Blind architect helping with VA Center expansion

February 15, 2010 1:28:43 PM PST
We're used to seeing architecture -- enjoying the shape and size and sweep of buildings and bridges and other structures. A Bay Area architect is forced to come at things from another direction because he's blind. Rather than limit what he does, he thinks the loss of sight has opened new horizons.

Surgery to remove a tumor near Chris Downey's optic nerve two years ago saved his life, but could not save his sight.

"To wake up one day and it's dark and you can't see anymore, a lot of things go through your mind. Quickly, architecture came to mind and how are you going to do that?" said Downey.

Turns out Downey tackled architecture with the same stubborn persistence he applies to everything in his life. He couldn't draw anymore, but he could still picture things in his mind's eye.

"There's a lot in architecture that's verbal, that's conceptual, that you think about mentally and you solve problems and all sorts of things you do in non-visual ways," said Downey.

He can read blueprints, thanks to a program that converts them to raised dots - something like Braille -and then prints them out on a special printer. He can study shapes by molding them with a kid's toy called wiki-sticks -- basically yarn covered with wax.

"You can just bend them, they hold their shape, you can bend them around and make right angles," said Downey.

Downey is currently part of a team working on a big expansion project at the VA Medical Center in Palo Alto. It includes new administrative buildings, a mental health center and polytrauma and blind rehabilitation center. Team leaders say Chris's perspective has especially helped improve plans for the latter building.

"When we look at them with our eyes we see the whole thing at once and we get a sense of how the whole building works. When Chris works through these spaces with his finger, he's working through them as if he's walking through them. So we get an experiential sense of the plans," said architect Eric Meub.

"In architecture there's a misconception that there's one person off in the back room who comes up with all these ideas and does everything. The reality of it is that its team work," said Downey.


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