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Overcoming adversity

For many years now, many people have been preaching a change in the way we address our profession. But the changes fostered by schools of architecture and architecture associations have been few. The inertia on the part of both has constrained us to a minimal change of course.

Furthermore, a profession disconcerted in the face of the severity of the crisis and its monumental paradigm change was unable to find a new role for architects in a society that certainly no longer demanded the same type of professional.

Perhaps the example of Chris Downey, an architect from San Francisco, who in 2008 lost his vision after brain surgery to remove a tumour, might serve as an example of adaptation. In a certain sense, vision’s preponderance over the rest of the senses has led architecture, discourse and models to disregard and weaken other readings of the surroundings. For an architect, Downey’s handicap can be compared to the pain Beethoven’s deafness caused him.

Yet Chris continues to practice as an architect today after having championed design for adapted architecture for those with visual impairments. As s a product of his academic training and as he himself acknowledges, before he lost his sight his designs hinged around how a space was seen. Now, by contrast, they are more driven by how the textures of materials feel, or temperature, or acoustics, or even the scent of a given place. Building architectural discourse that attaches importance to all of the senses in detriment to the visual generates a more comprehensive and multi-sensorial experience.

But from a professional standpoint, what is most interesting about Chris Downey is his ability to rethink the profession to respond to adversity and take new approach to his work as an architect. He found his way by adapting technologies from other fields to his daily work. He transformed an engraving system into a new printing system. The blueprints for his different designs are engraved with relief on special paper so that he can interpret them with his fingertips. Likewise, he adapted 3D printing to be able to use his fingers to complete the volumes his mind built. And as he himself recognises, “When I am reading the plans for a building, my mind is actively thinking about all of the materials, the composition, all of those things that always have been at my disposal, but that were secondary when I would read drawings with my eyes”.

Downey opened his own studio, Architecture for the Blind, in California. He uses it to provide design consultancy for architectural firms and organisations seeking direct experience like his in the field.

Blindness forced Downey to retrain the rest of his senses, to start from scratch. One might think the reason was extreme.

But could there be anything else more extreme than knowing that one is necessary and at the same time rejected by a constantly changing society?

Text translated by Beth Gelb

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