In 2015, Gallaudet University in Washington DC set about finding an architect to design a new part of its 150 year old campus. Fifty-one architecture firms from across the world threw their hat in the ring, but it was Hall McKnight, a small practice based in a humble brick building on an East Belfast industrial estate that clinched the prestigious project.
In this episode, architect Richard Dougherty, an associate at Hall McKnight who has been deaf from birth, talks about bringing his personal experiences into the design of "Deaf Space" for the Gallaudet project.
See the full transcript for this episode below.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT: The Infinite City - Season 1, Episode 4
'Richard - Designing Deaf Space'
Released 14 June 2018
Conor McCafferty [CMC]: This is the Infinite City - stories from Belfast of people and place. I’m Conor McCafferty.
Rebekah McCabe [RMC]: And I’m Rebekah McCabe. This is the second of two episodes of the Infinite City, where we look at what truly inclusive urban design might be like.
This early massing scheme for Hall McKnight's project at Gallaudet University, Washington DC,
shows a collection of pieces around Olmsted Green.
Image courtesy Hall McKnight.
RMC: In 2015 a university in Washington DC set about finding an architect to design a new part of its 150 year old campus. Fifty-one architecture firms from across the world threw their hat in the ring, but it was a small practice based in a humble brick building on an East Belfast industrial estate that clinched the prestigious project.
CMC: The practice is Hall McKnight, and the university is Gallaudet.
Richard Dougherty [RD]: It is an absolutely wonderful place, it’s absolutely beautiful, it’s full of history, such a legacy…
CMC: ...a legacy that includes buildings set amid a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, esteemed designer of New York’s Central Park.
RD: It’s a wonderful place, so we were very excited to apply… Now, we reckoned we didn’t have a chance, but we thought we’d send in a submission anyhow and we were so shocked that we were shortlisted down to the last four.
RMC: Design competitions are a way for architecture practices to test ideas, develop their working practice and seek commissions for the kinds of projects that are in line with their aims. Architects commit huge amounts of time working on competitions, designing projects that might never leave the drawing board.
CMC: Design competitions can be especially risky for small firms, but they are also an important means of competing with larger practices and building a reputation.
RD: Three American companies and then us; we were the only company from Europe. We’re a very, very small architecture practice from Belfast - and we made the shortlist.
RMC: After being shortlisted, the competition became much more involved, and lasted a further two years. During that time the Hall McKnight design team took several trips to Gallaudet, meeting the campus community. And then...
RD: ...just last year we found out that we had won the competition. It was such a joyous moment. I’m still shocked that we won it, I really am.
CMC: The architect we’re speaking to today is Richard Dougherty, who played a leading role in the winning design for Gallaudet. The voice you’re hearing however, is not Richard, it’s Kristina, his Sign Language interpreter.
RMC: Richard has been deaf since birth, and so for him, Gallaudet was more than just a design challenge, it was the perfect opportunity to put into practice something he has been aware of his whole life - the idea of deafspace. You see, Gallaudet is the world’s only deaf university.
CMC: Since the 1850s, Gallaudet has been dedicated to the education of deaf people. The University is bilingual, with staff and students using American Sign Language and English. It is a centre of excellence for research into visual language and visual learning, communication access technologies, and deaf history and culture. As we will find out, Gallaudet has also recently pioneered the concept of deafspace.
RMC: The Gallaudet campus started small - with a gift in the 1850s from then US Postmaster General, Amos Kendall, who donated two acres of land in the District of Columbia. In 1864, the university received its federal charter, and expanded into its urban surrounds through the purchase of a further 90 acres of land.
CMC: From its beginning Gallaudet campus was designed with the needs of deaf people in mind. When Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to design its landscape, he was mindful of the importance of both sight and smell to the users’ enjoyment of the campus. He designed an expansive, meandering green that continues to bear his name.
RD: So, the first old building was obviously built in the 1850s and in the 1950s then, Gallaudet did expand quite a lot. They did a lot of new buildings then, some are nice, some aren’t quite so - but in the last 10 years there was the deafspace principles arrived, they set those up, they codified those and from that, there’s been work done.
RMC: As the deafspace concept developed, it had mixed success in terms of its architectural execution in buildings on the Gallaudet campus.
RD: The first one was maybe twenty years ago, roughly, that it was built and there’s a lot of glass around it and it’s a typical university building, to be honest. But in the centre of that building, the problem is that it’s such a big space it’s actually a very cold space and a lot of deaf students and deaf people aren’t fussed on it. For example, the door into the classroom, the architect then put a visual panel so that you can see into the classroom but, in actual fact, the deaf people don’t like that, and the lecturer has put up paper to cover the glass panel so that people can’t see in. Some things you think will be really suitable but in action they aren’t.
The second building that was more successful was built around ten years ago and it’s been more of an organic space. They have a very, very beautiful area within that on the ground floor. It’s a very open space where you can walk in and it can be used for a lecture, it can be used for group work, it can be used for workshops, so it is quite a versatile space and there’s steps down into the auditorium. In the ground floor, there’s four or five different tiers. The tiers are very good in the sense that people will always be able to see a lecturer. And then maybe some could sit in a tier and study, some could sit around and do some group work. It’s a very adaptable space. So that did follow those deafspace principles and hopefully then, we will expand that.
CMC: So then, what is deafspace, and what makes a building successful in terms of deafspace principles?
RMC: Deafspace was codified into a set of design principles by Hansel Bauman in 2005 under an initiative with Galaudet called the deafspace project.
CMC: Deafspace consists of 150 different architectural elements, which fall into 5 categories. Those categories are sensory reach, space and proximity, mobility and proximity, light and colour, and acoustics. So some of the design elements that would be included within that would be a preference for ramps over stairs so as not to require attention to be drawn where you’re stepping and away from the person you’re in conversation with. Colours such as blues and greens will contrast with most skin tones, so using them on walls and furniture will prevent eye-strain and fatigue as you pay attention to someone signing.
RD: There are so many examples whenever we talk about this whole idea of deafspace. If we look at the street, the width of the street and the width of the pavement should be that wee bit wider, which means that two people can walk alongside, look at each other and sign without bumping into the people who are passing by. If it’s two people who aren’t deaf, they stand very close together and they can just talk to each other without having to look at each other. Whereas deaf people need space to be able to talk, they need to move their arms and they need to chat.
RMC: As an architect, Richard has a particular sensitivity to space and how people use it. His approach to all design, not just when the brief specifies deafspace principles, has been influenced by his own personal experiences growing up in an environment that was not designed for his needs.
In their early studies for the Gallaudet project, Hall McKnight fabricated a collection of pieces: a table, some stools and a collection of vessels. The practice explains: "These pieces carried our sensibilities around the idea of groups and interaction – of both people and objects or buildings. The table represents a shared surface that invites social activity and inclusion whilst also conveying an early sensibility of Gallaudet’s historic fabric. The vessels were hand-made and speak of a sense of honest materiality where things are ‘made’ rather than ‘specified’."
Photography: Donal McCann.
Richard Dougherty [RD]: I was born deaf and grew up in a family who weren’t deaf. I suppose life was quite stressful at times. I had a big family of brothers and a sister and communication sometimes was really difficult. And, the space affected that, where we lived really affected that. So, my wife is actually deaf as well and she grew up in a family who are deaf - so her parents are deaf and her brothers and sisters are deaf.
Rebekah McCabe [RMC]: Visiting the house where his wife grew up, which was organised around the needs of a deaf family, Richard quickly noticed the contrast with his own home, in which he was the only deaf person…
RD: It was a very different experience for me as a deaf person. The atmosphere, the environment was so different. My wife’s parents have been living there for about forty years. It’s an old, post-war house down in Dublin and when you walk in you can immediately see how they’ve modified their home to suit their ways, obviously the ways of being as deaf people.
Conor McCafferty [CMC]: They’ve opened the space out, taking out walls and replacing wooden doors with glass to improve visibility through the space. In the kitchen, the upper cupboards have a reflective sheen, so if you’re working on something at the kitchen counter with your back to the door, you can notice when someone walks in. But it’s the table sitting at the heart of the house that has had the biggest impact on Richard, in a way that he has woven through his designs ever since, including in Hall McKnight’s project at Gallaudet.
RD: Deaf people obviously depend on visual communication. So they can’t sit at a rectangular table because they’ll not see the person maybe a couple of seats down from them. Whereas this oval table provides this space and this layout where everybody can see each other. And it’s beautiful - it’s a traditional way of gathering, like people being in the caves and the cavemen sitting around the fire, sitting huddled round, that’s what you see there. It’s very primitive I suppose, a very primitive way of being. Whenever I talk about the dining table, to me that’s a very, very powerful social infrastructure for developing our language as deaf people, developing concepts, having our conversations. And it’s just a table but to me it’s so much more than that. Even the chairs - the chairs don’t have arms because we need space, we need to be able to move, we need to be able to sign, we need that space.
RMC: The word primitive comes up a lot when you talk to Richard about design. It can carry a negative connotation in our culture. Thanks to a long history of colonialism, primitive suggests being unevolved, a lack of sophistication or crudeness. But in architecture, the primitive means a sort of human first principles. What do humans do, and what do we need from our spaces when you strip away all the extraneous experiences, the spectacles and distractions that dominate modern life?
CMC: For Richard, the heart of design is fulfilling the human need to gather, to connect, and to communicate. And that may just have made the difference in securing the prestigious Gallaudet project...
RD: I think what they really liked about our proposal was probably the fact that what we were really focusing on was humans, and how we occupy space as people. So, what we were focusing on was the likes of social interactions. Like the tables, how tables bring people together, how people sit round tables, how we gather as people and as deaf people.
RMC: The idea of gathering was central to the design brief for the Gallaudet building. It’s a new building in the historic part of the campus, right on Olmsted Green, and adjacent to a vibrant and rapidly changing urban neighbourhood.
Satellite view of the Gallaudet University campus. Hall McKnight's new project will be situated around Olmsted Green, located in the south-western corner of the campus (bottom left in this image).
Image courtesy Hall McKnight.
CMC: Historically the campus has been inward-facing, but Gallaudet’s long term strategy is to connect into the neighbourhoods surrounding it. The new building is to act as a kind of gateway, a place for interaction between life in the city, and life on campus, and between hearing and deaf worlds.
RD: The middle, which separates the two, is Olmsted Green. That will link the older part of the building to the newer parts. And what we are trying to do is make sure that there is still some sort of consistency and cohesion between the new and the old. So what we’ve come up with the whole idea of this “armature”, and that will hold the whole thing together. From that older part, it will come right round and it will enclose and be part of this new part of the building. So that then this new part of the building that we’re having is like the hand - we’re offering out our hand to the city. So, we’re offering Gallaudet to the city, we’re welcoming the city to be a part of Gallaudet.
From that, then, we used those small principles to scale up in our overall design of the buildings. Like a small city feel, a small city inside a big atrium. So that we all got together, people get together, people share ideas, people mix, people meet and it was those simple ideas that I think really appealed to them. Because, I think that captures some of Gallaudet’s values and some of their ethos.
So we have a variety of buildings with a variety of functions. The main building that we’re going to have is going to be a large clearing so that people can just gravitate, come together, be together. They can talk, they can socialise, they can share ideas. This is the idea that’s always been there, especially with Gallaudet. If you just look here at the Olmsted Green, it’s a beautiful, beautiful space enclosed by trees and just at the very, very centre of the green people come together, they play baseball, they talk, they sit and they just be together.
In years gone by, the land was basically forest and the first humans to occupy the land, then the first thing they did was created a clearing so that then they could be. And that’s how civilisation began, that’s how language evolved, that’s how we became. So that’s the whole idea of this clearing, this space and that’s the whole main, and middle and focal point of the buildings that we’re doing.
RMC: A sense of space, of proximity, and of expansiveness, are central to Hall McKnight’s Gallaudet design - to create an open welcoming mixture of buildings and public realm that can adapt to a changing programme throughout the year.
CMC: But within the design, there are also purpose-built areas for very specific uses, and those too have to be considered in terms of the needs of their users.
RD: Well, we are designing a theatre and I know the seating will be tiered because deaf people hate rows, they hate sitting in rows because they feel very restricted by that, because they can only really communicate with the person next to them. Whereas they want to see people, maybe a couple of seats up. So what we’re doing is we’re creating it so that the seats don’t sit in a straight row but are curved round so the people can see the theatre but also can see each other to talk. So it’s more of a collective experience for the people who attend.
And at the end of the theatre performance very often deaf people love to stay and love to talk, it’s a massive part of our culture. Deaf people just love to get together, they love to talk, they love to be together. So for us, what we need to consider is that in the lobby space, it’s big - so that people can be there, so that it can host that sort of a gathering for people.
RMC: In designing gathering places, Richard has also had to consider ambient features, like lighting. Overly bright lighting, or backlighting, makes it really hard to communicate by sign language - it creates glare and tires your eyes. Likewise, dim lighting makes it hard to see, so that needs to be managed through design, including considering shade in outdoor spaces.
CMC: Though it may seem counterintuitive, sound, acoustics and vibration, are also hugely important considerations in deafspace design.
RD: There’s different ranges of deafness. Some people wear hearing aids, some deaf people will wear cochlear implants and then you have some deaf people who are profoundly deaf who don’t use hearing aids whatsoever; the just don’t work and they would probably be more likely to be sign language users. Now, those people who do have hearing aids or cochlear implants, acoustics are so important to them. Because if they, for example, go into the classroom, if there’s any background noise that has to be completely cut out because with the hearing aid and the cochlear implant, we can’t control that background noise or zone it out the way people who have hearing can. So we hear everything. The hearing aid takes in absolutely everything and we can’t differentiate those sounds, which is why the acoustics are so important, and controlling those acoustic properties are really important and as I mentioned, vibrations too. So, whenever we are designing the buildings for Gallaudet, we need to make sure that they are acoustic-proof, vibration-proof as well, and also light-proof.
RMC: Gallaudet’s mission isn’t just to be an educational institution - it’s also about celebrating deaf culture, forged by deaf communities and centred on a thriving language and a strong shared sense of identity. The design and creation of deafspaces then, is about creating space that affirms the quality of life and sense of identity of its users.
RD: And when we talk about deaf culture, for me what deaf culture really is - it’s language. Personally, when I look at my two children, I want to make sure that we can pass on the stories about their grandparents, we can pass on all of that to my two children, because for them, they use sign language as well and we want to carry on language and culture through them.
And, for me, deaf culture is about deaf people being together, deaf people getting together and that bond that deaf people have. For deaf people, there’s such a strong community. And it’s unique, there’s something so different about being deaf and I think for deaf people, when we talk about that, we very often suffer from social exclusion, we really do. So, you can imagine whenever deaf people get together finally they can talk, finally they have people understanding them, finally they can express things in their own language, so that’s a big thing about deaf culture.
CMC: Much of deaf culture is about instilling pride in that identity, and about inverting the language of deafness from loss and impairment to what is now known as deaf gain.
RD: People very often say, ‘Aw, you’re deaf,’ or, ‘You’ve lost your hearing and, oh, that’s just dreadful,’ but to me, I haven’t lost anything. I talk about deaf gain; there’s a lot that you gain as a deaf person.
So I see things very differently from people who aren’t deaf. I draw things very differently from people who aren’t deaf. I design things differently. I live differently as a deaf person.
Interior view of The MAC, Belfast, designed by Hackett Hall McKnight and opened in 2012.
Photo: Christian Richters.
Rebekah McCabe [RMC]: Although his work as an architect is necessarily visual, Richard is critical of buildings that rely purely on visual impact. Contemporary architecture too often trades on its ability to wow the viewer with novelty. There is a danger that such buildings, spectacular though they may be, will become outdated.
Richard Dougherty [RD]: There’s an awful lot of new buildings that are built - and they look beautiful, and they look stunning, and they have a real ‘wow’ factor. But I don’t believe that that’s the building we should be creating. We need to create timeless buildings - create timeless architecture that will have cultural permanence so that they withstand whatever time we’re in.
Conor McCafferty [CMC]: For Richard, the search for timelessness in architecture implies going beyond the visual outline of a building, to create multi-sensory depth within. A building is not just its iconic outward appearance but its layers of atmosphere and texture.
RMC: The atmosphere of a building invokes memory, attachment and sense of place. Richard and his colleagues (then known as Hackett Hall McKnight) sought to construct atmosphere in their design of the MAC, an arts centre which opened in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast in 2012.
CMC: The curator and writer Raymund Ryan describes the MAC as a collage of elements - brick and basalt volumes and a glazed tower that combine to create internal spaces that interact with one another. Viewed from the outside, they act as large blocks, each one with its own distinctive facade.
RD: And if you look at the MAC, you see the concrete walls, you see the brick; there very simple raw materials were used but they contribute to the overall atmosphere of the place. And it really encourages you to reach out and touch the building when you’re there. We want to use the likes of raw materials and build those things that invoke memories, memories of a place - real memories that you have from being there.
RMC: Richard shows us a photograph of his daughter, who is also deaf, visiting the MAC for the first time. She was then aged just over a year, and she reaches out to touch the board-marked concrete walls:
RD: That’s the first that thing she did. She was just attracted to go up and touch it and feel that grain. So you can see there in the photo that she really wants that experiential understanding of going up and touching that wall and feeling it.
We’re trying to design buildings and public spaces that touch all of our senses, that appeal to all of our senses - be that visual, the sound, the touch, the smell - all of those senses that will become engaged in our spaces and our buildings.
CMC: Although deafspace would only become an explicit design concern for Hall McKnight in the Gallaudet project, Richard feels that the MAC turned out to be a good example of deafspace design, because it had human interaction and sociality at its heart, and its striking aesthetics followed on from those functions.
RD: In the MAC, we fulfilled a lot of the deafspace principles. When you go out of the stairs, there are private booths, just at the top of the stairs there. We’re giving people options - the option of being in that open space but we’re also giving people the option of being in that booth area where they can have that privacy. But likewise, go on up to the next floor and there’s open space there for people. And when you go in, if you walk into the foyer you’ll see the four or five floors right there, you can see them. It’s all open-plan which is lovely so that you can see people whatever floor they’re on...
RMC: Deafspace principles can be applied to any space, indoor or outdoor, public or private. Richard is now part of a deaf family. His wife and their two children are deaf, and in adapting their Edwardian Belfast home to their needs, they are implementing deafspace in big and small ways.
RD: [Laughs] I’m not the architect - my wife’s the architect in our house! We have started doing some work to the house. We just had the house painted - the previous owners had the walls really bright colours, like yellow and really strong bright colours which doesn’t suit deaf people who are using that whole visual idea of communication. Because if the walls are very bright it can be quite distracting. So we have painted the walls much more neutral colours which is calming and much easier on the eye, whenever you rely on your eyes so much.
We have also made some changes, for example in the kitchen. Previously, the handles for the door, they were just very old and they just didn’t feel quite right. It wasn’t a nice material, so we changed that to a much heavier brass handle. So that’s a much nicer experience whenever you’re opening that door, that heavy brass handle. So, things like that have been changed now.
CMC: Richard was reluctant at first to be known as a deaf architect, but it was becoming a parent and thinking about the design of their domestic space, that he began to revisit that idea of himself and how his creative practice aligns with his deaf identity.
RD: Funny, when I was at university I always avoided focusing on the deafspaces, it was something that I really avoided because I didn’t want that to define me. I wanted to be able to show that I was versatile, that I could look into any subjects, I could do any brief. But to be honest, I really started to understand and focus on the deafspace when my children were born. Because it was always a part of me, but it was something that I didn’t really bring out until my children were born. That’s when I decided to really look into it and go back to my roots. And now, we’re obviously working on the project about deafspace. And, I suppose it’s a very natural thing for me to be working on.
Richard's daughter Erin reaches out to touch the board-marked concrete walls of The MAC, Belfast.
Photo courtesy Richard Dougherty.
Hall McKnight is an architectural practice established in 2003, with studios in Belfast and London: www.hallmcknight.com
Gallaudet University is a private university for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing. It is located in Washington, D.C. on a 99-acre campus: www.gallaudet.edu
Disclaimer on sign language interpretation: The interpretation provided for this presentation was live and unrehearsed. The interpreter assigned may or may not have had materials in advance for preparation. Inaccuracies related to the content of the material may be due to imperfections in the interpreting process. This interpretation has not been reviewed by the presenter.
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The Infinite City is produced by Rebekah McCabe and Conor McCafferty for PLACE, with assistance from Maria Postanogova and Stuart Gray. Music for this episode composed by Conor McCafferty, based on 'Floating Friends' by Archers of Loaf. It is supported by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Arts and Business Northern Ireland.
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