Design Within Reach

A blind architect relearns his craft.

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!”

Today they had to discuss a problem Downey had spotted with a nurses’ station at the end of a hallway. Downey explained how the space would appear to a blind patient: “Their cane will pass by the corner, they’ll realize, Corner, turn right, and they’ll walk right into the nurses, on the wrong side of the counter.” The simplest solution would be a gate, but Downey knew the space was meant to look open and airy, and a gate would look like a clumsy afterthought. Instead, they talked about a change in the texture of the floor. Something subtle that would still say: not a hallway.

“Okay,” Meub said, “bathrooms.” The plans specified sinks and toilets, but nothing more. “Ideally, I’d want the paper-towel dispenser and trash can recessed and near the sink,” Downey said. Otherwise, he explained, “you go in, wash your hands, now where’s the paper towel? You start feeling around the walls for the paper towel, and by the time you find it, you need to wash your hands again.” In a typical bathroom, the paper towels can end up anywhere, and when trash cans sit on the floor, cleaners will empty them and then put them back in a new spot. “Bathrooms are mysterious,” he said—especially institutional ones, like at airports and train stations. “And they’re all so different.”

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They talked through other issues. Load-bearing columns that seemed likely to snag a cane. A dramatic staircase that would deposit patients in the center of a big, disorienting room. And the courtyard. Plans showed a rectangular space, split down the middle. One half would be a sitting area, the other half a raised garden. But the garden they’d designed would be lost on the blind, Downey said. With everyone at one end, unaware of the garden view, the courtyard could feel claustrophobic. Instead, Downey suggested parceling out the garden, and then turning the seating area into paths and alcoves. That way, patients could apprehend the size of the courtyard, and explore the garden through touch and smell. He also suggested a fountain. It would cool the courtyard, he said, and the splashing sound would help patients perceive the space around them and orient themselves within it.

“As architects, we’re visual animals,” Downey told me. “The interesting riddle for me, then, is: if you take sight out of the equation, what makes for good architecture?”