In 2008, surgery to treat a brain tumor left San Francisco–based architect Chris Downey blind at the age of 45. Soon after returning to work, Downey’s loss of sight proved an unexpected strength, leading to a niche as a specialty consultant on projects for those with sensory impairments. Veteran real estate and architecture writer/editor Peter Slatin, who has experienced a gradual loss of sight since his teens and is now almost completely blind, recently spoke to Downey about his approach to the world of practice, his design tools, and the full sensory experience of architecture.
How did you get here? What kinds of projects were you involved in before you lost your sight, and what was your role?
At the start of January 2008, I joined Michelle Kaufmann Designs (MKD) as the managing principal. MKD was a design/ build company specializing in green, prefabricated, modular homes. My role was broad, including design direction, firm management, and client relations. The work was all residential, primarily single-family. Two and a half months into the new job, I reported for surgery to remove a brain tumor that was discovered a month earlier.
The surgery left you without sight. What projects have you worked on since you resumed practicing?
I resumed work exactly one month after losing my sight. It was a little crazy, as I had not started any of the rehabilitation training for sight loss, and there I was back in the office. But the leadership and staff were all incredibly encouraging and supportive. Eventually, the rehabilitation services started, including the orientation and mobility skills that I needed and the computer skills that I needed to engage in our technology-driven profession. It was all coming together late that fall when the economy tanked. As layoffs mounted, I too had to go in December 2008.
Starting 2009 unemployed as an architect who had been blind for less than ten months was not particularly auspicious. Within a month, however, I was connected with the Design Partnership in San Francisco, which was working on a Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto, together with SmithGroup out of San Francisco. The project was in design development, yet the client and the team were becoming aware that they really didn’t understand how space and architecture would be experienced and managed by users who would not see the building. When I showed up as a newly blinded architect with 20 years of experience, there seemed an opportunity to bridge that gap. The fact that I was a rookie at being blind was even better, as I was not that far removed from the experience of the veterans who were dealing with their new vision loss.
The project quickly illuminated a spectrum of practice where my blindness could be harnessed as a strength. I started to focus my professional interest on projects for the blind such as schools, service providers, and rehabilitation centers. Along with the continuing VA project, I’m working with Starkweather Bondy Architecture in Oakland on an expansion of the Guide Dogs for the Blind school in San Rafael, California. I’m also consulting with Magnusson Architecture and Planning in New York for the renovation of the Associated Blind Housing project, a 220-unit residential building on West 23rd Street in Manhattan.
I’m also exploring work on other project types that can be difficult for blind users, such as transit centers, airports, and museums. These places can be made accessible in ways that are not simply a band-aid or an applied adaptation. At cultural and science centers, accessibility codes have removed barriers to independent physical entry and mobility, yet for the blind that simply gets us into the space, where we are free to roam around. Little has been done to provide further guidance to those with sensory impairments.
What are your new tools? And how many of your old tools are still usable?
Everyone assumes that architects draw and that it is a very visual profession. I tend to disagree. Architecture is first and foremost a creative endeavor. We think, we consider, we research, we study, and we take it into form via tools like drawing and modeling. If you can’t see the paper or the monitor before you, how else can architectural design be created? Most of us walk down the street relying heavily on our sight, yet those with visual impairments find non-visual techniques for getting around. The same is true with most other things, including architecture.
I do still draw occasionally by drawing on a raised line drawing kit. It consists of a rubber clipboard with thin mylar. As you draw with an inkless Teflon-tip pen, the line raises behind the stroke. The challenge is that it does not provide a way to sketch on top of another image. This took a while to figure out. But I have been working with a large-format embossing printer that provides a tactile form of the drawing by converting the linework into a series of dots. It even creates line weights. The drawings do need to be slightly simplified, as too much graphic information easily results in lost time and confusion.
Reading a drawing with your fingers is a totally different process than seeing it with your eyes. With sight, you immediately see the whole and you drill deeper into the detail. When reading with my fingers, I read from the detail toward the full image. It took a while to make this work, as I needed to create the neurological connections between fingertips and brain. To do this, I started to study Braille, which it was important for me to learn anyway.
In the summer of 2009, I participated as a mentor in a program for blind high-school students from around the country at the University of Maryland, sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind. One of the tools they worked with was a product called Wikki Stix, which are just thin wax sticks that you can easily bend, curve, or stick together. I now use them to sketch on top of the embossed plots. I can generate all sorts of options by just peeling off sections and trying again.
How has your understanding of space, light, and materials changed? And has being blind changed your approach to design?
Becoming a fully actualized blind person doesn’t happen overnight. It is commonly understood that 80 percent of the architectural interface is through vision. When sight is lost, the mind starts to rely more heavily on the remaining senses. In my case, I also lost all sense of smell, so it’s down to acoustics and touch, as well as muscle memory and other more subtle sensory cues.
I rely on a cane for mobility and not a dog, in part because I appreciate the acoustic feedback of space. The cane helps me discover things around me. Quite often when walking through town, people try to steer me around obstacles yet that's exactly what I'm looking for. If I don't hit it with my cane, how do I know where I am? You quickly learn to catalogue a lot of stuff and it becomes quite surprising when you realize that you know exactly where you are with a simple tap of an object or a wall with a cane. You can often tell how high a ceiling is by listening for the reverberation of a tap or a clap off the ceiling or the bounceback off a distant wall. These aren't supersensory levels but rather the product of the mind not overwhelmed with visual inputs. The brain simply processes the same impulses with a different bias.
Light, however, is a very poetic part of architecture that brings space to life. The rules and the calculations are all the same, and I still build mental models using images from 45 years of sight.
Materials have taken on new significance for me. Traditionally, material palettes are developed for their visual composition. I now like to expand choices to a textural, tactile palette. I like to think of the front-door handle as the handshake of the building—the feel of the grip speaks volume. Handrails at the stair or ramp are the same. There are so many places in a building that are meant for touch, yet architects are so inundated with drawings and production that they can forget what it’s really like to inhabit a building. With all the technological development around us, architecture remains a full sensory experience. You can’t get it on your iPhone or on the web. Perhaps that makes it nostalgic—or perhaps it actually makes it more vital and alive.