In July, implementation of the ‘(In)Visible Architecture’ project, initiated by architect Rasa Chmieliauskaitė and Kaunas Artists’ House (KMN), began. The main goal of the project is to use non-visual means to present the history of Lithuanian architecture, from Gothic to postmodernism, to blind and visually impaired people. The project will be implemented in three stages. In July and August, tours to five objects in Kaunas, representative of various architectural styles, was organised: the House of Perkūnas, the ensemble of Pažaislis Church and Monastery, the Old and Rare Prints Department of the Kaunas County Public Library (former office of the Kaunas Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Crafts), the Ninth Fort museum and memorial, and the Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery of the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum.
During the tours, a qualitative research, focused on the synthesis of contextual knowledge and sensory experience, was carried out by volunteer participants from the blind and visually impaired community and a team of architects—investigating cultural and social periods of prevalence of certain architectural styles, researching ideas and values behind architectural solutions, looking beyond the aesthetic expression. The tours raise two main questions: what is the best way for visually impaired people to approach architecture and what escapes the sighted eye? According to Chmieliauskaitė, ‘the project was inspired by the realisation that seeing is the laziest way to approach architecture, that forming a judgement about an architectural object takes but several seconds, and that historical facts or professional terms for architectural elements are not always enough to feel the pleasure of “reading” an object.’
Every tour/research was followed by workshops held in the same spaces during which, by using ‘design thinking’ methodology, innovative and resonant ways to present architecture to blind people will be sought. Research methodology was developed and academic consultation was provided by art critic Justinas Kalinauskas. According to Chmieliauskaitė, the crucial periods of Lithuanian architectural development were chosen with help from architecturologists and the objects themselves were carefully selected according to their accessibility, public function, stylistic expression, popularity, and textuality. Possibilities of future cooperation were an important factor, too. ‘I decided to approached historical architecture first in order to establish a basis for further research and form its context. I am very glad that the institutions that manage the buildings were welcoming to our team,’ explains Chmieliauskaitė.
It is not the first project of Kaunas Artists’ House to emphasise accessibility of culture. ‘Kaunas Artists’ House, now 48 years in operation, is a cultural institution that presents a broad spectrum of professional art to various audiences. Over the last couple years, we have been focusing on expanding our audiences. In early 2018 we started cooperation with the Kaunas Community of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; a part of the content on KMN’s website is currently translated into Lithuanian Sign Language,’ says Director of KMN Rūta Stepanovaitė. ‘This year, we are expanding the range of services available to visitors with visual impairment and opening the door of KMN to yet another community that may be interested in multidisciplinary creativity. I am happy to see how such projects manage to involve participants from very different backgrounds: culture and art professionals, volunteers, and people with disabilities. That is how knowledge is exchanged and we can start seeing the world around us from a different perspective.’
Models of presentation, created in the workshops, will be adapted to educational materials—multidimensional publications. To blind people, these publications will be an introduction to and representation of architectural knowledge, whereas to the sighted they will help feel and understand architecture beyond its appearances. According to Arts and Culture Project Manager of the Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired (LASS) Lina Puodžiūnienė, ‘the most accessible way to present architecture to a blind person is, of course, the miniature model. It is a pity that there are so few of them in Lithuania. Therefore, it is really good to see that more and more creators are looking for new ways and means of creative expression to make art more accessible to blind people. I think the main strength of this project is direct communication between blind and sighted people, creators and observers, professional architects and people who know the world through sound, touch, and smell. I believe that this sort of communication pushes the limits of human perception and is very valuable to both sides.’
In addition, a lecture for architects and designers on the importance of designing accessible buildings was held. Public presentation of the project’s results, as well as an informational lecture, will take place in Kaunas Artists’ House in November.
The project is financed by the Lithuanian Council for Culture.
Project partners: Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired and Kaunas Architecture Festival (KAFe 2019)