San Diego State University
San Diego, California
Maurizio Antoninetti is a designer whose passion is urban design, but until recently, he paid his bills working as an accessibility consultant. His interest in urban design began during his undergraduate years at Politecnico di Milano, Italy, where he earned a B. A. with honor in architecture with a major in urbanism in October 1991. The degree program emphasized urban design, social analysis, and geographic information systems (GIS). In the United States, Maurizio recently completed a master of city planning at San Diego State University, and he has just begun a Ph.D. program, also at San Diego State, where he will research human and urban geography.
"It can be frustrating when you are a consultant in a specialty that's not very well understood and where good design or universal design is condensed to mere accessibility and code compliance."
- Maurizio Antoninetti
He feels he won the attention of the university selection committee when he proposed studying the application and possible outcomes of universal design principles on an urban scale. Maurizio is a teaching associate in the program, which he entered in September 2001. He is excited but also a bit worried about being overwhelmed by the doctoral program, so he did some advance study in order to arrive at the beginning of the first semester prepared for the new experience. He also had a very responsive audience to his presentation "Universal Design at the Urban Scale" at the Inclusion By Design Conference in Montreal in June 2001.
Maurizio was born and grew up in northern Italy, in the fertile Padania valley, just one hour by car south of Milan. He remembers hiking with his father and two brothers among vineyards and thick woods searching for wild mushrooms. When he turned seventeen, Maurizio went to live in a small resort in the western Alps, where he pursued his passion for skiing and rock climbing. Maurizio's spinal cord injury is the result of an accident that occurred while he was climbing in the Alps for the Italian Army. This entitled him to a life disability pension, which relieved him of economic pressure and left him free to consider returning to school and becoming an architect. Thanks to the same economic support, he and his wife were able to come to the United States to live while he pursued his master's degree.
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When he first entered the department of architecture in Milan, Maurizio was disheartened to discover that nobody was working on the daunting accessibility problems inside and outside the university. He began to gain a reputation as an accessibility expert. He came to be listed at the European Community Offices in Bruxelles, Belgium, taught post-graduate courses on accessibility, and wrote numerous articles. He is the author of Un'Oasi per Tutti (An Oasis for Everybody), a technical book about improving accessibility in parks, preserves, and open spaces published in 1991.
Design school was a struggle for Maurizio, who faced restrictive stadium seating with no accessible desktops and an inaccessible cafeteria, among other difficulties. Because of the high tables, he turned to early versions of computer-assisted design (CADD). During his school years in Milan, Maurizio lived in a remodeled garage. He remembers this period as five years without a kitchen.
He first came to the United States in 1991 with his new bride, Livia, partly as a tourist but also curious to see how access issues were handled here. He's always had a pure love of travel and a little bit of craziness. Traveling around Europe with his manual wheelchair, which he did frequently, presented him with many frustrating moments. "In Italy I had to preview and preplan every trip. When I got to San Diego, I felt reborn. Simply to be able to get on a bus or a train and go anywhere without phoning or faxing ahead was an amazing experience."
His first "great exposure" to universal design came when he arrived in San Diego and was able to directly access several publications and web sites (in the very early days of the Internet) dedicated to universal design. The first time he read about universal design principles, he felt as if he'd found something for which he had been searching a long time, something he'd tried to discover inside himself without realizing that it already existed and had a name. "It was a thrill to know I was not alone."
He started his own firm, Universal Access Consulting (UAC) right after he and his wife received their green cards and gained the right to work full time in the United States. Before that he volunteered his skills and experience to public and nonprofit organizations in the San Diego area. Since its start, UAC has been a "one-man-band." The primary work involved going out and surveying existing or new facilities for accessibility code compliance or violations. These activities paid the bills and helped publicize his name. From time to time, his company was asked to participate in projects and to suggest universal design ideas and solutions. Maurizio also continues a close collaboration with the HB-Group of Milan, whose architects and designers are at the forefront of the Design for All movement in Europe.
In San Diego, Maurizio has worked on one major project, a three-building complex with medical library, small office building, and seventy-two-seat auditorium. At the beginning, the architectural firm in charge of the project "rolled out the red carpet" for him. Then their commitment to access "receded a little bit" as the project moved from design to construction.
On many of the smaller access consultancy projects with which Maurizio has been involved, a similar script has unfolded. He worked as an intern for the city on the San Diego Convention Center Expansion Master Plan and the Sherman Heights Revitalization Plan. This internship was an interesting one that, sadly, opened his eyes to the political imperatives behind American urban planning. His experience was that there is limited understanding or attention to universal design and that at this time, it is not on the urban planning agenda.
When he approaches a project, Maurizio first tries to embrace its full scope. He relates the project to its surroundings and asks questions about topography, geography, and potential users. When this preliminary check is finished, he evaluates possibilities, constraints, and outcomes of introducing universal design principles. Only at this point does he consider solutions and research materials, colors, textures, etc. He describes himself as "fanatical about details." Except for the first house he owned and designed, he has always worked with an already partially designed or even constructed environment. To work in this way is challenging and teaches the values of compromise, Maurizio explains, "But it can be frustrating when you are a consultant in a specialty that's not very well understood and where good design or universal design is condensed to mere accessibility and code compliance."
Maurizio, his wife, and their five-year-old son, Nickolas Sundance, live a few blocks from the beach in San Diego. He has lots of opportunity to ride his handcycle around the neighborhood and meet people in the area. They decided to buy a house at the beach for three reasons: because they were lucky enough to afford it, because of the interesting mix of people (old residents, young families, college students, tourists), and because, as Maurizio says, "For an American city, it is unusual that almost everything is within walking distance! Shopping, entertainment and the ocean! Amazing! I do not think we could live as happy as we are here in a sprawled new development where you need the car for every minimum necessity and everything looks new and heartless. This is perhaps where I got the idea to apply the universal design principles to the urban scale."
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