The Architects Redefining Aesthetics

Building design isn’t just about visual appeal.

A man walks down a flight of stairs with the help of a white cane.
Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

In typical buildings, accommodations for the visually or hearing impaired tend to be small and scattered: braille on signs and beside elevator buttons; flashing lights on fire alarms; guardrails abutting stairs or ramps. Since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) established design requirements in 1990, these little touches have become commonplace, markers of the effort to universalize spaces that weren’t built to be universal.

But these accommodations are afterthoughts, partial measures. Buildings are still full of obstacles and inconveniences for people who don’t navigate by sight and sound. Doorways and halls are too narrow, and rooms too dim, for hard-of-hearing people to easily and continuously engage in visual conversations. Rooms are too unpredictably laid out and stairways too poorly marked for visually impaired people to confidently move through them.

“The accessibility regulations oftentimes, as I experienced in the architectural profession before I lost my sight, were almost [seen as] the pinnacle of what to do,” the architect Chris Downey said during a conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. But after Downey went blind in 2008, he realized that the disability community took a very different view of ADA requirements: “They were a good place to start.” Now he and a number of other architects and designers are working to build spaces that don’t just accommodate people with visual and hearing impairments, but center them.

Downey serves as the board president at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, helping to design buildings that enable people to navigate without sight. He hopes, he said, to create “heroically normal” buildings—buildings that “work on all levels for everyone,” but cater very specifically to “that blind experience.” That means incorporating elements such as warning stripes on stairs or consistent, logical floor plans, changes that go unnoticed by sighted people but make it easier for people whose vision is poor or absent to find their way.

Many architects dismiss these additions, Downey said, because they don’t think they’re visually appealing, or because it doesn’t occur to them to take the extra steps for accessibility. Downey himself didn’t start pushing past the visual level of design until his sudden blindness introduced him to a broader range of sensory experiences. “With sight, I designed to sight and didn’t go beyond that,” he said. “I didn’t really think sufficiently beyond that to engage all the senses, which is really the relevancy of architecture: that whole human experience of the body in space.”

Now Downey argues that the multisensory experience he discovered after losing his eyesight should become the new norm for design. “I want to propose to you today that the blind be taken as the prototypical city dwellers when imagining new and wonderful cities, and not the people who are thought about after the mold has already been cast,” Downey said in a 2013 TED talk. “It’s too late then.” Centering the blind, he said at the time, would lead to “predictable and generous” sidewalks, spaces that balance the needs of people and cars, and “robust, accessible, well-connected” mass-transit systems. “It would actually be a more inclusive, more equitable, and more just city for all,” he said.

Hansel Bauman, who works as the campus architect at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing, has come to a similar conclusion. “As a hearing person, to come into this world was at first very startling,” he said yesterday. The Gallaudet community were the first clients Bauman had met in the 20 years he’d been working as an architect who came to architecture from an emotional perspective. “They’re starting with that everyday experience of how space makes them feel,” he said.

Bauman works with students, staff, and other architects to reimagine the Gallaudet campus around those experiences. They recently constructed a new building to better enable visual conversation, with wide doorways and halls, well-lit rooms, horseshoe-shaped benches, and tiered flooring that allows for collective conversation.

“We’re really interested in … a building that is to be in and not to look at,” Bauman said. That might seem to contradict architecture’s typical adherence to visual appeal, but according to Bauman, architects have been imagining aesthetics all wrong. “Aesthetics is an experience. It’s a way of being in the world,” he said. “And we as architects too often teach that it’s what a building or an object looks like.”

From his work with people who are hard of hearing, Bauman said, he has learned to practice a more “organic” kind of architecture. In a 2015 TEDx talk, he described how in his early career he was trained in the “modern paradigm,” which “always thinks of the building first in terms of building a beautiful thing” instead of attending to the people inside it. But by speaking with the hearing impaired, he said, he was introduced to “different approaches we can take to architecture that start internally and physically with the body and then become a more empathetic design.”

That idea of beginning with human experience rather than beauty, Bauman contended, has applications beyond the hearing- and visually impaired communities. It’s a design philosophy that can be applied to tackling problems of sustainability as climate change worsens, and of an aging population, and of increasing urbanization. And it can be used to improve spaces for able-bodied people, too, by newly emphasizing their comfort and the ways they want to make use of space. By focusing on real people, architects hope to create buildings that aren’t just accommodating to all on a basic level, but truly universal.