Gallaudet's New Aesthetic of Openness
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Sidewalks wide enough to accommodate pedestrians using sign language. Rounded corners and strategically placed reflective glass so people who cannot hear can see who's coming and who's behind them. Glass elevators so passengers can communicate with outsiders in case of emergency.
These features distinguish Gallaudet University's vision for developing four acres of vacant land across the street from its rolling campus in Northeast Washington, a plan that represents a dramatic shift in the philosophy that has long guided the nation's only university for the deaf.
Rather than cloistering itself from the rest of the community, Gallaudet for the first time is designing a streetscape and architecture to bring together deaf and hearing people. The changes will be made on two spacious parcels where the university is designing a mix of housing, offices, retail, restaurants and cultural attractions.
"It would create a connection to the city and tear down the walls," said Hansel Bauman, an architect retained by Gallaudet to help design the project. "It's a sea change in thinking."
Since its founding 144 years ago, Gallaudet's separation has been driven by the belief that the deaf were better off immersing themselves in their own culture. Their insularity is symbolized by the eight-foot-high fencing and thick stone walls that line the university's perimeter.
But the school intends to begin removing those barriers in part because of recruiting challenges and a younger generation that desires more integration into the broader world. The shift also reflects cultural changes and technological innovations that have made it more inviting for deaf people to navigate realms beyond their own, said Fred Weiner, the university's executive director for program development.
"When my parents grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, there were negative views of people with disabilities, and it drove the community inward," said Weiner, who is deaf. "What you see is a reversal. You have a more diverse America. You see technological advances. There are still challenges, but you have so much more access, and that's why students are saying they want to be part of it."
The impetus to build, he said during an interview at the university, is partly rooted in protests that drew national attention two years ago, when students shut down the campus to demonstrate against the selection of a new president.
"One of the outcomes from the campus unrest was the false perception created in the media that deaf people are monolithic," Weiner said. "That is, none of us speak or hear, all of us share the same views on all matters, and that when one deaf person speaks, that person speaks for all deaf people. I assure you, this is not the case.
"In a sense, our foray into Sixth Street is our opportunity to show the world that deaf people are diverse in many ways," he said. "The fact that we're opening up the campus is a symbolic expression of our intent to blend the deaf and hearing worlds on equal terms."
The university's plans are evolving, but officials say they are considering a variety of components -- rental housing, office space, restaurants, a community theater, a child development center -- lining Sixth Street NE north of Florida Avenue.
Gallaudet also anticipates removing the fencing from its Sixth Street border, opening the campus on at least one side, and perhaps creating green space or facilities for student programs.