Architect still designing, 10 years after going blind
At age 45, Chris Downey had pretty much constructed the life he’d always wanted. An architect with a good job at a small housing firm outside San Francisco, he was happily married, with a 10-year-old son. He was an avid cyclist and assistant coach in little league. Then, doctors discovered a brain tumor. Downey was blinded after he had surgery.
As we first reported in early 2019, what he has done in the decade and a half since losing his sight — as a person, and as an architect — can only be described as a different kind of vision.
Several mornings a week, as the sun rises over the Oakland estuary in California, an amateur rowing team works the water. It’s difficult to tell which one is blind. Chris Downey thinks it’s fine.
Chris Downey – It’s very exciting to be in a sport that nobody looks in the same direction as you. This is how you look in the boat, and you go that way. (LAUGH) Okay, even-steven. (LAUGH )
It is not exactly even-steven at this design meeting, where Downey collaborates with sighted architects to build a new hospital. He hasn’t let it stop him.
Lesley Stahl – You are in a profession which requires you to read, read and draw designs. You must have thought, “That is impossible?” “
Chris Downey: No. I never thought Lesley Stahl. You never thought Lesley Stahl that the word “insurmountable” was something you thought. “
Chris Downey : Many people– (LAUGH), friends who were architects would say, “Oh My God, it’s the worst possible thing to be an architect and lose your sight.” I can’t think of anything worse. I quickly realized that the creative process is an intellectual one. It’s how you think. I needed new tools.
New tools? Downey discovered a printer that could emboss architectural plans so that he could read them and understand them through touch.
Chris Downey : They look just like normal prints or normal drawings on the computer. They just appear in tactile form.
Lesley Stahl : It’s almost like Braille, right?
Chris Downey: Right.
And he came up with a way to “sketch” his ideas onto the plans using a simple children’s toy — malleable wax sticks that he shapes to show his modifications to others. He says that something unexpected happened. He could no longer see buildings and spaces, but he began hearing them.
Chris Downey – The sounds, the textures. The canopy above the head changes the sound.
Lesley Stahl : Can you feel that we are under a canopy?
Chris Downey: Yes. It all depends on how the sound is made from the tip of your cane.
Chris Downey – I was fascinated by walking through buildings I had sighted. But I was experiencing them differently. I was not only hearing the architecture but also feeling the space.
Lesley Stahl : It seems like you were enjoying being the blind architect.
Chris Downey : It was a sort of this–this excitement of, “I am a child again.” I’m learning so much about architecture. It wasn’t about my architectural deficiencies, it was about what– about what I had been missing in architecture (LAUGH). Chris downey is upbeat, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t experience one of the most terrifying and difficult experiences. He and his wife Rosa were living in this same home with their son Renzo, then 10, when Downey first noticed a problem while playing catch with Renzo. The ball kept coming in and going out of his sight. It was a tumor located near his optic nerve that was the cause. The surgery to remove the tumor took nine and a quarter hours. He said that his surgeon had warned him about the possibility of total vision loss. However, he had never experienced it.
Rosa Downey was able to see when he first emerged from surgery.
But then things began to go wrong. The next day, half of his vision was gone. Then
Chris Downey : It was gone the next time I woke. It was black.
Lesley Stahl : Total darkness? You can’t see, no light–
Chris Downey: It’s dark. It’s all dark.
After days of panicking testing, a surgeon declared that it was permanent. Irreversible. And sent in a social worker.
Chris Downey says, “Oh, I see from your chart that you’re–you’re an architect, so let’s talk about other career options. “
Lesley Stahl: Career alternatives, right away?
Chris Downey: I hadn’t been told I was officially blind for 24 hours– and–
Lesley Stahl: And she’s saying you can’t be an architect anymore–
Chris Downey: Yeah, and she was saying we could talk about career– alternatives. I felt like these walls were being built around me, like “Yeah! You’re getting boxed in.”
Alone that night in his room, Downey did some serious thinking. His son and his father, who died from complications following surgery when Downey, seven, was still alive.
Chris Downey : I could quickly– understand the wonder, the—- just the joy of, “I am still here.” “
Lesley Stahl : It was joy?
Chris Downey : It was like, “I am still here with my family.” My son still has his father. “
Lesley Stahl : Your eyes are tearing up. You know that.
Chris Downey : Sorry (laugh). It’s always difficult for me to talk through that.
He knew how he handled it would send a strong message about Renzo.
Chris Downey – I had been talking to him about the importance of applying himself. At ten years old, you have to really work for it if you want it. This is the great challenge that I find myself facing.
He was motivated to lead by example and returned to work just one month later.
Bryan Bashin – This was the best thing about Chris.
Bryan Bashin is the executive director of LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a non-profit organization in San Francisco. He is also blind.
Bryan Bashin: He waited a few days until the stitches were out of his skull, and 30 days after brain surgery, he was back in the office thinking, “Okay, there’s got to be a way to figure this out. And I’m going find it. “
Bashin’s organization, the LightHouse, helps people new to vision loss learn how to figure things out.
Bryan Bashin: When someone becomes blind, the odds are 99 percent they’ve never met another blind person.
Lesley Stahl : Is that correct?
Bryan Bashin : Yes, it is true. Blind people need role models to help them understand how to be visually impaired, how to keep a job, and how to live independently.
Specifically, how to work in the kitchen, safely. How to navigate public transportation. How to use screen-reading software to listen to emails faster than the rest of us.
Lesley Stahl: No!
And, most importantly, how to travel alone around the world. Downey learned this at the LightHouse.
Lesley Stahl – Was it scary to cross a street like this alone?
Chris Downey said: It was absolutely terrifying.
Lesley Stahl : I can visualize. I can imagine everything.
Chris Downey – I can still remember that day. I stepped off the curb and it felt like I was stepping into raging water. Take a deep breath, and keep going. It’s not easy.
Within a few months, he was able to travel the streets on his own and get back to normalcy with him son.
Chris Downey: The first Father’s Day came up, Rosa was like, “So, what do you wanna do? Do you want to go on a picnic or have a nice lunch? “I want to play baseball.” (LAUGHTER) “with Renzo.” Renzo was like-he pops up. I could feel him jump to the edge of his chair. “Baseball, you wanna play baseball?” (LAUGHTER)
Renzo Downey: So Dad would throw to me. And I would play like I was at first base.
Lesley Stahl : How could he throw it to you?
Renzo downey: I’d just say, “I’m here.” He’d point and I’d reply, “Yeah that’s right.” Then he would throw it at me.
Chris Downey : This is something I loved about our relationship. He quickly began to look for possibilities. He wasn’t saying “You can’t do it.” He was like, “Well why not?”
Downey seems able to find windows even when doors are closed. Nine months after becoming blind, the recession struck and he lost work. He was informed by a nearby company that they were designing a rehabilitation center to assist veterans with sight loss. They were eager to meet with a blind architect. What are the chances?
Lesley Stahl – You had to believe God’s hand brought down the clouds
Chris Downey : It took my disability, and turned it upside-down. It was a unique, uncommon value that almost no one else could offer.
Lesley Stahl: Nobody.
Chris Downey: Yeah.
Starting with that job, Downey developed a specialty, making spaces accessible to the blind. He designed a new Duke University Hospital eye center, worked as a consultant for Microsoft and was then asked to assist the visually impaired in finding their way through San Francisco’s new, four-block long Salesforce Transit Center. We visited it during construction.
Chris Downey: If you’re blind, you don’t drive. Right? (CHUCKLE). They don’t like driving. So– (LAUGH). We’re committed transit users. The question was “How do you navigate this large facility if you are blind?”
His solution was to create grooves in the concrete that run the length of the platform.
Chris Downey would simply follow these grooves. With a subtle transition from smooth concrete to textured concrete to indicate where to turn to reach the escalators.
Chris Downey : Would you like it to be a trial?
Lesley Stahl: Okay. This line tells me to go straight. And I feel — (SCRAPING). Oh my. Oh my. It’s quite obvious.
Chris Downey – I can hear the difference.
It’s something that sighted people might not notice, and that’s exactly the point. Downey believes universal design is a way to make design accessible to people with disabilities, but also appealing to people without disabilities. This is the approach he used for his largest project yet: he was responsible for the renovation of a three-story office space for his former training ground, the LightHouse for the Blind.
“I’m absolutely convinced I’m a better architect today than I was sighted. “
Bryan Bashin: Coming into blindness need not be some dreary social service experience, but rather, more like coming into an Apple store — thinking that there might be something fun around the corner. One of Downey’s ideas was to link the three floors using an internal staircase so that the blind and the sighted can see.
Bryan Bashin: In blindness, it’s so wonderful to be on the 9th floor and hear a burst of laughter up on the 11th floor, or to hear somebody playing the piano on the tenth floor. Downey chose polished concrete for the hallways. Because of the acoustics.
Bryan Bashin – I can hear the tap of someone’s cane and the click of a guide dogs toenails.
Lesley Stahl: The click of a g– (LAUGH)
Bryan Bashin: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: — dog’s toenails?
Bryan Bashin: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl : Is that good or bad?
Bryan Bashin: That’s great. It’s almost like you are seeing someone coming down the hall. I can tell the sounds of the people working here by how they use their canes or how they walk.
Lesley Stahl : How they tap their cane can tell the difference between people.
Bryan Bashin: Absolutely.
Lesley Stahl – If Chris hadn’t been working on the building, a blind architect would have to be hired –
Bryan Bashin : It wouldn’t be as rich and subtle.
Last spring marked the 10-year anniversary of Downey losing his sight. What did he do? He hosted a party. A fundraiser for LightHouse — where he was student, architect, and president of the board.
Chris making toast at party: Maybe a slightly bizarre thing, celebrating my 10 year blind birthday (LAUGHTER), but when you’re 55 and you have a chance to be 10 again, you take it. Lesley Stahl : I feel that you think you are a better architect today.
Chris Downey : I am certain that I am a better architect today then I was sighted.
Lesley Stahl – If you could see tomorrow would you still want to feel the design?
Chris Downey : If I could see tomorrow, would it be– (SIGH). I don’t know. I would be afraid of losing what I have been working on. I don’t think about my sight being restored. It’s possible to do it with some logistical freedom. But, will it make me live a better life? I don’t believe so.
Chris Downey has a successful architecture practice. He continues to design campuses and museums for the visually impaired and blind. He still rows, and he taught a graduate course in architecture at UC Berkeley this semester.
Produced by Shari Finkelstein and Jaime Woods.
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years and have a deep understanding of the psychological and emotional elements that affect people. I’m an experienced ghostwriter and editor, as well as an award-winning author of five novels.