Throwback Thursday: Sight Unseen

ND10Back in 2010, we focused our November/December issue on the theme of Designing for the Senses. And my favorite article from the magazine was an interview with architect Chris Downey, AIA, founder of Architecture for the Blind who lost his sight in 2008. Chris has dedicated his life to designing environments that are enriching for those who can’t see, and his interview five years ago provided insight into designing a tactile experience, a valuable lesson worth revisiting.

How did you lose your sight?

I lost it in March 2008 during surgery to remove a brain tumor that had been located at the optic nerve. I had been practicing architecture for 20 years prior to that. I knew I wanted to continue; it was just a question of how.

How did you do it?

One of the things suggested through my rehabilitation services was that I get an embossing printer. It prints embossed drawings on 16-inch-wide roles, and it’s basically like braille. We create a PDF of drawings that the staff is working on, and I take that PDF and print it through the embossing printer. The line work becomes a raised series of dots. It also conveys line weights so you get a good bit of information, which I can feel through my fingertips.

What other technologies or techniques have you found helpful?

The one real shortcoming I’ve found is the inability to create drawings myself on the computer. So I use Wikki Stix, little waxed sticks, which are really a toy for kids, and draw with those.It’s a common thing for architects to unroll tracing paper on top of a drawing and then sketch on top of it. I just use the wax sticks and draw directly on top of the embossed drawings. It gives me a way to interface actively with the design.

How has the way you experience architecture changed?

Eighty percent of your sensory input is visual, and after that you have hearing and touch relative to the built environment. To experience a building without sight, you become far more conscious of acoustical and tactile information.

How do the acoustics help you understand the space?

It’s interesting when you can hear the space around you. In a big echoey space you get a sense of how large it is. One time I felt the inverse of that at the Kimball Art Museum. You don’t want to have a lot of noise disturbing you as you study art, and they did a suburb job of controlling the acoustics. I thought it would be clear to me if I was in one of the large vaults or under one of the lower ceiling areas, but there was absolutely no difference. The sound was completely flat. At one point, I stepped outdoors into one of the vaulted spaces, where they didn’t have the acoustic treatment, and with one tap of the cane I could hear the entire length of the vault.

How did the acoustics affect your experience of the space?

It made it difficult to move through. But Louis Kahn had used wood flooring surrounded by bands of travertine, and the travertine was on the structural grid of the building. That started to mark the space so I could understand it. It was nothing he’d done as any sort of cue, it was just part of the design. It made me realize that we think of design elements as visual, but they can also have tactile value.

Has losing your sight changed the way you work with materials?

Just as you can set things up in contrast visually, you can set things up in contrast through tactile qualities. And that’s something that has become more significant to me. If there’s reason to have a color transition from one space to another, then why not a change in the texture of the material?

Has your design approach changed?

I think of things more experientially now. I’m very mindful of designing with a full set of sensory design intentions. Something I’ve become more interested in is anticipating where you first touch a building. The door handles at the American Folk Art Museum are very distinct. You grab them and all of a sudden you sense a level of care and craft. I’ve come to think of them as the handshake of the building. But there are those places—like a door, a handrail, a reception desk, an overlook in an atrium—where you know people are going to interact directly with the building, and you can use it as part of the design challenge.

Is architecture still about function and aesthetics for you?

Courtesy of Rosa Downey

Courtesy of Rosa Downey

There’s definitely a functional challenge to getting around a large building. Getting around a home is very simple; it’s a very finite space. But within the residential scale there’s an opportunity for a really rich environment with all sorts of details. I really do think you can have a strong sense of aesthetics without sight.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I’m working as a design consultant to SmithGroup in association with The Design Partnership, LLP, on the VA Rehabilitation Center for the VA Health Care System on the Palo Alto, CA campus. That project made me realize that there was value in my blindness. Architects are not trained to design buildings for people who can’t see them. So in this context, there was a lot of insight I could bring to the team. That pointed a new direction for me.

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