The Rise of Deaf Architecture

Deaf people use space very differently from hearing people. Can our buildings, sidewalks and markets finally reflect that?

Early rendering for a Gallaudet University building submitted by the design firm Hall McKnight. The rendering employs a design philosophy known as DeafSpace, with features such as open spaces to foster conversations in American Sign Language. (Courtesy of Hall McKnight Architects)
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In the spring of 2005, a two-day workshop took place on the Gallaudet University campus in Northeast Washington that was to change the way the world’s only university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing engaged with architecture and design. About 20 attendees — a collection of teachers, students and administrators — gathered with architect and designer Hansel Bauman to provide input on a new campus building, the Sorenson Language and Communication Center (SLCC). It would house the school’s audiology booths, its lab for visual language and visual learning, a center focused on speech and hearing, and the linguistics department.

Bauman, now Gallaudet’s executive director of campus design and construction, recalls that at one point, the group toured the university’s existing audiology booths in the basement of a building that would later be demolished. For many in the deaf community, those spaces bring back horrible memories — being tested inside them as children and told, from a hearing person’s perspective, that something was not quite right. As the group walked among the booths, they reflected that the sound chambers looked a little like gas chambers. “If you ever doubt the kind of experiences a building can convey, these would make you a believer in the power of architecture to infuse emotion,” says Bauman, who, though hearing, accompanies his words with signs in American Sign Language (ASL) as he speaks.

Early rendering for a Gallaudet University building submitted by the design firm Hall McKnight. The rendering employs a design philosophy known as DeafSpace, with features such as open spaces to foster conversations in American Sign Language. (Courtesy of Hall McKnight Architects)

Over two days, the attendees discussed what they wanted in their new building, and their ideas crystallized a design and architectural philosophy. DeafSpace, as it’s come to be called, seeks to create buildings and public areas that affirm the experience and culture of the deaf and hard-of-hearing — for instance, by ensuring that spaces are conducive to signed conversations.

The resulting building, the SLCC, ushered in a new era of design at the 155-year-old university — and today, DeafSpace principles are poised to transform the surrounding neighborhood. In 2007, discussions began about re-envisioning the Sixth Street NE corridor that runs along the western edge of campus. After years of wrangling — a community group that was suing to stop the development lost its last appeal in March — the school now expects to break ground in 2021. Once completed, the Sixth Street Development will almost certainly be the first spot in the United States outside the university to use DeafSpace design and architecture ideas in public spaces.

Once completed, the Sixth Street Development will almost certainly be the first spot in the United States outside Gallaudet University to use DeafSpace design and architecture ideas in public spaces.

Richard Dougherty is a deaf Irish architect with Hall McKnight, a Northern Ireland firm that will be designing part of the Sixth Street Development. He and I communicated via video conference recently to discuss both the ideas of DeafSpace and how they will be applied to the project. (He used Irish Sign Language through a female interpreter with a strong Irish lilt.)

Shortly into our conversation, Dougherty gave me an example of spatial awareness differences between the hearing and the deaf. He mentioned how, to him, a hearing dinner seems so formal, with people firmly stationed at square tables. By contrast, during a deaf dinner, people are continually in motion, switching seats to touch one another or communicate directly with someone across the table. “For me,” Dougherty signed, “a deaf space is a multisensory experience. It’s not just what does it look like at face value. What is the experience of being deaf once I go through the door? What is the experience of me getting through the foyer? To the staircase? What’s the lighting like? What’s the material being used in the building?”

He then described the house he lives in with his deaf wife and two deaf children. It is an old Edwardian home with roughly six-foot-wide hallways so his family can communicate while they walk, and floorboards that vibrate when stomped to grab someone’s attention.

Early rendering for a Gallaudet University building submitted by the design firm Hall McKnight. (Courtesy of Hall McKnight Architects)

Sign language is vital to the concepts of DeafSpace. If you are hearing, imagine a space that through acoustics prevented you from adequately communicating. That’s how plenty of deaf people feel about architecture and design that includes narrow sidewalks and entryways, sharp angles that limit sightlines, or terrible lighting.

You can find several of these design flaws at Union Market, across the street from Gallaudet’s campus. To be sure, the space is in some ways friendly to deaf people: Many of the food vendors employ deaf or hard-of-hearing baristas and cashiers. Yet, when I met Bauman there on a July afternoon, I was aware that the sharp corners of food stalls interrupted sightlines, and that the summer light streaming through the windows was blinding at times.

Bauman agreed. “See that shine out there — that’s unbelievable,” he said. “If this were a signed conversation, I would probably have to get up. If all of your attention is with your eyes, your eye fatigue is wearing on you, you’re getting tired. So much of the design principles around the language goes back to minimizing eye fatigue.”

We left the market so he could show me the layout for the Sixth Street Development, which entails four parcels of land, two on the eastern side of Sixth Street, on Gallaudet’s campus, and two on the western side that are separated by Union Market. Gallaudet bought the lots in the 1970s, when real estate in the area was cheaper than it is today. While each parcel will contain elements of DeafSpace, the two western parcels will be meant to match the flow and energy of Union Market, and so will likely use fewer DeafSpace principles.

Bauman and I crossed Sixth Street toward Gallaudet’s campus and walked along a university parking garage that will be demolished when construction begins. In its place will be a building with ground-floor retail, businesses run by deaf entrepreneurs, perhaps even a theater, all built using DeafSpace ideas. When the building is complete, a corridor will be formed on the Gallaudet campus between this new building and a row of faculty housing that has been there since the campus was first designed by famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Bauman calls this corridor Creativity Way, forecasting that it will showcase the ingenuity of both the Gallaudet community and the broader deaf world — through the businesses that set up in the space and also through possible artistic performances. Others involved in the project, including Dougherty, call this part of the development “the front porch,” suggesting that it will evoke the ethos of communities — deaf and hearing, university students and local residents — coming together.

Jay Klug has been working on the project since 2013, when Chevy Chase, Md.-based developer JBG Smith — where he is an executive vice president — submitted a bid. “Part of the vision in creating development on these sites is to perhaps create a small village,” Klug told me, “a place that will be really welcoming to the deaf and hard-of-hearing around the world.” His colleague Bryan Moll has been working on the project for almost as long as Klug; neither had prior experience working with the deaf community. So, Moll and Klug and others at JBG Smith — which is building a majority, but not all, of the project — took ASL classes, watched documentaries about deaf culture, and met with Gallaudet staff.

That education has helped them better appreciate what Sixth Street should be like for deaf people — from the need for adequate separation between buildings to the importance of canopies of light at night rather than the pinpricks of streetlamps. “It’s not just what we’re designing into the buildings or the buildings themselves,” Moll says, “but about the public realm — the spaces outside the buildings that are really important.”

Moll is keen on the role technology could play on Sixth Street. He talks about stationing kiosks along the street where people can learn about the university and deaf culture, or potentially even including holograms that could teach you how to communicate in ASL.

If JBG Smith is creating a front porch, Dougherty and his team at Hall McKnight are designing what could be called the front door. The main entrance to the university is farther east, but the corner of Sixth Street and Florida Avenue NE may soon become the primary gateway between the community and the college. Bauman and university officials are not sure how they will utilize this space, which currently features a blue Gallaudet sign, a defunct Chevrolet dealership and a slab of uneven concrete hidden behind brick and metal fencing. However, Hall McKnight has submitted a design for a path that starts at the gothic Chapel Hall, the administrative heart of Gallaudet’s campus, and extends west across Olmsted Green, toward Sixth, down Creativity Way, before opening onto the corner of Florida and Sixth. As Dougherty explained: “We actually visualized that as a long arm and a hand that would be handed over to the city from Gallaudet University.” It’s a potentially powerful symbol of the project’s aspiration: to bring together deaf and hearing communities in spaces designed with deaf people in mind.

“For me,” signed architect Richard Dougherty, “a deaf space is a multisensory experience. It’s not just what does it look like at face value. What is the experience of being deaf once I go through the door?”

Though DeafSpace is a modern idea, the concepts underlying it have been around as long as deaf people. Take a walk around Gallaudet, visit its student center, attend a football game: In each experience, you will see space used in a different way from how hearing people use it. “In many ways, DeafSpace and designing spaces around the deaf experience is empowering, and it takes back spaces that should belong to everyone, not just able-bodied people,” Sean Maiwald, a recent Gallaudet graduate who worked on the development while a student, told me via email. “I think it also pushes a broader point about human-centered design.”

At the same time, Maiwald noted that the project is not without pitfalls: “My concern is that this area will become a new, trendy, hip area and push out the deaf community, which should feel some sense of ownership of the space. So, I am optimistic, and I know that there will be many things that will benefit the Gallaudet community, but there will be conflicts.”

On a rainy day in early August, I went to campus to see DeafSpace in action. At Gallaudet’s newest dorm, built in 2012 using DeafSpace approaches, sliding glass doors open wide to allow the entrance and exit of signers engaged in conversation. The windows have retractable shades that can help modify natural light. Meanwhile, a sloping public space on the building’s eastern side is terraced into four wall-less rooms. Each “room” has a circular table and chairs where students can study or hang out, but the fluid, open design means that someone on the fourth terrace can easily sign toward the ground level. If a lecturer stood at the bottom, students could arrange themselves in theater-style seating and see the ASL.

Before leaving campus, I stopped by the Sorenson Language and Communications Center, the first building designed with Deaf­Space principles. I had visited several times before, and I always admired its broad foyer and open floor plan. But this time, as I walked around, I remembered what Bauman had said about the audiology booths in the building it replaced, the ones that looked like gas chambers, relegated to the basement, out of sight. Here, the booths are smack in the middle of the second floor, in an open area where light flows freely through glass walls.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said architect Hansel Bauman signed in American Sign Language as he spoke. He accompanied some of his words with signs from ASL. The story also misidentified the corner of Sixth Street and Florida Avenue NE as the  site of a defunct Pontiac auto dealership. It was a Chevrolet dealership. This version has been updated.

Matthew Davis is the founding director of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center.

Credits: Story by Matthew Davis. Designed by Christian Font.