How a Blind Architect Sees His Work in New Ways

Chris Downey lost his sight in 2008, but continued his job as an architect with a new approach

What happens to a creative type when they lose the senses they rely on everyday? Beethoven famously went deaf, but some of his most famous music, including the 9th Symphony, was composed after he lost his hearing. Architect Chris Downey, who lost his sight during a surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2008, was back in his office working a month later.

In a new video piece tied to the American Institute of Architects’ “Look Up” campaign that attempts to “re-connect the public with architecture and position new generations of architects as catalysts of growth and visionaries for renewal,” Downey explains what drove him to continue after the potentially debilitating news.

Downey uses a braille-type system of raised text and schematics by “seeing” floor plans, and also uses 3-D models for a tactile approach to his work. He says the new approach immerses him in projects in ways he had never known. “My mind is actively thinking about all the materials: the composition, the warmth of the sun coming through the windows,” he explains in the video, “all sorts of things that were always there, available to my mind, but in reading drawings with my eyes I was more passive.”

This is some Daredevil-level adaptation on display. Hearing this guy use the phrase “face the challenge” is cynicism-melting. This is cliche, yeah, but if Downey can draw buildings without being able to see then what, exactly, is so tough about whatever is stumping you these days, huh?

Downey says he’s “always careful to say I’m without sight, not without vision.” To that end, he focuses his work on teaching and creating spaces for the blind and visually impaired, and is currently designing the new LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. A true beacon, this gentleman is.

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