[Nfbc-info] Article about blind archetect in today's LA Times

Bryan Bashin bashin at calweb.com
Tue Jan 12 18:20:47 UTC 2010

>Hi folks,

Thought many of you might appreciate a piece in 
today's Los Angeles Times about Chris Downey, the 
archetect who, among other things, participated in last summer's Youth Slam.


Bryan Bashin

>Blind architects have a real feel for the site lines
>Unable to see their designs or those produced by 
>others, blind architects get more in touch with 
>their other senses. As one says: 'There is this great palette of textures.'
>Christopher Downey of Piedmont, Calif., who lost 
>his sight to a brain tumor, navigates his office 
>in San Francisco. He was an architect before 
>going blind, and he remains one today. He's now 
>working on the sprawling Polytrauma & Blind 
>Rehabilitation Center, scheduled to open in 
>three or four years in Palo Alto. (Robert Durell 
>/ For The Times / January 11, 2010)
>    * Related
>    * 
> <http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-blind-architect12-pictures,0,5804399.photogallery>Architect 
> loses his sight, but not his will to design
>By Maria L. La Ganga
>January 12, 2010
>    * 
> <http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-blind-architect12-2010jan12,0,6270922,email.story>E-mail 
>    * 
> <http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-blind-architect12-2010jan12,0,5938678,print.story>Print 
>    * Share
>    * Text Size
>Reporting from San Francisco - The architects 
>met on a damp October Saturday and set off to 
>visit a modern New York landmark, the American Folk Art Museum.
>The building is clad in lustrous bronze panels 
>that shift in color as they catch the sun's slow 
>trek across the sky. Inside, a skylight shoots 
>brilliant beams into a grand interior space.
>But the two men hadn't traveled to Midtown 
>Manhattan to look at the structure's famous features.
>Instead, they slid their curious fingers along 
>the pocked surface of the alloyed bronze facade. 
>Inside, their hands explored a smooth, round 
>railing of warm cherry wood, a counterpoint to 
>the chilly glass panels of the main staircase. 
>Their canes clicked along the intricate floor, 
>sensing the shift from swaths of concrete to planks of Ruby Lake fir.
>"We were exploring how we could sense it with a 
>cane, sense it with our fingers, sense it with 
>our feet," said Northern California architect 
>Christopher Downey. "There is this great palette 
>of textures. . . . All of a sudden, it starts to 
>engage your brain in a different way."
>Downey said he and Lisbon's Carlos Mourão 
>Pereira joke that their meeting three months ago 
>was the "first-ever International Blind Architects Conference."
>But the questions that engage the men are deeply 
>serious: What makes a building beautiful if you 
>can't see it, and how can you create beautiful structures if you're blind?
>For the last 22 months -- since Downey lost his 
>vision after surgery to remove a brain tumor -- 
>the 47-year-old has searched for answers to both 
>queries, along with many others.
>In spring 2007, Downey was coaching his son's 
>Little League team when he began to have trouble 
>following the ball. By that December, he could 
>no longer play catch on his quiet, leafy street in suburban Piedmont.
>"Even with just a simple, soft toss," Downey 
>said, "I was just guessing at where the ball was."
>That year's end was a busy time. Downey was 
>leaving the firm he and a partner had opened 
>four years earlier for a job as managing 
>principal at Michelle Kaufmann Designs in 
>Oakland, which specialized in green, modular houses.
>A neighborhood optometrist could find nothing 
>wrong with his eyes and referred him to a 
>specialist. Downey visited ophthalmologists and 
>nerve specialists. He had eye exams, was 
>prescribed eye drops and eventually had an MRI.
>Then, in February, Downey was called in for more 
>tests. As he waited for results, he noticed "a 
>lot of somber-looking doctor types" looking at his medical charts.
>He was told that a slow-growing brain tumor was pushing on his optic nerves.
>"I was given the names of surgeons and advised 
>to see them as soon as possible," Downey said.
>Surgery -- all 9 1/2 hours of it -- took place 
>March 17, 2008, a Monday morning. The benign 
>growth was deep inside his brain, close to the pituitary gland.
>"The best tumor," he said, "in the worst spot."
>The next day, Downey's vision was blurry, as 
>predicted, and he couldn't discern his wife 
>Rosa's brown eyes or her dark, curly hair. But 
>he could make out colors and shapes.
>A day later, though, the world appeared cut in 
>half, as if a line had been drawn across his 
>field of vision. Above the line was the same 
>blurry, post-surgical vista. Below, darkness.
>Downey was whisked back into intensive care for 
>five days of tests and frantic experimental 
>procedures. When he woke up on March 26, the world had gone black.
>"That was a tough day, realizing that 
>[blindness] is the new deal," he said. "I've 
>always been the outdoors type, loved sunlight, 
>would run around and open up all the curtains in 
>the house and let the sun in. . . . So first, 
>oh, my gosh, no more sun. That's just . . ."
>His voice trailed off. He paused. "It's hard for 
>me to get through a day like that."
>By February 2009, Downey had been blind for 
>nearly a year and had spent more than half of 
>that time trying to find someone like himself, anywhere in the world.
>He met blind software engineers, writers and 
>professionals who teach computer skills to 
>others who have lost their sight. He read about 
>Los Angeles-based Eric Brun-Sanglard, the 
>self-proclaimed Blind Designer, whose specialty is home design.
>Downey learned to use software that reads text 
>on his computer screen aloud. He got a cellphone 
>that reads him his e-mails and uses GPS to give audible walking instructions.
>He began drawing with Wikki Stix, strands of 
>wax-covered yarn that adhere to paper with just 
>a little pressure. His most useful tool became a 
>large-format embossing printer, which turns 
>blueprints into raised line drawings that he can read with his fingertips.
>Downey returned to his new job on a limited 
>basis just a month after brain surgery, but he 
>struggled to balance work and rehabilitation. At 
>the same time, the economy was collapsing. He 
>was laid off, and the firm eventually closed.
>So it seemed more important than ever for Downey 
>to talk to someone who had mastered what he 
>calls the "heroically visual" field of 
>architecture without the most basic tool of all: eyesight.
>Last Feb. 23, he hit the send button on an 
>e-mail that was equal parts proud and plaintive, hopeful and hesitant.
>"Dear Mr. Carlos Mourao Pereira," he wrote to 
>this stranger in Portugal, describing him as 
>"amazingly" the only blind architect "that I had 
>been able to locate since I started searching last August."
>"Leaving the profession has never crossed my 
>mind," Downey wrote, "but I must admit that it 
>is requiring a lot of effort, training and 
>research to try to figure out how to approach 
>what is inevitably thought of and practiced as a very visual profession."
>Pereira quickly wrote back, "It is a surprise to 
>discuss experiences with another blind architect."
>Pereira told about losing his sight three years 
>earlier. About how he uses clay, Legos and lots 
>of hand signals to get his point across. About 
>how he had just been commissioned to design a town hall.
>"A blind architect is specially sensitive to 
>tactile, acoustic and smelling details of the 
>Architecture," Pereira wrote. ". . . The important thing is not stop working."
>Downey told Pereira that "most everybody I talk 
>with assumes that I would now have to be on the 
>fringes of the profession." He'd spent 20 years, 
>he wrote, working on private homes and public 
>aquariums, libraries, wineries, retail projects. 
>And he did not want to leave that behind.
>Downey marveled at how Pereira described his own 
>work "as being so much more about the senses" 
>but said he was "perhaps a bit doubly 
>disadvantaged, as I lost all sense of smell in my surgery."
>"That brings me down to touch, sound and taste. 
>Personally I think I'll avoid tasting buildings 
>for now," Downey wrote wryly. "There still is plenty to work with."
>In late summer, Downey sat at a long conference 
>table at the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center 
>in Palo Alto, two seats from Millicent Williams, 
>who supervises the men and women who teach newly 
>blind veterans how to perform basic tasks again.
>The Department of Veterans Affairs facility is 
>scheduled to be replaced in three or four years 
>by the sprawling new Polytrauma & Blind Rehabilitation Center.
>Downey slid a heavy white piece of paper down 
>the table toward Williams -- the floor plan, 
>embossed in thick raised lines, of the proposed center's teaching kitchens.
>Like her students, Williams is blind. Although 
>her input in designing the facility has been 
>key, she has struggled through endless meetings 
>to understand its intricacies. Sometimes people 
>would try to talk her through the floor plans. 
>Other times, a colleague might take her finger 
>and run it along a standard blueprint.
>But as Williams touched the 3D diagram, created 
>in Downey's living room on his embossing 
>printer, she was able to envision the seating 
>areas and countertops, the appliances and the doorways.
>"Oh, this is what we've been talking about," she said. "Now this makes sense."
>No one at either of the architecture firms 
>designing the facility had worked on buildings 
>for the blind. Understanding how people would 
>experience a structure they could not see had proved elusive.
>The architects held focus groups with VA staff 
>and patients. They thought about wearing 
>blindfolds to get a sense of what life was like 
>without vision but nixed the idea.
>So when partners at SmithGroup and The Design 
>Partnership met Downey, they were intrigued enough to hire him as a consultant.
>"The question we ask ourselves is, how can 
>architecture help people lead a better life?" 
>said John Boerger, a partner in The Design 
>Partnership. "That was a real stumbling block we 
>were having" with the Palo Alto center.
>Downey collaborated on a room-numbering system 
>to help blind students navigate the building. 
>The facility will use different textured 
>flooring in a few key areas so students can tell 
>where they are by the tap of a cane.
>Blind students who descend a staircase that 
>deposits them in the middle of a vast lobby will 
>be able to find their way because the ceiling 
>will be enhanced, at Downey's suggestion, to 
>create an acoustic corridor to the door.
>Over the last 10 months, the building's design 
>has been transformed in subtle ways. So has Downey.
>His first thought after losing his vision was 
>about "the life lesson for my son: taking it 
>seriously and dealing. I don't have any control 
>over what happened, but I do have a lot of control over where we go from here."
>Beyond that, all he really wanted was to be an architect -- still.
>"It hadn't occurred to me to focus on centers or 
>buildings for the blind," he said. "But with 
>this project, all of a sudden it became clear where my real value is."
><mailto:maria.laganga at latimes.com>maria.laganga at latimes.com
>Copyright © 2010, <http://www.latimes.com/>The Los Angeles Times

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