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Feeling is believing at art show for the blind

In downtown Miami, an architecture art show built for the blind. @miamicad

In a bed at Jackson Memorial Hospital, visual artist R. David New found himself in total blackness. It started with paralyzing pain that radiated below his torso. Then, he experienced paralysis in both legs. Voices started to sound muffled, garbled, like screams through a pillow. Then, the world began to dim, growing fainter, darker, until New saw nothing.

Fifteen years have passed since New was diagnosed HIV positive, contracted spinal meningitis and caught an infection that ravaged his immune system, leaving him blind, deaf and paralyzed from the waist down. His hearing returned, slowly, as he lay in the hospital bed, and two years of rehab restored his ability to walk again.

His eyesight did not return.

"I had 20/20 vision, and three weeks later, I had nothing," New, 45, recalls from his condominium in Miami Beach.

New is an interior designer who now runs a nonprofit promoting accessibility for the blind in South Florida. This makes him especially keen to visit "Listen to This Building," the Miami Center for Architecture and Design's new art show built specifically for blind and vision-impaired visitors. The display, for which New was a consultant, includes 10 wall reliefs of downtown Miami landmarks, curated examples of art deco and neoclassical architecture.

In the center's sunlit gallery, where high-ceilinged archways bisect a vast lobby, 10 sheets of a plastic paper called Brailon hang on white walls. They depict bumpy outlines of familiar marvels: the famed steel-and-stone Alfred I. Dupont Building; the spacious Olympia Theater at Gusman Center; the slender Freedom Tower. Braille text describing each building's history rests on nearby pages.

The pages, about the size of notebook paper, are monochrome and plain. They're not much to look at. But that's the point, says Ricardo Mor, who curated "Listen to This Building" with help from Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Exile Books, a traveling pop-up art bookstore.

"You can't touch the spire of a church. You can't grasp a tower around its base. If I said, 'art deco,' would you know what I meant if you were blind?" Ricardo asks. "We get to experience the city's architectural art on a daily basis, but people who are blind don't have that opportunity. I want to show them these are buildings we love and enjoy, so they can fall in love and enjoy them, too."

In the gallery, loudspeakers will play sound bites from 10 local voices narrating the history of the 10 Miami landmarks. One of the voices belongs to Cheryl Jacobs, the center's executive vice president, who describes the center's use as the former Old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, then as a bank, then an Office Depot.

Visitors who reach through holes carved into a 4-foot-tall white box in the gallery can feel a 3-D model of the MCAD building created by students from FIU's College of Architecture and the Arts. The box covers the replica, so you can't see it. That's also the point.

Available for purchase at the show is a 22-page, spiral-bound book printed by Amanda Keeley's Exile Books, which contains Braille transcriptions of the sound bites alongside re-creations of the wall reliefs.

"We're changing what senses you're using about a building," says Keeley, who arranged the show's printed materials with coordinator Sara Darling. "I'm an artist, so I wanted to experience a place in ways that use senses other than vision."

Part of the programming that will accompany the show's six-week run is a series of Mobility Tours, led by Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, who will give canes and blindfolds to sighted people to replicate how blind visitors may experience Miami's architecture.

"It was important for us to make an empathetic, noncheesy, thoughtful show," Darling says. "People who are visually impaired can come into the space, feel the walls, listen to sound, without ever having to see."

"Listen to This Building" will open with a reception 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3, at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design, 100 NE First Ave. The exhibit will close Oct. 17. Call 305-448-7488 or go to MiamiCAD.org or ExileBooks.com

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