April 6, 2011

The Atlantic Magazine Profiles Architect on Design Team for New WBRC

Rendering of the future Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center

The Atlantic Magazine published an article profiling Chris Downey, one of the architects on the design team of the new Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center to be built on the VAPAHCS Hospital Campus in the near future.

Photograph of the tactile buidling plans

Mr. Downy is a legally blind architect and has adapted his methods since his sudden vision loss 3 years ago. He lends a unique perspective to the design of the new building, hopefully making it more accessible to future WBRC students. An excerpt from the article follows below:

'One morning last fall, Chris Downey, an architect, ran his long white cane across a pair of floor-tile samples spread out at his feet in the San Francisco office of an architecture firm, SmithGroup. Gathered around him, a handful of architects watched. They wanted to know which tile he preferred for a new rehabilitation center for the blind at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto. Downey looked up at Eric Meub, a vice president at the firm—not at him, exactly, just over his shoulder. “The one on the right is distinctive in either direction,” Downey said. “The other one has a preferred direction.” For a blind patient still learning to use a cane, that first tile would give more-predictable feedback.

There was an awkward silence. The other architects looked at one another. Downey chuckled. “So you’re saying the one on the right is the one that doesn’t look so good,” he said, grinning...

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!”

Today they had to discuss a problem Downey had spotted with a nurses’ station at the end of a hallway. Downey explained how the space would appear to a blind patient: “Their cane will pass by the corner, they’ll realize, Corner, turn right, and they’ll walk right into the nurses, on the wrong side of the counter.” The simplest solution would be a gate, but Downey knew the space was meant to look open and airy, and a gate would look like a clumsy afterthought. Instead, they talked about a change in the texture of the floor. Something subtle that would still say: not a hallway. '

CLICK HERE for a Link to the full Atlantic Magazine Article

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