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The organisers say more must be done to improve access

Many modern buildings are still not accessible to people with disabilities – a state of affairs that Swiss lift company Schindler is trying to change.

It sponsors the Schindler Award to encourage young architects to design urban areas that are inclusive and accessible to all. This year's winners come from Germany.

Participants were given the task of revitalising a derelict quarter of the Austrian capital, Vienna, with special emphasis on improving disabled access.

The competition, open to students of architecture in European universities and held every two years, was won by Nils Krieger and Thorsten Stelter of the Koblenz University of Applied Sciences for their project "Triangle". They received their €5,000 (SFr7,585) prize at a ceremony at the Culture and Congress Centre in the central Swiss city of Lucerne on November 14.

The Vienna district, not far from the old city centre, was once a gasworks. Pollution, heavy traffic and a steep slope were all challenges that had to be overcome.

"Triangle" divided the area into three parallel "wedges" with different functions – services, green (leisure) and housing.

The jury, made up of architects, city planners and disability specialists, praised the "conceptual clarity" of the project, which was a "thoughtful response" to the requirements of the competition.

Stelter and Krieger told swissinfo that they were surprised and proud to have won first prize. They said that their intention was "to obtain simplicity of the outline and to develop distinctive identity" and to ensure that people's needs were taken into account.

"The involvement of the issue of access for all should not just be added to the design; it should be integrated and developed out of the design and the needs of the people. This was the most challenging part," they told swissinfo after the awards ceremony.

Raising awareness

Raising awareness of the issue of access for all is at the heart of the competition – apart from the obvious related commercial aspects for Schindler.

The company, which is based at Ebikon near Lucerne, is one of the world's leading escalator and elevator manufacturers and is present in 140 countries.

Ivo Zimmermann, deputy head of corporate communications at the Schindler group, said that although the company provided vertical mobility, including options for people with disabilities, there were still too many problems with accessing buildings.

"What's the use of having a nice elevator going to every floor of a building giving access to everyone if people with disabilities cannot enter the building itself because there are barriers," Zimmermann said on the sidelines of the award ceremony.

"The idea of the Schindler Award, which is deliberately directed at students of architecture, is to influence their mindset, meaning taking into account the issue of accessibility at the very beginning of their work."

Accessibility is not always at the forefront of architects' minds, added Françoise-Hélène Jourda, president of the jury and professor of architecture at the Vienna University of Technology.

"At the moment in schools of architecture there are teachers who don't care and they allow their students to make projects with really big problems for old people, without any lifts, no ramps or no way for the blind or the old to find their way," she told swissinfo.

"Architects should make proposals for a better world, and a better world is not only technology or a new aesthetic, or funny flying saucers in the city, it's just trying to be modern, doing contemporary architecture, but for others, to make people happier."

Pressing issue

There are 50 million disabled people in the European Union, according to the European Disability Forum – the equivalent of the combined populations of Spain and Portugal.

Older people over 65 years old account for 17.1 per cent of the EU population. This figure could rise to 30 per cent by 2060 - which heightens the importance of the accessibility issue, say Jourda and Zimmermann. Also to be taken into account are, for example, people with young children.

Both were encouraged by the higher turnout for this year's competition, the third that Schindler has held.

A total of 957 students from 17 countries took part – up from 500 for the very first award six years ago. The entries were eventually whittled down to ten, with Germany and France well represented. Czech and Slovak students won second and third prizes. Also in the running were projects from Finland and Turkey, but there were no Swiss finalists.

The competition also captured the interest of the disabled community and representatives were at the pre-award ceremony exhibition looking at the projects. A high profile supporter is former Swiss skiing star Silvano Beltrametti, who was paralysed from the chest down following a ski race accident.

Hopes for the future

For the moment, the competition is aimed at Europe. Jourda says the continent is a bit behind in terms of access compared with the United States.

But there are signs of change. Architecture faculties are beginning to take notice of the competition with some adding it to their curriculum, say the organisers.

"More and more students are feeling concerned by this question. The challenge is huge but I'm very optimistic," said Jourda.

"I had the feeling that future architects will really do things for disability and not only in the richer countries in Europe, but also in countries which have economic and social difficulties at the moment."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Lucerne

Prize winners

Nils Krieger and Thorsten Stelter of Koblenz University of Applied Sciences in Germany clinched first prize of €5,000 for their project "Triangle", while the faculty at Koblenz won the first Schools' prize of €25,000.

The second prize of €3,000 went to Jakub Krcmar and Martina Sotkovska of the Czech Republic's Czech Technical University – Faculty of Architecture. The third prize (€2,000) was won by Krisztian Csemy of the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia. Fourth and fifth prizes of €1,000 each were awarded to teams from France's Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Bretagne, and Finland's Tampere University of Technology.

The Finnish university also won the second Schools' prize of €15,000, while Turkey's Middle East Technical University took the third (€10,000). Schools are awarded prizes for supporting their teams' participation and for incorporating the issue of accessibility into lectures. Prize money goes to the research unit of the faculty.

Five projects from France, Germany, Austria and Turkey received nominations while four others, from Britain, Belgium, Poland and Austria, were given special mentions.

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