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

Brian Miller brian-r-miller at uiowa.edu
Tue Jan 12 20:09:21 UTC 2010

Thanks Bryan.

What is this "Polytrauma & Blind Rehabilitation Center" mentioned in the
article? Is this associated with the VA down there?

 Brian M

-----Original Message-----
From: nfbc-info-bounces at nfbnet.org [mailto:nfbc-info-bounces at nfbnet.org] On
Behalf Of Bryan Bashin
Sent: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 1:21 PM
To: NFBC Info at NFBNet
Subject: [Nfbc-info] Article about blind archetect in today's LA Times

>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
>    *
>804399.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
> ,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
>"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
>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
>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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