designs spaces unseen

Interview by ANN FRIEDMAN

Photography by MARTIN KLIMEK

Interview by ANN FRIEDMAN
Photography by MARTIN KLIMEK

(on touch)

Designers and architects like to say that they’re visual people. But when brain surgery left Chris Downey completely blind in 2008, he refused to walk away from his 20-year career in architecture. Instead, he continued to plan and design buildings and went on to found Architecture for the Blind, a firm that specialises in creating spaces for the visually impaired. As Chris re-encountered his chosen profession without sight, he came to realise how limited his view of architecture had previously been. Now, by prioritising aspects other than visual aesthetics – in particular how buildings feel to the touch – he aims to create more engaging, multi-sensory spaces for everyone. Chris lives and works in San Francisco.

ANN FRIEDMAN: Before you lost your sight, did you ever think about how blind people might be using the buildings you designed?

CHRIS DOWNEY: I have two degrees in architecture, and it was never discussed during my studies. I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1992, not long after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. While I was in graduate school, disability was becoming a topic of discussion but the emphasis was on mobility impairments. Within the Americans with Disabilities Act and the building legislation there was a diagram showing a man walking with a cane. It was to do with the regulations on structures jutting out of walls that might risk smacking people in the face. I used to look at it and wonder, ‘What must that be like?’ Sometimes I joke that I popped up inside that diagram. That man is me.

AF: You went from checking boxes to meet disability requirements to living them. 

CD: Right. But the ironic thing about having lost my sight, especially because I’m an architect, is that I find my environmental experience to be more multi-sensory than it ever was before.

AF: Why is that?

CD: Visual input can overwhelm the brain. You get so much good, quick information via sight that you don’t always process the other stuff. Now, when I move around, since I have absolutely no sight – no light perception, nothing, and I have absolutely no sense of smell – I’m really focusing on touch and acoustics. I perceive space via my sense of the body in motion, muscle movement and memory.

AF: A full-body experience.

CD: Yes. I remember the first time I was getting my orientation mobility training to learn how to get around effectively and safely without sight. I entered a plaza with my trainer, who said, ‘You feel where the sun is on your face? Now, keep it there as you walk across the plaza.’ I’d never thought about taking advantage of that thermal experience before.

AF: That’s something that most of us notice, but only when we’re paying very close attention.

CD: When you’re blind, it’s a magic moment when you feel that sunlight on your skin. It’s how the environment touches you, the sun being a part of it. Of all the senses, sight is the most detached – you make it go away if you close your eyes. Touch, however, forges an immediate connection to things as you grip them in your hands, lean on them, or walk on them. Whenever I grab a doorknob to enter a building or hold a handrail, or when I lean up against a counter or rail, I’m more aware than ever of how those materials feel.

AF: And do they feel good, on the whole?

CD: Modern architecture has so many crisp edges and sharp corners. When you encounter them with just your hands, sometimes they’re not so pleasant. That’s not to say I’d like everything to be curved. I have always been a fan of good, sharp rectilinear architecture and I still am.

AF: How do you get oriented in a new space using your hands?

CD: Personally, I explore with the back of my hand, with my fingers in what you might call a slack grip. They’re curled back and loose, so that if I hit something they absorb impact, and they do it softly. It even works if I’m trying to find a wine glass on the table – you’ve got to have a strategy for that, obviously, or you’ll knock everything down in the process. The only time it doesn’t work so well is when you’re trying to find a handrail on a wall or the call button for an elevator and the wall happens to be really coarse. All of a sudden your knuckles are getting roughed up against stone, or splintered.

AF: Do you use a cane as well?

CD: Yes, and I’ve come to think of the cane as an extension of my sense of touch. Similarly, I’d never really thought about touch extending through my shoes, but now I’m very aware of the different surfaces when I’m on the street.

AF: When you consider the buildings that you designed before you lost your sight, are there things you’d do differently if you could go back?

CD: I feel like I could do a lot of that work better now than I did it before, because I think that I have a much more profound awareness of sensory composition and space. It’s not a question of ignoring sight – I had 20 years of experience, plus all my life in general, focusing on the visual stuff. I can still draw what a building looks like. What’s more unusual is being able to communicate what a space sounds like, or how it fits your grip. Right now the whole architectural pedagogy is visual. Our toolset is so visually minded.

AF: The first tool that comes to mind is the blueprint.

CD: I used to say, ‘In the end, there’s the eye.’ It was a way of asking whether or not a building made visual sense. Now, I’ve turned my obsession towards non-visual aspects.

AF: How did you start to make that transition?

CD: I kept working from the same space where I was before I lost my sight. I was navigating the same neighbourhoods, so I was experiencing familiar spaces, just without sight.

AF: How many blind architects are there in the world?

CD: Totally blind? There are two of us, that I know of. Carlos Mourão Pereira works from Lisbon, Portugal and he lost his sight as he was finishing his thesis work. He pushed through, and he’s a great architect and designer. When I lost my sight in 2008, I didn’t know what else I could do. I joked that I could become a bike tour guide, which seemed improbable. So I stuck with Plan A.

AF: Was there never a moment where you thought you wouldn’t be able to go on?

CD: Well, I was working for a firm that produced prefabricated modular homes. That was the wrong industry to be in at the time.

AF: 2008 being around the time the housing bubble burst.

CD: Right. So they were struggling to stay afloat. Meanwhile, I was trying to keep doing my thing. And they were fabulous, but in December of 2008 I was laid off, and a few months later they were out of business. So I started off January 2009 as an unemployed architect without sight, who had been blind for less than a year, and with a mortgage to pay. Pretty scary.

AF: I can’t imagine.

CD: I was thinking ‘There are thousands of architects out there looking for work. And I have been blind for less than a year! How do I compete in that market? In any market?’

AF: What convinced you to keep going?

CD: Within a month, I had the opportunity to join a team building a rehabilitation centre for blind veterans in Palo Alto, California. All of a sudden, I realised that no other architects know how to design a building for the blind or visually impaired. My own experience brought relevant value to the table.

AF: So your clients have changed. What about your creative process?

CD: I’ve come to realise that what I do now really isn’t so very different from what I used to do when I was sighted. A lot of people assume that as an architect, to lose your sight must be the worst thing imaginable. But the creative process is intellectual. Your hand doesn’t know what to draw. It’s a largely mental process: interpreting, making connections. Drawings and models are just tools. I just needed new tools. Now, instead of looking at a plan on a screen or a page and using tracing paper, I’ll draw a design on a tablet computer, print it on an embossing printer and read it through touch. Or I’ll use wax sticks to sketch on top of a working plan. It’s remarkably similar to how it used to be.

AF: What aspects of the process are different?

CD: You don’t go randomly feeling the walls if you’re blind – you’re going to grab a handrail, you’re going to lean against a worktop. So I put a lot of effort into those details now. What does that moment of contact feel like? How can I convey a sense of generosity with that? For example, I’ve recently been working on a new headquarters for the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, an organisation here in San Francisco. We used 3D printing to make lots of different prototype handrails. That’s where it really started coming to life for me. It was a magical moment.

AF: Can you tell me about the acoustic component of that building?

CD: The LightHouse centre is three floors in a high-rise building and we’ve installed new staircases between the floors. If you’re blind, you rely on the acoustics to understand the architecture around you. In the case of a stairwell that means relying on being able to hear other people going up and down the stairs, but also the conversations going on above and below you. Using metal treads would have been too noisy, so we chose a dense wood with a nice solid sound. A thud, not a clink. I’m always listening to architecture now. I tap my cane as I go into a space. I listen to find the orientation of the space; Is it high? Is it long? Where is there an opening? You can hear all of that by echolocation. I wanted to be able to test all these things in advance, because after a building’s built, it’s too late to alter them.

AF: Have you found a way of doing that?

CD: Yes, by complete coincidence. I was at a pool party in Marin County, and I was introduced to Bill Fontana, the renowned sound artist and sculptor. He was working on a site-specific installation for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and he introduced me to the acoustic engineers he was working with, who happened to be down the street from my office. They have a sound lab where they take the three-dimensional models that architects make and, by inputting all of the material characteristics, they can render it so you can hear the space before it’s built.

AF: Oh wow.

CD: You can go into their sound lab and hear what it will be like to be in, say, that music hall before it’s built. You can hear the difference between different wall finishes, different construction layers, what happens when you add carpet on the floor, even different finishes on the seats. Everyone else does animated walk-throughs of their buildings. This is the same principle, but in this case you’re hearing how it is to walk through the building.

AF: Do you encourage other architects to consider the wider sensory experience?

CD: I do and, for the most part, architects are really receptive. As a rule, we’re trained to ‘walk in users’ shoes’ anyway. I’m simply suggesting that it’s time to walk behind someone else’s eyeballs – eyes that happen not to see well.

P.S. The California city of Palo Alto, home to the groundbreaking Veterans Affairs Polytrauma & Blind Rehabilitation Center, experiences an average of 308 sun-filled days per year, providing ample guiding light to its citizens.

The ironic thing about having lost my sight, especially because I’m an architect, is that I find my environmental experience to be more multi-sensory than it ever was before.
Chris is pictured at the office of Architecture for the Blind in San Francisco
I’m always listening to architecture now. I tap my cane as I go into a space. I listen to find the orientation of the space; Is it high? Is it long? Where is there an opening? You can hear all of that by echolocation.
"Modern architecture has so many crisp edges and sharp corners. When you encounter them with just your hands, sometimes they’re not so pleasant."