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Architectural design In Dialogue with dis-Ability Theoretical and methodological exploration of a multi-sensorial design approach in architecture

Final Report Summary - AIDA (Architectural design In Dialogue with dis-Ability Theoretical and methodological exploration of a multi-sensorial design approach in architecture)

The AIDA project aimed to explore whether and how disabled people’s experiential knowledge can be mobilized to design better spaces for more people. More specifically, the project aimed to: 1) analyse the how and why of exceptional design projects in which disability seems to have played a key role; 2) gain insights in how disabled people’s multi-sensory experiential knowledge can be disclosed as input for design processes and can trigger innovative design solutions.

AIDA’s innovative aspect lies not only in ‘giving voice‘ to disabled people in research into their experience. Considering them as experts, and as actors of innovation, they became implied in the development of scientific facts and technological artefacts or processes. Moreover, through continuous cross-disciplinary collaboration between social sciences and architectural design (i.e. within the AIDA research team), state-of-the-art theories and research approaches were used for mutual reinforcement. Consequently, conventional blind spots of both disciplines—such as epistemological questions in architectural design, and techno-scientific questions in social sciences—were addressed and dealt with, resulting in more robust cross-disciplinary research and scientific knowledge production.

The research design was set up around three tracks. The disability experience track sought to flesh out disability experience of the built environment, by conducting ethnographic research over a longer period on mundane activities and into spatial experience of disabled people, and by conducting buildings visits with them. The track tied in with satellite projects on the spatial experience of people different from the ‘norm’—e.g. people born blind, living with autism spectrum conditions, or lying in a hospital bed; or older people with and without dementia. The retrospective design track covered various case studies that reconstruct the design process of exceptional design projects in which disability seems to have played a key role. To this end, interviews with various actors (client, architect(s), accessibility advisor) were combined with document analysis and site visits, with and without disabled people. In the real-time design track, a real-world competition design was selected to explore scenarios for involving people with sensory impairments as experts in the design team. An architecture office was teamed up with persons who are blind, and the design process is studied as it unfolds.

Throughout these three tracks, we developed innovative approaches to gain empirical access to the experiential knowledge of others—be it disabled people, designers, or both. Our findings suggest that the perspective of disability can indeed question ‘fixed‘ ways of thinking about architecture, but also allows to re-think prevailing notions in architectural design and inform about alternative solutions. These notions include a) the notion of space itself—not a mere visual void between the objects making up its boundaries, but in itself a filled entity with its own sensory qualities that can be designed deliberately; and b) aspects of the process of designing—e.g. the notion of scale, the role of sketches and models in architectural design, or the understanding of human cognition. In summary, our findings suggest that the perspective of disability may not only broaden architects‘ horizon by expanding their conception of space, but may also expand our understanding of design. Therefore we advance the multiverse as new metaphor for design practice, allowing for disability experience and knowledge practice to partake in the design process.