WATERTOWN - I’m walking down a corridor in a new building at the Perkins School for the Blind. With me are the architect, Graham Gund of Cambridge, and Steven Rothstein, the school’s president.
We pass an open door. Rothstein invites me to turn off the corridor and walk through the door, which leads to a small meeting room. When I do so, he asks, “Hear the difference?’’
We’re used to thinking of architecture as a visual art, not something you listen to. But this is a school for the blind.
I step back and forth between the room and the corridor. Yes, I can hear the difference. The sound of our voices in the room is slightly less reverberant than it was in the corridor.
Gund and Rothstein point to the ceilings. They make the difference. The ceiling above the corridor is lower, and it’s made of a material that reflects sound rather than absorbing it.
This is a building you can understand and navigate with your ears.
The building is the Grousbeck Center for Students and Technology. It’s a place with many purposes. It’s a social and recreation center for the Perkins students, with its own Internet radio station, student-run cafeteria, and space for performances, parties, and hanging out. It’s also a place to train teachers and parents from all over the world. (Perkins works with programs for blind and deaf-blind children in 66 nations.) And most noticeably, it brings together in one location a dazzling display of technology.
The technology is cutting-edge, and it can even be fun. You can pick up a tool and point it at your shirt and a voice will tell you what color you’re wearing. Another tool reads paper currency and informs you of its denomination. (Unlike those of most other countries, US bills are all the same size, so you can’t tell their value by touch.)
In one lobby, there’s a wooden scale model of the entire Perkins campus. When you reach out to touch one of the buildings, the building lights up and a voice is heard describing it and its history, while a text in Braille, with the same description, pops up at the model’s edge.
Information technology is transforming the lives of the blind, and Perkins wants to be a world leader in that movement.
Gund’s architecture, like the technology, presents itself to all the senses, not just the visual. The walls are mostly flat, for example, but now and then one is interrupted by a richly modeled panel. Thus a student can say to another student, “Meet me at the Bubble Wall,’’ or the “Wave Wall,’’ and the two can connect by touch. Touch works for the feet, too. When paths intersect or change direction, either indoors or out, the texture of the flooring or paving may change too, warning and explaining what’s happening.
Many of Perkins’s 200 students retain some degree of sight. Gund takes advantage of that, too, by making everything as intensely visible as possible. Interiors are flooded with daylight, but the light is modulated so that it’s of different intensities in different locations. Elements like electrical conduits, structural members, and air-handling ducts are often left uncovered in the rooms, rather than being hidden behind walls or ceilings, thus making the surroundings more easily discernible.
As Gund notes, the result is a set of interiors with an experimental feel. It’s as if Grousbeck were a work still in process, like a studio where anything can happen.
Grousbeck’s exterior has that same sense of being loosely assembled and open to change, but it doesn’t work as well. Materials are a mix of glass, aluminum panels, and red brick. Some visual games are played with changing colors in the panels, but there’s little of the passion and invention you get indoors. This is a conventional-looking building with an unconventional purpose. There’s a mismatch.
Grousbeck is a little out of synch with its surroundings, too. That’s partly because it’s competing with a magnificent array of older architecture. I’d never visited Perkins until recently and I was blown away by the original campus structures, which were built in 1912 to the designs of architect R. Clipston Sturgis. (Perkins opened in 1832 and moved to its present site 100 years ago.) Rising to a 180-foot bell tower in the Gothic style, the complex feels like a monastery and radiates a powerful civic presence.
The Howe Building, the center of the campus, contains a museum that’s open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-4 p.m. There you can enjoy the stunning architecture while viewing a display on such figures as the legendary Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, who first met through Perkins in 1887. (As it happens, the well-known play about that encounter, “The Miracle Worker,’’ is being revived at the Wheelock Family Theatre, beginning April 13.)
President Rothstein didn’t want Grousbeck’s architecture to mimic the great past. “This is about a new Perkins,’’ he says. “We’re guided by our history but not pigeonholed or burdened by it.’’ That’s fine, but an institution like Perkins needs to think about its collective identity. If every new building is a complete departure, the result, eventually, will be a mishmash of unrelated structures. A sense of unity will be lost. Grousbeck could have been every bit as contemporary as it is while still retaining the sense of being a member of a family of related buildings.
Gund had proposed some geometric patterning of the brickwork, to help key the new building to the more ornamental old campus. I don’t think it would have made much difference, but in any case the idea was vetoed by Rothstein.
But the exterior appearance isn’t what Grousbeck is about. It’s about creating a magical interior that can be explored by sound and touch. It reminds us that architecture is, or at least can be, an art of all the senses, not merely that of sight. And it reminds us, too, that good architecture is, among other things, a means of solving practical problems for people.
Grousbeck is named for the building’s lead donors, Wycliffe and Corinne Grousbeck. He’s co-owner of the Celtics and they have a son who’s a Perkins student. Total cost was a modest $10 million.
Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at email@example.com.