Notes on blindness – architecture for the visually impaired

13 December 2016

Architecture is primarily conceived as a visual medium, one beyond the scope of the visually impaired. Greg Noone talks to a small group of architects who are challenging this assumption, revealing how a renewed focus on inculcating spatial awareness through sound and texture can not only help designers create buildings that remain inclusive to the blind but also enhance their appreciation for all.

Chris Downey is an architect who happens to be blind. Obvious questions regarding that combination stalk him from interview to interview like a shadow, and they’re all answered by the story of his visit to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Designed by Louis Kahn in 1972, the building comprises 16 parallel cycloid barrel vaults housing a dozen or more old masters and other pieces that Kay Kimbell and his wife, Velma, had snapped up over the years. The museum is regarded as a masterpiece of modernist design and one that Downey remembered clearly from photos in reference books he’d consulted during his training. He had not travelled far from his home in San Francisco since losing his sight, but there was something about those long, cycloid vaults that Downey, in his infinite curiosity, wanted to hear.

It was dead. When Downey tapped his cane on the laminate flooring, there was barely a sound. He tried other things – snapping his fingers, even clapping – but there was scarcely even the hint of an echo. It only dawned on him later that, in service to those patrons encouraged to pause, surmise and murmur in reverence at the paintings hanging before them, acoustic engineers had purposely deadened the entire space.

Downey considered giving up, and stepped outside to an exterior vault open to the museum’s gardens. Now he could listen. “I could hear [the vault] running off; the sound reverberating off the tip of my cane,” he remembers, “the sounds of people walking through the crushed stone pathway off the courtyard beyond, and the trickle of water off in the distance. And it’s like the environment came to life.”

The visual bias

Architecture is a medium intended to be seen and not heard. It is a certainty rooted in adjectives: a building is beautiful or it is ugly, monolithic or miniscule. Form and aspect are inseparable; sound is extrinsic, a creation of the users and not of the structure itself. Only in certain cases – when hymnals drift down naves, or an orchestra thunders from its pit – are we reminded of its power to define our perception of place and time.

Moments like these are fleeting luxuries for the sighted. For the blind, however, sound is currency. Noises that those with sight disregard – the tap of a cane, the whoosh of traffic, a voice in a crowd – are vital determinants for how they interact with built space. In short, an appeal by the architect towards high aesthetics matters far less than their paying attention to the basic issue of navigability. How, for example, might the blind user of a space know a friend is approaching when their footfalls are muffled by thick carpet? How may they navigate to a small exit door along a wide and open hall, without recourse to handrails?

This is the world in which Jaime Silva lives. He had always wanted to become an architect, ignoring his father’s warnings that the glaucoma he had been born with would likely rob him of the ability to draught. The young Silva was headstrong; a profile of the Filipino designer in 2015 stated that, for him, the route to happiness was “owning a successful design firm and a fast car”. His path to blindness unfolded like a prophecy. Silva obtained an architectural degree and succeeded in starting his own firm. The headaches quickly followed. Despite 18 eye surgeries, Silva would be blind before the age of 40.

Having shut down his practice, Silva cut himself off from the world for six months. It was only after he was introduced to an NGO that trained the blind in the use of computers that the architect began his journey back into the world. From thereon in, he dabbled in a range of professions: Silva is now a property manager, but has also been described as a civic leader, a motivational speaker, advocate and corporate executive. Eventually, he was recruited by the United Architects of the Philippines as its national chair for disability affairs, and assumed an active role in enhancing the ability of visually impaired citizens to interact with the world around them. At times, it feels like an uphill struggle.

“If you ask me whether there’s any provision in the current [accessibility] law specifically for the blind, there’s nothing,” he says. Nor is there much awareness anywhere in the Philippines of the needs of the blind.

“One time, we had a city-wide evacuation drill and one of the first responders, when we held a forum on this subject, asked me how to evacuate a blind person: ‘Do we carry him down?’ This is how the general public understands persons with a disability. They cannot even realise that we can walk down. We just have to be accompanied.”

Designing space for the visually impaired

In the end, Silva abandoned architectural design in favour of raising awareness as the best way he could effect change to the built environment. In that sense, his choice mirrors those made by the multitude of known and unknown architects who drop out of the profession when faced with the crushing prospect of sight loss. For Chris Downey, however, that never felt like an option.

It’s a belief that was heavily influenced by his visit to the Kimbell. Venturing back inside after discovering the exterior vault, Downey began to appreciate the tactile phenomenology of the space; the wooden flooring and bands of travertine that modulated the gallery, the deftly sculpted handrails. The conviction that, but for the acoustics, the space would have been ideal for his uses deepened when he later learned that Kahn’s own eyesight had begun to ebb when he built the Kimbell.

The visit helped persuade Downey that, if anything, his blindness was an advantage. Through the use of tactile drawings and sound mapping, he could impart privileged knowledge of what worked and what didn’t in the enhancement of accessibility for the visually impaired, to venture beyond the checklist mandated by the American Disabilities Act. Recent projects of Downey’s have included the Duke Eye Center in North Carolina and the Transbay Transit Center, for which Downey was commissioned to design a tactile path. The embossed floor plan he used to design it stretched over 5m in length.

For the blind, sound is currency. Noises that those with sight disregard are vital determinants for how they interact with built space.

His efforts in this area have culminated in the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Mid-Market, San Francisco. The 45,000ft² structure houses the non-profit organisation of the same name servicing the needs of the legally blind in the wider Bay Area. Throughout the design process, Downey and the organisation’s governing board and employees – most of whom are themselves visually impaired – consulted extensively with architect Mark Cavagnero to install every conceivable fixture and orientation device that would help blind visitors navigate the space with ease.

These are, in no particular order, as follows: a communicating staircase linking all three floors, without carpet and varying in width at each level to allow users not only to identify which floor they are on but also whether anyone else is approaching; notches in the reception desk that allow blind visitors to hang their canes during conversation, or when signing papers; linear ceiling lights running north and south to enhance the orientation of the partially sighted; extensive acoustic remodelling of the training kitchens, allowing pupils to cut through the clatter of pots and pans, and focus on their teacher’s instructions.

Sound it out

It is a singular achievement, and one partly stemming from the architect’s enthusiasm in using technology to tame some of the most complex design problems that he encounters. Aside from embossed floor models, Downey has collaborated extensively with Arup in developing sound-modelling software that allows the user to experience an acoustic simulation of the designed environment. With a tap of his cane or a click of his fingers, Downey can distinguish between Brazilian hardwood and slatted hemlock on the stairs and walls, and the merits of using either.

“It’s all [meant] to be an empowering space for those without sight but also one that’s positive for their caregivers, their family, their loved ones that come there with them, and it’s all about building a community of people sharing together, learning from each other, of one blind person learning from somebody else who’s then experiencing sight loss for a long time, or families learning from each other about that,” says Downey, scarcely pausing for breath.

Certainly, Downey’s work on the LightHouse is one of a series of projects catering to the visually impaired. Does he feel confined by his work in this accessibility niche? “It’s something that I grapple with and, in my case, I’m convinced that I’m a better architect now, without sight, than I was with sight,” replies Downey. He sees no reason why the tools he uses to design should be limited to imagining projects for the blind. “The rub against all that is that there’s a competitive environment of business, of where I can bring value, where I can compete,” he goes on. “The process I go through, it necessarily takes a bit more time and effort. For the people that I work with, there’s not a lot of workaround that has to happen, but there’s some.”

That remains, nevertheless, a prospect that terrifies architects in the process of losing their sight. Downey can barely conceive of the number that drop out of the profession for having gone blind, and indeed for many years the San Franciscan thought he may very well be the only one still practising, until he was introduced to the Portuguese architect Carlos Mourão Pereira by a research organisation. The two finally met in 2009; Downey called their rendezvous in a New York City coffee shop “the first-ever International Blind Architects Conference”, and, since then, he has been contacted by nearly a dozen other architects struggling with sight problems, ranging from “low vision conditions to total sight loss”.

One of the most recent of these conversations has been with an architect in the UK. She’d been encouraged by hearing about Downey’s recent success, having already endured several surgeries and procedures in a bid to fully restore her own sight. That prospect, however, effectively paused her career. “In many ways, she’s sort of delaying her return to life,” he says. “And that’s a hard thing to do, and it’s a hard thing for the medical profession to accept.”

Downey thinks back to the advice he received from his surgeon: not to go “tilting at windmills”, to focus on his work, his family, his life. Perhaps he might have his vision restored, one day. Spending his life in anticipation of that moment, though, was no life at all. And by not moving forward, Downey would have deprived himself, and many others, the opportunity to prove his salient point: that architecture is at its best when it remains inclusive to all.

1–3. The 45,000ft² LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Mid-Market, San Francisco, was built using every conceivable aid to help blind people not only navigate but also experience the building and its environment.
The Moore sculpture at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, designed by Louis Kahn even as his eyesight was beginning to fail.
The staircase at the LightHouse, which links three floors, allows users to identify which floor they are on and whether anyone else is approaching.

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