Most people assume that to study architecture you need to be able to draw. How we look at our built surroundings, and how we represent it through visual images, is central to how buildings and environments are imagined and designed. In fact, some people say that architects suffer from ‘visual bias’: that their vision distracts their attention from the other senses.
So – could you design a space or a building just by describing it in words? By starting from the perceptions and experiences of two blind and partially sighted artists and one sighted architect, we want to suggest that describing built spaces with words is very important. It is a way of both paying close attention to what we see, and to opening up to all our senses -often ignored – like sound, smell, touch and movement. In this task we ask you first to concentrate on your non-visual senses to create a word picture of a particular place, and then use bring your imagination and your sensory skills to describe how to make that space better.
Choose a space you find interesting. We recommend either picking a place you really like, or one you really dislike. This could be in your home, or somewhere else, inside or outside. Spend some time there – find somewhere to sit or lie comfortably for a while – and think about:
- the sensory qualities of the space. What does it sound like and smell of? How big is it, how high is the ceiling? What is the temperature of the air and of the surfaces? What different materials and colours does it use? What are these like to touch? Where is light coming in, are there shadowy places? Can you feel a breeze? Does the atmosphere change if you move position?
- how the space makes you feel. Is it making you chilly or over-hot? Is it cosy, uncomfortable, friendly, beautiful? Try and use as many different ‘feeling’ words as you can. Does the space remind you of anything? If you used it in a story, what kind of story would that be? What kind of music matches the space? Does it give you any clues about how you are meant to behave?
You should do these activities both with your eyes open and with them shut. Put down as many words as you can that describe what you are experiencing. Once you have written down your thoughts please put them together. This could be as a map, story, poem, string of words, word cloud and/or diagram. Use different colours and font sizes to show what is most important. If you use tracing paper, you can use different layers. The work you make can be artistic and graphic or just a list of words. This is entirely up to you and how you would like to capture and record your chosen space.
Hints and tips!
Carlos Pereira is a blind architect from Portugal. To design his projects he uses lots of tactile methods, including cutting and bending card, making raised lines on paper, modelling in clay and lego. For Carlos, visiting and analysing any site for a design project is a slow and thoughtful process. It requires quiet observation and careful movement, through touch as well as all the other senses. Exploring space this way requires that we take our time to take proper notice of all the little things.
Deaf artist Christine Sum Kim has made a video that re-imagines what the captions at the bottom of TV and video screens could say.
Instead of simple descriptions of what we see, she suggests much more poetic and beautiful narratives.
Chris Downey is an American architect who became blind and continues to design. He says that losing his sight has actually enabled him to understand a lot more about the sensory qualities of architecture, that he didn’t take enough notice of when he had sight.
Now you have a detailed word picture that describes your chosen space in detail, reflect on what you really like about experiencing it, and what you don’t like. Again, take your time and read through what you have written; adding notes, doodles, circling key words and/or adding a verse to your poem or extra words to your list.
Use this as a method to create a new diagram or list of all the things that you think could be better. If you want lots of changes, decide what to prioritise. Then highlight the three most important sensory qualities of the space that you would like to change.
Now start a new word picture with just those three unsatisfactory sensory qualities on it. Again, this could be as the first line of a poem, or as the centre of a diagram, or as a new list. Next, think about some ways to make improvements. Could you use a soft surface to make the sound quieter, or create a beautiful door handle that is comfortable and easy to hold? Would the space benefit from more enjoyable ways to sit? If don’t have any ideas immediately, think about places you have been that you really like. Are there details from other places you know that could be adapted to the current space? Or check out some interior designers and architects’ work to find examples that give you ideas. Add more words to your picture that describe your design improvement.
Finally, think about what you would alter if you can only change one thing. Write out some instructions that explain to someone else what they need to do to change that one thing about the space in order to make it work better.
That’s how design works. And that’s how you can design, just by using words…..
Learning from examples
A wavy handrail weaves its way up, alongside a ramp in a foyer space, where light it bouncing around, reflected through glass. The Laban Dance Centre, London UK by architects Herzog and de Meuron, emphasises both the sensory qualities of the holding a rail, and expresses the quality of dance and movement.
Find out more about this project:
Find out more about the architects:
The architect, Peter Zumthor , has created lots of tiny holes in the wall, that let in little dots of light into a dark space, with additional hanging lamps from the ceiling that light the way. This creates a quiet and reflective atmosphere, appropriate to the conversion of a ruined church into an art museum.
Watch the architect describe the Kolumba Museum, Cologne Germany:
For more background:
Examples of word pictures
Word Pictures 1: The Royal Academy, London
Echoes of life hidden in architectural facets-
Fingers dancing on the prevailing distorted surfaces.
a shifting shaft of warmth and light
Captivating (haunting) yet never ending,
a transient emptiness, flowing into eternity,
Whilst for a fleeting moment, time takes a deep breath,
Metamorphosing from a chalky, feathery, textured edged expanse,
Whirling into a lift shaft with oily depths.
The ever-changing refracting bouncing light
Glistening in time, ticking with an inner peace,
Blistering, a musty smell with a cocktail of chaotic corridor charm
Betwixt the tranquil trail of cappuccino textured walls.
Zoe Partington, partially sighted artist, co-founder of The DisOrdinary Architecture Project.
Word Pictures 2: : The Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool
My footsteps echo as I walk
The sound travels up and up and up
All around is space and air
I feel small
Like an ant
Mandy Redvers-Rowe, a blind theatre producer, writer and actor.
Word Pictures 3: The Liver Buildings
In the Clock Tower
On all four sides
By mechanically driven tick tocks
But slightly over-lapping
Like the Mersey far below
I’m in the exact centre
As they chime 11
And their sound is magical
I’m filled with wonder
Like being in the best toyshop ever!
Mandy Redvers-Rowe, a blind theatre producer, writer and actor.
“This cinema space is a room with a dark red ceiling that has small white ceiling spotlights horizontally spaced across, dark red coloured walls are to the left and right with 4 lines of thin horizontal strip lighting, a pale cinema screen is at the front with a dark surround, the dark red cinema seats have black coloured backs and are in rows facing the screen, divided left and right with a red carpeted space at the front below the cinema screen.” (Caroline Bain)
“Ethan and I have sat down this morning with an image of inside our local new Savoy cinema that was built and opened in July 2019. We went there last night to watch a film, so it was easy for him to recall the space. […] with a spider diagram he found it easy when exploring different elements of the space and how that would then lead to other ideas/thoughts. I noticed how as a sighted person and Ethan’s parent I don’t notice all the same things or consider them when I go into a cinema with him. He has said that his thoughts on our local cinema is reflective on his experience in any cinema space.” (Caroline Bain)
Some last thoughts
This activity focuses on using words to show how there are many more ways to design than just through our eyes and drawing. The DisOrdinary Architecture Project is interested in opening up architectural design to many more different approaches that reflect our human diversity and our many different ways of being in the world. We do use drawing in our workshops and other events, but often in different ways to the conventional architectural representations of plans, sections, elevations and perspectives; for example, through large scale body mapping, or drawing by altering your own body, or sketching together with others. We also explore the richness of the many different ways that people communicate – through voice, body language, movement and touch. Mime describes things without words. Braille turns words into touch. Sign language makes words into visuals. Each of these are languages in their own right that can open up new ways of engaging with our surroundings and each other in creative and enjoyable ways.
Below are links to some places you can find out about these different languages. If you like deciphering codes, use the basic braille alphabet below to turn your word picture into a new language, a pattern of dots.
The Deafblind visual alphabet
British Sigh Language (BSL)
The DisOrdinary Architecture Project is a platform bringing together disabled artists and built environment students, educators and practitioners for creative and positive actions and dialogue that can demonstrate how disability is a valuable and generative force in design, rather than a technical and legal ‘problem’ built environment design ..www.disordinaryarchitecture.co.uk
This activity was supported by Canary Wharf Group.