Sonic Architecture and Inclusive Design

Dr Jess Hayton

Writing is a medium of communication that represents language through the inscription of signs and symbols.

'Back in 2019, when this second iteration of the Soundhouse was commissioned, it was our aim to build even further on the architectural ambitions of our very first cinema for sound. As part of this process we were put in contact with Dr Jessica Hayton, lecturer in psychology and the Programme leader for the Graduate Diploma in Habilitation and Disabilities of Sight at UCL Institute of Education. She advised us on accessibility considerations for the physical space, in particular for people who are blind or have visual impairment. In the wake of COVID we weren’t able to realise a sound cinema inside the Barbican. But here, Jess offers a provocation for an imagined cinema for sound — something we hope one day to exist.'

Listen to the audio version of this essay:

For most of us, hearing sound isn’t a choice. Acknowledging and filtering certain sounds and not others is an instinctive survival response. Sound triggers visceral psychological and physical reactions. Think of those things that go ‘bump’ in the night, rudely waking us; or the unexplained shudder when hearing fingernails scratch down a chalkboard.

We can feel sound as well as hear it. It elicits innate responses, something audio-makers engage with in their storytelling when bringing stories to life. Sound has this immersive and captivating property that can make us feel safe and secure, threatened or scared. Consciously or unconsciously, we acknowledge some sounds and ignore others. We cannot escape the power that sound has to pull us in or warn us away, but we can use it to our advantage.

A ‘sound cinema’ is an ideal place to explore the ethereal quality of sound, where silence can have volume and noise can be vacuous. Hypothetically, and in reality, a sound cinema could transport anyone from the chaos of the city, give respite from the intensity of the outside world, and provide a means of escape through engaging with something other than vision. Because of this, a space dedicated to the art of sound might seem a natural source of enjoyment and escape for a person with impaired vision. However, we need to accept the space which we are escaping to. How can we be sure that this sanctuary will be a positive, safe, secure environment to find distance from the world beyond?

The reality and meaning of sounds differ from person to person. For example, ignoring the sound of oncoming traffic isn’t beneficial if you plan to cross the road, whereas ignoring traffic sounds when safe indoors, has no substantial negative repercussions. For a person with vision impairment, sound can be used for navigation, recreation, orientation and mobility. But filtering between the different sounds needed for navigation, safety and enjoyment can blur boundaries between two types of auditory stimulus. For example, how do we distinguish between an important safety announcement and what we are engaging with in an exhibition? This means that sonic architecture in a sound cinema can take on a different or dual meaning, creating a tightrope balance for ideal design. In UK legislation, the Equality Act (2010) requires ‘reasonable adjustment’ to physical space. Reasonable adjustments being measures taken to adapt an existing space to 'reduce the disadvantage' for persons with disability. I spend much of my focus contemplating reasonable adjustments to existing designs. This is because inclusive, accessible design and “reasonable adjustments” are usually ad hoc adaptations, an afterthought, or a ticked box, if you will (more on that later). But in an ideal world, surely an inclusive design would mitigate the need for reasonable adjustment as due diligence for all users would be incorporated into designs for new structures and buildings from the beginning?

Accessibility and inclusive design are based on individual needs and circumstance. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In order to make considerations we need to understand how our senses (sight, smell, touch, taste and sound) function, and what happens when one or more are impaired.

The considerations that we make for inclusive design can be discreet, so much so, you may not even notice. We’re not talking about fluorescent yellow paint over thresholds, nor blueprints labelled with a semi-tokenistic disclaimer advocating that a space is negotiable for wheelchair users. We are talking about considerations that can be made to permit any user, with any (or multiple) need(s), to engage, explore and enjoy distance from the chaos outside and become immersed within a different story. Inclusive design is not compromising an aesthetic, it uses what we know about sensory needs and the variability of the human condition to an advantage.

In the design of a space for people with sensory impairment (though arguably, to benefit all), considerations include: lighting (artificial or natural, the position/location, the brightness and glare); colour contrast (between walls, doors, floors and objects); furniture and if it ought to be fixed or flexible, and the implications of both. We consider zoned areas within a space, and if they are clearly demarcated. If we are enclosed within a space can we escape, freely and with ease? We consider appropriate signage and relevant, tactile, objects of reference that can assist in bringing a story or concept to life. We consider steps and “stepping off” into a void for a person with vision impairment, contemplating a step-free alternative. We consider what, or who, is guiding us or bidding for our attention. We consider how sound indicates direction, speed, proximity and distance, and how we can support engagement with sounds if a person has a hearing impairment, through transcripts, closed captions and a sign language interpreter. We are considering if the sounds heard in the exhibit are the sounds that we want visitors to engage with. If background noise is audible, is this intentional, to allow visitors to largely disconnect from the outside world, whilst being aware of the transiency of the moment as reality is just outside the curtain?

Each item within the space should have relevance, meaning, and importance. Where possible we are looking for the 'Goldilocks effect' between over and under sensory stimulation. On reflection, perhaps accessible design is about presenting and offering options, after thorough and careful consideration?

The above considerations and suggestions for inclusive design are just that, albeit grounded in policy, practice and research but with no direct experience. The emphasis here ought to be stressed on the simplicity of the considerations that can be taken toward accommodating various need(s) in the design phase, as opposed to these 'add-on' reasonable adjustments. We all share the same aspirations and common goals, though tend to ignore the unnecessary restrictions that people with disability face, daily. The current global climate has further highlighted inequality and the need for systemic change in design, approach, teaching and what we consider inclusive. We cannot and should not wait for ‘them’ to become ‘us’, to consider inclusive design and practice. Those designing our physical and virtual environments should learn from, listen to and collaborate with persons with impairment/disability. As ultimately, the responsibility for change rests with the people making the decisions and designs. If we cannot ignore sound, surely now is the time to listen.

Dr Jessica Hayton

Dr Jessica Hayton is a lecturer in psychology and the Programme leader for the Graduate Diploma in Habilitation and Disabilities of Sight at UCL Institute of Education. Her research focus is in maximising independence skills in children and young people with vision impairment and considering practical solutions to supporting people with vision impairment in accessing the environment.