Design for Communication
This volume brings together the research and reflections the Studio Twenty Seven Team is making in the course of our work with Gallaudet University. In particular, this pamphlet documents the importance of communication – both in process and as a design focus – in developing new learning and living environments at Gallaudet.
Fragment is an episodic publication of Studio Twenty Seven Architecture. Each issue is dedicated to a singular idea, project, or element associated with the Art of Architecture, published to foster future dialogues on architecture.
“Deaf ways of being challenge the notion of universal design in favor of a radically inclusive design process.”
Director of Campus Planning and Design,
Gallaudet University is the preeminent center for Deaf learning and culture in the United States. It is an institution that illustrates the importance of communication to human activities and advancement. At Gallaudet, vision is the primary medium of communication. The University’s unique culture – and consequently its campus – has developed in direct response to this reprioritization of the senses.
When the federal government chartered Gallaudet in 1864, deafness was a widely stigmatized condition. In the 150 years since, Gallaudet University has been an instrumental force in the demarginalization of deafness and the realization of American Sign Language and Deaf culture. The University continues to evolve, using its unique position to affirm Deaf identity and disseminate the insights of Deaf ways of being into the larger culture.
“A DeafSpace is one in which Deaf culture, in all its diverse dimensions, can thrive through full access to communication and the unique cognitive, cultural, and creative dimensions of deaf experience are encouraged.“
Gallaudet University DeafSpace Guidelines
Volume 1 (2010) p. 10
DeafSpace, a concept developed at Gallaudet, refers to the deaf experience in the context of the built environment. The DeafSpace Project aims not only to set deaf-conscious standards for facilities on campus, but also to advocate for design that is accessible to multiple senses. In our ongoing relationship with the University, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture is exploring an architectural approach to DeafSpace. Using the University’s DeafSpace Guidelines as a basis for design, we have worked with Gallaudet to complete a series of renovations, reviving spaces on campus that were unloved or underutilized. In each interaction, we gained new insight into the power of space to embolden visual communication and community development.
The people of Gallaudet are bound together by shared experience and means of expression. This solidarity, reinforced by a legacy of marginalization and misunderstanding, predisposes the community to collaborative and collective action. It is a communitarian ethos that prevails despite wide demographic diversity and an even wider range of capacities for sight, hearing, mobility, manual dexterity, and verbal expression. Designing a universal environment for such a diverse population is both complex – it must be legible to each sense, and support many kinds of experiences – and simple – designed for all.
Within Gallaudet’s consensus-driven culture, the architects of Studio Twenty Seven became facilitators of a collective visioning process. We learned to consider the design process as a study in communication, adjusting our methods of representation and presentation in order to better understand the University community and to help them better understand our ideas. This approach is representative of the capacity of design to facilitate communication, particularly in DeafSpace. Dimension, light, material, and physicality affect all acts of communication, but they have special profundity to those who communicate predominately through vision. Similarly, visual porosity and spatial continuity are crucial to the success of any building or campus, but especially those used by students and faculty whose eyes must comprehend both space and language simultaneously.
This volume brings together the research and reflections the Studio Twenty Seven team is making in the course of our work with Gallaudet University. In particular, this pamphlet documents the importance of communication – both in process and as a design focus – in developing new learning and living environments at Gallaudet.
Communicating effectively with any client is challenging.
When the client is a large community, like a college or university, effective communication is even more difficult.
When the conversations between the client and the architect occur in two different languages, however, effective communication is not just a challenge; the method of communication itself becomes a design problem.
All of the architects at Studio Twenty Seven Architecture are hearing; at the beginning of our work with Gallaudet, none were versed in American Sign Language. Language barriers create an automatic condition of exteriority; in this case, we began as hearing architects exterior to a community fluent in ASL.
The Gallaudet Interpreting Services team is the instrument by which non-ASL speakers regularly contribute to the activities of the University. They also ensure that advocates for deaf consciousness have access to every conversation that concerns the Gallaudet community. Though they are a highly skilled group, we found that the volume of information that needed to be exchanged during design workshops exceeded the capacity of the interpreters working between us.
This incapacity, and the resulting deficiencies in communication, was at first a major obstacle to the progression of our work with Gallaudet. The people of the University are part of a larger Deaf community that has fought hard to assert its voices, overcoming a history of being considered voiceless by society at large. 1 As a result, the culture at Gallaudet is remarkably inclusive. Its decisions are a consensus of all opinions and perspectives; effective bilateral communication is essential to cultivating this consensus. It was Studio Twenty Seven Architecture’s task to conceptualize a way of communicating that could bring the hearing and signing to a shared and sustained understanding.
We began as active listeners: seeking to understand the context and gestural intent of every signer, to question all nuance to a point of precision, and to attend to each member of the broader University constituency equitably. When presenting, we learned to be cognizant of the signer more acutely than the interpreter. Signers speak with their hands and hear with their eyes; the hands are the primary transmitter of meaning and the face is the transmitter of emphasis and subtext. 2 The relationship between the roles of face and body that is expected by a hearing person is, in fact, inverted; this inversion is sometimes the cause of misapprehension. Those that hear with their ears read the expressions of emphasis in a hand-speaker’s face as pronouncements of emotion that seem exaggerated. In actuality, they are crucial to deaf communication (Fig. 1).
- Deaf culture evolved around deafness as a shared human experience, and “…as a very small community living within a much larger country of hearing people, [issues of power and dominance] are unavoidable.” Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 2005)
- “In sign language, the semiotic components of the symbiosis are reversed: the hands convey the text, and the mouth simultaneously supplies the complementary gesture.” Wendy Sandler, “Symbiotic symbolization by hand and mouth in sign language,” Semiotica 174: 241–275 (2009)
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sign language interpreter Lydia Callis caught the attention of the hearing public during press conferences in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. “Hearing people tend to not understand that deaf people need those facial expressions… they need the body language to make up for all of the information that’s usually transmitted in our voices when we speak.’” DNAinfo, October 31, 20121.
“Deep in [sign language’s] structure are clues to the workings of the human brain and the wisdom of social groups that work together to make meaning and find a purpose for living.”
Carol Padden & Tom Humphries,
Inside Deaf Culture, p. 76
Spatial relationships are embedded within the structure of ASL – many signs are a figural, spatial, or kinetic representation of their meaning (Fig. 2). The signing body and the space in front of it become the medium on which these images are produced. In a similar manner, iconographic gestures are used by hearing communicators to illustrate the shape, spatial situation, or action of a subject. 3 As architects, we regularly use iconographic gestures to help us communicate ideas about space to colleagues and clients. Often, we record these gestures as we speak in the form of gesture sketches. Like signing, gesture sketching projects the physical essence of an idea onto a common medium. Both are communication through the movement of a hand tracking in space (Fig. 3). The signing client and sketching architect have a shared fluency at the junction of gesture and form.
3. Iconographic gestures can be pictographic (representative of the shape of the referent), spatiographic (representative of the spatial situation of the referent), and kinetographic (representative of the referent in action). Robert S. Feldman and Bernard Rime, Fundamentals of Nonverbal Behavior (C. Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and Cambridge University Press, 1991) 245
Figure 2. In ASL, an inverted “V” sign is the pictographic classifier for a person’s legs; placed on the opposite hand is the spatiographic sign for stand; moved forward in space one by one to mimic walking legs is the kinetographic sign for walk to.
“I want to know if someone is in the study room. View is more important than privacy.”
We use this logic as basis for a series of visual representation strategies: first, spatial relationship diagrams, diagrammatic renderings, and scale models; later, photorealistic renderings and full-sized mock ups (Fig. 4–7). We find that these tools elevate our discussions, increasing the efficiency, clarity, and complexity of the interpreters’ words between us. More importantly, in each iteration they serve as a test of how accurately we understand the information given to us by the Gallaudet community.
In the development of our renovations for the Hanson Plaza residence halls, we held a sequence of design workshops with a group of Gallaudet students. Most of the students were unfamiliar with Gallaudet’s DeafSpace Guidelines. Though each had their own expectations for the spaces in which they lived and learned, these expectations were better articulated in reference to existing conditions rather than as abstract specifications.
Below: In conversation during a design workshop, an architect sketches and a Gallaudet student signs.
Above: A scale model of the Wood Cloud installation in Ballard Hall North. Early lessons taught us that large scale models are invaluable in communicating volumetric and scalar relationships between the human body and surrounding spaces.
In the first workshop, we presented our design proposals outright. To the students, the proposals were just as foreign as the DeafSpace Guidelines we used as reference. We learned many lessons, none more so than the difficulty of explaining a hypothetical experience to a group of people whose way of perceiving space is fundamentally different.
Architects design spaces for experiences beyond our own all the time – in the majority of our work, the people that will use our projects have lifestyles and backgrounds that we do not share. Assuming the perspective of another is a constant part of the design process. But deafness, as a realignment of the senses that are so crucial to how a person relates to a space, is a much more essential difference in perspective.
Figure 5 above: Studio Twenty Seven Architecture developed bas-relief drawings using state-of-the-art 3D printing tools to create tactile floor plans annotated with Braille to allow deaf and blind students to read the new spaces.
It is, we learned, as if we are the constituency that lack the use of a sense. We can make no assumptions. Design can only progress by way of constant communication between ourselves and the Gallaudet representatives. If they don’t understand an idea we present, it is a failure of either our idea or our presentation. If we don’t understand an idea they are trying to explain to us, it is a failure of our capacity for communication. All failures are a chance for us to learn.
The design team identifies these failures, and then corrects them, through representation. In the subsequent design workshops with students, we began with diagrams of the DeafSpace Guidelines and diagrammatic renderings that illustrated the Guidelines at work in each space. Together, and then more extensively within the project team, we worked forward to photorealistic renderings that reflected a project truly conceived by the collective. The success of our communication, tested again and again by representation, is ultimately affirmed by the final built design.
Figure 6. A final rendering (above) and photograph after renovation (below) of the student lounge in Clerc Hall.
“Designed and constructed mostly by hearing individuals, our built environment is conceived, and in large measure, experienced visually. At the same time, it is designed in such a way that assumes hearing as a central means of spatial orientation. Often the result shows little regard for the ways in which space, form, light and material could be used to facilitate greater spatial awareness and wellbeing in a multisensory way.”
Gallaudet University DeafSpace Guidelines
Volume 1 (2010) p. 10
The DeafSpace Design Guidelines are part of the ongoing DeafSpace Project led by Hansel Bauman, the Director of Campus Planning and Design at Gallaudet, in collaboration with the University’s ASL DeafStudies Department. The guidelines identify ways that designers can engage and enrich the experiences of deaf people in their work.
Studio Twenty Seven Architecture has worked with the Gallaudet University community on several projects, ranging from public space renovations for aging residence halls to the modernization and expansion of a new Science, Technology, and Mathematics facility. Each effort has a shared focus: to reinforce the Campus Master Plan while extending the explorations and discoveries of Gallaudet’s DeafSpace Project.
To inform sectional relationships and wall finishes, the design team developed a DeafSpace Modular based on Le Corbusier’s index of anthropometric scales of proportion. Le Corbusier derived Le Modulor from positions of the body in concert with idealized geometric ratios; the DeafSpace Modular is based on the proportional relationships between two signers.
“The interior is too disconnected from the balance of the campus. Also the blocked split levels divide the space.”
The first projects completed in Studio Twenty Seven Architecture’s collaboration with the Gallaudet community focused on a series of five of the University’s overworked and outgrown residence halls.
The University’s planning projections indicated that the number of students living in dorms would soon exceed the available dwelling units. Dissatisfaction with housing was students’ foremost complaint. All the while, pipes were bursting, interior finishes were wearing, and entropy was setting in. Studio Twenty Seven Architecture assisted in stabilizing and extending the useful lives of the residence halls. These projects are considered a stop gap measure, designed to significantly alter common spaces within the dormitories in keeping with the principals of the University’s DeafSpace Guidelines.
Until the mid-20th century, education was seen as a form of rehabilitation; the intention of most academic architecture was to isolate student activities into classified and controlled environments. At schools for the deaf, often physically isolated and culturally insular, this institutional approach was reinforced by architects and administrators who viewed deaf students as disabled. 1 The five dormitories – Peet (1957), Ballard West (1965), Clerc (1971), Benson (1972), and Carlin (1979) – were built as both academia and academic architecture began to adopt a more inclusive construct. To varying degrees of success, the dormitories attempted to support individual student independence and collective student culture through a mix of public and private spaces.
1. The spaces inside schools, hospitals, asylums, and penitentiaries were designed to cut off inhabitants and their activities from one another. Designers “turned all their attention inward, to the divisions of time and space within the institution… controlling the movements of bodies within space would be the means by which rehabilitation would be accomplished.” David Rotham, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Chicago: Aldine Transaction, 1991) 27. See also Padden & Humphries’s discussion of Foucault’s theories of observation and control in institutional settings, created “to label and regulate the movements of individuals” and “organized… by silence.” Padden & Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, 30-32
Unfortunately, much of this early logic had been lost by years of official and unofficial modifications. Many of the common spaces in the residences halls felt oppressive and claustrophobic; many spaces were completely unused. Furthermore, the building’s interior public spaces had no effective relationship with the exterior; visual access between common spaces indoors and the campus outside was inhibited by outdated approaches to security and long-superseded assumptions about the behavior of the student body.
The Studio Twenty Seven Architecture renovations engage deafness not as a disability, but as life with a perceptual reality that uses four senses and visual language to construct environment and community.
These projects consist of very minor but meaningful insertions at multiple scales and sectional conditions. These insertions were intensely studied to achieve a measured response to the space and project need. They can all be considered in terms of the categories of DeafSpace guidelines developed by Gallaudet.
“The deaf community is a diverse one, in which many people inhabit a rich sensory world with a heightened visual-tactile means of spatial orientation and visual language…”
Gallaudet University DeafSpace
Guidelines, Volume 1 (2010), p. 10
Space & Proximity: The removal of opaque boundaries gives students visual control over an expanded scope of their living space. There is a greater capacity for visual communication among interior spaces and between the residence interiors and the campus outside. Informal gathering spaces and nodes for spontaneous social interaction are established through variation in material, lighting, and elevation. Desks and benches promote student use of public spaces and act as shelves for signer’s belongings to free up hands for conversation.
Sensory Reach: Interior public spaces and building entries become recognizable landmarks and visible destinations, legible even in peripheral vision. The removal of interior walls and insertion of transparency, especially at points of entry and along paths of circulation, extends a student’s visual sense for their environment. Areas of floor material that carry vibration alert students with limited vision of nearby activity.
Mobility & Proximity: Wide, sheltered building entries – with automatic doors, at-grade thresholds, and simplified ramps – extend the common spaces of the residence halls into the exterior and do not interrupt students in the middle of conversation. Lounge spaces allow for both stationary and moving conversations within the residence halls’ circulation systems.
Light & Color: Contrasting wall finishes within identified signing zones clarify a signer’s hands against the background. Surface finishes vary at programmatic boundaries, articulating changes in use of space both visually and texturally. Within the material scheme, a wayfinding system of contrasting finishes and signage makes building navigation easier for those of limited sight. The capacity for natural lighting is increased, but modulated by curtains and shade devices. The distribution of both natural and artificial lighting is balanced with a focus on glare and light contrast.
Acoustics & EMI: Soundproofing prevents acoustic transference from being distracting, overbearing, or isolating.
The Gallaudet University campus is itself illustrative of the status of Deaf culture over the past 150 years. At its founding, Gallaudet was relegated to land at the rural periphery of Washington, DC. Even as the city grew to surround it, the gated Gallaudet campus remained largely sequestered. In recent years, however, the University community has emerged as central to the growth of the DC’s Northeast quadrant. Its programs are expanding and development is occurring along all campus boundaries.
Though the Gallaudet campus is subject to the same issues of connectivity and community as any urban university, its mission makes the design of its public spaces a more nuanced challenge. The DeafSpace Guidelines underline the importance of clear wayfinding, intuitive circulation patterns, and visual connectivity. Landmarks and wide, at-grade building entries allow students to communicate with each other while understanding the campus; visual access and spatial continuity across elevations and building enclosures extend awareness well beyond the immediate sphere.
As Gallaudet’s campus has expanded to the northeast, its center of gravity has shifted accordingly. This shift can be traced in the alignment of the University’s three main public spaces – Olmstead Green, the Gallaudet Mall, and Hanson Plaza – each establishing a new center of gravity in successive cycles of growth. Arranged spine-like on topography that slopes from south to north, each is an open commons around which facilities are arranged. They serve as centers for circulation hubs and informal gathering places.
The oldest is Olmstead Green, named for landscape architect Frank Law Olmstead. Olmsted, who together with his associates contributed to the design of 355 academic campuses, argued for the evaluation of the landscape of academic institutions as equal to their architecture. To Olmsted, the most important role of a university was to shape the tastes and habits of its students; just as the library molds students while they study, gardens and greens instruct them in their relationship to nature and to community. Gallaudet’s Olmsted Green is typical of his designs for academic institutions, which approximate a village: a pastoral green, surrounded in buildings similar in size and style to those found in a small, rural town. The relationship between building and landscape is immediately legible, and landscape correlates directly to community.
The Gallaudet Mall, composed on a strong axis and clearly defined by two major buildings, served as the physical center of the campus for most of the 20th century. In plan, the Mall is an archetypal instance of the classical approach to designing public space. Its irregularity is found in elevation; gently undulating terrain creates natural amphitheaters. At a school for the deaf, grade changes set up conditions of viewing and being viewed that are conducive to collective communication and connectivity.
Built in the 1970s, Hanson Plaza attempted to establish a new commons between five dormitories and a dining hall atop a massive underground parking garage. The design intent of Hanson Plaza seems to have been to translate the character of Olmstead Green and the Mall by adopting similar strategies but using the materials and paradigms of late modernism. Its rigidly cast concrete terraces and retaining walls were in this respect effective in some places; in others – most crucially, where the plaza meets the buildings that surround it – less so. There was an absence of communication, transparency, and reciprocity between many of the exterior and interior public spaces. Furthermore, the often discontinuous growth of the Gallaudet campus surrounding Hanson Plaza resulted in instances of complex and sometimes illegible circulation, odd dead-ends, and backwaters of unused and unloved space.
The systematic recalibration and softening of Hanson Plaza was paramount to Studio Twenty Seven Architecture’s interior renovation of the residence halls, four of which sit at its periphery. There was no transparency or reciprocity between the plaza and the dorm’s interior public spaces; while inside, students were completely disconnected from the campus surrounding them. We realized that the design solutions for the residence hall’s interior common spaces needed to transform existing interior boundaries into exterior connections.
In keeping with the strategies already established at Olmstead Green and the Gallaudet Mall, the designs seek to employ existing elevation differences as platforms for broadcasting conversations. Transparent portals between interior and exterior space are introduced or given new primacy, allowing visual communication and natural light to permeate to the building core. The interventions in each residence hall claim new sightlines, create new proximities, and establish a sense of interconnectedness within and among the dormitories.
“The Resident Assistance desk is imposing and uninviting – we need a welcoming information hub!”
Exterior and interior is blurred, transitions softer, both audience and stage are activated. Liminal zones, screens, and gradients ameliorate the transition from light to shadow. Access and egress becomes engaging and occupiable – a porous public space. Space devoted to security and surveillance is smaller, integrated within the flow of circulation, and repositioned at grade changes where possible.
Each residence hall associates with a terrace zone. Each terrace zone occupies a significantly different elevation on or near Hanson Plaza. These terrace zones, the true thresholds of the residence halls, presented the opportunity to create a new public sphere that mediates between the sometimes claustrophobic interior public spaces and occasionally agoraphobic exterior areas. The theatrical possibilities of the spaces and connections are amplified; the entryways become proscenium. Grade changes are utilized, not suppressed.
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