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How We Live Now: BSL Review

Two people have the back of their heads to the camera, crouching down to look at small printed images of buildings
17 Dec 2021
15 min watch

Richard Dougherty and Christopher Laing walk through our How We Live Now installation. 

They discuss their own architectural practices, the barriers they have overcome as Deaf men in the industry and they ask how the architectural world might be able to empower disadvantaged groups and minorities, using Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative as a starting point.

How We Live Now is a multi-layered project comprising an installation, publication and events programme exploring a series of important questions about our public spaces and designed environments.


Richard Dougherty: Hello Chris. Thanks for coming today to review the How We Live Now exhibition. It’s wonderful to be here with a fellow Deaf architect, talking about buildings and spaces that inspire us. Maybe you’d like to explain a bit about yourself, where did you study architecture? How did you become an architect?

Christopher Laing: Thank you for inviting me here. I agree! It is very rare for a Deaf architect to have an open conversation. I'll tell you a bit about myself and my background. I recently graduated with an MA in June from the Royal College of Arts
Before that I did a BA in architecture at Kingston University. Then before that I studied interior architecture at University for the Creative Arts, so it’s taken a while to get where I am today!
It was a hard journey, with many barriers. I identify as Black, Deaf and Gay. Growing up, it was hard to express myself. I didn’t really know who I wanted to be until I was about eight.
I had no role models because there were just no black, deaf architects. I faced so many barriers, I had low confidence and didn’t feel empowered, it was a struggle.

RD: That sounds very interesting and we’ll talk more about that later. As you can see, we have the exhibition behind us which has been wonderfully co-curated by Jos Boys and Jon Astbury.
So why is it here, what’s it for? The exhibition focuses on the work of the Matrix Feminist Design Co-Operative, who were an all women art group set up in 1981. Why were they set up? The group felt that in their time, the 80s, they were oppressed and discriminated against by white men who looked down on them and didn’t believe they should work, that they should stay in the kitchen at home.
The women opposed this idea assertively by setting up the co-operative, to challenge the oppression. It’s the same with the deaf community, I can see a parallel here where we have suffered and faced discrimination, even now! We face a multitude of barriers everywhere like in education, work, and many more. And not all Deaf people are the same!
Some are deaf and oral and discriminated against; some are deaf and signing and still discriminated against! The word for this is - audism. I’d be interested to hear your experience, have you experienced discrimination at work, school or in education?

CL: Yes, I agree there are parallels, both groups experiencing oppression. The Deaf community experience oppression and barriers linked to language and identity. I really struggled with my identity because I went to an oral school, but BSL was my first language. I grew up in a hearing family setting and I am the only Deaf person using BSL.
When I moved to boarding school, the oral school, I felt like my BSL was being pushed down. My first language is BSL and so without it my access was limited; I couldn’t fully understand when people spoke to me.

The problem in society now is that Deaf schools are closing, and children are having to attend mainstream schools. Mainstream schools cannot match Deaf children's needs, meaning they lack their Deaf identities.
Another problem is Deaf clubs are closing. Where is the opportunity for Deaf young people to establish their identity? I worry that the closing of these places means more discrimination.

RD: How did these barriers affect you in architecture school? Did you face discrimination?

CL: Yes, yes, it really affected my confidence because there are few qualified Deaf architects. Where are the role models? How could I feel empowered?
Also, there are language barriers, there are not accessible resources for the  Deaf community to be included in architecture.

RD: Oh wow! It has been a hard journey for you. I’m interested in the parallels with Matrix, the all women group. They believe in empowering disadvantaged groups and minorities with the message:
‘Get up you can do it! You can create things yourself!’ They believe in clear communication, moving away from the traditional design process where there was usually little involvement from the end users.
They believe minority groups should be involved in both the design and building process. For example, now you can see, the south Asian women’s Jagonari Centre. Matrix met with them and discussed these ideas and made lots of models and paper drawings you can see here.
They believe in the idea of open communication, full transparency and accessibility, seeing the big picture. Rather than keeping it separate, like in the 19th century how they were all rather aloof. They’d show off their art, without involving people in their discussions. Matrix refuse this type of work, keeping people involved. For example, that group, they followed the women’s group on a tour, a ‘brick picnic’ through London looking at different bricks, discussing those they like best.
It was a fully inclusive process - it’s beautiful. Today I’m looking at the exhibition, seeing all these things and I remember a moment when I was a young child, my father and his architect would be having a discussion over the extension plans and I wasn’t able to follow anything, but the architect would bring out the drawings, like these, and I would be transfixed. I was only seven at the time and I understood. I could see everything, where the kitchen is, where everything is!
I couldn't understand my father or the architect when they were speaking, but I could understand this visual language on the paper, it was beautiful and really had an impact on me and that is how I became an architect.
It was the power of communication, very similar to Deaf people using sign language, both a powerful, visual form of communication!
That’s why I think sign language should be considered true communication.
I’m interested to hear about a project you set up called Signstrokes, it sounds amazing. You set up a lexicon with all the jargon terms in architecture, could you tell me a bit more about that?

CL: My friend and I setup Signstrokes because there are no standardised, approved signs for architectural terms. Also, most interpreters have never worked with a student studying architecture or architect professional, so they weren’t aware of the jargon.
This meant I needed to create official and recognised signs. Through the process, we met with BSL linguists to talk about how to create these signs. Also, two-in-one signs, or visual signs for example ‘cantilever’. It’s visually clear ‘cantilever’ [Chris puts one arm up vertically and another horizontally on top of it, so that it is supported at one end and unsupported at the other, like a cantilevered structure].

RD: Wow cantilever, beautiful.

CL: You can clearly see it visually.

RD: Yeah, I see the link! Wow.

CL: So, we have created over one hundred signs. There must be thousands and thousands. Yes! We will make more and more and keep on doing this! I want to have new conversations with deaf people out there and also at architecture schools, I want to ask what their views are!

Our first event was a three-hour discussion about all of this, it was a beautiful process. We'll continue those for sure.

RD: Ah, I love that because I always see in architectural offices, lots of architects, especially the older generation, how they love to spew out so many words when presenting or viewing work.
They say five words when two words would do. It’s not straight to the point! However, in sign you don’t say ‘I want a cantilever’, you just show the cantilever and it’s finished, straight to the point! I love it. It's interesting and I really prefer that!

CL: The aim is to take those signs and get them formally approved. Then interpreters will be familiar with the jargon, and also, it’ll help deaf students when asking ‘what does that mean?’ regarding jargon terms - they're visual and easily understood. But words – that’s not accessible language, and can’t be understood easily. The signs are clear, straight to the point and go in easily.

RD: Beautiful. What I admire about this exhibition is that this is not just a recording of what happened back in the 1980s but rather an ongoing process, because a lots of the ideas in the exhibition are still relevant to today’s society. For example, how they believe in including the artist's process mirrors a project I'm doing at the moment in America in Washington D.C. at the University for the Deaf called Gallaudet, signed like this ‘Gallaudet’ [Richard demonstrates the sign for Gallaudet, starting with the hand at the side of the eye with the thumb and the forefinger spread outwards and pulling the hand backwards while closing the fingers.]

Wow, I've been included for three or four years and it has such a sense of belonging. All the people who use the buildings and spaces are involved in the artistic process from the start. Normally through different workshops in the community like Deafblind, students, staff, neighbourhood groups, central governments worked through that artistic process in a conversational process that lasted over six months. That idea is the same as this! The process of including all ideas and working together, I agree with that. But also, Gallaudet University set up the beautiful DeafSpace, that now has over one hundred and fifty DeafSpace design guidelines and principles. Visual concepts, like reaching, access barriers, the list goes on! It’s very interesting. On this point Chris, I wonder are there any buildings or places you feel are coherent with DeafSpace?

CL: Yes, I have noticed this over the years. Recently, I noticed The Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park which is really beautiful. The way it’s set up means that it's really accessible and visual and you can see what’s happening everywhere. It’s nice to feel connected to everything that’s going on. Also, in line with DeafSpace you yourself need to create a private space, your own space, do you know what I mean? So yes, it has all the elements of DeafSpace.

RD: Same! Walking here today to the Barbican Centre, the sign is ‘Barbican’ [Richard signs Barbican by putting one arm upright, bent at the elbow, and taps the elbow with his other arm]. I feel that that there’s lots of great visuals and examples like the semi-circular external seating to facilitate interaction.
Lots of DeafSpace principles at work here! I've been looking around and spotting them. Not only do the DeafSpace principles benefit Deaf people but they benefit hearing people too. So that’s interesting. I remember a Finnish architectural professional said, a really a big role for architects a long time ago was conceptualising buildings, being able to visualise their outside and what they look like.
But - no, we need to understand what the human experience following this through would be like. What does it feel like when you open the door, touch the door handle, is it cold or warm?
What’s the light like? Where, how you navigate through the building, through the different spaces. That’s much more important than what it looks like on the outside and I agree.
I think this exhibition shows that you need to be better places like this, lots of ideas here show that integral connection.

CL: Yes! There are two things I want to bring up here. Firstly, I think this if for a better future and number two we don’t have enough resources like books, I think the UK is really behind when it comes to DeafSpaces. It’s important to show diagrams which are visual for an architect to understand and match our Deaf needs.
Also, we need more opportunities when it comes to children being involved, like workshops held by Deaf architects and role models, so Deaf children can become more confident and empowered; they could imagine themselves as a Deaf architect in the future and that’s really important, just like this beautiful exhibition,
RD: That’s really interesting. Thank you for your time here today.
CL: You’re welcome. 
RD: I really appreciate it. I think we will really feel the impact of their work in fifty or one hundred years to come! 
C:L: You’re welcome.

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