Ten years later, an architect still designs after becoming blind.

At age 45, Chris Downey had pretty much constructed the life he’d always wanted. An architect with a good job at a small housing firm outside San Francisco, he was happily married, with a 10-year-old son. After being an avid cyclist and assistant coach in little league, doctors found a brain tumor. Downey lost his sight after he had surgery.

As we first reported in early 2019, what he has done in the decade and a half since losing his sight — as a person, and as an architect — can only be described as a different kind of vision.

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Chris Downey with correspondent Lesley Stahl

Several mornings a week, as the sun rises over the Oakland estuary in California, an amateur rowing team works the water. It is difficult to distinguish which of the blind rowers are working on the water. Chris Downey believes that this is fine.

Chris Downey – It is really thrilling to participate in an sport that doesn’t look in one’s direction. This is how you look in the boat, and it’s going this direction. Okay, even-steven. (LAUGH )

But it’s not quite even-steven at this design meeting where Downey collaborates with sighted architects to build a hospital. He hasn’t let it stop him.

Lesley Stahl – You are in a job that requires you to be able to read, read and draw. You may have thought, “That’s impossible?” “

Chris Downey: No. I didn’t think

Lesley Stahl. You have never considered the term “insurmountable”– and you don’t even know what it is. “

Chris Downey : Many people (LAUGH!) would agree with you that being an architect is the most difficult thing. It’s impossible to imagine anything worse. However, I soon realized that the creative process was an intellectual one. This is how you think. I needed to find new tools.

New tools? Downey discovered a printer capable of embossing architectural drawings, so he could touch and read them.

Chris Downey : On the computer, they look just like regular prints or normal drawings. They just appear in tactile form.

Lesley Stahl : It’s almost like Braille.

Chris Downey: Right.

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And he came up with a way to “sketch” his ideas onto the plans using a simple children’s toy — malleable wax sticks that he shapes to show his modifications to others. He says that something unexpected happened. He could no longer see buildings and spaces, but he began hearing them.

Chris Downey – The sounds and textures. The canopy above the head changes how it sounds.

Lesley Stahl : Can you feel that we are under a canopy of trees?

Chris Downey: Yes. The sound from the tip is all that matters.

Chris Downey – I was amazed to see buildings I had sighted. They were different to me. The architecture was what I heard, but the feeling of the space was something I felt.

Lesley Stahl : You almost enjoyed, in some way, being an architect blind.

Chris Downey : I felt like a child again. It’s a relearning of so many aspects of architecture. The problem was not about architecture. It was what– about architecture. Chris downey is upbeat, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a victim of some terrifying experiences and struggles. He and his wife Rosa were living in this same home with their son Renzo, then 10, when Downey first noticed a problem while playing catch with Renzo. It kept getting in and out. It was a tumor located near the optic nerve that caused it. The surgery to remove the tumor took nine hours. According to him, his surgeon warned of a possible risk of complete sight loss. However, he had never experienced it.

Rosa Downey was able see when he came out from surgery.

But then, things began to go wrong. His vision was reduced to half the next day. Then

Chris Downey : It was gone the next morning. It was black.

Lesley Stahl : Total darkness. You can see nothing, no light.

Chris Downey says there isn’t any light.

Lesley Stahl states that it could be anything.

Chris Downey: It’s dark. It is all dark.

After days of panicking testing, a surgeon declared that it was irreversible. Irreversible. I sent it to a social worker.

Chris Downey says: “Oh, and from your chart, I see that you’re-you’re an architect. So we can discuss career options. “

Lesley Stahl: Career alternatives, right away?

Chris Downey: I hadn’t been told I was officially blind for 24 hours– and–

Lesley Stahl: And she’s saying you can’t be an architect anymore–

Chris Downey: Yeah, and she was saying we could talk about career– alternatives. These walls felt as though they were building up around me. It was like being “boxed in.”

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Chris with his wife, Rosa, and son, Renzo

Alone that night in his room, Downey did some serious thinking. His son and his father. Downey had lost his dad to complications from surgery at the age of seven.

Chris Downey : It was easy to see the wonder and the pure joy that I’m still here. “

Lesley Stahl : Was it joy?

Chris Downey : It was like “I’m still with my family.” My son is still with his father. “

Lesley Stahl : Your eyes are already tearing up. That’s what you know.

Chris Downey : Sorry (laugh). It’s always difficult for me to talk through this.

He was aware that Renzo would be impressed by how he dealt with this.

Chris Downey – I was talking to him about how important it is for people to apply themselves. It’s at this age that you have to really work for something. This is the great challenge that I find myself facing.

He was motivated to lead by example and returned to work just one month later.

Bryan Bashin – This is what Chris found most beneficial.

Bryan Bashin, executive director at the San Francisco non-profit LightHouse for the Blind & Visually Impaired is blind.

Bryan Bashin: He waited a few days until the stitches were out of his skull, and 30 days after brain surgery, he was back in the office thinking, “Okay, there’s got to be a way to figure this out. It’s something I will do. “

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Bryan Bashin with correspondent Lesley Stahl

Bashin’s organization, the LightHouse, helps people new to vision loss learn how to figure things out.

Bryan Bashin: When someone becomes blind, the odds are 99 percent they’ve never met another blind person.

Lesley Stahl :

Bryan Bashin : Yes, it is. These role models are essential for blind people. They can show them how to become legally blind, what it takes to keep a job and how they can live independently.

Specifically, how to work in the kitchen, safely. Public transportation: How to use it. Screen reading software can be used to read emails faster than the rest.

Lesley Stahl

Chris: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: No!

And, most importantly, how to travel alone around the globe. Downey found out that information at LightHouse.

Lesley Stahl – Was it scary to cross a street like this alone?

Chris Downey said: It was absolutely terrifying.

Lesley Stahl : Yes, I can. It is possible to imagine everything.

Chris Downey – I can still remember the day I stepped off the curb, and you might have believed I was entering raging waters. You can take a deep breathe and keep going. It’s not easy.

Within a matter of months, he was able to travel the streets alone and return to his normal life with his son.

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Chris Downey: The first Father’s Day came up, Rosa was like, “So, what do you wanna do? Are you looking to go for a picnic or a good lunch? I want to play baseball.” (LAUGHTER) “with Renzo.” Renzo looked like he was bursting out of his chair. He could jump from his chair to my liking. “Baseball, you wanna play baseball?” (LAUGHTER)

Renzo Downey: So Dad would throw to me. Then I would play as if I were playing first base.

Lesley Stahl : He could throw the ball to me.

Renzo downey: He’d call out “I’m here.” He’d then point and I would respond, “Yeah that’s correct.” Then he would throw it at my face.

Chris Downey : This is something that I loved so much about our relationship. He was quickly looking for new possibilities. He was not saying “You cannot do that.” He said, “You can’t do that.”

Downey appears to be able to find windows even when they are closed. Nine months after becoming blind, the recession struck and Downey lost his job. He was informed by a local firm that they were designing a rehabilitation facility for vets with sight loss. The couple was eager to meet with a blind architect. How likely are they to meet a blind architect?

Lesley Stahl – You had to believe God sent you down.

Chris Downey – It turned my disability upside down. It was able to provide unique and unusual value, which virtually no one else could offer.

Lesley Stahl: Nobody.

Chris Downey: Yeah.

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Starting with that job, Downey developed a specialty, making spaces accessible to the blind. After designing a new Duke University Hospital eye center, Downey consulted for Microsoft and was asked to assist the visually impaired in finding their way through San Francisco’s four-block long Salesforce Transit Center. We visited it during construction.

Chris Downey: If you’re blind, you don’t drive. Right? (CHUCKLE). They hate it when they drive. We are committed transit users, so– (LAUGH). The question then was “How do you navigate such a large facility if you are blind?”

His solution was to create grooves in the concrete that run the length of the platform.

Chris Downey would simply follow these grooves. With a subtle transition from smooth concrete to textured concrete, to indicate where to go to reach the elevators.

Chris Downey : I’d love to try it.

Lesley Stahl: Okay. This line tells me to keep going straight. It’s like I am feeling–(SCRAPING). Oh my. Oh my. It’s quite obvious.

Chris Downey – I can clearly hear the difference.

It’s something that sighted people may not notice, and that’s exactly the point. Downey advocates universal design, which is able to accommodate people with disabilities while still being appealing to those without. This is the same approach that he took to his largest project, which was the renovation of an office space on three floors for the LightHouse for the Blind.

“I’m absolutely convinced I’m a better architect today than I was sighted. “

Bryan Bashin: Coming into blindness need not be some dreary social service experience, but rather, more like coming into an Apple store — thinking that there might be something fun around the corner. One of Downey’s original ideas was to link all three floors by creating an internal staircase so that the blind and the sighted can both see.

Bryan Bashin: In blindness, it’s so wonderful to be on the 9th floor and hear a burst of laughter up on the 11th floor, or to hear somebody playing the piano on the tenth floor. Downey used polished concrete for the halls. Due to the acoustics.

Bryan Bashin – I hear the tap or click of someone’s cane.

Lesley Stahl: The click of a g– (LAUGH)

Bryan Bashin: Yeah.

Lesley Stahl: — dog’s toenails?

Bryan Bashin: Yeah.

Lesley Stahl : Is that good?

Bryan Bashin: That’s great. You can almost feel like you are seeing someone coming down the hallway. The way people use the cane and the type of walking they do here is what I recognize as the sounds of the individual workers.

Lesley Stahl : How they use their cane can tell the difference between individuals.

Bryan Bashin: Absolutely.

Lesley Stahl – If Chris hadn’t been working on the building, an architect blind would–

Bryan Bashin : The colors would have been less rich and subtle.

Last spring marked the 10-year anniversary of Downey losing his sight. What did Downey do to celebrate his one-year anniversary of losing his sight? He hosted a party. He hosted a fundraiser at the LightHouse, where he was student, president and architect.

Chris making toast at party: Maybe a slightly bizarre thing, celebrating my 10 year blind birthday (LAUGHTER), but when you’re 55 and you have a chance to be 10 again, you take it. Lesley Stahl : It seems like you think that you are a better architect than you were sighted.

Chris Downey : I am certain that I am a better architect than what I saw when I was sighted.

Lesley Stahl – If you were able to see tomorrow would you want to be able feel the design?

Chris Downey : I would like to see my vision back. (SIGH). I’m not sure. It would make me feel like I was losing what I have been doing. My sight is not something I really consider. It’s possible to do it with some logistical freedom. It will make my life easier. It won’t, I’m not sure.

Chris Downey has a successful architecture practice. He continues to design campuses and museums for the visually impaired and blind. He still rows, and he taught a graduate course in architecture at UC Berkeley this semester.

Produced by Shari Finkelstein and Jaime Woods.

Lesley Stahl


Lesley Stahl

One of America’s most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.

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