The process of designing a building starts by conversing with the client by understanding and decoding their needs and to get clarity on how to make them feel at their best comfort. But how do we make buildings for people we don’t fully understand yet? Back when I was doing my Bachelor’s thesis, I heard of my cousin back home who had Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder causing developmental and intellectual delays in children. I heard that since there was no suitable school or resource center for children like him in the area, he had to stay at home most of the time because of which he had been having frequent outbursts of anger and distress. We often talk about how spaces dominate a person’s psychology, how it affects the behavior of a person but how often have we taken people like my cousin who has a disorder of intellectual delays into consideration while designing spaces?

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Why is Inclusion important?

As far as education is concerned, the inclusion of the intellectually challenged in India is a fairly new concept. Inclusive design means creating environments and spaces which are usable by all, without any exception. This goal arises out of the understanding that disability is socially defined. Inclusive schools help the development of communities where all people are equally valued and have the same opportunities for participation.

Role of Sensory Architecture:

Architects, while designing spaces for the intellectually challenged, predominantly associate challenges with pre-stated accessibility norms which in turn creates a hindrance to their imagination. In a study by David B. Gray, they found out, “built environment professionals expressed the opinion that codes and guidelines restrict their creativity and take away the challenges of the designer to come up with intelligent solutions.” Rather it should start from observing these individuals, as Ann Heylighen suggests in her paper that, “because of their specific interaction with space, disabled people are able to appreciate spatial qualities that architects—or other designers—are not always attuned to.”

This is where Multisensory architecture finds its relevance. As Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa puts it, ‘In memorable experiences of architecture, space, matter and time fuse into one singular dimension, into the basic substance of being, that penetrates our consciousness. Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.’

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The Hegemony of Ocular Centrism in Architecture

The design of spaces is mostly governed by the visual delight of the inhabitants. However, during the design process, architects hardly conceive spaces by placing themselves in the spaces they design. In architectural design, the building elements that define space indeed are conceived as separate elements; they are often made of different materials and constructed by different contractors at the site.

Boundaries such as these in space that are often taken for granted are questioned from the perspective of disabled people. On the other hand, their perspective reveals a whole world of untapped spatial boundaries that are never even thought of while designing. They are the experts of their own disability and they have their own specific ways of experiencing space. If architects opt for an architectural approach that is highly conscious of all the senses, they will end up reaching beyond the visual appearances of a building.

Memories etched within the sensory experiences:

In the architectural domain, memory inserts an important dimension. When encountering built form, our own emotions and perceptions are projected on to space and add to the dimensions of the experience of that place.

Similarly, in a study performed by Clémentine Schelings, she observed the great importance of material landmarks in the everyday life of the participants, especially in regard to their day-to-day rituals and habits. Those well-known elements, which could be objects, pieces of furniture or even a specific material (e.g., local brownstone), was reassuring to them especially because they reminded them of aspects of their daily lives and environments and helped them in acceptance of a new situation otherwise potentially disturbing for them.

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Senses in an Architectural Dimension

Hearing:

Buildings do not react to our gaze but they do return our sounds back to our ears. Pallasmaa explains that we are not usually aware of the significance of hearing in spatial experience, although sound often provides us with a temporal continuum in which visual expressions are embedded.

Hence, the building should be designed keeping in mind the acoustic potential of the volumes. Accordingly, the materials chosen should be in relation to their auditory character.

Touch:

Touch provides us with information about our environment and the object contained within it. Good architecture is when the observation of a building’s shape and surface one’s eyes begin to touch. Pallasmaa explains that the tactile sense unites us with time and culture: through the impression of touch, we shake the hands of countless past generations.

Hence, while designing we must investigate the haptic quality of materials for specific applications.

Smell:

A particular smell makes us unknowingly re-enter a space completely forgotten by the retinal memory. A design-conscious of this dimension will result in significant works of architecture that will encompass the full spectrum of life experienced in space.

Hence, we should consider the olfactory dimension by investigating the air circulation and flow in the building and incorporate the potential of scents.

Role of an Architect

While having intellectual challenges is considered to be a disability, it doesn’t mean that people with such challenges can’t interact with society. They are more than able to have a job and close relationships. They are just not given as many opportunities as they deserve.

The responsibility of the architect here becomes to create a model environment for the education of children with intellectual delays letting them be a part of the society in a more holistic manner, providing them with all the opportunities they have been missing on and helping in the overall growth of the amazing human beings that they are.

Author

Nikita Kamboj is an architect and a sustainability enthusiast. During her internship, she engaged in researching about alternate materials for sustainable building construction. She later attended a short term course at Bauhaus Universität, Weimar where she explored innovative artistic approaches to sensitize the personal perception and to grasp the particularity of spaces. She is now on a quest to revive her passion for writing and to share her stories about all that she has learnt and all that she hasn't.

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