Spaces designed for and by the blind

In 2008, US-based architect Chris Downey went blind following brain surgery. He remains an architect today. This is the story of how his sight loss has opened his eyes to other ways of living in the city. Sean Rai-Roche reports

Out of all occupations, which ones would you consider sight most necessary for? Well, surely, architecture must be up there for most people. Urban spaces and structures are typically designed with visual considerations at the fore. Architects often focus on the aesthetics of a space. ‘Will people like the look of this building? Is there enough light in this space?’ are just some of the typical questions asked. Given this, is it even possible to be blind and an architect?

For Chris Downey, that question has a simple answer – yes. And he has proven it through his own story.

Downey lives and works in Oakland, California. About a decade ago he noticed some blind spots in his vision when playing catch with his son, Renzo. After a number of unsuccessful referrals, he had an MRI. It discovered a benign tumour pressing up against his optic nerve. He underwent a long surgical procedure soon after. Upon awakening Downey’s vision was blurry – something fairly routine after this kind of surgery. However, the following day, the bottom half of his vision went dark. The day after that, it got even worse. On the fifth day, all he could ‘see’ was darkness.

‘From the time the doctors said, “we’re sorry, there’s nothing more we can do” and that they’d “exhausted all the possibilities”, it was probable about six hours until the social worker made me a visit,’ says Downey from his office in Oakland. ‘Career alternatives was the term used.’

‘I didn’t know what it meant,’ he says. ‘It was shocking. I didn’t know what was in store for me. I had never really given blindness any thought. My mind hadn’t gone there and suddenly I was confronted with the bombshell that “maybe architecture isn’t what you should be doing anymore”.’

Downey, however, did not believe his new circumstances excluded him from the job he loved. He was back at work in his architectural firm a month later.

At first it was very difficult. But, with the help of family, friends and colleagues, Downey soon grew more comfortable with being sightless. The city, he says, is a far more hospitable place to be blind that other settings. ‘I find cities to be better than suburbia or rural places because it’s a more of a pedestrian environment. There’s dense urban architecture and everything is more defined,’ says Downey. But, for him, there are many ways it could be made even better.

Designing blind and universally

At this point you may be saying, ‘well his story is very inspiring but how on earth does he actually design things without being able to see?’. The answer is, in short, a special printer and children’s wax toys.

‘The way I thought about it was that the most important part of the architectural endeavour is the way you think, the creative experience. The intellectual process. It’s how you sort information, find the critical connection and problem solve,’ says Downey.

‘What I needed was new tools,’ he explains. ‘That was the extent of the problem. It was a tool problem. I needed drawings that I could access and I needed a way to be able to draw creatively on those and give that physical, graphical expression of the ideas I am working with.’

The solution to accessing drawings was simple. Downey was set up with an embossing printer, which can print pdf files – a staple of architectural practise – in braille.

‘Although I had imagined all sorts of complicated things, we pretty quickly realised that by just creating a standard pdf from any architectural or graphic file, I could print it directly through the embossing printer,’ he says. ‘And even though it looked exactly the same to everyone else on the screen it would come out as a tactile drawing for me.’

With that issue solved – Downey was able to access and understand the same images his colleagues were looking at – the problem became how he would make adjustments and modifications to the designs. The resolution was, again, incredibly straightforward. It came from Downey’s wife, Rosa, who is also an architect. She recalled a time when the family was in a restaurant that handed out wax sticks for children to play with. This gave her an idea.

‘You could work with them and curve, fold and stick them together – she suggested I try it,’ says Downey. ‘I quickly realised that it’s basically what I used to do when sighted, with tracing paper on top of the background drawing, to sketch out ideas. This was the same. It’s just there wasn’t another sheet of paper, just tactile wax strips that I could work with quickly.

‘That became the way I could develop ideas and share them with other people. And, if I am working with the team remotely, as I consult with architects around the country, I can take a photo of the drawings I’m doing and send them to the people I’m working with and then we can discuss it,’ he explains.

The comedy of high-profile architects using children’s wax toys is not lost on Downey, but he feels that architecture needs to experiment more with different ways of working. ‘In a creative field like architecture, you’re trying to seek out alternative ways of seeing things and thinking about things – turning things upside down and inside out. You start to adopt different frames of reference,’ he says.

Since going blind and returning to work Downey has had somewhat of an epiphany when it comes to how city spaces are designed. He believes that spaces can be designed with more people in mind under a more utilitarian outlook. He has thus adopted principles of universal design in his work. When asked what this means, Downey quickly, and without hesitation, rattles off a definition: ‘The design of systems, products and environments that are usable by the largest number of people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaption.’

He continues: ‘If you can design buildings thinking about the broadest range of people and thinking about someone who is blind or in a wheelchair, the chances are you end up with a unified system that works for everyone. You’re not ending up with systems for some people in different places.

‘You designed it from the get-go imagining how the greatest spectrum of people and abilities could use it in the same way. And with that comes some economic advantages because you’re not having to build and design multiple systems. You’re finding the system that works for everyone.’

The LightHouse

One such example of this new philosophy is the LightHouse for the blind and visually impaired, a building in downtown San Francisco. Downey is on the board and also acted as a consultant architect on the project. The building embodies one of the central tenets of universal design: a ‘unified system that maintains a shared experience and doesn’t separate people’.

The LightHouse had ‘very sophisticated, blind-centric clients’, says Downey, with around 40% of the leadership of the organisation being blind themselves. It was a comprehensive project that sought to design a space that could be enjoyed by the blind and visually impaired through creative and attentive design techniques.

The LightHouse is designed with details to be enjoyed by the visually impaired

‘The issue I’ve always had, and it’s something that goes back to that question of universal design and accessibility, is that we often think about these spaces on a purely functional level – making it work for everyone,’ he says. ‘But as someone who is blind, a blind architect, I started thinking about what’s beauty and what’s delight.’

‘I mean, what’s delight if you can’t see it? How do you use that sense of delight and how to do you communicate that to people who can’t see it?’ he asks. ‘That’s how I approached the LightHouse.’

In order to convey the enjoyment and beauty that architecture can produce to the blind and visually impaired, Downey focused on the aspects of the build that could be understood through sound and touch.

‘It could be the end of the countertop, or the handrail of the stair, or a door knob, or a ledge you lean against – these are the places where it’s not about the visual; they’re about the feel, how your body comes into contact with it,’ he says.

‘At the LightHouse, we put in two flights of stairs connecting the floors together,’ Downey explains. ‘It became the social heart of the building and connected the circulation and the acoustics, so you could hear from one floor to the other. There is a lot that is happening, but you can experience it in different ways.’

This appreciation of the acoustics of the building, and how it allows enjoyment of the space, is something that was new for Downey. ‘I am really interested in it because part of learning to navigate the world without sight is learning to listen to the architecture and the space around you.’

In order to ‘design’ the acoustics of the space, Downey got in contact with British firm Arup which specialises in acoustic design through using a ‘sound lab’. Downey says architecture does not do acoustics well because it lacks the tools. ‘You can’t draw the architecture of sound,’ he says. ‘What they developed, at Arup, was an acoustic model system where you could go into their sound lab and hear what the space would sound like while it’s still in digital form.’

Attention to the acoustics of the design means Downey, and other blind or visually impaired users, can identify others within the space through the tap of their canes, the sound of their walk or any other audio indicators that get reverberated around the building.

It is this consideration of the various non-visual aspects of space that makes Downey’s work so interesting. Whether this approach will be adopted on a societal level remains unclear, but his work on the LightHouse demonstrates how the principles of universal design can create a welcoming space for all. Even after his long and arduous journey, Downey would not go back to being sighted. His loss of vision has opened his eyes to news ways of living and working and he is in no rush to go back. He has more work to do.