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."
Even though Lorenz, who, like Downey, is blind, can't see the space before her, she knows exactly what to expect. On her desk at the ILRC's current office on Mission Street, she keeps a tactile floor plan that Downey printed for her. The plan's fine web of raised lines looks like an elaborate decorative pattern, suggesting a leaf of handmade stationery or a large sheet from which doilies are about to be cut. Though Downey has consulted on other architects' projects since going blind six years ago, this one marks a turning point for him. The community center is the first space he's designed since losing his sight. The center recently opened its doors to the public with a celebration to inaugurate the new space, located on Howard Street in the city's Yerba Buena district, just down the block from the Moscone convention center. But on this May afternoon, the walls are just beginning to go up.
Lorenz and her guide dog, a German shepherd named Phoenix, head deeper into the building to check out the storage room, and Downey makes his way to the storefront, where the conference room looks out onto Howard. Other than a few scant rays of afternoon sunlight slanting in through the window, it's dark. The floor is scattered with the guts of the future office—cables, pipes, and more Sheetrock—obstacles Downey weaves around with his cane. There's sort of a ropes-course, trust-fall quality to touring a dimly lit construction site with someone who can't see. He tells me where we are, and I tell him where not to step.
Downey makes his way to the open office area, where cubicles will eventually go. At 51, he is tall, trim, and nearly bald, with a light fuzz of whitening hair just above his ears and intensely blue eyes. Downey gave up his daily bike commute when he lost his sight, but he still moves with the assurance of someone who could hop on a bicycle and take off at any moment. He pauses, listens, and makes a few exploratory taps on the floor with his cane. "I was trying to see if they had framed up the wall between the conference room and the"—more tapping—"Yeah, this is it," he says as he finds the wall with his cane. "The windows will sit here. It's a pretty good-size opening to get that light and view into the general office." Downey is gesturing at the street and making eye contact as he says this, and for a moment this feels like any other construction tour. Then the front door swings open and Dwight Ashdown, principal of the San Francisco firm Ashdown Architecture and Downey's partner on the project, strides in. He reaches around the side of an unfinished wall and flips a switch. Light floods the space as the overhead lights flicker to life. No one had thought to turn them on.
For most of his life, Chris Downey could see. Seven years ago, he started to notice blind spots in his vision. At the time, he was managing the architectural practice of a green modular-housing firm in Oakland and cycling 100 miles a week. He began to have trouble following the ball during baseball games with his son, Renzo. After new glasses didn't fix the problem, an MRI revealed a benign tumor pressing on his optic nerve. His own father, a physician, had died of complications from a brain tumor at the age of 36, when Downey was seven.
On St. Patrick's Day, 2008, Downey checked into the hospital. It took the doctors nine and a half hours to remove the tumor. When he woke up, the world was blurry. He could distinguish Renzo and his wife, Rosa, as colors and shapes but could not make out the details of their faces. At first, this was a sign of normal recovery. But the next day, the bottom half of Downey's visual field was dark, as though he were partly submerged in ink. The day after, even the blurred vision was gone, replaced by changing sensations of light and dark. By the fifth day, everything had gone black.
After the doctors told him there was nothing more they could do, a social worker came by his hospital room to talk about the future. "One of the first things she commented on was that I was an architect, and we could talk about career 'alternatives'—that was her word," Downey recalls. "After that I didn't hear much else."
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