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Building for the blind

Library rocha carillo architectural review 4

Architecture for the visually impaired by Taller de Arquitectura Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo forces us to ‘see’ in new ways

Composing a space for the blind means asking yourself how to see with other senses. It means rediscovering all the sensations that are muted by the dominance of vision. Odour has spatiality. Sound is a living entity. We have learned that building for the blind is not only a specific act, but demands that we start to ‘see’ architecture from different perspectives, and ask new questions.

‘Designing these buildings made us realise how blind we are to our other senses, how limited from the possible extents of our perception’

In 2012, we designed the renovation of an existing library for the blind as part of Ciudad de los Libros, a masterplan that involved a series of renovations in the Biblioteca de México José Vasconcelos. Blindness in Mexico comes mainly from poorly treated, degenerative diseases, so the majority of users have partial visual impairment and have only gradually begun to lose their sight. During that transition the vision is blurred, sometimes becoming monochromatic, with yellow as the most easily visible colour. While reading braille requires no light, for the visually impaired contrasts between light, shadow and gloom are perceptible, and indirect lighting ideal. 

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review sketch

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review sketch

Only six bookshelves had been requested, but due to the size of the alphabet, one book in braille might occupy more than 10 volumes. Unavailable books are replaced by the voices of librarians, spoken straight to visitors or recorded onto cassettes. In a library for the blind, sound is most significant. In the existing library, sounds flooded the space, interrupting the silence required – sounds of dogs barking, cane strokes, braille printers, and librarians reading aloud. There was a density of sound. 

The concept in the new library was to eclipse these invading sounds, reconfiguring them, ordering them and adding new ones with different purposes. The echo became an accomplice, acoustic spatial proportions allowing us to delineate recreation and rest, work and circulation, with the loudest reading formats placed in small but spacious sound-insulated booths, that hover above the large free floor. Whether for the blind or the sighted, something we seek constantly, in any project, is silence. 

On the library patio, we laid out an aromatic garden predicated on different fragrances, designing a flexible space that would stimulate the blind, carefully positioning lemon, rosemary and jasmine. The furniture in the library was designed so that the smell of its skin would seep out, but also as a kind of speaker, the room itself becoming a large sound box – not composed simply of bookshelves but of elements that would build acoustic absorption. 

‘The space becomes complex, not through artifice, but because it enhances the phenomena of what already exists there’

Mauricio Rocha had previously worked on a centre for the blind and visually impaired in Iztapalapa, completed in 2001. Few public efforts have been aimed at vulnerable groups, particularly for the blind, but this was instituted as part of a programme by the Mexico City government to provide greater care to the district with the largest visually impaired population in the city. 

The municipality had received funds for the project from an organisation specialising in blindness, and Rocha’s presentations were given to a blind representative of that organisation. No renders or plans would be of any use to this client, but a 1:100 model was built through which – little by little – his  fingertip, like an experienced eye, could read the proportions of the openings, the rhythm of the entrances, the tension between the architectural volumes and the vegetal slopes. His touch gradually spelled out the spatiality of the place and the sequence of the programme’s path. He could intuit the changes in lighting, but also the path of aromas and the passage of materials as the palette changed to represent the building’s function – an administrative building’s skeleton exposed and lined in glass, while workshops have concrete bases with rammed-earth bricks above. 

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review 3

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review 3

Source: Luis Gordoa

The water channel running through the central plaza at the Centro de Invidentes y Débiles in Mexico City

There have been few precedents for what we wanted to do in these projects. Similar buildings have concentrated on the level of equipment, devices and software, but the space itself was not a focus. We look instead to examples where seeing is just one of thousands of components that define an atmosphere: traditional Japanese gardens that seek serenity and silence, the rhythms of light in Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery in Italy and the tension that its landscape produces. The Espacio Escultórico at UNAM in Mexico City – including a ring of colossal tezontle wedges installed by a group of artists in 1979 and recalling ancient Mesoamerican civilisations – transports us from the heart of a huge metropolis to another time and another landscape.

There are thousands more examples that have not been designed by architects but through the sense of their inhabitants. Designing these buildings made us realise how blind we are to our other senses, how limited from the possible extents of our perception. By shifting that emphasis on the visual that pervades architecture, we began to understand that the force of a space comes from making the wind move so that it brushes the skin, or that the pupil of the eye dilates to perceive light differently. The rush of water becomes not only a reflection but a rhythm, that accompanies the vibrations of light and shadow with which we compose the visual. The space becomes complex, not through artifice, but because it enhances the phenomena of what already exists there, and what our bodies are capable of perceiving. We do not design solely for the blind, or for the sighted, but to maintain that attention to the senses. In the pursuit of powerful atmosphere, we cannot focus exclusively on sight, but must attempt to restore the sensitivity of the skin to exposure to light, to wind, the aromas emitted by wet soil or by the natural fibres of the materials we use, the vibrations of the voice when hitting a hard surface. We would otherwise lose that particular alchemy, where the walls vanish and the experience of space becomes immeasurable.

Centro de Invidentes y Débiles, Visuales, Iztapalapa, Mexico City, Taller de Arquitectura Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo, 2001

Bounded by two great avenues in one of Mexico City’s poorest peripheral neighbourhoods, this huge complex provides services to both the general public and the visually impaired, in an effort to improve integration in public life. 

It is bordered on all four sides by a tall retaining wall crowned by vegetation, that acts both as an acoustic barrier and to hold back the earth excavated from the former construction dump on which it sits. The plan is set out in a series of parallel bands: the first housing offices and a cafeteria, and the second, workshops, a shop and braille and sound libraries gathered around a plaza. The third band contains classrooms that face onto private gardens and patios, carved from the back of the heavy retaining wall.

Senses of sound, smell and touch are all activated throughout: a water channel runs along the central plaza, its rippling sounds intended to guide the way, different aromatic plants layering further orientation into the perimeter wall and patios. In contrast to the bulky stone of the retaining wall, the workshop buildings shift from a smooth concrete base to rammed-earth bricks at hand height, activating a sense of touch and differentiating the buildings’ programmes.

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review 4

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review 4

Source: Luis Gordoa

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review 1

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review 1

Source: Luis Gordoa

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review drawings

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review drawings

Click to download

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review drawings 2

Centre for visually imparied rocha carrillo architectural review drawings 2

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Biblioteca para Ciegos y Débiles Visuales, Ciudadela, Mexico City, Taller de Arquitectura Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo, 2012

This intervention into the old Biblioteca de México José Vasconcelos was intended to replace an  existing library for the blind from 1989 as part of the government programme Ciudad de los Libros. The old room was cramped, receiving many more visitors than its insufficient space could provide for. The architects requested that the new rooms be moved to the north facade of the library, placing it closer to an entrance patio which would later become an aromatic garden, and improving the natural lighting in the space.

Light is more important than one might expect in a library for the blind. Most visitors have only partial impairment and determine  space through contrast between light and shadow, and many will visit with sighted children, who were not accounted for in the design for the library that predated Rocha and Carrillo’s renovation. In the new library, a play area and toy library host the children on low tables, the cabins that hold the sound booths floating at first floor level over an open ground floor plan.

In the old library, these cabins were unused due to their small size and unpleasant odour, but the new booths are fitted with silent extraction, audio equipment that places the voice of the readers at an ideal volume and tone, and insulation that contains the sound within the cabin. Ridges along the new bookshelves support a more interactive surface than a smooth edifice would, and braille text quoting verses by significant writers and poets along the halls was placed along handrails and tables, becoming another component of the textures that can be found around the room. 

Library rocha carillo architectural review

Library rocha carillo architectural review

Click to download

Library rocha carillo architectural review 2

Library rocha carillo architectural review 2

Source: Andra Pereznieto

Library rocha carillo architectural review 4

Library rocha carillo architectural review 4

Source: Andra Pereznieto

Library rocha carillo architectural review 1

Library rocha carillo architectural review 1

Source: Andra Pereznieto

This piece is featured in the AR April 2020 issue on Darkness – click here to buy your copy today