Nails for an Invisible City
By Emerson Goo
Nothing about my appearance immediately reveals that I’m profoundly deaf. I have what some would call an “invisible disability”, but that is perhaps a misnomer.
“Good design is invisible.”
How many times and in how many forms has this common-sense aphorism been repeated? The phrase makes a tidy example of itself: it is flexible and memorable enough that it has become an ideal for anyone doing creative work, but few can say where it originates from. Like the design it promotes, it is seamless, betraying no mark of authorship, and integrated into its environment as if by unseen hands.
Nothing about my appearance immediately reveals that I’m profoundly deaf. I have what some would call an “invisible disability,” but that is perhaps a misnomer. If you scrutinize how I walk, talk, and look at others, it would become apparent that I move differently through a world not designed for me. Nevertheless, since most people never look that closely, my deafness is de facto invisible. In my interactions with hearing society, I have a choice: to pass as hearing or to disclose my deafness. Passing comes with the convenience of knowing no one will treat me differently just because I’m deaf. But it is also isolating. Simple, routine interactions can be lipread, but spontaneous, in-depth conversations—the stuff of social life—are not possible.
Disclosure has its own cost-benefit analysis involved. Announcing my deafness makes me vulnerable to others, and responses aren’t always congenial. To many institutions, it represents a liability. But disclosure helps me access accommodations that allow me to work, learn, and communicate effectively as a deaf landscape architecture student. This essay is a disclosure, but it is not a rejection of invisibility. The rhetoric of diversity and inclusion often champions representation in the form of visibility, but denies the unseen and the imperceptible as a source of agency and self-determination. Identity cannot be reduced to a desire for identification any more than invisibility can be reduced to a neutral precept of “good design.” Invisibility is a multidimensional concept, at turns limiting and liberating, and should trouble notions of what makes design “good.” It is a critical tool for designers interested in advancing social justice in the built environment.
Invisibility and Accessibility
Architects and landscape architects have long stressed the importance of designing for all the senses, not just vision. But design for whom? In The Eyes of the Skin, one of the most commonly assigned books in design curriculums, Juhani Pallasmaa laments a modernist culture that has turned architecture into imagery, neglecting its aural, olfactory, and tactile qualities. “The hegemonic eye seeks domination…to weaken our capacity for empathy, compassion, and participation with the world,” he writes, appearing to gesture toward engaging those with different sensory abilities.1 But in a later essay, “Stairways of the Mind,” Pallasmaa claims that, “Today’s planning regulations, which aim at helping the handicapped, tend to eliminate steps of the townscape and public buildings altogether, and thus deprive architecture of one of its most powerful expressive means. We are all becoming handicapped.”2 Pallasma defends stairs as a romantic, truly “feeling” architecture, excluding disabled people from sensory pleasures in favor of ableist norms. The nondisabled, it seems, are the only ones in reach of a total aesthetic experience: the legitimate clients of a multisensory architecture.
There is nothing romantic about a lack of access, as disability activists demonstrated when they crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1990. Their protest catalyzed the passage of the ADA and the adoption of accessible design standards. But even these standards fixate on vision disabilities, and disabilities that are visible (namely wheelchair users). Deaf landscape architect Alexa Vaughn-Brainard found that the needs of deaf people in public spaces were not addressed by the ADA. In response, she developed DeafScape, a way of applying DeafSpace principles to landscape design.3
One DeafScape principle considers how deaf people may be startled by someone suddenly approaching them from behind without warning. Vaughn-Brainard suggests managing sightlines by creating enclosed outdoor spaces: for example, using highbacked benches or walled planters to block back views, ensuring that people in the space are approached from the side or front. For Vaughn-Brainard, DeafScape principles exemplify universal design that, “[goes] beyond the bare minimums of the ADA to create more access.”4 If designers want space to be truly multisensory, accessibility must be a logic of universal design that manifests in both visible and invisible ways, not merely a tacked-on afterthought.
Invisibility and Care Work
Frank De Lima, a popular comedian in Hawai’i, has a bit that goes like this:
Question: In what neighborhood on O‘ahu are three languages spoken fluently at different times of the day or year? Answer: Kahala, where English is spoken at night, Tagalog during the day when the residents leave for work and are replaced by Filipino gardeners and maids, and Japanese during Golden Week. 5
This joke is emblematic of Hawai’i’s ethnic humor, which often casts Filipinos as a racial punchline. Kahala is an upper-class neighborhood dominated by East Asian and White residents and a common source of clients for local landscape firms. Working over the summer for a landscape maintenance company, I saw this daily rhythm play out myself, not in Kahala, but at on-base military residential communities. Inspecting countless irrigation controllers, drip lines, and spray heads, I began to wonder whether residents would notice I had made any changes or repairs to their irrigation systems. If design is visible work, maintenance is invisible work: an essential process done out of sight and mind. When people leave home for the day, we roll in, and by the time they’re back, we’re gone. To unexpectedly see someone pruning hedges or kneeling over a valve box is a faux pas, embarrassing because it bluntly reveals the racial and class relations embedded in landscape architecture, and shows us just how manufactured and manicured our gardens have to be to look the way we want them to.
If I saw anyone at home while working, they were mostly mothers and children. I began to notice overlaps in the rhythms of landscape maintenance and domestic labor. Both were unseen forms of housekeeping, the big difference being that I was getting paid, and these mothers weren’t. Though I’d like to think they were! The concept of wages for and against housework has been central to Marxist feminist organizing around domestic labor. Today, material gains have been made worldwide for wives, mothers, and the childcare workforce. Compensation, however, is only part of the picture. Perhaps our desire to keep maintenance and care work in the background is a problem in itself and not one that money alone can solve.
Perceptions of care work often oscillate between being selflessly noble or a costly burden, and neither can sustain a politics of care. For example, despite Affordable Care Act (ACA) reforms, American healthcare is frequently unable to provide long-term care to disabled and elderly populations. When patients can no longer stay in the hospital, family assistance is usually sought out. What if employers and the state cared for carers and helped workers orient their commitments around caregiving, instead of leaving them to find time off the clock to do so? As Professor Shannon Mattern notes, “If we apply ‘care’ as a framework of analysis and imagination for the practitioners who design our material world, the policymakers who regulate it, and the citizens who participate in its democratic platforms, we might succeed in building more equitable and responsible systems.” 6
Invisibility and the Tourist Gaze
As “post”-pandemic tourism in Hawai’i intensifies, and our state makes proclamations about economic recovery while placing extraordinary pressure on Native Hawaiians and local residents (many of whom work in the tourist industry), I find myself pessimistic. Why must we choose between the equally undesirable prospects of economic austerity vs. perpetuating an extractive industry? Whatever we gain in awareness and publicity from tourists who spend their money here and enjoy a Native garden at a resort, or read an interpretive sign in a landscape about our history and culture, we undoubtedly lose more in the strain they place on our natural resources and degrading public infrastructure. There is a colonial violence inherent in the tourist gaze, which demands our hyper-visibility. We are made to offer others a paradise that doesn’t square with what we need for survival. Could we refuse this gaze?
Commenting on the imperial history of photography, Teju Cole proposes we adopt as a human right “the right to remain obscure, unseen, and dark.” 7 I’d say the same applies to landscapes. While uneven access to natural spaces is a pressing issue, accessibility isn’t always appropriate, and I oppose claims on the grounds of identity that we are automatically entitled to any space, or that any space should be made “public.” If I appear to contradict what I’ve previously written about access, it’s because our colloquial idea of what is public is already contradictory and tied to market forces, encompassing anything from a city park, to a conservation easement, to a sports facility that is free to use but nevertheless privately owned. All these spaces, by design, select their public and exclude others. From homeless sweeps to prohibitions on large gatherings (often racially coded), to the dispossession of Native land to build national parks, arguably America’s greatest ideal of public nature, this selection occurs everywhere. As designers, we are complicit in this selection process. We must work to build community control over it to create a public realm that is both equitable and oriented towards environmental justice. Accessibility and visibility are not binary states, but movable thresholds that cannot and should not include everyone at all times.
Invisibility and the Carceral State
When the artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi began his voluntary internment at Arizona’s Poston Internment Camp in May 1942,8 the first thing he remarked upon was the “eye-burning dust.” The heat, the haze on the horizon, and the dust dramatized his unclear mental state. In an unpublished article for Reader’s Digest,9 he wonders why he came in the first place. Noguchi felt sympathetic to the American-born Japanese, but also questioned where this sympathy arose from. His experiences as a cosmopolitan artist during the interwar period were vastly different from those of the internees. Was it merely because they looked the same as him? If Noguchi hoped to turn in an uplifting article about finding a sense of ethnic belonging and a shared Japanese identity at Poston, he found the opposite. The Nisei internees were “pathetically American” and knew nothing of their heritage, which they regarded as peculiar. But here they were, refused by their country, alienated from history and nationality on both sides of an ocean. What Noguchi found was a voiding of identity, a dislocation so profound it was indescribable.
The life of anyone incarcerated is an invisible one. Incarceration segregates people from society, but also settles them within it, inducting them into a prison system which justifies its presence through the systemic neglect of marginalized communities by the carceral state. Prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls this “organized abandonment.” 10 As Noguchi learned firsthand, no one wanted to deport the Japanese- Americans at Poston, only to eliminate them as a threat at the expense of their freedom. And yet, he details their intense yearning for a better world and how they articulated their hopes despite having very little. They gardened, took up the arts, and applied for furlough to learn new trades: “We have moments of elation only to be defeated by the poverty of our actual condition…We plan a city and look for nails.” 11
Before starting college, I remember having conversations with my parents about what to do if pulled over by the police. Don’t reach for the glovebox or start talking and signing unprompted—that can get you shot. You need to make yourself pliable, stop what you’re doing, calmly say you’re deaf, and hope the person behind that badge is listening. Police encounters are situations in which disclosure is life or death. Too often, deaf people, especially Black deaf people, are murdered or beaten because they cannot respond to what is often an impossible demand: to immediately follow orders without accommodations available. Training programs have made some officers better at communicating with deaf individuals, but cases of abuse still occur and outrage the Deaf community when they make the news. This is the flip side of the structural invisibility engendered by systems of prisons and policing. On the inside, there is no expectation of privacy, no chance to be individually invisible, whether in the cellblock or the temporary carceral space of the traffic stop. You must render everything about yourself visible and in the manner that is demanded.
Life as a disabled person requires navigating paradoxes and double binds. There is no monolithic experience of deafness, which creates problems when we have to measure up against legal and governmental standards of disability, and even the standards of our own Deaf communities. I am thinking of Noguchi’s invisible city, dreamt up by an invisible people somewhere in a desert that blinds its inhabitants. What would it take to build this place, where the body is free from normative standards, where disability can be as visible or invisible as it wants to be, where we don’t have to always prove our lives matter? Maybe we have to first think of invisibility as not one thing, but many, like nails in the structure of this city. We need to divest invisibility from the ways it causes harm, and refashion it to do many things and be many tools. Most people won’t know we’re doing this work and won’t think of it as anything unless they can see it. But we have to do it, have to feel it—for ourselves and each other.
1. Pallasmaa, J. (1996). The Eyes of the Skin. Wiley.
2. Pallasmaa, J. (2000). Stairways of the mind. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 9(1-2), 7–18.
3. DeafSpace is a set of design guidelines created by architect Hansel Bauman of hbhm architects in conjunction with Gallaudet University. The guidelines address five main elements: space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics, with the aim of creating an accommodating sensory environment for deaf individuals. DeafSpace has been applied in various campus design and planning projects at Gallaudet.
4. Vaughn-Brainard, A. (2021). “Design with Disabled People Now: Including Disabled People in the Design Process”. Retrieved from https://www.lafoundation. org/resources/2021/07/2021-symposiumvideos- part-2
5. Labrador, R. (2004). “We can laugh at ourselves: Hawai’i Ethnic Humor, Local Identity and the Myth of Multiculturalism.” Pragmatics 14.
6. Mattern, S. (2018). “Maintenance and Care.” Places Journal.
7. Cole, T. (2019, February 6). “When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.).” The New York Times.
8. The passage of Executive Order 9066 in 1942 enabled the incarceration of Japanese- Americans in concentration camps. Poston was located on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, despite objections from the Tribal Council who did not wish to do to the Japanese-Americans what had been done to them. Noguchi, already a well-known artist, entered the camp intending to improve morale and living conditions. He stayed at Poston from 1942-1943, working on various art and community planning projects, of which only a handful were ever realized due to a lack of supplies and support from the War Relocation Authority. In 2017, the Noguchi Museum opened Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center, an exhibition of his work from this time period.
9. Noguchi, I. (1942). “I Become A Nisei.” Reader’s Digest (Unpublished), 1–12.
10. Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press.
11. Noguchi, “I Become A Nisei.”