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Addressing the miscellany of obstacles that thwart inclusive design, with Chris Downey

At the recently concluded UIA World Congress of Architects, STIR spoke with the architect to understand spatial issues that restrict a large populace from performing diurnal duties.

by Almas SadiquePublished on : Aug 04, 2023

What is it about our sporadic visits to unadulterated natural habitats that pacify us? Why do visits to beaches and mountains refresh us? And how do the rustle of leaves, whispers of the seas and oceans, and hums of nightly creatures hush our worries while also managing to beckon an imaginative odyssey?

Our man-made edifices, whether expansively built or intricately decorated, rarely evoke the same emotions that one experiences while in the midst of nature. Humans—hegemonical creatures as we are—have managed to adorn a large expanse of Earth with constructions that appease those who can perceive their surroundings with all senses. These structures that bolster upward, aiming to touch the sky, or present an illusion of spreading out limitlessly, typically miss the divine elements—of care, of inclusivity, and of solicitude—that shape our natural terrains. In them, one can taste the briskness of chilly unhindered winds, the echoes of thunders adrift on far-off lands, and the reverberations unfolding from slight disturbances. Our urban lands, on the other hand, mute the meaningful with hounds of the unnecessary, hide the worthwhile under glares of the ostentatious, restrict the rumbles of nature with artificially cleavaged landmasses, and make strangers out of mortals that are in want of certain senses that have been unequivocally declared requisite for a fulfilled experience and a content life.

Against this overarching narrative that tends to pigeonhole individuals—who are either born with mild to major paucities in their visual, aural, oral, or other faculties or develop them over the years—an architect decided to go against the drift and commandeer a life that can become a better fit for him, as opposed to adapting himself in lieu with the available provisions. US-based Chris Downey, upon losing his sight in 2008—after undergoing surgery for the removal of brain tumour—was immediately advised to shift careers. However, the American architect, 45 at that time, had spent a major portion of his life working towards building a career in architecture. Taking this newfound consternation as both a challenge and an opportunity, Downey carried on with his practice as an architectural consultant in San Francisco, albeit with the refocused intention of building spaces that are more inclusive.

Later, he founded Architecture for the Blind, a practice exclusively oriented to designing structures better suited to those with disabilities. Architecture for the Blind has, so far, worked on these projects: Co-location campus for the Indiana School for the Deaf + Indiana School for the Blind; UPMC Mercy Pavilion; LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired; Salesforce Transit Center; Sustainability Pavilion; University of California, Davis Medical Center Tschannen Eye Institute; and Washington State School for the Blind, Life Skills Training Center. Downey’s most recent project, the Co-location campus for the Indiana School for the Deaf + Indiana School for the Blind, is one that he is building in collaboration with an architect who is deaf. The school will cater to deaf and blind children and youth up to the age of 21. It will also accommodate children with other disabilities.

Downey was recently invited to UIA World Congress of Architects 2023—redolently themed ‘Leave No One Behind’—to deliver a keynote dialogue that aimed to guide architects towards thinking of and attempting to build in response to the manifold challenges that arise when one attempts to construct a space more inclusive. As part of the event, Inclusivity - A Challenge for Architects and The Built Environment, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Downey relayed his experiences and enumerated some new learnings in his journey, onward from the incident that changed his life 15 years ago.

Chris Downey delivering the keynote address for the event ‘Inclusivity - A Challenge for Architects and The Built Environment’ | UIA World Congress of Architects | STIRworld
Chris Downey delivering the keynote address for the event ‘Inclusivity - A Challenge for Architects and The Built Environment’ Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects

The session was moderated by Connie Hedegaard, Master of Ceremonies. The invitation note to the event read thus: “Step-free access and wheelchair ramps are important but far from enough to ensure a truly inclusive built environment. Different types of disability as well as cultural, racial, and socio-economic differences all contribute to making inclusivity a tough nut to crack when developing cities and communities. How should architects think about and respond to the manifold challenges of inclusivity?”

At the event, Downey delineated the many challenges that he encountered while learning to perform normal activities again after he was declared blind—from learning how to navigate his movement around his house to figuring out basic locomotion skills in public spaces, in non-visual ways. “One of the most interesting things going through this process for me was called Orientation and Mobility Training, and that’s learning to get around effectively in the environment with the use of a cane. So, you are finding things with a cane for your safety, but you are also using it to interrogate the world around you, the environment around you. This kept me in touch with the environment, whether it was things underneath my feet, or sounds I could hear as a response to tapping of the cane. All sorts of things could be discovered in interrogating the world through a cane,” Downey explained.

Being out in the city, made me realise that I’m out here doing the same thing, I’m the same person, I have the same passions, the same hope, the same desires, all that was the same, but my place in the city was very different now. – Chris Downey

The architect talked about new aspects of the urban landscape that he discovered when navigating the city again, with a cane. “In walking through buildings and cities that I knew visually, discovering the same places now without sight and learning how much of the city I had missed by not listening to it, by not feeling it under my shoes, by not being aware of others around me, and just having a casual glance and going on about my work, my day. It was really interesting after being out in the city for a good bit of time, it made me realise that I’m out here doing the same thing, I’m the same person, I have the same passions, the same hope, the same desires, all that was the same, but my place in the city was very different. My engagement with the city was different, and my engagement with the people around me was different,” Downey narrated.

Chris Downey, Jesica Amescua Carrera and Mariana Ordóñez Grajales, with Connie Hedegaard moderating the talk | UIA World Congress of Architects | STIRworld
Chris Downey, Jesica Amescua Carrera and Mariana Ordóñez Grajales, with Connie Hedegaard moderating the talk Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects

Downey’s experiences in the city, now more profound than before, brought him closer to all kinds of people. He calls these vigorous interactions with the city and its people an “extremely empathetic experiment.” Talking about the learnings gained from these experiences, Downey shared some “Outsights” with the audience, which were essentially his inferences gained from moments experienced without sight. Some of these include understanding and building architecture beyond sight or beyond what the eye can perceive, and comprehending the fact that people with disabilities are handicapped only when a barrier is placed in front of them.

Downey further delved into some projects that he has worked on along with other architects. One of these includes the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, California, a rehabilitation training center for people experiencing sight loss as well as a community space for people whose families and friends have experienced sight loss, built in collaboration with Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects and Arup Engineers.

In order to inform people about the placement of the staircase in the structure, the treads and risers were built in wood, so that one can hear footfalls and cane tabs easily. Additionally, the concrete flooring in the structure facilitates the progression of the sound of footsteps and cane tabs with ease. Other acoustic treatments in the building that make it comfortable for blind visitors to navigate the space include micro-perforations in the walls, acoustic batt insulation above wood slat ceilings, and carpeting and upholstery in some areas.

How do you share delight in architecture with people who can’t see it? – Chris Downey

Downey delineated the importance of tactile features in administering emotions in architectural structures. Something as simple as a handrail is a feature that will be touched, “it’s like a handshake of the building saying welcome,” he exclaims. Bringing up the multifold challenges in designing for the blind, Downey shares, “I have absolutely no sight, no light perception, and I thought that was blindness. Turns out, that’s only six to eight per cent of the blind experience. Most have some light perception and might be able to see the form and shadow movement. For those with low vision conditions, the visual environment that we design for them becomes very critical. In the stairs we designed for the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, without the stainless steel nosing strips, someone looking at the staircase with a low vision condition would likely see that as a solid block of wood, with no idea of where the stair nosing is. It could easily lead to accidents.” Downey further went on to chart out specifications for wayfinding signages.

Citing group rowing as a sport that engages the players multisensorially, and hence, manages to convey enough information to each participant without the benefit of sight, Downey urged architects to “design those multi-sensory environments that of inclusive of everyone, that doesn’t depend on sight, on hearing or on the ability to walk, you can do it however you need to and the environment is there to support that.”

  • Jesica Amescua Carrera at the event | UIA World Congress of Architects | STIRworld
    Jesica Amescua Carrera at the event Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects
  • Mariana Ordóñez Grajales during UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 | UIA World Congress of Architects | STIRworld
    Mariana Ordóñez Grajales during UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects

The event proceeded with a presentation by Jesica Amescua Carrera and Mariana Ordóñez Grajales, architects and founders of the multidisciplinary studio Comunal, which comprises a 'collaborative team composed of women who, since 2017, work as facilitators and mediators who accompany organised groups, collectives, and inhabitants integrally in the defense, management and self-production of their habitat.’ The architects talked about the importance of collaborative practices and the need to design interventions that are informed by ancient knowledge systems.

Towards the end of the event, Chris Downey, Jesica Amescua Carrera, and Mariana Ordóñez Grajales sat down for a discussion, with Connie Hedegaard moderating the talk. Talking about the main obstacle in designing inclusive spaces, Downey shared, “There’s not one way of doing things. Instead of depending on government bodies to administer change, maybe we can approach our issues with less sympathy and more empathy, with the intent to empower and form allies in order to enable possibilities locally rather than wait for state regulations to bring change.”

It’s important to think about people who live unlike you. – Chris Downey

The event concluded with Downey requesting educators, architects, and design practitioners to invite people from diverse arenas into their workplaces, in order to develop a holistic world. “The less diverse, the less rich the conversation,” Downey said in closing.

Amit Gupta, Founder and Editor-In-Chief, STIR, and Samta Nadeem, Curatorial Director, STIR, nudged Downey with another round of questions, post the event, pertaining to his view on certain vocabulary that is often deemed ableist, some spaces that have managed to stimulate all his senses, and the amenities that he reckons are necessary for a sensorially rich city to manifest. Click on the banner video to view the conversation.

The UIA World Congress 2023 programme featured talks, panel discussions and presentations by influential and innovative creative practices. STIR as an official Media Partner, brings you the highlights of the congress through a series of interviews, visits and conversations.

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