San Francisco architect Chris Downey is changing how design is employed for people with disabilities and redefining how architects can approach accessible design. In this article by Lamar Anderson on Curbed, we learn about how Downey has developed his own design methods and utilizes his rare skillset to draw attention to what architects often miss when designing for the public.
Architect Chris Downey is standing next to a pile of Sheetrock, balancing a white cane in the air like a tightrope walker’s pole. The week before, construction had begun on a new office for the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco, or ILRC, a nonprofit community center for people with disabilities. Downey holds the cane up to approximate for the center’s executive director, Jessie Lorenz, how the reception desk will jut out at an angle from a concrete column. Lorenz takes a step, and a pile of pipes on the floor clatters. “I don’t know what’s over there,” says Downey. Lorenz giggles. “I hope I didn’t break anything,” she says. Lorenz regains her footing and touches the cane. “That makes sense,” she says. “It’s almost like we’re funneling people into this part.”
Cities are diverse places, home to a rich spectrum of people and lifestyles. Chris Downey, however, believes that there are only two types of people, “those with disabilities and those that haven’t quite found theirs yet.” Downey, a distinguished architect of over twenty years, lost his eyesight four years ago and found a new way of seeing the world. “If you design for the blind in mind, you get a city that is robust, accessible, well-connected…a more inclusive, more equitable city for all.” Hear his story, contrasting his daily life before and after this newly found “outsight.”
Each year, the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley bestows the Berkeley Prize(s) in order to promote the investigation of architecture as a social art. This year’s theme was “The Architect and the Accessible City.” The following essay, “A day in the life of a wheelchair user: navigating Lincoln,” written by Sophia Bannert of the University of Lincoln, took first prize.
Architectural discourse has gradually become incoherent with the social and ethical needs of the contemporary city. With the relationship between theory and practice strained, lack of social relevance in design is ubiquitous. Practising architects frequently regard theory as esoteric and non-transferable, whilst many theorists do not manifest their ideas into reality and build. With the connection gripping the precipice by its fingers, this paper is conceived; written to persuade, motivate and encourage that there is real value in instigating ideas put forth in this paper. Concepts proposed are not only applicable to the city of Lincoln but are relevant and adaptable to all cities. Inspired by the architecture which has not yet manifested, it hopes to ignite the spirit needed to eradicate social inequities in urban design.
As Albert Einstein said: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts”. In order to palpably grasp an understanding of what it is truly like to be physically disabled in Lincoln, I rented a wheelchair for one day to see for myself whether the facts fitted the theory.
Read more of Sophia Bannert’s prize-winning story, after the break…
Today, President Barack Obama announced his intent to appoint five individuals to key Administration posts, including architecture’s very own Michael Graves, stating: “These fine public servants both bring a depth of experience and tremendous dedication to their new roles. Our nation will be well-served by these individuals, and I look forward to working with them in the months and years to come.”
The five individuals include: