Friday, September 13, 2013

Gallaudet's Architecture Satisfies the Senses

I've heard it said before that our senses can actually limit us more than they help us. For example, the Who's famous rock opera, Tommy, expresses that life without sight, sound, or speech leads to enlightenment, and in one of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, a sightless character from another galaxy is vexed by the reliance of humans on their senses, claiming that they seem so constricting. Recently, architect David Lewis proposed that our senses have lowered our expectations for the quality of space in which we live and work.

Lewis is the lead architect at New York City-based LTL Architects and is at the front of Gallaudet University's newest residence hall. Gallaudet is home to almost 2,000 students who are deaf or hearing impaired, so it was important that the new hall follow the design principles of DeafSpace, an initiative created in 2005 by architect Hansel Bauman to develop architectural guidelines that improved interactions amongst the deaf community. DeafSpace's design elements address space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics, all of which can be issues for the deaf.

You wouldn't notice right off that the residence hall was designed specifically for deaf students. The first thing you might notice is how open and well-lit it is, or you might see that your skin has a healthy glow to it rather than the somewhat greenish tinge it takes on in white rooms with florescent lighting. Then you might say, “Wow” and notice that in spite of the open space, your utterance did not fly across the room in echo. Wouldn't it be nice if this were the case every time you walked in a building?

These appealing examples are the results of very intentional design choices to make Gallaudet's new dorm more accessible for its residents. Here are some of the key features of the building:

  • The community room on the ground floor has sloped ceiling that aligns perfectly with the inclines ground outside, and the wall is essentially a giant window. This way, people inside and outside the building can communicate with one another via sign language.

  • Similarly, the centrally located stairwell is transparent as well. Rather than a separated cement staircase (like, for example, the one in Neuberger Hall), this one is open, well-lit, and in the middle of the room, allowing for easier communication.

  • The 12-foot-wide hallways are twice as wide as standard halls.

  • The hall's kitchen has all appliances concentrated to an island in the middle so that students don't have to have their backs to one another.

  • The interior colors (red, yellow, green, and steel blue) were chosen to enhance natural skin tones in order to make facial expressions easier to read.

  • The ceiling is paneled, and an acoustic blanket sits under the concrete floor to enhance and tighten acoustics. This reduces the reverberations that can mess with hearing aids and, consequently, keeps voices from carrying across a room.

  • Unfortunately there were not enough funds for a huge skylight, but hey, maybe someday!

So here's what I'm thinking: Why aren't all new buildings following the DeafSpace guidelines? I think it sounds pretty good! It seems our senses let us build these obstacles—like dark, narrow halls and stairwells—simply because we can get around them without too much struggle or complaint. But why not make our space more beautiful, intuitive, and accessible for all people? 

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