Alumnus Profiled in The Atlantic

September 22, 2010
By Cherry Crayton
Photo by Tony Deiffell for NC State magazine

Chris Downey (Photo by Tony Deiffell for NC State magazine)

We’ve written quite a bit about Chris Downey ’84, pictured right, on this blog before and we featured him in NC State magazine’s Autumn 2009 issue. He’s the architect based in San Fransisco who lost his sight in 2008 after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. Now, in its latest issue, The Atlantic magazine profiles Downey and describes how he re-learned his craft. From the article:

Two and a half years ago, Downey had just started running the architecture practice at a stylish green-design firm. A few weeks after he took the job, he noticed something wrong with his vision. A tumor was wrapped around his optic nerve; he needed surgery right away. When he woke up, everything was blurry, but he could see. “Five days later,” he said, “it all went black.”

Downey returned to the office. But he couldn’t use design software. He couldn’t read plans. A few months passed, and the firm was caught up in the housing crash. Downey scheduled a talk with the owner, an old friend, to figure out how he could be more useful. He was at a workstation, up on a loft, when she came to see him, and he could tell by her footfalls that it wasn’t going to be the kind of conversation he had been planning to have.

San Francisco was full of laid-off architects. Downey could be pretty sure he was the only blind one. It turned out to be an interesting credential. SmithGroup and another firm, the Design Partnership, hired him as a consultant.

The architects stacked the tile samples out of the way and moved to a conference room. Plans covered a long table. Downey’s were printed in Braille dots, on big white sheets of stiff paper. Shortly before he was laid off, Downey had found a blind computer scientist who had devised a way to print online maps through a tactile printer; it worked for architectural drawings too. Meub would take Downey’s hand and guide it to details on the plans, as they talked. “He can’t just look at a drawing at a glance,” Meub told me later. “At first I thought, Okay, this is going to be a limitation. But then I realized that the way he reads his drawings is not dissimilar to the way we experience space. He’ll be walking through a plan with his index finger, discovering things, and damn, he’s walking through the building!”

Read the entire story here, and check out our past coverage on Downey here.


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