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Blind architect finds inspiration in loss

Chris Downey sings with the Corpus Christi Choir in Rome, Italy.
Chris Downey sings with the Corpus Christi Choir in Rome, Italy.
Roy Manzanares

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Architects rely on imagination to help them see a building even before it's built. For Chris Downey that skill is essential. He designed buildings for 20 years, but then he lost his eyesight. Using special technology he's managed to continue his career in architecture and help design buildings for the blind. The California Report's Scott Shafer has this story.

For the first 20 years of his career, San Francisco architect Chris Downey had an impressive but mostly typical portfolio of work -- university libraries, wineries, aquariums, theatres, homes -- those kinds of things.

But his life was turned upside down at age 45. It began with changes in his vision. He noticed it while playing baseball with his son, Renzo.

"Everything else around was perfectly clear," Downey remembers. "It was just the ball that was moving and I couldn't ... it was just a fuzz."

Downey ignored it until he couldn't any longer. He went to an optometrist, who said his eyes were fine. Then he went to see a neurologist who ordered an MRI. The news wasn't good.

"Sort of a golf ball-sized tumor right at the optic nerve," Daley says. "And it sort of squished them, pushed them and really stretched them out a good bit."

It wasn't cancerous, but the tumor had to go. There were two options. One was radiation, which would destroy the optic nerve. Instead, he opted for surgery, which is a safer option, but not without risk. In the hours after the operation, his vision was fuzzy as expected.

"The second day I woke up and sight was partially gone. It was almost like a water line straight across above both eyes where it was dark above, and the same fuzzy vision below," he says. "So I was taken back to ICU, and the next time I woke up it was all gone."

The news was devastating, but when Downey was 7-years-old, his father died after surgery to remove a brain tumor. So he knew things could have been much worse.  

Still, when a social worker who visited Downey in the hospital suggested he think about another line of work, it did not go over well. Instead, he went back to the office less than a month later.

"It's almost like getting back to work before everybody else could draw their own conclusions of, 'Oh, you can't see. You can't be an architect,'" Downey says.

There's never a good time to lose your sight, especially for architects. But it was 2008 and many people, including Downey, lost their jobs as the economy sank into recession. It was not a good time to hit the streets looking for work, especially when seeing was not an option.

"The business side, you can do that. The economics, you can do that," Downey says. "It's the creative side, it's the drawing, that was the real challenge."

Downey isn't easily deterred. He set out to learn a way to draw and read drawings -- the creative part of architecture. The key turned out to be a printer that could generate embossed drawings.

"So instead of printing ink on paper it basically pushed a raised line -- a series of dots -- to create a tactile image," he explains.

And Downey had a visual library, an imagination full of drawings and buildings. He just needed a way to put his visual disability to work.

His first project was working as a consultant with architects designing the new Polytrauma-Blind Rehabilitation Center at the V.A. campus in Palo Alto.

"That was a huge leap for those firms to hire me as a blind architect. It was like, are you kidding," he laughs.

The building will serve vets who are blind and visually impaired. Using his own experience as a now-blind architect, he helped the design team understand what it's like to navigate a three-story facility without being able to see.

"It's really easy with sight to go straight down the middle of the space and to end up at the other side or to end up at the bottom of the stair," he says. "Piece of cake. Not so easy if you can't see it. So the simple thing of 'go straight' is challenged if you can't see what straight is."

Among the architects Downey has worked with is Dennis Sullivan, director of design for a firm in San Francisco. Sullivan calls Downey one of the best communicators he's ever met in architecture, a skill he thinks is even sharper now his focus is unfettered by visual clutter. He adds that while Downey can't see, he takes full advantage of his other senses, something most architects don't do.

"They don't design with smelling. They don't listen to the way a building feels. They don't design with this concept of emotion," Sullivan says. "Touching, feeling, walking. What is that emotional experience? And so he rekindles it. He brings that back to life."

Chris Downey rents space from an architecture firm in downtown San Francisco. He's still reimagining his life and career as a consultant. Working with design teams, he's helped develop housing for the blind in New York City, a new clinic for an eye center at Duke University and another in San Francisco.

"To be successful as a blind person, you can't walk around thinking, 'Holy crap I, can't see!' That doesn't get you very far," Downey says.

Downey says he and his son have figured out a way to still enjoy baseball together. And he's taken up a new sport that doesn't require vision -- rowing.

He and his wife Rosa, who's also a designer, recently traveled to Italy, where he sang with a church choir in Rome, Florence and Assisi.

Downey has rediscovered music since losing his sight, just another way he's making the most of a situation many would see as less than ideal.
"It's like I'm more excited about architecture than I was when I was sighted," he says. "And I'm more excited and thrilled with life. I might be weird in that regard but it's just an incredible experience."
Since losing his sight, Chris Downey has connected with two other blind architects -- one in Lisbon, Portugal, the other in Chicago.

His New Year wish for 2013 is growing his consulting business into something more financially sustainable by leveraging his disability into an asset.

For more from The California Report, visit their website.