Alumnus Architect on Working After Losing Sight

September 18, 2009
By Chris Richter


This is Christopher Downey ’84. He’s an architect in San Francisco, Calif., and last year he lost his sight after surgery to remove a brain tumor. In the Autumn issue of NC State, we talked to Downey about his work. We also asked California photographer Tony Deifell to photograph him. Deifell runs a project called Why Do You Do What You Do. For about 10 years, he has been asking people to write on a piece of paper their response to the question “Why do you do what you do?” He then photographs them holding the sheet. While shooting for us, Deifell got the above picture of Downey for his project.

You can read our chat with Downey after the jump. You also can read more about him in Architectural Record, AIA Architect and The San Francisco Chronicle and hear an interview with him from the National Federation of the Blind’s Slam News. And check out Downey’s Web site.

Christopher Downey ’84

Job: Architect

Location: San Francisco, Calif.

Christopher Downey’s interest in architecture began in middle school with sketches of houses and buildings. Now, nearly 20 years into his career, he has designed everything from libraries and aquariums to residences and green buildings. Complications from a 2008 surgery to remove a brain tumor left him blind, but he hasn’t stopped working and is helping design a rehabilitation center for the blind.

Starting from scratch
The rehab center is the first project I’ve done since going blind, so  dealing with a new office, coworkers and clients has been hands down my biggest professional challenge. I’ve been working with incredible technology, consultants and advisers to figure out new ways to do things. Nobody in the California Department of Rehabilitation has dealt with blind architects who want to continue their work, so it’s very much “let’s figure it out as we go.”

Helping others appreciate architecture
Designing the rehab center from a blind perspective has been my biggest role in the project. I think about organizing buildings to make things clearer for the visually impaired. For instance, a change in floor texture from rough to soft can let blind people who carry a cane know they’ve crossed from one part of the building to another. The touch of materials becomes important to how the blind appreciate the architecture.

Helping the blind get around
I think a lot about organizing buildings to make things clearer for the visually impaired. You can include Braille underneath signs that tell you where to go, but blind people have no way of knowing that’s there. The touch of materials, like hand rails and door knobs, becomes really important to how they appreciate the building, and it makes them feel appreciated.

The future
I’m interested in making transit centers and museums more usable and understandable for the blind. Also, I wouldn’t mind doing residences again and would like to become more involved with university campus and building design. Designing environments and buildings for people who are blind is not just a way to keep working, but to bring value to what I do and help people through difficult situations.

—Deborah Neffa


2 Responses to “Alumnus Architect on Working After Losing Sight”

  1. Bryn says:

    Chris has a new website. You should check it out!

  2. […] State magazine profiled Downey in its Autumn 2009 issue, and you can read that piece through this blog entry we posted in September 2009. As you’ll see, we asked Tony Deiffell to shoot  Downey’s photo […]

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