This month I've written about my experience at an audio described Open House tour at the Aga Khan Centre in London. It was organised by VocalEyes and took place before the pandemic and lockdown happened in the UK. I thought it would be nice to share something fun for blind and partially sighted people to do, you know once VocalEyes feel it's safe of course. Plus I thought it would be a nice place for people to visit once lockdown is over. Either way, if you like architecture, you should definitely look out for accessible opportunities like this!
For those of you that aren't familiar with Vocal Eyes, they're a company that works to make sure audio description is used to make art and heritage sites accessible for people with sight loss. That way, blind and partially sighted people are able to enjoy cultural events to the fullest. This can range from touch tours at the theatre with an audio described performance, an exhibit at a museum and in this case an open house to look at architecture. To find out more about audio described events you'd enjoy, visit the VocalEyes website.
What is Audio Description?
It's an accessibility feature that makes videos and multimedia accessible for people who are blind and partially sighted. In movies and TV shows, audio is played during the natural pauses to describe details on the screen. The narration flows naturally in the video and feels a part of the programme, not as an added feature. For audio described tours, it can be done with an audio guide, or even a tour guide describing everything during the tour itself.
The Aga Khan Centre:
On the Aga Khan Centre website it's described as a "place for education, knowledge, cultural exchange and insight into Muslim civilisations". It's the UK home for three organisations founded by His Highness Aga Khan IV, the leader of Shia Muslims. As a Sunni Muslim myself, I didn't know this information beforehand. I was more intrigued by the fact that its gardens, courtyards and terraces were all influenced by Islamic architectural history. Not to mention how it was designed by Fumihiko Maki, one of Japan’s most distinguished contemporary architects. Below is a video with more information about the building itself.
The centre is used as a place for students, scholars and staff to share ideas and work together in flexible teaching spaces and research areas. It also has a number of exhibits, events, talks and tours that members of the public can attend.
Before the tour, Vocal Eyes shared an audio recording explaining the layout of the building, what it looked like and what areas we would be exploring as part of the tour. During the tour, we were shown a combination of outdoor and indoor areas of the building. Similarly to touch tours for musicals like Phantom of the Opera, we were able to get close to the architecture and feel the details in the design. The tour began in the reception area, but like last time (,when I went to the manga exhibit) I had trouble finding the building with my friend so met everyone at the library. Here we were able to explore the shelves and see the vast amount of books they had about Islamic History, Arabic and more.
The library also had an outdoor balcony area, where our guide described the beautiful tile work that was on the ground and decorated an area with plants. I liked how all the colours bended together, making it a peaceful place to sit and relax. The windows even had a small octagon pattern on them! Without a description of the design of this area, I wouldn't have known about small details like that.
|IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a photo of a window outside the balcony area of the library, where you can see small white dots across it that are octagons. On the corner on the left hand side are some purple flowers|
From there we went to see various outdoor spaces and architecture in the building itself. One of my favourite pieces was this giant grey metal art piece by Rashid Areem called "Rhapsody in 4 colours". It had yellow, green, blue and red diamonds on it. The diamonds were made up of diagonal lines and stood out against the silver grey diagonal metal lines that were the background of this piece. It was a centre piece that reached the top of the building and you could see it from all the floors, with the diamonds arranged in different orders. One of the perks of an audio description and touch tour like this, is that you get to touch the things that are described to you! So, I got to feel this art piece and learnt that the coloured metal frames which had paint on them, felt different to the silver ones.
|IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Close up of the rhapsody of 4 colours, where you see the red diamond made up of diagonal lines, with a background of silver grey diagonal lines. Above it is part of the yellow diamond shape|
Each of the 6 gardens were inspired by numerous forms of Islamic architecture and garden styles in Muslim countries. The term "garden" is used loosely to describe the various open and secluded outdoor spaces in the building. Islamic gardens come in many shapes and styles, but a common theme amongst those at the Aga Khan centre was water, geometrical patterns, and architectural elements all arranged symmetrically. I quite liked the "Garden of Life", on the roof which had a variety of fruit trees and a beige and pink coloured tiled pattern on the floor and various seating areas. There was also a beautiful white waterfall, and gaps in the ground for water to flow though. It was inspired by the Mughal Empire, and felt like a place you could go to relax with friends, enjoy some free fruit and escape city life. I thought it was a peaceful place that made you feel like you were in a different country or world, away from London life.
|IMAGE DESCRIPTION: close up of the white stone waterfall, with a white wall that had black lines shaped as small squares and green trees as the background|
Overall, this was a great tour. I liked learning about the different architecture the building had, visiting the gardens and trying some fresh strawberries. Due to the current situation, Vocal Eyes have shared accessible virtual theatre performances, exhibits and more for us to enjoy from home on their newsletter, the interval. If you miss the arts, check it out! Also it probably won't be safe to travel abroad for a while, so if you need a bit of an escape why not visit the Aga Khan centre for a day? The gardens do make you feel like your somewhere else entirely. That's all I've got for this post, bye for now!