Gallaudet University announces four finalist teams to create the "first urban environment for the deaf"

Gallaudet University announces four finalist teams to create the "first urban environment for the deaf"

Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. is doubling down on design for the deaf. The university has announced four finalists in an international design competition that will add to an ambitious program to build DeafSpace, the “first urban environment for the deaf.”

Designing public space with the deaf in mind brings its own unique challenges. “Do crosswalks have to heighten visibility? If sidewalks have to be wider, do they cut into sidewalk cafes and increase the area of surfaces impermeable to rainwater?” Gallaudet turned to the design community to come up with ideas in its competition.

The two-part competition garnered responses from 51 multidisciplinary teams (comprising 320 architecture firms, consultants, and specialists). The brief called for a space specifically tailored to the needs of the deaf community and required the design team to propose a new campus gateway and “redefine the university’s urban edge as a vibrant, mixed-use, creative and cultural district.”

The shortlisted finalists are:

  • Hall McKnight Architects with AECOM, Nomad RDC, Whybrow Wayfinding, L’Observatoire International, Dr Adams-Costa, and Patrick Cullina (UK)
  • Kennedy & Violich Architecture, Ltd., with Richard Burck Associates, Landscape Architecture Bureau, Bohler Engineering, Small Design Firm, Tillotson Design Associates, Cavanaugh Tocci Associates, Inc, Pentagram, Jensen Hughes Associates, Buro Happold, Tarek Atoui and Jacob Shamberg (US)
  • Marvel Architects with Quennell Rothschild Partners, ARUP, Local Projects, James Lima Planning + Development, Future/City, Jim Conti Light Design, Doyle Partners, Tom Fruin (US)
  • MASS Design Group with Jeffrey Mansfield, DLR Group, TENxTEN, Small Stuff, Urban Ingenuity, Integral Group, Wendy Jacobs, Michael Gulliver, Chisato Minamimura and Sarah Pickthall (US)

Located on the southwestern edge of the university, the competition is sited along 6th Street NE and hopes to connect the deaf and hearing communities. The university is calling the larger area “DeafSpace” and aims to fit the competition project into an existing 10-year master plan. In what will be the “first urban environment for the deaf,” public spaces in and around the campus and four sizeable plots will be developed under the master plan.

Started in 2012, the ten-year master plan is well under way. In 2014 architect Morris Adjmi was chosen to design the four plots totaling 1.3 million square feet.

The competition project will feature “DeafSpace” design principles, which are based on the knowledge that the built environment, largely constructed by and for hearing individuals, presents a variety of challenges to which deaf people have responded with a particular way of altering their surroundings to fit their unique ways-of-being.

Examples of DeafSpace design elements can be found on the Gallaudet campus in two of its buildings. This project is the first time these design principles will be incorporated into a public space off the Gallaudet campus. The university “realized its campus didn’t suit how the Deaf use buildings and streets,” according to Greater Greater Washington. DeafSpace hopes to correct that.

The design of DeafSpace takes into account the visual nature of sign language—American Sign Language (ASL) requires view of the whole upper body. Practitioners use lots of personal space when communicating with their hands, so in DeafSpace, “there are as few manually opening doors as possible.” Hallways and corridors are designed to be wider.

Hansel Bauman, leader of the DeafSpace project is keen to take the idea further. To “design spaces more tightly around human behaviors and sensations, irrespective of specific abilities.” He noted how easy it is for society to forget how humans physically and visually interact with our surroundings.

“The design competition is an important first step in one of the most dramatic neighborhood revitalizations the District has seen in some time,” Fred Weiner, assistant vice president of administration at Gallaudet and CEO of the Gallaudet University Foundation, said in a statement. “This integration into the surrounding community will allow for greater opportunities for our students, faculty and staff to engage with those that live and work alongside us, and for those outside the campus boundaries to better understand our culture and the deaf ways of being.”