An expanded version of a column that appeared in Vol. 1, No. 4: SUMMER 2018
Credit: The Right Angle Journal
If you were in downtown Toronto on August 19, around Queen and Yonge, you might have witnessed an unusual sight: a man, holding on to one end of an orange shoelace, leading a second man, holding the other end of the shoelace, slowly around the downtown core. The second man was blindfolded, hence the orange shoelace.
People must have been pointing, stopping and staring, whispering among themselves. Was this some sort of hazing ritual? A lost bet? A TV show? I have no way of knowing because although I was there, I was the one wearing the blindfold.
At the other end of the shoelace was Jonathan Silver, a philosophy grad with a keen interest in sensory space. He had offered to take me on one of his blindfold tours, so that I could further my own research into sensory space by experiencing a familiar environment without the use of vision. We followed a course (predetermined by Jonathan, but unknown to me) that included a variety of spaces. Jonathan would slacken the string from time to time, which was my signal to stop, and ask me what I thought of the space I was in. How did it make me feel? Was it a space I wanted to spend time in or did it make me anxious? Was it wonderful or weird? Comfortable or creepy?
We walked very slowly at first. Without sight, even maintaining my balance seemed to present a challenge. Every change in grade or surface texture meant I had to adjust my internal gyroscope. If I had been able to see these changes, my body would have adapted automatically, without my even being aware of it. After a while, the pace picked up a little. I am normally a brisk walker and it made me very uncomfortable to be walking this slowly, but once my senses started to perk up, things improved.
It was a warm summer day and we visited a surprising number of outdoor spaces that were quiet and sheltered. Jonathan was careful not to let me know when we passed through a doorway, so at times, I couldn’t tell whether we were indoors or outdoors.
Ground and floor textures played a huge part in how quickly and easily I could move through a space. On a smooth indoor floor surface, my walking speed picked up. On a rough outdoor path, every footfall had to be made tentatively. As architects, we know that walking surfaces affect our general feelings about a space. Colour, texture and pattern help to create a mood as well as affecting the direction, speed and character of our motion. But these are all visual clues and we respond to them without really noticing.
And, in no particular order, here are a few sightless observations:
- The smell of bacon was uplifting
- The sound of a tile saw was unsettling
- In Trinity Square, uneven pavers made me uncomfortable; by contrast, the transition to walking on grass after lifted my spirits unexpectedly. Church bells from Trinity Church made me stop in my tracks. They were calming and comforting
- The sound of a loud motorcycle – sharp and annoying – made me realize that we live in a fairly quiet city. People don’t honk their horns that much, sirens are fairly rare. The heightened anxiety that abrasive sounds produce is not a concern in Toronto
- The sound of buses opening and closing their doors made me think of travelling – there was a strange sense of anticipation.
- the sound of talking in an enclosed space – Eaton Centre, e.g. – suggested movement. Of all the snippets of overheard conversation, most were in a language other than English.
- the sound of water created a real sense of calm relaxation
- Aromas also affected my mood. The Bay perfume department was constantly changing but mostly pleasant; the nicest aroma and the most calming space was the entry to Abercrombie and Fitch, whose patented aroma has been cleverly designed
- The City Hall parking garage turned out to be one of the most calming environments that I experienced. The air handling system removed any unpleasant auto odours and the ambiance was quiet and calm
- Upper Terrace at City Hall, where few people seem to go, was breezy and had a surprisingly fresh smell
Here are a few of my sightless conclusions:
- Smooth surfaces underfoot – tile, wood and carpeting – usually indicate an indoor space – we don’t’ expect indoor surfaces to present a challenge. Outdoor surfaces are often uneven, sometimes extremely rough – even sidewalks, which can include random bits of trash and subtle grade changes. These are not much of a problem, unless you can’t see them
- On outdoor walking surfaces, the larger and coarser the paving, the slower the pace
- Traffic noise in outside spaces is easier on the ears and the psyche than bad music in indoor spaces
- Any sharp sounds – intermittent construction noises, e.g., tend to raise anxiety levels
- The transition from indoor to outdoor, where there is no temperature gradient, can usually be detected by the slight breeze resulting in a change in air pressure as you pass through a doorway
- The quality of background noise tells a lot about the space you are in. Attenuation changes dramatically from small spaces to large spaces. The sound level and the movement of sound indicates active vs. passive spaces
It dawned on me that not everyone gets to restore their sight by removing a blindfold after an hour. I gained a degree of respect and admiration for unsighted people who experience the non-visual world all the time. In addition to the things I learned about my own sensory response, I became aware that there is a lot we, as architects, landscape architects and planners, can do to make the environmental experiences of unsighted people a little better.
Credit: The Right Angle Journal