Exterior of Aga Khan Centre

Exploring architecture with audio description: Open House London 2019 with VocalEyes 

Open House London celebrates all that is best about the capital’s buildings, places and neighbourhoods. Every September, it gives a unique opportunity to get out and under the skin of London’s amazing architecture, with buildings of all kinds opening their doors to everyone – all for free.

This year, VocalEyes ran four free audio-described guided tours across the weekend: The Society of Antiquaries of London, at Burlington House; the Zayed Centre, a newly opened building hosting research into rare disease in children, part of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children; The Charterhouseonce a monastery, Tudor mansion and boy’s schooltoday an alms-house and museum and the Aga Khan Centre, new centre for learning about Muslim cultures, featuring architecture, art and gardens inspired by the Islamic world, in King’s Cross. 

Across the weekend over 50 people attended tours. Fazilet Hadi took part in the Aga Khan tour:  

I’m a regular user of audio description in the cinema and theatre but have never used it to access architecture. This changed on 22 September when I went on my first Vocaleyes tour of a buildingI was interested in the Aga Khan Centre as I come from a Muslim family and was intrigued by how the building would reflect Islamic tradition and art.  

 The tour was led by a Vocaleyes describer, supported by a member of the Aga Khan team. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about architecture, but they enabled me to have a picture of the building in my mind’s eye and to appreciate its beauty and grace. It’s a ten-storey white building, standing out against the darker colours of the Kings Cross area. It has some amazing art, using strong colour and geometric shapes, and we were able to touch some of it.   

The building has an amazing collection of Islamic books and lots of space and comfy chairs to support quiet study. One of the Centre’s purposes is to promote learning about Islam and its home to Muslim academics from across the globe. 

 A major feature of the building is its several terrace gardens, some with herbs, some with trees and some with fountains. These are peaceful, elegant and calm the spirit. From the terraces, you can see roof gardens on other high buildings, which was a revelation to me, as there were so many! I hugely enjoyed the tour and am really looking forward to Open House 2020 

Poppy Levison is a visually impaired architecture student at UAL Central Saint Martins, she visited the Zayed Centre for Research into Rare Disease in Children on Saturday 

I should probably start by saying that I was not registered as visually impaired until I was 15, despite being born with it. After being registered it felt for many years that it was a purely negative thing. Im used to not having access to the things most people take for granted. The Zayed Centre was my first audio-described tour and instead of feeling disadvantaged, I felt advantaged by the experience 

Tour participants touch a model of the Zayed Centre facade

I’ve just moved to London to start an architecture degree at Central Saint Martins, so clearly this was an opportunity not to be missed! We met the architects, Gavin Henderson and Kalpesh Intwala from Stanton Williams, Vivienne Reiss, Head of Art at Great Ormond Street Hospital and VocalEyes describer Eleanor Margolies in the foyer. They started by giving us an insight into the complex seven-year process of the project, describing the concepts and reasoning that helped inform the build; and the materials they chose and why they were chosen.  

We felt, held and experienced the models they’d brought along – far more intimately I thought than most non-visually impaired people would just looking – it felt very much like a VIP experience 

As we moved round the building, through the central atrium, into the patient waiting areas and consulting rooms, we experienced its mood; which far from being clinical, or brash with garish colour schemes like most children-centric hospital places typically are, it felt calm, reassuring and important.  

Nature itself had been used to make the space feel tranquil; treated oak, diffused natural light and constant views of greenery outside were comforting. Being in nature is great for mental health and this building has clearly considered this.  

As we moved on to the science labs, the space did become more clinical, but it never felt cold or frightening as could easily be the case. Thhuge sunken labs have a double-height ceiling and can be viewed directly through the floor to ceiling windows that form the front of the building at pavement level. My image of science labs would normally be that they are closed off and secretive but making them so visible and open takes away some of the fear of the unknown factor.  

Work by Mark Titchner featuring a quotation from Helen Keller: ‘Together We Can Do So Much’.

At one end of the lab is a huge graphic artwork by Mark Titchener featuring the words “together we can do so much”, a quote from Helen Keller, which further enhances that sense of a shared purpose and equality. There is no ‘them and us’ in this building, and artworks throughout form the final piece of this giant jigsaw puzzle of compassionate design.  

What I hadn’t expected was that I would come away with not just a deeper understanding of how the building looked and functioned but also an insight into how the emotional welfare of both patients and staff were integral to the design – this left me thinking about my own experiences growing up as a regular hospital visitor and how much more positive these could have been if the same attention to detail was applied to every hospital.  

My favourite work is the mesmerising piece “Kinds of Life” by Random International, a giant red shiny sphere that glides around the atrium, suspended by wires responding to the movement of people within the building. It’s captivating, engaging and above all else, fun. I Ieft the Zayed Centre feeling that if I were a patient here, I would feel valued and important too. That it was built to last and reassuringly, that everything in it, is the best it can be.  

My first audio-described tour was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I appreciated the relaxed way in which we were all treated, it was comfortable and inclusive and everyone from the audio describers through to the architects played their part in creating this atmosphere. To view a building in this very human-centric way that accepted our natural differences and how we experience things in very varied ways played into this. Honestly, I feel like everyone should get to experience buildings like this and especially architecture students like me.  

Poem by Peter Turner who attended the VocalEyes audio-described tour of the Aga Khan Centre.

Aga Khan a place of peace and serenity.
Calming sanctuary in busy noisy King’s Cross.
Yursh alma aljuriu faiug ainajm – peaceful and relaxation.

Aga Khan a place of peace and serenity.Carved white fretwork panel with Islamic script
White limestone-clad building.
Water sprinkling up running over star.
Peaceful and relaxation place.

Aga Khan a place of learning.
Rhapsody in four colours.
Water sprinkling up running over star.
Light and Diamond pattern on the wall.

Aga Khan a place or running water,
Calming and relaxing area.
Water sprinkling up running over star.
The Library of knowledge.

Aga Khan a place of peace and serenity.
White limestone-clad building.
Water sprinkling up running over star.
Peaceful and relaxation place.

Aga Khan a place of learning.Low fountain in the shape of an eight-pointed star. White with grey edging scattered with a few autumn leaves. Image Peter Turner

Rhapsody in four colours.
Water sprinkling up running over star.
Light and Diamond pattern on the wall.

Aga Khan a place or running water,
Calming and relaxing area.
Water sprinkling up running over star.
The Library of knowledge.

Aga Khan a meeting place of calm.
A place of refraction, thinking.
Water sprinkling up running over star.
The guiding star looking over all.

Aga Khan refracting place.
Of the north African Kasbah
Water sprinkling up running over star.
Of low tables and cushions on floor.

Aga Khan a place of peace,
Calm between the bustle of King’s Cross.
Water sprinkling up running over star.
With star all around you, watching over you.

Open House London 2020 will take place on the 19 and 20 September. Find an audio-described tour near you.