Designing in the Dark

Wednesday January 15, 2020 Written by Adrian Craddock, photography by Don Fogg and Carlos Chavarría

Chris Downey has designed buildings for many fascinating characters throughout his 30-year-long architecture career, but his memory of working on Francis Ford Coppola’s winery is particularly vivid.

When the job first came in, Downey was hesitant. He couldn’t help but wonder if his architectural vision would gel with the famous director. “I thought he might approach the building like a cinematographer,” Downey remembers, “and it would end up feeling like a stage set.”

But all concerns about Coppola were quickly extinguished. From the outset, the filmmaker spent hours poetically describing how he wanted the property to feel. Imagine, he said during one meeting, sitting on the terrace at midday while eating a late breakfast. As he continued he got only more detailed. The table feels hot in the sun. The sound of wind is moving through the vineyards. “It was like, Wow,” Downey says. “Here's this guy talking about a space and the richness of human experience in ways that I seldom hear architects talk. It was about so much more than what meets the eye.”

Downey didn’t end up winning the commission, but over a decade later he still thinks about Coppola’s words. Right away, their conversations helped him to reframe his understanding of what architectural beauty could mean. And just a few years later, they would go on to provide encouragement in the face of a major professional hurdle.

In 2008, Downey became blind.

At the time, he was in his mid-40s and working at a Californian firm that specialised in designing modular homes. When he first noticed his eyes were playing up, he didn’t think it was a big deal. “I just went out and got glasses from the drugstore,” he says. “I thought it was normal. But over time it got worse.”

Downey appreciated things were serious when he started having accidents on his bicycle; potholes and sticks would seemingly appear out of nowhere and cause him to crash. Playing baseball with his son also became increasingly difficult. “He would pitch and the ball would sort of fade into this big fuzzy shape flying through space and at the last minute, pop back into focus,” Downey says.

Eventually, doctors located the cause. There was a benign tumour pushing against Downey’s optic nerve. Brain surgery was required to remove it and, in the aftermath, he lost his sense of sight and smell.

“On the day the doctors told me there was nothing more they could do to restore my sight, I was visited by a social worker whose job it was to help me with a bunch of paperwork,” Downey says. “She said, I see on your chart that you're an architect, so maybe we can talk about career alternatives.”

The comment hit like a bombshell, but by that evening, Downey was convinced the social worker’s assumptions were wrong. “The creative process is an inherently intellectual process,” he says. “I just needed new tools.”

Exactly one month after his surgery, Downey was back at work on a part-time basis. He reasoned the longer he took to return, the harder it would be. “It was almost like, let's go back before anybody's had a chance to say you can't do this,” Downey says. “Also, I asked myself what kind of dad do I want to be? Do I want to just sit around the house feeling sorry for myself? Or do I want to get back to work and get back to being a dad?”

The most immediate challenge that faced Downey upon his return was finding his way around. Without his sight, he had to learn how to understand the office in a new way. Through a slew of training, he got better at using non-visual cues to orientate himself. He became attuned to the textures under his feet, whether they felt like carpet or concrete. Getting a cane also made him hyper-aware of the space’s varying acoustics. With each tap on the ground, he could hear what was around him. It’s a skill he’s now mastered. “I can hear how far away the walls are, and if they’re in front of me or behind me,” he says. “It's echolocation.”

Without his sight, Downey can no longer rely on traditional drawing techniques to convey and refine his ideas. Instead, he has sought out new technologies. Among his most useful discoveries is a printer that can emboss complex shapes onto paper. It creates building plans that can be read in a similar way to braille. The format has some unexpected benefits. “When I'm reading a drawing through touch, I have to think actively,” he says. “It puts me in the space in ways that I never could do visually.”

To amend drawings, Downey relies on something far less high-tech: an old-school children’s toy called Wikki Stix. Its thin wax strips can be easily moulded into shapes and stuck on to his embossed drawings. Sometimes he also uses an inTACT Sketchpad, a device that allows people to create tactile drawings on a thin sheet of plastic, like a faintly three-dimensional Etch A Sketch.

When Downey first became acquainted with his new arsenal of tools, he was hit with another challenge. Towards the end of 2008 – just nine months after his brain operation – the global financial crisis hit and Downey lost his job. Thankfully, an old business associate hooked him up with a replacement gig: consulting on a blind rehabilitation centre for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The role helped Downey identify a market niche that he continues to occupy. “For projects that are specifically for the blind and visually impaired, I have really unique value,” he says. “Another architect could blindfold themselves and walk around for a couple of hours to figure stuff out, but it’s different when you know the blindfold is never going to come off.”

Downey’s unique expertise has been applied to a long list of projects, including housing for the blind, a clinic for the Duke University Eye Center and the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco. He also occasionally lectures at UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, where he’s renowned for lamenting architectural tropes that unintentionally drive blind people crazy. “As a sighted architect, I loved those modern floating staircases that are open underneath,” Downey says. “When you're blind, though, that same stairwell comes with the risk of bodily danger. If you got something sticking out above ground level, you can't find it with your cane. But you can find it with your face. And I've done that the hard way a few times.”

Downey has also recently started teaching other members of the visually impaired community how they might be an asset to the design industry. In 2019, he was invited to speak at a pilot course hosted at University College London called Architecture Beyond Sight. The curriculum lasted five days and included tactile exercises, such as getting students to familiarise themselves with the textures of construction materials and interpreting braille building plans. “It was just incredibly exciting,” Downey says. “I was surprised how, in just a week, the students could develop ideas, test them, model them, draw them and present them.”

Throughout the Architecture Beyond Sight course, one of the most important themes that came up was how visually impaired designers have the capacity to create not only more accessible buildings, but also buildings that are actually more interesting for sighted people. It’s a message Downey wholeheartedly agrees with. Since losing his sight, he’s come to appreciate how much he used to design for the eyes at the neglect of other senses. These days, the focus of his mission is broader. He’s more like Francis Ford Coppola, pre-empting how a building will flow and sound and feel. “I have a sense of beauty that's more than skin deep,” he says. “I feel like I'm a more complete architect now.”

This story appears in the volume 33 of Smith Journal. You can pick it up here.