• Kevin Luo

Blind with a vision

Many may associate the ability to create art and designs with one's ability to see and take in information visually. However, this may not be the case; some artists are faced with vision impairement, but they have minds that continue to innovate. Among one of these artists is Chris Downey, a San Francisco-based architect, who lost his sight permanently after a brain tumor removal surgery in 2008. On the surface, many might assume that his architecture career is over as it is nearly impossible to work with space when you cannot see it. But for Downey, who is passionate and has over 20 years of experience, he is not going to give in.


Chris Downey, AIA via American Institue of Architects


Despite the challenge Downey faces, he stayed optimistic and said he is, "without sight, not without vision." In fact, Downey has found that losing his sight completed his training as an architect. He said he was obsessed with "the visual aspects of architecture," but now he is able to focus on the sensory aspect of the space, which encouraged him to experiment with accessible interior spaces.


As Downey looked for ways to continue his career, he developed a system in which he utilizes an embossing printer. The printer is usually used to teach visually impaired kids how to read, but, in Downey's case, he uses the printer to make blueprints that he is able to feel with his hand. By feeling the ridges of the paper, Downey reassembles the model within his head.



Downey "reading" one of the blueprints via AZURE


Over the years, Downey began to experiment more with light contrasts. Since most people who are blind have the ability to see light, Downey incorporated lighting to create interior spaces that they can easily navigate. For example, his design of San Francisco's Lighthouse incorporates a large skylight opening for the stairwells. This way, the light and the warmth of the sun can indicate the position of the stairs.


San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired via Lighthouse


Downey went on to be involved in designs of a new Department of Veterans Affairs blind rehabilitation center, a similar lighthouse renovation project in New York City, and the design of a clinic for the Duke University Eye Center. Moreover, Downey taught universal design at UC Berkeley, which is where he earned his Masters in Architecture degree. It is phenomenal to see Downey spreading his vision and creating designs for people who are blind, but, most importantly, he himself is an inspiration to many others.



Chris Downey speaking at IIDEXCanada in 2016 via AZURE


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