Architecture: Wanted: a space to set us free: They may have disabilities, but they are artists and deserve a building that expresses their intellectual and emotional aims, says Peter Dormer

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The Independent Culture
IN THE disused kitchen of a brick blockhouse, people are making art. Given that the students are blind or deaf or severely arthritic, their studio is ludicrously inaccessible. You edge along some parked cars; move, swiftly if possible, past dustbins; climb a dozen steps; go through the door; and then - blow me - there is another flight of steps immediately in front of you, going down.

This is the workshop of the Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts, a jewel in the department of adult education at the University of Leicester.

The arts centre is to be rehoused. With luck, it will receive what it deserves: one of the most imaginative pieces of architecture in Britain.

As all too many people know, constant pain, as with arthritis, or a severe malfunction, such as blindness or deafness, turns the body into a weapon against itself. The individual must then fight to stop his or her world shrinking to the confines of that disability.

Neither pity for the person's pain nor praise for his or her courage or cleverness in 'coping so well, dear' is any help. What the disabled person needs is access to whatever he or she decides is needed to break free from the disability.

Some blind people decide that they want to become professional designers; others wish to study painting or sculpture. Some deaf people want to be music teachers. Other people want, not a vocation, but an emotional outlet.

Stephen Foster, who suffers constant pain, explains: 'I had a very successful career in marketing, but eight years ago I became disabled with arthritis and I had to give it up. I struggled to the point of self-destruction. I needed to do something for myself. It was important to kick free of the shackles of disability.' He joined the arts centre.

The centre's director, Dr Eleanor Hartley, says: 'If people decide they need to learn something, then our duty is to provide a path for them and open doors.' But what is the point of a blind person learning to paint? Dr Hartley replies that our bafflement at their desires is an irrelevance and must not form yet another barrier - another disablement - of that person's freedom of choice.

Thanks to the commitment of the university's vice-chancellor, Dr Kenneth Edwards, and the campaigning support of Lord Attenborough, the arts centre has a site for the new building and an undertaking that the university will cover the running costs. The centre, registered as a charity, is raising the capital. It has secured pounds 500,000 and needs a further pounds 850,000 to begin building.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) is administering a competition, sponsored by the Independent, to find an architect for the project. So far, 238 entries have been received. More are welcome; the deadline is 4 August.

This most interesting and difficult of buildings must express the intellectual and emotional ambitions of the students and staff. A shed, albeit one dressed up in Tescoesque 'out-of- town' shopping vernacular, would have been a cheap solution, but an affront to students such as Lewis Jones.

Mr Jones is a retired university computer programmer. He had very poor sight as a child and went completely blind when he was 13. He is also partially deaf. Among Mr Jones's many interests are language, the landscape and the encroachment of uncivilised civilisation with its raw technology and ugliness. When I met him last week he was exploring, via a painting he was constructing with a fellow, sighted student, these lines from Shakespeare's 65th sonnet:

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O] how shall summer's honey breath hold out

Against the wrackful siege of battering days?

Mr Jones, could he see, would hardly be impressed by the utter absence of summer's honey breath in the architecture of Leicester University. Most of the buildings, set in islands of tarmac, contribute to battering days. The new Attenborough Centre must be a building of beauty; it has to hold the plea against the rage.

The brief for the 1,080 sq m centre states: 'The building should be life- enhancing: the special facilities should be unobtrusive and add to the contribution that the best architecture can make to the quality of life for all.' It has also to be exemplary in demonstrating design for use by those who cannot see or hear; and it must be accessible to wheelchair users.

The foyer, linked to a kitchen and coffee bar, is to be the welcoming heart of the building, but the largest space will be the gallery and hall where meetings and exhibitions will be held. There is to be a variety of working spaces, including a sculpture studio, workshops for dance, drama and painting, a library and seminar room, recording studio and also private work and study spaces.

Dr Hartley would like a building that does not wear its specialist services on its sleeve. She mentioned a solution of her own: a building like the continuous spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The arts centre will train teachers who will be working with adult students with disabilities. It will also encourage research into how our senses work. But people with disabilities do not want to be the mere objects of research. Stephen Pallett, who is blind and doing a two-year course studying the Braille notation in music, while accepting that their work raises questions that cross the fields of art, psychology and neurology, urges that students be considered as active partners in research.

Some of the students are researchers themselves. Stephen's wife, Sue, who has been blind since birth, is doing a two-year course in design, which, like all at the arts centre, is bespoke. Mrs Pallett wants to be a garden designer. She is devising a method in which she can design accurate layouts and presentations that a sighted client can also read.

Having listened to Mrs Pallett describe ways in which she maps out shape, volume and perspective, it would be extremely interesting to see what kind of architectural space was created by a blind architect.

Not all the students are intellectually driven; some use art to reconstruct their lives. None is a dabbler. The centre is a declaration of the right to pursue education for its own sake: such freedom of choice is fundamental to our collective self-respect. The architecture must live up to this.

Donations to Lord Attenborough, c/o the Richard Attenborough Centre For Disability and the Arts, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH (0533 522455).

Competition details from Riba Competitions, 8 Woodhouse Square, Leeds LS3 1AD (0532 341335).

(Photograph omitted)

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