From Visual to Visionary: Architecture for All

Balance, don’t we all strive for it? Each of us has a personal, unique perception of how our lives should be more balanced. But all of our ideas take root in a well-integrated interaction between the five senses and the elements that surround us t0 form a wholesome view of what is in front of us.

But do we have a truly complete view? Traditionally, the spatio-temporal dynamics between us and our surroundings have predominantly favored sight. “Almost nothing need be said when you have eyes,” says Tarjei Vesaas in his novel ‘A Boat in the Evening.’ That is the guiding principle that we have followed in everything, including architecture.

We have stunning buildings that play with light and shadow, designs that make the structure intelligent, eco-friendly, and space-conscious. Our delight in this geeky and visual feast is so great that the other senses have been overwhelmed and allowed to wither away.

In such a world, how do the unseeing participate in this celebration of space and life? And should architecture adapt?

In 2015, the Lancet Global Health journal released a study that estimated 36 million people in the world to be blind. Shockingly, around 8.8 million out of that were found to be in India. By 2050, the number of visually impaired across the world is expected to touch 115 million of which the majority will be in Asia and Africa.

Yet, the resolute power of convention and routine has kept living spaces and structures in India closed to the blind. Right now, the parochial notion of accessibility encompasses building ramps, incorporating Braille in elevators, and providing toilets for people with disabilities.

When Ronald Mace came up with the term universal design, he was proposing a transformative experience for everyone. To him, we all become disabled at some point as we age and become infirm. “To be “normal” is to be perfect, capable, competent, and independent. Unfortunately, designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of “normal,” Ron explained in his speech at the Hofstra University in New York.

Architecture for the visually impaired, however, demands a different set of abilities from the architect. It is, after all, a metaphoric turning of the tables where the architect now has to leave the assumptions of sight behind and design intuitive structures that speak volumes in the absence of it.

Incorporating texture, sound, smell, and temperature controls are some of the tactile ways to bring a space alive for the blind. Buildings that allow for natural ventilation, and incorporate plenty of plants in the landscape stimulate the olfactory sense. Wood paneling, as opposed to rock or stone, enhances sound quality along with vaulted ceilings. Walls with textured surfaces and floors that will react to the temperature outside provide crucial sensory feedbacks to the skin. And light cannot be left out entirely either. There are variations within blindness that allow for some sense of light to filter through. Muted lighting that complements natural light and ensures there are no dark corners can help immeasurably in forming a tastefully cognitive image.

But how do these haptic synecdoches help in forming a more wholesome emotional composite?

Take the pebbles polished by the gentle lapping of waves by the seashore. They feel cool and smooth in your palms, radiating a certain timelessness and calm. Or the healing embrace from fine, white sand that’s gently warmed by the sun. Structures incorporating such materials exude tranquility and happiness. On the contrary, take cold stone or rock, roughly hewn or grooved, which also keeps the temperature in the room low. There is a deep feeling of impersonality, distance, and perhaps moroseness, in the space.

While this multisensory journey is slowly taking flight in the US and Europe, it is only just percolating down to India through a few select architects who are aware of the psychological and spiritual effect of a whole body interaction with structures. On a happier note, they are taking up the torch that Finnish architect Juhanni Pallasmaa lit all those years ago. In his book “The Eyes of the Skin,” he says that “in order to think clearly, the sharpness of vision, has to be suppressed,” as this is the only way a place can be experienced to its fullest.

Opening up architecture for visually impaired people means allowing for a richer, immersive experience for all as we create a mind, body, spirit, space continuum. We begin to see not just a structure, but have a balanced perception of a living space due to the subtle interchange of vibes and energies that starts to take place.

As the space begins to “talk” to us, it becomes a gestalt, movable feast. And this extraordinary phenomenon can only happen if we stop being visual and become visionary.

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