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I let a total stranger lead me around Toronto blindfolded, and I swear I had a good reason

Design isn't just about looking good, and that's why CBC Arts signed up for the Blindfolded Walking Tour of Toronto.

Design isn't just about looking good, and that's why CBC Arts signed up for a Blindfolded Walking Tour

Would you still think a place was beautiful if you couldn't see it? (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

If you were anywhere around Toronto City Hall Saturday afternoon, maybe you saw some lady wearing a green cape and ski goggles being pulled around on a string.

Maybe she startled you, or accidentally tripped you — or shouted, "What the f--k is that smell?" in your three-year-old's face.

If so, I'd like to apologize.

But also, let me explain.

It started when I met a total stranger, put on a blindfold and let him drag me around downtown.

Let me get this straight... I'm going to be pulled around Toronto on this string? (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

In my defense, I at least Googled him first, and here are some of the things that you'd find out if you did the same.

Jonathan Silver (the stranger in question) has been leading "multi-sensory" walking tours of the city's public spaces for the last two and a half years. He's a former philosophy student from the U of T, which probably isn't a good enough reason to meet anyone you found on the Internet — but while finishing his Masters, Silver began a research project about architecture and the environment and how good design can produce more sustainable cities.

The tour's a sort of real-world extension of that project, and you can sign up for one any time through his website. The Toronto Design Offsite Festival, which wrapped over the weekend — and which has included the tour in its programming since 2016 — just happens to be his busiest time of the year.

I tell people that the reason to do it is because the city — and a lot of design — is really made for the eye, but that's very problematic.- Jonathan Silver, Blindfolded Walking Tour

Silver's a one-man operation, and he usually takes one or two people around town at a time, leading them on a rope (a string, really) for 60 minutes before it's time to chuck the blindfolds and spend 15 minutes retracing every step.

"I tell people that the reason to do it is because the city — and a lot of design — is really made for the eye, but that's very problematic," Silver tells CBC Arts — and he tells participants something similar before the start of each tour.

When you consider the needs of someone whose vision is impaired, that idea's definitely true, but Silver says that accessibility isn't the project's M.O. It's a little broader than that. He's trying to remind people that design isn't just a visual challenge — it's about everything.

I am so not a fan of stairs. (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

Let's say you're designing a public space. It should be a spot where everyone is welcome. People should want to return to it, and they should want to treat it with care. To Silver's thinking, if you're going to accomplish that, the place shouldn't just look appealing — it should feel good and sound good and even smell good, too. To his mind, if you can pull off such an all-around "multi-sensory" design, you'll be appealing to the public on all levels. That, he thinks, will encourage them to become better citizens.

"If we want people to be civically engaged — we want people to be open and friendly, we want people to feel good and healthy — then design needs to feel good."

After sniffing and feeling my way around downtown, it's too early to say whether I'll become citizen of the year or start worshipping Jane Jacobs. But if you take away one sense, there's no denying, at least in my experience, how much more you pay attention to whatever faculties you still have. In my case, I went full Toucan Sam. In the first couple minutes, I was following my nose through territories claimed in the name of french fries, vanilla e-cigarettes, laundry detergent...did I mention the meeting spot was a dorm? From there, our first stop was City Hall.

For what it's worth, City Hall smells and sounds and feels A-OK from up here. (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

"I take people to places that I think are beautiful or that I personally think are ugly. I also take people to places I think are sensorily interesting," says Silver, who has a particular preference for spots with green space or living walls.

"Certain things we think look beautiful, but when you put on the blindfold it turns out people really don't like them — and vice versa," he says.

While I walked, he'd ask a few of the same basic questions to keep me thinking through the experience, stuff like: What are you feeling? Do you like it here? Would you want to spend time here? He says he keeps notes on what all of his participants say, adding it to his ongoing research.

Getting a feel for the skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square. (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

At one point early on, I was guided up some "floating-style" stairs — where I caught my toe twice, and hard. (Note to self: No, I don't like it here.) The railing, a rough concrete number, would have done more than exfoliate my right hand if I wasn't wearing gloves. (City Hall: Your outdoor stairwells flunk multi-sensory design.)

On the flip side, the experience up there gets top marks all around. I could feel the breeze on my face, and the squeals of people (and traffic) were just distant enough to be pleasant. I got an impression of a space that was more natural and, in turn, more comfortable. If the string pulled me in the right direction, I might find myself tramping along the soft ground and grass of a green space. When you've been walking on nothing but concrete, that little switch-up can feel like a holiday. All told, I'd feel safe and free enough to stay and rest awhile — but, of course, there was more city to feel. (Gold star, City Hall — your green roof can stay.)

Certain things we think look beautiful, but when you put on the blindfold it turns out people really don't like them.- Jonathan Silver, Blindfolded Walking Tour

Just like little changes in sensation can transport you, they can also be shocking. I mean, I didn't realize I was being pulled around one of the busiest stretches of Queen Street until I heard a streetcar door clack shut in front of my face. Or maybe it was actually 10 feet away. It's tough to say; I was blindfolded.

Going up? Down? (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

And just like Silver predicted, some sensations completely overturned my opinion of a place. When we reached what was unmistakably Eaton Centre, the noise was all I could focus on: this weird Rat King of unintelligible voices, all jumbled and snarling together — bouncing and echoing high and far, but so overpowering that it felt, paradoxically, claustrophobic.

I could still totally make out the dude who kept asking us, "Is she doing VR?!" though, so I wasn't 100 per cent overwhelmed. Still, all the skylights and Orange Juliuses and Michael Snow geese in the world wouldn't make me want to go back. (Finally, a reason to curb my shopping habits.)

Completely inconspicuous while roaming the halls of the Sheraton. (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

It felt like a good half of the tour took place in the mall, and Silver says there's a reason for that.

You've probably noticed how chain stores look alike, no matter where you are in the world. They dedicate loads of resources to how they feel, too. If you've ever walked past an Abercrombie and wondered why the place smells like a 14-year-old's armpit, you'll get the idea. Shops curate their soundtracks, their scents, even their temperature — coaxing you to stay and buy. Silver wants to remind the designers of public spaces to dedicate just as much attention to a "multi-sensory" experience.

Eaton Centre sounds way more claustrophobic than it looks, at least to me. (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

That means, of course, that I'm not the ideal client.

"Designers and architects are the main crowd," says Silver of the people he's trying to reach with this tour. He says he's typically approached by design schools and camps. He'll be bringing it to an academic theatre conference at the U of T in early February, as well.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't have applications for the rest of us — even if we just want to experience the city in a completely different way. Just acknowledging the fact that there's more to the design of a place than what's on the surface can be thought-provoking.

"People often don't realize what it is about an environment that they like or don't like," he says.

What you learn on the tour might help you avoid a place (like a shopping mall) or revisit a spot you took for granted (like a green roof).

Says Silver, pun intended or not: "We visit [these places] kind of blindly."

Blindfold off! If you feel like doing a "multi-sensory" tour yourself, visit Jonathan Silver's website. (Mercedes Grundy/CBC Arts)

Blindfolded Walking Tour of Toronto. Find available dates and times at www.jonathansilver.ca.

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