for people with sensory processing disorders, and a much-needed guide to dementia-friendly design, which they created in collaboration with Studio Lanzavecchia + Wai.
in FI&LD, Laker chose a particularly poignant quote from Billy: “If someone can’t play, you gotta change the game.” The premise was simple – if a game isn’t for everyone, it needs to be redesigned – and it set the tone not just for the show, but for the field of inclusive design more broadly. If blind people can’t use some kitchen utensils, we should redesign them. If a subway car isn’t suitable for neurodivergent people, we should design one for them.
For Laker, inclusivity is a spectrum, and designing for inclusivity means striking a balance between having no rules (which is very confusing) and too many rules (which is guaranteed to exclude someone). The key, Komarov says, is to design spaces that are flexible to adapt and allow people with varying needs to coexist in the same space.
This doesn’t mean just opening your doors wide and letting everyone in. “This will work great until you design an inclusive school and actually sit down with inclusive teachers,” he says. “These children have radically contradictory needs. One autistic child is hypersensitive, while the other (the autistic child) is hyposensitive and needs background noise, visual stimulation, and constant interaction. These children have to occupy the same space.”
One (wrong) solution might be to build enough separate rooms to meet the needs of people with different needs, but the children will not interact or learn about each other’s differences. At Kindle Garden Preschool, for example, the architects designed an accessibility path on the floor that looks like a computer circle and is made of a vinyl material that is so different from the rest of the floor that you can feel the difference when you walk on it barefoot. When the school first opened in 2015, Komarov says there were no children with visual impairments, so the track was seen as a fun decorative feature. Then a blind girl joined, and once the teachers showed her how to navigate the route, everyone started walking the line alongside her. “You see over and over again that kids try to minimize uncomfortable differences between each other,” Komarov says. “And if there are differences, they kind of ignore them; It’s a wonderful form of empathy that they learn, and if we separate them, they won’t get that.
Over the course of their careers, architects have learned to design not only “to expect misuse,” Ong says, but also to encourage it by designing spaces and experiences that function less as defining forms and more as catalysts. For Singapore Design Week, Lekker also designed a web app called Play Play, a game builder that lets you set parameters that suit players with different needs or disabilities, and then suggests games that fit those parameters. You can choose to play without looking, speaking, or using your arms or legs, and if someone new enters the game, you can go back to the menu and change the rules so everyone is on a level playing field from the start. .
Vivian Paley would probably be proud.