Architecture October 2010

Design Within Reach

A blind architect relearns his craft.
Don Fogg

One morning last fall, Chris Downey, an architect, ran his long white cane across a pair of floor-tile samples spread out at his feet in the San Francisco office of an architecture firm, SmithGroup. Gathered around him, a handful of architects watched. They wanted to know which tile he preferred for a new rehabilitation center for the blind at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto. Downey looked up at Eric Meub, a vice president at the firm—not at him, exactly, just over his shoulder. “The one on the right is distinctive in either direction,” Downey said. “The other one has a preferred direction.” For a blind patient still learning to use a cane, that first tile would give more-predictable feedback.

There was an awkward silence. The other architects looked at one another. Downey chuckled. “So you’re saying the one on the right is the one that doesn’t look so good,” he said, grinning.

Two and a half years ago, Downey had just started running the architecture practice at a stylish green-design firm. A few weeks after he took the job, he noticed something wrong with his vision. A tumor was wrapped around his optic nerve; he needed surgery right away. When he woke up, everything was blurry, but he could see. “Five days later,” he said, “it all went black.”

Downey returned to the office. But he couldn’t use design software. He couldn’t read plans. A few months passed, and the firm was caught up in the housing crash. Downey scheduled a talk with the owner, an old friend, to figure out how he could be more useful. He was at a workstation, up on a loft, when she came to see him, and he could tell by her footfalls that it wasn’t going to be the kind of conversation he had been planning to have.

San Francisco was full of laid-off architects. Downey could be pretty sure he was the only blind one. It turned out to be an interesting credential. SmithGroup and another firm, the Design Partnership, hired him as a consultant.

The architects stacked the tile samples out of the way and moved to a conference room. Plans covered a long table. Downey’s were printed in Braille dots, on big white sheets of stiff paper. Shortly before he was laid off, Downey had found a blind computer scientist who had devised a way to print online maps through a tactile printer; it worked for architectural drawings too. Meub would take Downey’s hand and guide it to details on the plans, as they talked. “He can’t just look at a drawing at a glance,” Meub told me later. “At first I thought, Okay, this is going to be a limitation. But then I realized that the way he reads his drawings is not dissimilar to the way we experience space. He’ll be walking through a plan with his index finger, discovering things, and damn, he’s walking through the building!”

Presented by

Douglas McGray is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the editor of Pop-Up Magazine.

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