HALL FOR THE VISUALLY IMPAIRED Taller de arquitectura-Mauricio Rocha
Text by Priscila Vanneuville
«Access to communication, in its broadest sense, is access to knowledge, which of vital importance to us if we do not want to keep being disregarded or protected by the compassionate sighted people. We don’t need pity or to be reminded that we are vulnerable. We have to be treated as equals and communication is the means through which we can achieve that.»
The possibility of literacy for people with visual impairment is a relatively recent phenomenon: it dates back to the 19th century, when Louis Braille improved certain methods that had been worked on by various characters since 1786. This system allowed the blind and visually impaired not only to read but also write, take notes and copy them, as well as to participate in the exchange of personal letters or written messages for the first time. It wasn’t until the 20th century that this system was adopted in all the countries as the official system of written communication for the blind. However, the elevated production costs for the various Braille supports (brochures, books, signage, etc.) are determining compared to the system for the sighted, where inks are normally used.
Consequently, there is a scarcity in attractive books for different age groups and there is an almost testimonial production of practical material. As a society, we face a diversity problem within the spectrum of information that only a person in those conditions has access to, which results in an obstacle for integration.
Over a million blind and visually impaired people live in Mexico, making it the second disability in the country. Within this group, statistics indicate that only 10% of the people considered legally blind use the Braille alphabet as a reading system, and an even fewer group use it to write. Reading and writing are socializing abilities that allow us to develop skills such as stimulating the observation and analysis of reality, strengthening reflection and dialogue abilities, accumulating knowledge, recreational possibilities, locating and recognizing spaces, etc.
In 2001, a project was developed in Mexico City that sought to address and provide a solution to the aforementioned predicament. It was a social and cultural service center for the visually impaired. The building of this institution was designed and constructed by Manuel Rocha’s Architectural Workshop, which developed a spatial system based on light intensities, textures, weight of materials, smells (scented plants and flowers) and sounds (a water canal crossed the architectural complex, defining the direction of transit). Unfortunately, this building is now destined for other purposes due to certain issues that unleashed great controversy and that are not relevant to this article.
From that experience, it is no coincidence that Manuel Rocha’s Architectural Workshop was commissioned the Hall for people with visual impairment under the project of restoring and recovering de City of Books (Ciudad de los Libros) in the Ciudadela. The architect’s research to the develop an adequate and inclusive space is reflected in this library.
Wood is predominant in the space: a material that smells, lives, expands, creaks, and emits sounds. A very particular sound is made when walking on wood, it seems as though it emerges and is absorbed at the same time by the material itself. To contrast the rough feeling of wood, yellow Corian was used to give out a completely smooth and cool touch sensation. We assumed it’s a difficult material to install and handle because of the cracks we noticed here and there. This accident could turn into a good choice by increasing textures involuntarily. Would the users be able to recognize the space based on this or that crack in the material?
The color range is in fact warm and made up of two tones essentially: brown and yellow. In color psychology, these types of combinations express serenity and encouragement; yellow also has the highest value of saturation in the visible frequency spectrum, which means that it is perceived brighter and more luminous than other colors. This is greatly relevant since this space was designed not only for the blind but also for people with any kind of visual impairment. This color selection strengthens the seeing portion that some of them have.
On the other hand, we also found an interesting pattern of chiaroscuro based on floating volumes and slits of light between the bookshelves, which also affects the temperature of the discontinuous spaces. Once again, yellow is the color associated with light, the sun, and brightness even if it is inside a dark space. The conceptual construction of the place incites a non-linear dynamic spatial experience, and offers the visitor the opportunity to go through it in different directions.
This new space includes a play center, individual work cubicles, recording booths with specialized material, individual or group reading areas with an extensive Braille archive as well as audiobooks. The culmination of this architectural research and information access investigation must set the foundations for the construction of future libraries that allow access to a larger and more varied audience.