Case study: VocalEyes audio-described architecture tours

Since 2006 VocalEyes has been leading the way in the development of Audio Described architecture tours in the UK. VocalEyes now has a large and varied architecture portfolio, which includes buildings both ancient and modern. They have brought together architects, building owners and users, blind and partially sighted people, designers, artists, curators and describers. These unique collaborations have been exciting and stimulating for all those involved.

Audio described tours offer an alternative to having a building described by a family member or a friend, where information may not include relevant facts and can be coloured by one particular personal opinion. Above all, audio description makes the built environment accessible for blind and partially sighted people.

In 2007, following on from a seminar organised by VocalEyes and the Centre for Accessible Environments (CAE) a pilot project was set up in Brighton, called Sense of Place (SOP). The project was Arts Council funded and a collaboration between VocalEyes, a focus group of visually impaired people and the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Brighton.

Two contrasting buildings the Theatre Royal and the Jubilee Library in Brighton were selected. Drawing on over 10 years of experience describing the visual arts, VocalEyes identified elements relating to the description of architecture – elements such as journey sequence, orientation, story-telling, interpretation, expertise and accuracy, touching opportunities, the use of the voice and  how to makes the tours interactive for everyone involved. There were also organisational issues to consider, modes of delivery, training requirements and marketing. A visually impaired focus group was set up to develop ideas and approaches to audio-description methods and content.

How successful was A Sense of Place, and what was discovered?

Visually impaired attendees commented…..

 “I got a sense of both buildings – a feeling and an explanation”

“This worked for me; going through so many different spaces – good to go from one building to the other and to have stories of different buildings.”

For the student describers from the University of Brighton, their involvement enabled them to get past assumptions and anxieties about ‘how to act’ with disabled people. They also valued the opportunity to improve their public speaking techniques and confidence. In terms of educational benefits, the project enabled a deeper understanding of architectural space and the development of an evocative language to express it. By imagining how blind and visually impaired people interpret material space, through touch, sound, smell, light, contrast and colour, these very qualities were vividly highlighted. In having to accurately describe what an exterior or interior is like, visual and interpretative skills were developed together with the use of architectural terminologies and analogies.

For the buildings themselves, the project brought new audiences and exposure. The Theatre Royal Brighton has since built some of the Sense of Place material into their existing tours.

And for VocalEyes this was the beginning of a new way of audio describing. In describing theatre performance the skill is in selecting visual information around the creative action. But in describing architecture, the creative action or the ‘story’ is the building itself. This opened up vast possibilities. Responses to architecture, whether they be anecdotal, a reaction to acoustics, smell, air quality, patterns of light, temperature or texture, all add richness to our understandings of material space.

As one describer put it…….

“Architecture is a 3D space and you have to work out a new way of communicating these ideas – it is visceral – you are all in the space together…”

VocalEyes was now ready for their next challenge, London’s Open House weekend, which took place in September 2007. Audio-described tours of 4 buildings were provided, offering a good variety, both for blind and partially sighted visitors, and for testing different contexts for audio-description. These tours were each led by a VocalEyes professional describer who delivered the tour together with an architectural expert. The script written by the describer aimed to use the two voices to their full potential, combining the advantages of experienced audio description with the knowledge and expertise brought by  the architect. All the describers valued the passion and enthusiasm of their architectural specialists, and wanted to capture this quality in the tours.

Building on the feedback received from the pilot project, pre-tour audio introductions were recorded and distributed to everyone who had booked prior to the tour. This introduction helped focus what would become the underlying narrative journey and provided a tantalising hint of what was to come on the tour itself

VocalEyes drew up a basic framework for the audio description process and to ensure that standards remained high employed the ‘two describer model’, which has proved invaluable for its other theatre and visual arts projects. Describers are ‘paired’ for the period of their script development. The describers can each do a rehearsal of their tour with their partner providing objective feedback and suggestions.

Experiences in common came to light, such as a growing awareness that the journeys of the tours could have the sense of a story unfolding. Describing what was happening in the buildings as well as the spaces themselves added to the liveliness and enjoyment of the tour. On a more practical note describers had to think about momentum and pace. It was also about building in stopping and resting periods. All the tours exploited opportunities to touch as much as possible. This was not just about what was available to touch but also what helped capture the ‘essence’ of the architecture.

One visually impaired attendee said:

 “It was so interesting to hear the thinking that went into the building and the art work there. It would have been wonderful just to have the rooms described and to experience them but this extra dimension of why things were done in the way they were crucial I think to the success for me. Great job done by all.”

The summer of 2008 was to consolidate VocalEyes’ work to date, when they became involved with The London Festival of Architecture, the biggest event of its kind in the world. This biennial event involved all the major players in London’s environment including the Mayor, Design for London, local authorities, officers and members, and major developers, not to mention some of the world’s leading architects. Audio Described Tours for five iconic buildings were organised and run by VocalEyes.

VocalEyes’ contribution drew particular attention and participant and Blueprint Big Breakfast speaker, Lloyd Grossman described the event as…

“reaching out beyond the profession and inspiring people from all walks of life with the beauty, pleasure and vitality of London’s architecture”

Following hot on the heels of LFA 2008 VocalEyes set up tours for Open House 2008 weekend, once again rising to the challenge of describing a diverse range of architecture. The popularity of the audio described tours was steadily growing, and VocalEyes took the step of deciding to limit the numbers, to ensure that the experience of the tours remained a good one for everyone involved. Repeat tours of popular buildings ensured that demand was met.

The Access By Design Journal featured an article on the tours and noted that….

“The annual London Open House event in September this year was true to its mission. Its purpose is to encourage people to connect and engage with the built environment. This year, visually impaired people were actively involved in the exploration and understanding of architecture, delivered through the use of live audio description.”

VocalEyes have continued their involvement with Open House, and with the LFA 2010, when they once again pushed the boundaries, commissioning tactile scale models of all the buildings that were described. Morning workshops prior to the tours offered an opportunity to examine in greater depth the building design and concepts.

For many of the architects, curators, administrators, guides and other people involved with the tours, the experience of examining the building from an audio describers perspective has opened up a new way of looking and thinking about our built environment.

Steve Taylor from Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the Project architect for The Johnson building, was involved with the audio described tour. He points out that one of an architect’s keys skills is in communicating and presenting an idea to an audience, typically the client. He goes on to say…

“…an opportunity to try explain the building I was so heavily involved with to a different type of audience was very intriguing. I would certainly do it again, I think it’s  been enlightening. To start to think about a building that you know so intimately but to think about it in a different way is quite a unique opportunity. I think as a practice we would continue to be involved and I would certainly recommend it to colleagues.”

And as one sighted guide put it…

“I got much more out of the experience than I put in. Not only the experience of guiding but also greater empathy for a visually impaired person’s situation. The tour was also fascinating.”

VocalEyes’ work in the area of architecture is now a major part of their repertoire. They combine their expertise with a professional and flexible approach to each project. Where appropriate visual awareness training has been provided, enabling venues to offer a wider and more accessible welcome to visitors. For many visually impaired and blind participants the architecture tours have been their first experience of audio description, opening up a new world of possibilities. To quote a participant…

“…..being part of the tour made you forget about your sight loss while on the tour you got so engrossed in the buildings.”

The VocalEyes approach to architectural tours is about accessibility in its widest sense, developing deeper understandings of inclusive design that has relevance for people on every level. Their continuing work in this area ensures that they are in a position to meet demand, maintain high standards, as well as adopting an  innovative approach that links into current debates both within architecture and across disability arts.