Deaf Space

Reprinted from Gallaudet Today: the Magazine, Spring 2007.

By Todd Byrd
Photos by John T. Consoli

Malzkuhn displays model
Matthew Malzkuhn, a student in the Deaf Space project, displays a model of a deaf-friendly Gallaudet campus of the future, while architect and teacher Hansel Bauman looks on. Also pictured is the banner with an emblem-a form of written ASL-created by the students to symbolize the concept of deaf space.

A yellow ball bounces down the steps of Clerc dormitory, out the door, and rolls across Hanson Plaza. Gaining momentum, it careens down the Lincoln Circle sidewalk and takes a turn at the Hall Memorial Building, cutting a trail across campus. The ball symbolizes a Gallaudet student, but it is more accurate to say that it represents any deaf person, whose language and culture are best suited to an environment that, like the ball is spherical and free flowing. Dr. MJ Bienvenu, '74 & G-'83, chair of the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies and co-chair of the James Lee Sorenson Language and Communications Center (SLCC) Planning Committee, calls a three-year, student-centered Deaf Space project to explore the architectural needs of deaf people, "personally and professionally exciting." She asks, "If no one was using sign language, how could a visitor to Gallaudet know it is a university for deaf people?" Not by looking at the buildings. "If you look at Gallaudet and at Harvard [University], both have dignified and prestigious buildings, but the two places are very different," said Bienvenu. So, what about the campus environment represents deaf culture and experience?

The same question was asked earlier by campus constituents serving on the SLCC Planning Committee. "We need a place of identity, so we began looking at what deaf space entails," said Bienvenu. Seeking an answer, the planning committee held workshops to develop a model. Putting a finger on aspects of the campus that are not conducive to deaf sensibilities was easy--a stairway may appear aesthetically attractive, but prove to be a barrier to sign communication. Natural lighting, such as in the Jordan Student Academic Center (JSAC), is pleasing, but can be too harsh on sunny days and too dim when the sky is overcast. In these cases, artificial light can bridge the extremes. Blind spots in hallways at corners, or a door that is opened suddenly can prove hazardous to two signers engrossed in conversation. "So, we had a great understanding of what we wanted," said Bienvenu, "but we needed an architect."


Guidance in Interactive Design

people signing and while walking on sidewalks and in the street
people signing and while walking on sidewalks and in the street
people signing and while walking on sidewalks and in the street
Students and teachers in the class illustrate the cumbersome-and potentially dangerous-situations deaf people face when carrying on a conversation on a narrow sidewalk. Students hope that wide pathways at the Kendall Green of the future, as well as off campus, acknowledge the differences in design required by the visual/spatial language of the deaf community.

Identifying exactly what constitutes deaf space proved much more elusive than what does not. So, a quest began for a definition. At one workshop, committee members, deaf faculty, students and administrators took pen and paper and set out across campus.

This inclusive group identified several qualities they would like to see enacted on campus: more facilities like the SLCC that will connect campus groups and encourage interaction; architectural features that retain historical links to the past but incorporate a look to the future and eliminating potential barriers that wouldn't be an issue for hearing people but impede conversation for deaf people-widening narrow sidewalks and, when possible, replacing stairs with ramps.

Plans for a course to further investigate these concepts were first made public by architect Hansel Bauman, a speaker at the 2006 Graduate Hooding exercises. Bauman, whose business is based in California, is one of the architects in the SLCC project due to his expertise in designing academic buildings that foster interaction. Bauman said the class is actually an outgrowth of the SLCC design process: "We began to realize there are a lot of benefits in using the concepts [of open space and a deaf-friendly environment] that are being applied to the SLCC to all new campus facilities and renovations." Bauman said that he and his brother, Dr. Dirksen Bauman, a professor in the ASL and Deaf Studies Department, Dr. Benjamin Bahan, '79, also a professor in the department, and others from the deaf community often have long conversations about the interaction between architecture and cultural studies. From these discussions, they conceived the notion of having these ideas developed through a course at Gallaudet. Former Provost Jane Fernandes and President Emeritus I. King Jordan agreed that the program had great potential and approved adding it to the deaf studies curricula.

Hansel Bauman said it makes sense that this class is offered through the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies. "Architecture is one of the key ways a culture manifests itself in the physical world," he explained. "Deaf culture centers around the language> The language has all the elements of architecture-the spatial kinesthetic of sign language, the desire of deaf people for the visual access that open space affords-lends itself to express the deaf way of being." So, exactly what does that mean when it comes to designing a building with a deaf person's needs in mind? "That's what we're working toward," he replied.


Maluma or Takete?

Space that comprises free flowing, circular movements is associated with the anthropological term "maluma," which conjures up images of a soft, flowing aesthetic-the essence of deaf language and culture. The opposite of maluma is "takete," a rigid, sharp, angular aesthetic. When designing homes for a hearing person, for example, the architect is conscious of the desire to create walls that enclose space—takete—which translates into a feeling of security. But in performing the same task for a deaf person, for example, the architect needs to be cognizant of the desire for visual access, which means less walls, and in their place "implied enclosures"—maluma. This can be accomplished through designing partial walls that are less than floor-to-ceiling height, or using building materials such as clouded glass as an alternative to brick, concrete, or drywall to create rooms that afford privacy yet preserve a sense of openness. The strategic placement of skylights and artificial lighting, and installing vertical glass panels next to doors are other ways that enhance the architectural aesthetic embraced by deaf people.

group demonstrating poor sight lines
Deaf Space project class members depict the difficulties deaf people have in talking in a setting where there are sharp corners-a concept called "takete."
group demonstrating clear sightlines
Deaf Space project class members (from left): Dr. Dirksen Bauman, instructor, students Robert Arnold, Robert Sirvage, Matthew Malzkuhn, Brooke Budzinski, Scottie Allen, Ryan Commerson, and Bridget Klein, and instructor/architect Hansel Bauman, demonstrate the ease deaf people have communicating in a rounded, flowing space-an example of a design with "maluma" qualities.

The Deaf Space class began in the fall semester with eight graduate students, and for the spring semester expanded to 12 students, two of whom are undergraduates. The fall semester class was six credits and combined two deaf studies classes-one on visual studies, taught by Bahan, and the other on cultural studies, led by Dirksen Bauman. Hansel Bauman co-taught in both classes.

The theories on what constitutes deaf space that were discussed by the students and their professors during the fall semester were applied to student life on Kendall Green. Students paired up and analyzed each dormitory, documenting through drawings and photographs what supported interaction and what didn't. The students were given a practical application: the design for the Clerc dormitory, which is slated for an overhaul. They presented their concepts to the architects and design team working on the renovation, and their ideas were incorporated into the design work. "So the students had a very direct and important impact on the project," said Hansel Bauman. They also charted the development of Kendall Green since it was founded in 1864. In addition, they conducted case studies of other universities where students were afforded significant input in the architectural designs of new buildings or renovations, therefore giving them a sense of belonging and ownership of these facilities.

Like many college campuses, academics and day-to-day life lead separate existences on Kendall Green-the cafeteria and dormitories taking up the north sector of campus and academics to the south. While some people think it's a good philosophy to separate the two functions, others feel that the separation detracts from the college experience and that life and study should be intermingled. That concept gives the deaf space class the challenge of creating an environment that is more of a community. Included in the University's current Facilities Master Plan-a list of planned capital improvements projects through 2012 that is on file in the Washington, D.C. Office of Planning and Zoning-is for Ballard North and West to be demolished and replaced with apartment-style housing, and to replace the Hanson parking garage with a campus green, said Hansel Bauman. "So, the University did have some foresight in deaf-friendly space," he said. An idea generated by the students that is not in the Master Plan, he added is an additional student center, separate from the JSAC. "There is a feeling now that there is nowhere on campus that is welcoming," he said. "This would be a hub, a homey touch that would be a common gathering place."

The students were able to test their theories over the spring semester in a studio-a former computer room in the basement of Benson Hall-where they created drawings and models. For example, Hansel Bauman displayed a model of Clerc Hall, based on the student's ideas. The design of the ground floor gives the impression that it is part of the surrounding landscape. A ramp for wheelchair users leads to a second-floor entrance, lending barrier-free access to deaf people walking while engrossed in conversation. The ramp is symbolic of the "third person" in deaf culture-typically, when three deaf people walk together, two converse while the third acts as a guide, looking out for obstacles and charting the course.


Looking beyond the campus

group in parking lot near DC Farmer's Market
Students and faculty in the Deaf Space project discuss the potential for incorporating facilities that cater to the needs of the deaf community in a proposal to renovate the market and wholesale area adjacent to campus. Gallaudet is the largest landowner in the project.

Signing cafes. Movies by deaf by deaf filmmakers enjoyed while sipping cappuccino served by ASL-trained wait staff. A visual media center showcasing the works of deaf artists from around the world. Housing for Gallaudet faculty, students with families, and deaf senior citizens. These are just some of the ideas the deaf space students would like to see at "New Town at Capital City Market."

The D.C. City Council enacted legislation last December calling for development of 24 acres immediately west of Kendall Green that is characterized by a market and wholesale businesses. Since Gallaudet owns about 3.7 acres of the parcel, making it the largest landowner in the market project, the class wants to make the deaf community's needs known while development plans are being drawn up.

The students feel that the market-and its close proximity to the New York Avenue/Florida Avenue/Gallaudet University Metro Station-presents an ideal opportunity to enhance Gallaudet's visibility. They reason that the market is already a glorious potpourri of languages and cultures, and that representation by deaf entrepreneurs should be added to the mix. They foresee deaf-owned businesses, advocacy agencies for the deaf community, restaurants and shops whose staff know ASL, and art galleries and theaters for deaf artists. They also envision deaf-friendly, green buildings that draw their electricity from alternative energy sources.

The deaf space group also investigated ways the market project can meet Gallaudet's housing needs. The results of a survey they conducted show that only 26 of 225 Gallaudet faculty live near the University. This means as soon as their daily teaching duties are done, faculty usually make a hasty retreat from campus. While this may help them beat rush hour traffic, it prevents them from staying for evening events and interacting with the community. Gallaudet students who are married and/or have families face a housing shortage. The 36 apartments at the University are full and have a waiting list of 40. And what about a place near Gallaudet for deaf senior citizens to live with their peers? The solution, the deaf space students say, can be found by incorporating housing into the market's planning.


Visualizing the possibilities

lightbox model
lightbox model
lightbox model
In order to study the qualities of light and shadow, students constructed light boxes.

While defining deaf space is a work in progress, there is no question that the concept has jolted the imaginations of the students who have taken the course. It has inspired them to consider the possibilities, using the power of architecture as a catalyst. At presentations to the campus, where they share their ideas, the atmosphere is electric with the excitement they exude. And it is contagious, as members of the audience come forth time and again to fuel their ideas. They envision a new Gallaudet-a model place that will further its global role as the leader in deaf education by becoming the leader in language, culture, the arts, and international development.

What began as a study on deaf space has evolved into thesis projects for some students. For example, Matthew Malzkuhn is writing his master's thesis on deaf space in deaf people's homes. Another graduate student, Thomas Halseth, completed his thesis on the Gallaudet Library and its lack of deaf space design principles.

Malzkuhn's research focuses on deaf homeowners who are designing new homes or renovating existing ones, to document the ways they make their home environment "fit their deaf ways of being," he said. "Up until now, deaf people usually were understood through two categories-education and language," said Malzkuhn. "Do these categories fully explain how we live our lives? Do they tell us about deaf people's cultural values? They barely even scratch the surface. … These are some of the questions that I am addressing through my thesis."

The Deaf Space project has given Malzkuhn food for thought about the deaf community and the ways it expresses itself. "When we look at other cultures and their habitats, we can learn a lot from just exploring the space they occupy. How would that be different with deaf people? We have such uniqueness in how we form our spaces." He added that when classmates Robert Arnold and Ryan Commerson suggested a sign for deaf space that comes from the French Sign Language sign for three-dimensional, it dawned on him that deaf people are "spherical people," he said. "I hadn't put much thought to that. … it (the deaf space symbol) shows that we communicate in a spherical way, using sign language… . We converse n a circle, we arrange ourselves in a circle-the list goes on. It blew my mind."

For other students, the Deaf Space project offers a welcome chance to get in on a new study on an important yet overlooked aspect of deaf people's lives. When Commerson first learned about the Deaf Space project, he was anxious to become involved. "Deaf people have never had a place of their own in terms of architectural ownership, so my interest was piqued by an opportunity to create a space that reflects our identity," he said.

Commerson, a graduate student whose concentration is in cultural studies, finds it serendipitous that the program began last fall when the University was embroiled in protest. "The protest was about leadership and university philosophy. As a result, we were faced with a challenge to revisit the academic rigor, shared governance, and history of isolation from the academic community, so this project served as a perfect model to emulate in its innovative research and collaboration of administrators, faculty, staff, and students," he said.

What struck Commerson after getting involved in the project was how deaf people "intuitively and collectively know what kind of space reflects our identity and being." He said it was only a matter of weeks before the class developed a set of principles to guide it in its research. "Personally, I've come to a conclusion that the deaf space principles would benefit everyone all over the world, not just deaf people, because humans are naturally collective and tactile," said Commerson. "For me, the Deaf Space project is just one more validation that being deaf is truly a great thing; that being a visual-tactile oriented member of a collectivist culture has something of value that can be shared with the world." Malzkuhn shares Commerson's viewpoint on why the architectural principles of deaf space make sense in almost every design project, and adds, adamantly, "They are beyond practical. They are absolutely necessary."

Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." If the spark that has started with the students in the Deaf Space project becomes a flame, then the rising generation of deaf leaders will certainly play a role in molding the future of the deaf community.

Will these ideas be implemented? Who will invest in these projects? Will they change the world? Today, there are no answers, but the vision had been formed, and a dialogue has begun.

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