Architect sustains his vision despite blindness
By Lou Fancher
Oh, that we could see as clearly as blind architect Chris Downey.
Leading his UC Berkeley seminar students to equitable, barrier-eliminating design solutions or consulting on a 170,000-square-foot blind rehab center at the Veterans Affairs center in Palo Alto or filling the stroke seat on his East Bay Rowing Club team, the 52-year-old Piedmont architect and teacher says he lacks sight, but is not without vision. "The sighted stuff is the low-hanging fruit," Downey says. "There's so much more to offer."
Recognizing Downey's contributions to the field, in the 20 years' experience he had before losing sight in 2008 and in the years following, the American Institute of Architects created a short documentary about his story. The AIA's "#ILookUp campaign" is aimed at educating the general public about the profession and inspiring the next generation of architects through film.
Downey says a consultant for the AIA called "out of the blue" to ask if he'd participate in the documentary. "They were trying to reach out to millennial students through social justice and engagement. My work tapped into what they were looking for."
The AIA's sudden intrusion is rather like the manner in which Downey lost his sight. At age 45 -- his father had died at 36 from complications from brain surgery -- Downey began having blurry vision and trouble tracking a baseball while playing catch with his son, Renzo. Tests revealed a benign tumor wrapped around his optic nerve. Downey underwent a nine-hour surgery and woke able to see, if imperfectly.
"The sight started to fail in the second day and the third day it was gone. The last things I saw were half things," he recalls. "The water mark across my vision was black above and blurry below. I could see color splotches but not detail, like my wife's face."
Remarkably, acceptance was swift. "It came together in a 24-hour period that this was a new normal. It was a heavy day. It was like falling down a hole or a wall being built up around me. Family situations went through my mind," he says.
A grandmother with severe rheumatoid arthritis who had beautiful handwriting and recited joyous scripture to start every day reminded him that being miserable or being happy was a choice.
His surgeon challenged him to "get on with training, have a full, robust life, and not look for miracle cures." Nurses brought him a cell phone with oversized tactile buttons that he still owns. His son made jokes. A friend arrived, having researched tandem bike riding that would allow him to continue climbing Oakland's hills.
"I was still there, I realized. My dad died when I was 9. Sure, I was blind, but my son still had a father," Downey says.
And Downey still had a passion for architecture and the social and cultural issues the profession encompasses.
Other sensory mechanisms awakened. Downey discovered hearing is more physical than sight ("You can feel sound," he says) and an embossed printer allows him to "read" PDF's.
He developed a way of drawing with wax sticks that leaves raised lines he can feel and allows him to share sketches with team members by photographing the images. An iPad-like sketch pad with a rubber sheet that senses a drawing and raises a line has a USB reader that converts the sketch to a graphic file and enables Downey to continue the rapid digital interface his sighted colleagues enjoy.
"Chris has taught me that I'm my greatest limitation if I don't go after my dreams," says Sana Jahani, 21, a recent architecture UC Berkley graduate. Jahani appears in the documentary and says Downey tells students there are no limits, only breakthroughs to be made.
"He emphasizes the reasons why you and I should care about ADA compliant design," Jahani says. "We'll all age and, at some time, we'll need these things. My interactions with people with disabilities has changed. He taught me not to be uncomfortable and to start thinking about these issues now."
Downey says he's "incredibly lucky" to have lost his sight in the Bay Area. Public transit and wide sidewalks, along with streets that aren't too broad to cross allow him to live independently and spontaneously. "I learned to make it to a train, the ferry, a bus. I can navigate all over the Bay Area and beyond. Other big cities like Atlanta, you're dependent on paratransit. That requires reservations and there are no cancellations with para transit."
Downey says multi-sensory design perspectives apply to any building, but especially to homes. "In California, a home's close relationship to the land allows us to focus on space as sensual, alive. It's profound to feel wind or hear children at play and bring that quality inside."