September 8, 2015

New exhibit helps the blind and those with sight ‘see’ downtown Miami Architecture in The Miami Herald

Imagine you are blind.

How would you get a sense of what a city skyline looks like? Or fathom the architecture of buildings, in all their grandeur, that gives a metropolitan area its authentic feel?

For someone who’s blind or visually impaired, understanding the façade or identity of a building, all of its corners and dips and shapes and patterns from the ground up, is a challenging feat.

With that in mind, the Miami Center for Architecture and Design (MCAD), in partnership with EXILE Books and Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, have created a first-of-its-kind architecture show designed for people who are blind or visually impaired. A merger of free musical performances, lectures, mobility and orientation tours and a hands-on exhibit, the show also will offer those with sight a new way to look at art and architecture.

On view at MCAD through Oct. 17, the multi-component exhibit “Listen to this Building” goes hand-in-hand with six weeks of special programing to help people of all abilities learn about and visualize downtown Miami’s historic buildings by having them use senses other than sight — like touch and hearing.

“Someone who is blind, they can sort of go through a space and understand the spatial relationships and feel the materials,” says Ricardo Mor, programs coordinator at MCAD, “but they don’t understand what the building looks like on a street level. So these facades, these architectural elements that we love in buildings, are often inaccessible to those who are blind. We wanted to do something that brought this part of the building to the forefront.”

The showcase also aims to help those with sight become conscious of the limitations of what someone who is blind goes through on a daily basis, to create a more empathic community and to effect social policy changes in making Miami more accessible to people who are blind.

Mor collaborated with Amanda Keeley, visual artist and founder of EXILE Books, a mobile book shop currently in MCAD that features and promotes artists’ publications, as well as Sara Rose Darling, who curated the exhibit and helped assemble the program’s events.

“There’s not a full understanding that there are different members of our community with different needs and that everyone should be equally served,” says Keeley. “We wanted to bring this into a contemporary context and have people get their own experience out of it — to experience architecture in a new way.”

Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired helped advise the trio with planning the programming — six events in six weeks that seek “to bridge the understanding between downtown Miami architecture, independent publishing and accessibility, specifically addressing visual impairments.”

In one of the upcoming events, on Sept. 12, Lighthouse will lead free mobility tours every half-hour between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in conjunction with the Downtown Development Authority’s “Downtown Art Days.” Those with sight will be blindfolded and lent mobility canes as they tour the Old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, now MCAD, to “better focus on the sounds and other sensory experiences of the city to help them alter their relationship to the building’s architecture.”

The installations in “Listen to this Building” and programming remove all visual stimuli. Near the center of MCAD’s first floor sits a large 3D architectural model of the MCAD building, created by students from FIU’s College of Architecture and the Arts. The model, which is concealed, contains small openings in which people can put their hands, an invitation to touch what’s inside: a rendering of the exterior of the building, complete with stairs, terra cotta roof shingles, circular window panes and other characteristics that make up its physical appearance.

“I didn’t have any idea what the building looked like until I got here tonight,” says R. David New, who was an interior designer who lost his sight to a rare eye disease 14 years ago, at age 31.

“And I was feeling it — the grooves and the columns; it tells you information that you would never otherwise know.”

New will give an Oct. 6 talk with Darling about making Miami more accessible for people with disabilities. As chairman of Miami Beach’s Disability Access Committee, he acts as the “ears” for the mayor and his council to ensure that the business community is complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We want them to know that all new capital improvements and all new construction centers, and the new convention center and hotels, should all have accessibility in mind,” he said.

He helped propel the idea for the tactile relief prints, which make up a large part of the exhibit. Tactile release prints could be compared to the raised outlines of an image on a rubber stamp. Ten of them, showing select downtown Miami buildings with nontraditional architecture and historical significance like Gesu Church, Miami’s oldest Catholic parish, are mounted on MCAD’s interior walls, inviting viewers of all abilities to feel the raised grooves that make up each building’s façade, to get a sense of the structure through touch.

“You look at it, you think about it, you judge it,” Krysta Samuel of Coconut Grove, who attended the Sept. 3 opening night of the exhibit, said about the process of understanding an object through sight.

“You get all this information from just looking at something. This exhibit is a great way to open people’s minds,” she said.

Also featured in the exhibit is a book that combines narratives of each of the buildings in braille alongside the textile releases ($30 via EXILE.) It shares the same title name as the exhibit, aiming to highlight independent publishing while also serving as a tangible model for other architecture centers around the country that have already expressed interest in introducing similar exhibits for those who are blind or visually impaired in their cities.

The DDA provided financial support for the exhibit, tours and braille artist books.

Outside, by MCAD’s front steps, an audio installation features narratives of people describing attributes of each of the 10 featured buildings; it’s accompanied by a large, vinyl floor applique inviting the passersby to “LISTEN” to the building.

“Everything in the exhibition is geared toward people who are blind,” says Mor, who considers the audience underserved. “In the sound installation, people are describing buildings as they would to a person who is blind, so they’re using different language from what they would and it’s forcing them to confront these difficulties in language that sometimes occur when you speak to someone who is blind.”

The elements of the exhibit and programming feed the team’s vision that people will be able to experience architecture in a way that isn’t familiar to them and will force them to put themselves in the shoes of someone who is blind and experience it how they would.

“As an artist,” says Keeley, “that’s something that I believe the best art does — it’s transcendent; it makes you see things in a different way. This exhibit helps to educate the community and facilitates dialogue about accessibility.”

The National Federation of the Blind estimates that as of a 2012 report, there are 6,670,300 people in the United States that have a visual disability, with 434,600 in Florida.

“The person is not defined by the fact that they don’t have sight,” Keeley says. “We all have different characteristics — and we need to be mindful that we’re all in this together.”

“Our part in this is raising awareness,” said Ray Casas, chairman of the board for Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, a longstanding organization that teaches independence to people who are blind through life and job-skill training and offers free eye exams and glasses to low-income students.

“A lot of people rarely deal with a blind person, except maybe an older family member who starts to lose their sight. This brings us out to places where we’re not,” he says.

“It’s an experience for everybody.”

What: ‘Listen to This Building,’ exhibit and programming.

Where: Miami Center for Architecture and Design, 100 NE First Ave.

When: Through Oct. 17.

Contact: Email or visit to view programming schedule.

Photo gallery: Visually impaired ‘see’ downtown Miami architecture | Sat., Sept. 12, 2015

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