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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.'

January 12, 2010|By Maria L. La Ganga
  • 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.
Christopher Downey of Piedmont, Calif., who lost his sight to a brain tumor,… (Robert Durell / For The Times )

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.

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