Some time next year, Cloud Swing, suspending two wheelchair-accessible and three standard seats from an eponymously-shaped steel construction, should hopefully be bolted into the ground and launching its first users in the air. This joyful new interpretation of the common swing set, designed by Brooklyn-based Isometric Studio, is driven by a mission to highlight the spatial experiences and needs of people underrepresented in places for play. Whereas most of New York City’s playground swings are designed for infants and children in a parallel manner, the seats of the serpentine Cloud Swing are inward-facing to create a rhythmic, inclusive sense of community among users of different ages.
At its core, the project interprets Universal Design — a set of principles and guidelines that insists that all people should be centered in architectural design — to highlight the stakes of wellness and accessibility in the built environment. The desire to structurally integrate more than one type of swing seat in a “whimsical cloud” outweighed any urge for visual novelty, according to Waqas Jawaid, Cloud Swing’s principal designer. “We wanted to shift this thinking so making designed spaces accessible would become as simple and intuitive as creating a functional yet beautiful doorway or stairway.” Jawaid and his partner, Andy Chen, are the principals of Isometric Studio, a graphic design and architectural practice deeply driven by inclusion. “We chose this name,” Jawaid explained, “because we wanted to challenge and reimagine the existing visual culture and built environment which are highly unequal and exclusive.”
The trajectory of Cloud Swing — a name coined by Chen — and the effort to bring more inclusive play options to public spaces in New York City and its environs, have so far mimicked the swing’s pendular motion. In 2021, Isometric entered the project into the Flatiron Public Plaza Design Competition. Though they lost that contest, they found support for Cloud Swing from the Wellcome Trust, a global health foundation, through an initiative called Mindscapes, an international cultural program about mental health. From there they found the project’s fabricator, Serett Metalworks of Gowanus, Brooklyn. Isometric subsequently consulted with IncludeNYC, a youth-centered disability advocacy organization who connected Isometric to advocate and advisor Trina Hazell, Ms. Wheelchair New York 2018. Then, an installation planned for May 2022 at a site in New York City was temporarily halted due to liability concerns and staffing limitations. In fall of 2022, Isometric’s present sponsor, Grounds for Sculpture (GFS) optimistically responded and reenergized next steps for a 2023 installation at the Hamilton, New Jersey sculpture museum and park.
“We have an appetite for doing things that have not been done before” said GFS’s executive director, Gary Schneider. GFS’s extensive acreage, which opened to the public in 1992, hosts contemporary sculptures, exhibits, gardens, nurseries, an arboretum, and, soon, the curvy Swing. A shared commitment to accessibility cemented the collaboration. “The park was really designed from the beginning to make art approachable and accessible” added Schneider. “It’s going to be really meaningful for people to be able to engage with Cloud Swing and have that kind of sense of freedom, that kind of movement. And that that can be accessible to all.” I spoke with Jawaid at several points on Cloud Swing’s journey to discuss the stakes of accessibility and play, and why novelty alone was never the point. – AN
My first question concerns universal design principles, which are wrapped up in the ethical application of design, as well as the legal frameworks around access and the Americans with Disabilities Act. How did Isometric navigate or interpret those principles for the Cloud Swing project?
I was trained as an architect, and one of the things we learned about was the Modulor Man, which was a perfectly proportioned human being drawn by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in the early 20th century. I think the challenge with that is there is no one way of being a perfect human being. So, of course, we’re always questioning that. At the same time, the idea of certain rules of thumb can be very important and useful in design, as constraints and as guides.
For example, when we design a door — unless you want to make it bigger — typically, you would make it at least 30 inches wide and seven feet tall. In the United States it’s like a rule of thumb; an architect would not make it smaller than that. So now apply that same logic of “this thing needs to be usable” to people who need additional accessibility: the disability community. If I imagine that I’m using a wheelchair and I need to get from point A to point B, I need a ramp. I cannot go up the stairs. So that becomes a requirement.
A lot of people did incredible work and advocacy to basically codify those rules in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990. And those are really simple rules: 30 inches wide for access, a five-foot diameter for somebody to be able to turn around, and a one-to-twelve proportion, shallow ramp, so people don’t have to work extremely hard to go up a hill.
What’s really frustrating is that even today, when I attend conversations and panels in some of the elite architecture schools, people present accessibility as a really difficult problem. “Oh, I was trying to make this great design, but it’s so complicated. I was thinking about accessibility, but we didn’t do it.” And I’m like, “It’s not more complicated than designing a door that’s three feet wide and seven feet tall.” You clearly considered some people to be your constituency — people who were welcome, and who the building was for — and other people were excluded. That was a choice.
Of course, design has to go beyond the functional to reach a more spiritual level, something that invites community. We started thinking about what the shape of that thing could be: the color and material texture, the spatial organization, the composition, and so on. All are areas of creativity, of exploration, of trying out different options and really pushing the boundaries on making something that we, hopefully, have not seen before. It destabilizes convention and, I think, propels the imagination for people who visit as well.
This term, “access,” is very relevant to the Cloud Swing project. I would pose the same question again, but not thinking solely about universal principles, but also the legal frameworks around access. How have you approached that?
On a fundamental level, the biggest challenge is that people are not used to seeing public works of art that are specifically catering to the disability community. Because accessibility is usually seen, by designers and by institutions, as this annoying requirement, a checkbox that they have to check. People are usually talking about accessibility as being counter to good design, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
I say that because at every stage, we have faced situations where people are circumspect, and people are worried that this particular installation is going to take us into the realm of the unknown, whether it’s regarding insurance and litigation, or safety, whether it’s just being able to do things as they are usually done. This installation requires something a little bit different than that. That’s been the overarching theme.
In recent decades, there has been an immense amount of fear and scarcity when it comes to playgrounds, because people don’t want to get into a lawsuit. Specifically, we have been asked a lot of questions about insurance. What if somebody gets hurt? What if somebody intentionally comes to the swing and hurts themselves in order to bring a lawsuit? We’re still working through the insurance complications and making sure that the liability is there. People should be protected when they go into a public space, and there should be a mechanism for that.
What do you think institutions need to actually support projects like Cloud Swing at their sites? Given everything that you’ve been through in trying to install the piece?
We know that sometimes things take a long time to build. This is more of a passion project for us. And to some extent, that’s the case for our fabricator, Serett Metalworks, as well. They’re invested as creative partners. So there isn’t that scarcity of time and pressure. And that’s also helped by Wellcome, the funder for the swing, who told us that when the time is right, this will happen.
Sometimes institutions are set in their ways, versus thinking outside the box a little bit. And I think it has to do with who is at those institutions, whether the staffing represents a diverse constituency. And it also has to do with just the logistics, how projects are done, how projects are funded, how projects are selected.
I think that there could be some kind of middle ground where institutions could pursue certain projects in ways that seem to be really well oiled, and exactly the way that they work well, and then have some room for creativity and for doing things a little bit differently. And give themselves some time and space, the luxury of time and the unknown, the ambiguity to be able to imagine a project differently. Oftentimes, we measure people according to the rules of how institutions work, like whether somebody can do this in a certain timeframe and at a certain quality. But different people have different ways of being creative and contributing to a project. Creating room for that, I think, would be really key as we begin to imagine how design can be more inclusive.
We need to have a pathway for designers to be able to explore and be creative, and to authentically think about what accessibility means in a conceptual way, in an aesthetic way, and not just a functional way. Because functional is boring. That’s the minimum requirement, but we have to go beyond that, and that’s kind of difficult.
To pursue public space in that way is starting to feel more and more novel. How are you grappling with the kind of influence that a project like this can have, in our cultural space, for wellness?
The use of the word “environment,” to me, has a dual meaning. There is the cultural environment that we move through and live in, and the social interactions that we have. And then there’s the environment, which is the planet and its future. We are using industrial materials, like steel, to make this thing. I often wonder about whether the most environmentally sustainable thing to do might be to not build anything at all and to just repurpose. But at the same time, I think that there is a need to be creative, and to thoughtfully build new things that come out of the human imagination that bring people together.
In many ways, the Cloud Swing project is quite graphic. If you look at the cloud shape, it is something that can, visually, be quickly consumed and understood. Which to me is really interesting, because no matter how many people go to Cloud Swing, there is an additional power in that its photograph — its graphic and digital reproduction on various channels like social media — has the power to affect and modulate how people think about swings and how they think about accessibility in the future.
What we’re going through right now, as a human species, is hopefully a reorientation of what is important to us: Is it capital or is it people? Can we stop treating people as machines who need to be as productive as possible, and rather think about sharing resources more? Or think about having a place where different people could come together as they are, without having to conform to some kind of ideal — to get away from toxic competition, where a lot of resources get wasted and people just feel really bad about themselves? Can we just get away from that? And just be? Architecture and graphic design help define our social environments, and visibility is extremely important: for people to be seen, to feel seen, and to manifest who they are without fear. I think some of the most powerful implications of Cloud Swing are the programming that might take place in and around it.
Does Isometric have an idea in mind as to how you would pursue sustainability, not just with environment in mind, but in terms of the broader impact for Cloud Swing?
I think the biggest potential effect of sustaining this conversation will be the images and the language emerge from Cloud Swing and are organically shared. It’s not a project for a single studio or a single individual. It’s a whole network of designers that are doing this work. I hope that it will affect something else that somebody is doing somewhere. That idea comes from the field of architecture as well. Architects always start with precedent studies: looking at what has been done before and how we can build up on that.
Graphic designers tend to be very much more about, “This is my original creation. This is my authored work.” Nothing really is, because we’re always being bombarded with images. I think it’s more useful to identify inspirations, to give credit to where those inspirations come from, and then to build on them in a holistic way. Not copied one-to-one, but kind of synthesized, combined, and evolved. That’s how our studio works. My hope is that ball is going to continue to roll, and that people would start to incorporate more cool, exciting, fun ways of making the built environment sustainable. So that the accessible route to your destination is not the boring option, the boring way around the back. It’s the main gateway into the space.
All images by Isometric Studio unless otherwise noted.