October 9, 2015

MCAD rethinks accessibility and design through exhibit in the Miami Herald

Standing on the steps of the Miami Center for Architecture and Design, Ryan David New asked Christopher Downey, a blind architect and urban planner who traveled from San Francisco earlier in the week, how he preferred to get around town.

New, an artist and community advocate who lost his sight in 2001, said he felt more empowered with a seeing eye dog. Downey, however, said he prefers a cane. 

“It’s a completely different experience,” New said. 

On Tuesday night, the two men discussed how becoming blind well into their careers taught them how to rethink city and urban planning.

Since Sept. 3, the architecture center has explored how the visually impaired experience structure and form through its “Listen to this Building” exhibit, on view at the center until Oct. 17. Cheryl Jacobs, the center’s executive vice president, said the exhibit has been a place where artists, advocates, architects and planners can rethink how accessibility and good design are one in the same.

After New lost his sight to an eye disease 14 years ago at 31, he moved back to Miami Beach, where he had lived in the 1990s.  “It was familiar; it felt safe,” New said. He remembered street and landmark locations, but couldn’t navigate as easily. “You know, South Beach had been changing for decades now. I just have to adapt like anyone else.” 

Shortly after his move, New traveled to San Francisco and noticed the street crossings had audio cues for the blind and wondered if Miami Beach could do the same. New, chairman of Miami Beach’s Disability Access Committee, has been working to improve accessibility on the Beach since moving back here. The city of Miami Beach implemented audible crosswalks in 2009.

Downey’s life and career as an architect and planner was transformed when he lost his sight in 2008. He now serves as a consultant on designing for the visually impaired.
“When you design for the blind, you design for everyone,” he told those in attendance. A city designed for the blind, he said, is a city with a robust public transportation system that creates opportunity for social inclusion. Before Downey’s talk, Amanda Keeley, the founder of the pop-up store EXILE Books, and Sara Darling, the exhibit’s curator, gave Downey and his wife, Rosa, a tour of Miami’s historic structures. 

“A lot of these buildings existed before the Americans with Disabilities Act and also before there was an appreciation for accessibility,” Downey said.  Downey teaches a class on accessibility and universal design at the University of California, Berkeley. He said bringing old buildings up to current disability-act codes is one of the hardest things city planners face.
“But I don’t think there’s any conflict between the idea of inclusion and the idea of historic preservation,” he said. 

Darling, who spoke alongside New on Tuesday night, said Downey’s idea of “inclusive design” needs to be at the forefront of the conversation in rezoning the city. 

“There’s this huge push for development and also this huge community of historic buildings,” Darling said. “Bringing to light issues of accessibility in those buildings that we want to keep, and not tear down to make new ones, is an important thing to highlight.”

Patricia Elso, a graduate student at Florida International University’s School of Architecture, said Miami, still a relatively young city, is attracting the world’s top architects –– like Zaha Hadid, a Iraqi-British architect who designed One Thousand Museum, a luxury condo project in downtown Miami.
Elso and graduate student Matthew Wasala worked with the center, EXILE Books and Darling before the exhibit to build a 3D- architectural model of the architecture center’s building.
Elso said schools are teaching students today about progressive styles of design that incorporate accessibility and cleaner energy.

“All of these companies are experimenting in Miami,” Elso said. “There so much that you can incorporate into a building’s design that can be functional and still look good.”

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