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Incidents of Presence: Sensual Aesthetics and the Crisis of Meaning in the Asylum

2014 M.Arch Thesis, Harvard Graduate School of Design


The campus of Gallaudet University, formerly known as the National Deaf-Mute College, designed in 1867 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in Washington, D.C. survives today as an architectural artifact of Enlightenment ideals of rehabilitation and reconditioning.  While these attitudes toward deafness have become antiquated, and as the University begins to open up to the neighborhood, archetypal elements of the asylum—a foreboding hall perched atop a hill, a surveillant gatehouse, and a wrought-iron fence surrounding the periphery—remain. Physically and cognitively disembodied from the fabric of the capital, the campus continues to cast an institutional gaze unto its inhabitants, while society continues to avert its gaze.  Outmoded paradigms of normativity are instigating an architectural and urbanistic crisis. 


This thesis embraces the presence of the gaze as architectural substance. With the establishment of a monumental Deaf Space Laboratory at the site of the existing gatehouse, this thesis shifts the institutional gaze to the very interface between institution and the city and turns it back on itself to confront the architectural articulation of the Other with respect to the ‘normal.’  Within the proposed building itself, a gradual build-up of ostensibly identical moments that are in fact quite different is achieved by repeatedly folding the subject’s gaze is back unto itself in a strategy of persistent twinning and reflection of spaces, activities, and bodies that engage the subject with the presence of its familiar but alienated other. Marking the uncanny return of the gaze, this eclipse of the subject results in a sensory space that creates fluid boundaries that mediate the relationship between architecture and the subject, between the subject and its other, and between the institution and the city, allowing each to constitute one another.


Project nominated for the 2014 James Templeton Kelley Prize

Critic: Ingeborg Rocker

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