Two years ago, at the age of 45, Chris Downey had surgery to remove a brain tumor. The procedure robbed him of his sight–but not his vision for architecture, which he continues to practive. The Architect’s Newspaper has a stunning interview done by august real estate maven Peter Slatin, who has also lost the ability to see, albeit progressively. Here is a snippet:
[Peter Slatin:] How has your understanding of space, light, and materials changed? And has being blind changed your approach to design?
[Chris Downey:] Becoming a fully actualized blind person doesn’t happen overnight. It is commonly understood that 80 percent of the architectural interface is through vision. When sight is lost, the mind starts to rely more heavily on the remaining senses. In my case, I also lost all sense of smell, so it’s down to acoustics and touch, as well as muscle memory and other more subtle sensory cues.
I rely on a cane for mobility and not a dog, in part because I appreciate the acoustic feedback of space. The cane helps me discover things around me. Quite often when walking through town, people try to steer me around obstacles yet that’s exactly what I’m looking for. If I don’t hit it with my cane, how do I know where I am? You quickly learn to catalogue a lot of stuff and it becomes quite surprising when you realize that you know exactly where you are with a simple tap of an object or a wall with a cane. You can often tell how high a ceiling is by listening for the reverberation of a tap or a clap off the ceiling or the bounceback off a distant wall. These aren’t supersensory levels but rather the product of the mind not overwhelmed with visual inputs. The brain simply processes the same impulses with a different bias.
Light, however, is a very poetic part of architecture that brings space to life. The rules and the calculations are all the same, and I still build mental models using images from 45 years of sight.
Wow. Whatever it is, Mr. Downey’s still got it.