It is early days in the development of design for inclusive spaces, and the available wisdom on best practice can be contradictory. Lekker Architects adhered to solid principles to create a space for children who experience sensory or social overstimulati
The orderly cabinets and static display scenography of museums of the past have long given way to more immersive experiences incorporating sound, moving visuals and more. Museums around the world have been grappling with the need to maintain appeal alongside the interactive and engaging experiences offered by the tourism and leisure industries for at least the past two decades. With today’s museums comes the prospect of entertainment and vivid experience alongside education – and also, bigger crowds. But this is not to everyone’s taste.
One group that can struggle with the more crowded and immersive museological environment is children with sensory sensitivities. The National Museum of Singapore (NMS) has been piloting initiatives for children with additional needs since 2016. It implemented regular ‘Quiet Mornings’ for special education schools in December 2018. “We’ve learned that the main triggers are sight, sound and touch,” explains Foo Min Li, Assistant Director, Curatorial & Programs, NMS. “For example, visitors may be overwhelmed by the sight and noise of museum-going crowds during peak periods,” she says.
Last year, a new initiative was launched: The Quiet Room designed by Lekker Architects is a safe haven where children experiencing distress through overstimulation can recalibrate. Explains Foo, “The Quiet Room was launched in August 2019 to provide a dedicated space for children who might experience sensory or social overstimulation, in particular children on the autism spectrum who may need a calmer environment before resuming their museum visit.” The space is a 25-square-metre room within a room – a neutral, curvilinear environment with acoustic and lighting control, cushioned props in a variety of shapes, and soft surfaces that prevent self-harm.
Says Joshua Comaroff, Design Consultant at Lekker Architects, “Your typical quiet room is like a padded cell. This is a mentalinstitution way of thinking about things – punishing kids for an inability to process sensory data.” Lekker took a far more sensitive approach. Building upon their experience of designing inclusive projects such as the Kindle Garden preschool for the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA, featured in issue 79), the studio sought something more gentle and supportive, and paid particular attention to the qualitative, atmospheric aspects of space.
“We wanted to create a shape that would move people away from not just a padded room, but from any conventional sense of a room – like floating in a bubble outside the world,” says Comaroff. A key element of the space is coloured light, which is portrayed evenly across the painted upper portion of the room as well as the removable vinyl-upholstered padding below, thanks to the matching of tone and reflectivity of these finishes. Comaroff likens the effect to “existing in a field of colour” beneath a tensile ceiling that is evenly lit by LEDs. Entirely avoided were some of the common sensory triggers for people with sensitivities – things that others are relatively unaffected by, such as the hum of air conditioning, or minor vibrations in the frequency of fluorescent light and energy-saving bulbs.
Within the calming atmosphere of The Quiet Room, the logic applied by Lekker was to allow for the de-stimulation of certain senses so other ones could be stimulated on a need basis – in line with the particular preferences of the child. For example, the acoustic control and whisper-gallery effect of the room allows for a focus on quiet sounds; cylindrical cushions cater to fidget-prone children for a focus on movement; wedge and block-shaped cushions can be stacked for a focus on building activity and environmental transformation; and a seating niche caters to a preference for seclusion.
“People with sensitivities are attuned to architecture in a way that others are not,” says Comaroff. “They’re so finely aware of things that are intolerable [to them], that normative architectural standards just don’t work.” Even so, the world seems to be becoming ever more stimulating in its quest for the highly experiential – particularly in the realm of commercial design. He adds, “We’ve dropped all those traditional modernist rules of how much stimulation you put in an environment. It’s a free-for-all now, and everything shouts for your attention. For us it was interesting to look at architecture again with a different standard about what is acceptable.”