Deaf people use space very differently from hearing people. Can our buildings, sidewalks and markets finally reflect that?
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, instinctively signs in American Sign Language (ASL) as he speaks.

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.

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.