99% Sound and Feel

Roman: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

Chris Downey: Beethoven continued to write music and wrote some of his best music after he lost his hearing. So, he couldn’t hear his music at all. He could only hear the construction in his mind. And as architects, we have all sorts of different ways of experiencing architecture, both in it’s built form and it’s creation. Through tactile drawings and models, besides our own mental constructions.

RM: So, Chris Downey asks me what’s more preposterous? Composing music you can’t hear, or designing architecture you can’t see?

CD: My name is Chris Downey I’m an architect.

Roman: And in case, he hasn’t guessed it yet, he is a blind architect. Chris Downey lost his sight about three years ago after being an architect for nearly two decades.

CD: Clearly there wasn’t any book out there on how to be a blind architect, so really the best thing to do is just to get out there and try. So, once I did that, I quickly realized that there are ways to perceive and understand drawings and design both in two-dimensional form and in three-dimensional form, and there any number of ways to react to it and advance and create it, just like anybody else.

RM: The only thing he couldn’t do ultimately was translate the physical models that he can make by hand into data that he can input into a computer design program. But hey, that’s not all bad.

CD: Quite, frankly it’s kinda nice to have an excuse not to have to be the production guy and get past that, and focus on where I really deliver value. It started falling together pretty well after that.

RM: The key is finding the right tools. In this case, computers that talk really fast.

[computer speaking sound]

CD: So that’s the final on a print. Okay.

[computer speaking sound]

RM: So I can’t understand anything right.

CD: I can slow it down.

[computer speaking sound]

CD: That might be an easier rate to hear it. If you had to listen to that all day long, that’s how fast the ATM machines are. When you go and listen to those, to have your non-visual access to it, and it takes so long to get to what you need to do. You got to be faster. So you learn to like, speed listen.

[computer speaking sound]

RM: Another key tool is an embossing printer that makes a raised braille dot version of the architectural plans that he’s working on. Unlike a sighted architect that can get a bird’s eye view of an architectural plan, when Downey runs his fingers over the embossed printed page, he experiences the plan more like an actual person traveling through the building would. As a sequence of vignettes.

CD: When you do that, then you have a better chance of really putting yourself in that space, and thinking about everything that’s happening when you moved through there. The typical sensory experience of the environment around us, 80% of it is visual.

RM: When your brain isn’t overloaded with the visual information, the other 20% becomes a lot more important and this allows for a new appreciation for certain buildings. Like for example, a much hated old San Francisco bus terminal.

CD: The Transbay Terminal is coming down, and that old space that was there it was not a particularly delightful place. Visually it was a horrific place. The olfactory experience was pretty miserable too.

RM: It tended to smell like urine.

CD: But I was lucky enough to have lost my sight and my smell. So, it didn’t look bad, and it didn’t smell bad. And there are a lot of thiese long ramps and inclined plains that if you’re blind, are great. Because all of a sudden you get directionality out of gravity. Regardless of whichever way you’re going. If you’re going up or down. If you’re going uphill, you can get a strong sense of going straight uphill as supposed to sort of going off on an angle and coming downhill. You just make like, a drop of water and just fall to gravity. So, those were actually kind of fun spaces.

RM: So if you ever wonder what would it take to love the old Transbay Terminal, being blind and having no sense of smell seems to do the trick.

CD: Something I often talked about is sort of the touch of the building where you actually reach out and grab the building. Whether it’s a door handle, or railing, or place to lean against, or a place to sit down. If those places offer the warmth of a comfortable touch, something that acknowledges the presence of the body besides the agenda of the eyes. You know, how can you think the material or the form in a way that it gives you that penshake. Just like you give somebody a handshake. There’s a lot that’s communicated through a handshake. And so what’s the handshake of the building? What are you saying on that handshake?

RM: Find more about Chris Downey at 99percentinvisible.org.

RM: 99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars plus support from Lunar it’s a project of KALW, the American Institute of Architect San Francisco and the Center for Architecture and Design.

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