For some people, giving up is never an option. They continue to travel their paths with all guns blazing despite all the obstacles life throws at them. One such person is architect Chris Downey. After losing his vision at the age of 45 a lot of people advised him to change his profession. But he fought it through against all odds to become one of the leading blind architects in the world.

An architect, planner, and consultant, Chris was leading a successful career with a good job at a housing firm in San Francisco and had a happy family with a 10-year-old son. He was an avid cyclist and also an assistant little league coach and had pretty much constructed the life he had always visioned. But everything went south when doctors discovered a benign tumor in his brain pressuring his optic nerve. Downey first noticed the problem while playing catch with his son Renzo when the ball kept coming in and out of sight. However he underwent surgery which removed the tumor, but the process left him completely blind.

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Chris Downey ©perkinselearning.org

Owing to the visual nature of his profession, this was almost a career-ending occurrence. His architect friends and colleagues would say ”Oh, it’s the worst thing imaginable, to be an architect and to lose your sight”. After the confirmation that his blindness was permanent, the hospital sent a social worker who immediately started talking about career alternatives. Downey accepted his blindness right away, but couldn’t accept the advice of the social worker. Every step he had taken in his life since his junior high in Raleigh was towards becoming an architect. His journey towards architecture included seven years of schooling and a master’s degree from the University of California Berkeley in 1992.“ I have a career without sight. But as an architect, I still have vision” Downey said. 

Downey did not lose hope. He gathered mental strength and came across Bryan Bashin’s organization named “The LightHouse” which helps people new to vision loss figure things out, gain new perspectives and help to return to the mainstream of life. They also teach blind people basic survival skills needed to live an independent life and Downey learned how to get around in the world alone. Within a few months, he started traveling the streets on his own. Many might call it a miracle, but it was mostly the result of Downey’s strong will and determination!

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Chris Downey with correspondent Lesley Stahl ©cbsnews.com
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LightHouse Headquarters ©azuremagazine.com

Downey was very upbeat about his situation. According to him, creative thinking is an intellectual process and one does not necessarily need vision for that. He realized he was just in the need of new tools to adjust to this new situation. Downey came across a printer that can emboss architectural drawings that he could “read” through touch. It was an architectural equivalent of Braille. He also came up with his own innovative way of “sketching” his ideas onto the plans using malleable wax sticks which he shaped to convey his modifications to others. With twenty years of experience and two degrees in architecture under his belt, Downey was confident he still had much to offer the architectural community and so within a month of the surgery he was back at work.

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Wax stick sketch on embossed architectural drawing ©azuremagazine.com
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Embossed print of architectural plan ©azuremagazine.com

Downey started working at the job he had just joined before falling ill. But nine months after he had joined, he was laid off due to the recession. But Downey had a knack for finding windows when all doors slammed shut on him. He discovered a firm that was building a design facility for veterans with vision loss. They were very much intrigued and eager to meet a blind architect. “It took my disability and turned it upside down,” said Downey. He now had expertise in a field that virtually nobody else had to offer.

Starting with this job, Downey uses his unique perspective and has made it his speciality to make spaces accessible to the visually impaired. Chris Downey has been acting as a consultant to HOK for Duke University Hospital’s Eye Centre and has also been a consultant for a project with Microsoft. He also played a huge role as a consultant for The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC)Vision and Rehabilitation Institute. The institute is scheduled to open in 2021. The massive 410,000-sq.-ft. UPMC building will provide nine stories of clinical and research space. Downey’s expertise has been extremely priceless in designing the space to support the blind and visually impaired in the best way possible. Enriching environments will help patients navigate the building, with lighting related to contrast and brightness, materials, and textures that aid people with canes and sound techniques employed as way-finding tools.

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Chris-Downey uses his new methods in a meeting ©hok.com

Downey has also worked on the project which helps the visually impaired find their way in San Francisco’s four-block Transbay Transit Center. The problem for the visually impaired was to navigate within this huge facility. He proposed a solution of setting grooves into the concrete running throughout the entire length of the platform; A blind person just had to follow the grooves to navigate. He also proposed to add a subtle change from smooth to textured concrete to direct the blind person towards the escalators.

Apart from these, Downey also helped design LightHouse’s new 40000 sq feet headquarters in San Francisco. Being one of the very few working blind architects in the world, Chris Downey has been featured in local, national, and international media stories and has also participated in TED talks about architecture, visual impairment, and blindness. He also teaches accessibility and universal design at UC Berkeley and serves on the Board of Directors for the LightHouse.

Several years after losing his ability to see, Downey now plays a huge role in revolutionizing our surrounding environment with innovative interactive technologies to optimize it for the blind. Being one of the world’s leading blind architects Downey has an in-depth understanding of the issues a blind person has to face. As a consultant to a variety of organizations that serves to advance universal access, Downey plays an integral role in the development and integration of new, innovative technologies designed to assist the blind.

Debashrita Kundu
Author

Having a multifarious personality and being a philomath, Debashrita wants to break the stereotypical boundaries of contemporary architecture. Participating in over 50 plus sketchwalks, she finds solace in traveling, sketching and writing which also happen to be her aspired profession.

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