Challenging Prevailing Ways of Understanding and Visualizing Space

Friday, 13 February 2015: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM
Room LL21E (San Jose Convention Center)
Ann Heylighen,University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
In the context of architectural design, disability tends to be associated with accessibility norms, which are felt by architects as limiting their design freedom and taking away the challenge to come up with intelligent solutions. This presentation reports on a set of studies which turn this association upside down: they acknowledge that, because of their specific interaction with space, disabled people are able to appreciate spatial qualities which architects may not be attuned to. This holds for people living with sensory impairments (e.g., blindness, low vision), experiencing space from an atypical position (e.g., patients lying in a hospital bed) or living with particular mental conditions (e.g., autism, dementia).

Disabled people’s perspective, the presentation will demonstrate, challenges prevailing ways of understanding space. It draws architects’ attention to, for instance, non-visual qualities (temperature, sound, air displacement) and their potential to define spaces; building features which (dis)connect and regroup people in various ways; or mental thresholds which we all do sense but never can point to that well.

These different understandings of space in turn challenge prevailing ways of designing space, in particular of representing space during design. Questions arise, for instance, as to what extent traditional spatial representations allow to address non-visual spatial qualities during design. Case data suggest a potential, both to visualize non-visual qualities more extensively in existing representations, as well as to (further) develop representations that combine visualization with other sensory registers.

These questions further challenge prevailing ways of understanding design, especially the outspoken attention for ‘visual thinking’ in design and the epistemological straightjacket it comes with. Extending our understanding of design beyond the cognitivist view of human cognition—which propagates the alleged superiority of vision over the other senses, but also of cognition over sensation—leads to a broader epistemological base. Including the role of non-visual senses, collaboration, and representational objects in design (research), may open up promising avenues for the future, be it in terms of researching design or developing new representational technologies.

To demonstrate the potential of adopting other, more situated views of human cognition, the presentation will close by briefly reporting on an ongoing study which explores how disabled people can ‘rent out’ their spatial experience to inform design processes in architecture.