Community Spotlight: Chris Downey, Being in a Boat
Chris is a blind architect. He’s celebrated for his inclusive designs and innovation. For Chris, it’s not just about accessibility, it’s about experience. Where Chris designs, people interact with textures and acoustics, as they feel and experience the space around them.
Courtesy of Mahlum Architects
Chris wasn’t always blind
Fourteen years ago, Chris lost his vision following a major surgery.
“I had full expectations that my sight would be restored, but a week after the surgery, the doctors had told me this would be my new normal. That was when it started to set in.”
As Chris lay in his hospital bed trying to make sense of the situation, he received a visit from a social worker.
“Right at the opening of the conversation, they said ‘Oh, I see on your chart, you’re an architect. We can talk about career alternatives.’ I hadn’t even left the hospital, and already, walls were coming up around me.”
Only hours after he was told his blindness would be permanent, assumptions were being made about his future.
“Hearing that comment was devastating, and I realized how abruptly expectations would be changing.”
Credit: HOK Architects
Fly the airplane while you build it
Chris believes it was that realization that motivated him to get back to work in just 30 days.
“Maybe it was what that social worker said, and the thought that others, or even I, could think like that. I cherished the place I was working, the people, the leadership and the creative spirit. So maybe some of it was to do with wanting to get back before it could slip into their minds too.
It was also about getting back into that environment. I knew I wasn’t going to figure things out sitting at home. it was the right thing to do, although it was like flying an airplane while you’re still building it! It was a case of figuring it out as you go.”
Credit: Fogg Studio
A tool problem
As Chris explored different ways to approach his work without sight, he realized it was a tool problem.
“Architecture is visual, but the architectural process at its root is creative. It’s how you define and solve problems, how you explore, experiment, then make connections. That is intellectual. The visual aspect really comes through as tools. The drawing, pencil or mouse on the computer is just a tool. For me, the creative process was still there, I just needed the right format of tools to work with.
Within six months of losing my sight, I was set up with a large format, embossing printer, which prints tactile images. This was really critical in getting me back, literally, in touch with the drawings. I could read what others had drawn, but it didn’t help me draw.”
Credit: Fogg Studio
The solution to the drawing dilemma eventually came from his wife, who found it in their ten year old son’s art supplies.
“Sometimes restaurants give out crayons to children, but we went to one restaurant that gave our son these long wax sticks you can bend and draw with to make pictures, ‘wikisticks’. My wife kept telling me ‘You should work with that. I think that might give you some opportunities.’ I was like ‘Yeah right, I’m doing serious business here!” Eventually though, I did try it and it was remarkable! Not only could I easily work with it and feel it, but they were also effectively lines that I could lay out on a sheet on top of existing tactile drawings. It became exactly like doing trace-overlay drawings that all architects do. You take a drawing, take another sheet of paper and roll it out on top and you draw on top of it. You explore that idea, then roll out another sheet and do it again. Now I was doing the same thing, only with these tactile sticks. “
Credit: Chris Downey
Get inside the space
As Chris processed drawings differently, he discovered he experienced them differently too.
“My relationship with the drawing completely changed. I was always taught, don’t look at the drawing for the value of its composition, do it to get into the space. I wasn’t very good at that. But as I move my fingers across the drawing, in my mind, I’m moving through the space. It’s so automatic and powerful. Now I do what I’d always been told an architect should do.”
Courtesy of HOK Architects
Designing for all experiences
Chris’s blindness, combined with his talent for design and problem solving, represents a unique value. However, his work is not only confined to accessibility focused projects. He’s consulted for a range of organizations, such as Microsoft, Duke University Hospital, public transit providers and even zoos! With too many outstanding projects to do justice in one conversation, Chris highlighted two that had impacted him and how he works.
Credit: Jasper Sanidad/ 544 Media
“The Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco was an organization that had significant blind leadership. It wasn’t just my ideas; it was working with their ideas and their experience. I never try to design for my experience, that’s just one of millions. Any experience of blindness is unique. From low vision to no vision, and all sorts of stops in between. Then there are those who might have other disabilities as well as being blind. There are all sorts of different situations, so never design for your own. The Lighthouse had such a wealth of different experiences and a deep appreciation of that. It enabled us to do some great exploration into subtleties that work really well within the tactile, acoustic and broader sensory environment. And then we worked to do things that were very powerful from the lens of visual accessibility, making the visual environment more accessible to those with low vision. It was an opportunity to tackle so much that’s really carried on to other projects.”
Imagery courtesy of Mahlum Architects
A broader value
Chris later worked with New York based design firm, Thinc, on a project which was interesting as it pulled Chris away from working just within the disability community. Although the team were interested in accessibility, Chris was brought in specifically to collaborate with the team on creating a multi-sensory masterplan
“We really had to think about the experience. What’s it like to pass from the city into the zoo? How to change that environment and lead you from one to the other? And how could we leverage the power of a multi-sensory environment to do that? Then as you move through transitional spaces from one exhibit to another, or being in an exhibit, what’s in that sensory experience that we need to cultivate? How can we communicate that to make it more resonant?
Many look on disability experiences as a deficit, as opposed to seeing what opportunities there are, that give real value. Things like this project, to me, are powerful and so important. It was a really fun, fascinating and engaging project.”
Credit: Chris Downey
Design for social justice
What Chris has learned and given back to architecture, and the people who experience his spaces, is highly beneficial and should become integral to good design. Chris is an experienced lecturer and has inspired many budding architects.
“It isn’t about what I learned. With students, it’s about how they can invest in exploration, knowledge and awareness themselves.
There’s a lot of interest, in the younger generation, in social justice, and when educating architects and designers, I try to get them to think about the opportunities for architects within that, and within the disability community. The opportunity is profound. Inclusivity within architecture, our buildings, our cities… that is social justice. It can’t be just if it isn’t accessible. If an environment isn’t welcoming to a broad spectrum of human experience, it wastes those resources, that human capital, the people who go untouched because they can’t access, can’t be employed or included. So, I’m trying to connect the students’ passion in social justice, to a direct relationship to the way they design.
Credit: Chris Downey
You can be disabled in an environment because it disables you, because of how it is designed. You are not impaired if you’re rolling along in your wheelchair. But if you have to go up steps or through a space that is too narrow, that’s exclusionary design. We try to anchor in the power the students have as designers, to minimize or even completely reject disability from a space by designing it in a way that does not create barriers.”
Chris is keen for design students to start cultivating their relationship with inclusive design at an early stage, so it is already firmly rooted when they enter the workplace. He feels this creates a deeper appreciation and motivation, than if the relationship begins with the opening of a code book and the reading of regulations.
Credit: Rosa Downey
Chris has no doubts that blindness made him a better architect, and there are other areas of his life that he feels have also been improved by disability.
“One thing my wife and I talk about, is that, who and what we’re exposed to, the community we’re part of, hasn’t been restricted, it’s only grown. Our lives have been enriched by people that we simply didn’t come across before. It’s astounding that we had to go through this to be exposed to the wealth of personality, talent and intellect within the disability community.”
As well as being introduced into a wonderful new community, Chris feels his blindness has uncovered a different side to the community he already knew.
“I was brought up in the Southern tradition of saying hello to everyone you meet. I found being blind, in San Francisco or even New York, was suddenly like being in the south again! All of a sudden, people are talking to me on the street, wishing me well, asking if I need help. I’ve got all kinds of people engaging with me positively, all the time. That’s really wonderful, at a time where our distance is growing, and everyone keeps themselves to themselves. It’s reassuring to my ‘Southern-ness’! I’ve met so many people, and made so many friends, just walking down the street. I think my cane shows that human vulnerability that opens that door to humanity.”
From the way his blindness has opened up possibilities in the design world, to how it has opened conversations and hearts on the street, Chris believes in the positive influence of blindness. We really enjoyed hearing his refreshing views, and of course we wondered if his view of inclusion would be equally unique. We were not disappointed!
Credit: Doug Olson, photographer
What is inclusion to you?
“Inclusion is being in a boat… I’m a competitive rower. What’s remarkable about rowing, is that in a crew, it’s truly a multisensory sport. I hear the blades touch the water, I hear the oars rotate, I feel the movement of the seats on the tracks and the balance of the boat. I’ve rowed in boats with people with all different physical disabilities, and others who are blind. It’s a truly inclusive sport that can be done in a lot of different ways. What’s magical, is you’re just another person in a boat, part of the team, all working to achieve the same goal. It’s a powerful thing to get that mainstream team experience in a diverse setting. So, inclusion to me, is being in a boat.”