"So my final takeaway for you is that not only is the city good for the blind, but the city needs us. And I'm so sure of that that I want to propose to you today that the blind be taken as the prototypical city dwellers when imagining new and wonderful cities, and not the people that are thought about after the mold has already been cast. It's too late then. So if you design a city with the blind in mind, you'll have a rich, walkable network of sidewalks with a dense array of options and choices all available at the street level. If you design a city with the blind in mind, sidewalks will be predictable and will be generous. The space between buildings will be well-balanced between people and cars."
Christopher Downey lost all sight in 2008 after a surgery to treat a brain tumor. His loss of sight, however, "proved an unexpected strength". He is now one of the few practicing blind architects in the world and teaches accessibility and universal design at UC Berkeley.
Excerpts from an interview (by Peter Slatin)
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."
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."
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- photographs via and via and via
- another interview with Chris Downey: The Architects' Take