Blind People Don’t Need Your Help—They Need Better Design
San Francisco Magazine
By Joanne Furio
18 February 2016
Chris Downey (M.Arch '92) is working with Mark Cavagnero (M. Arch '83) to design the new headquarters for the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the oldest and largest agency in Northern California providing training, information, and advocacy for blind and visually impaired people. LightHouse's West Coast Center for Excellence will be the first building of its kind, designed for the blind by the blind and fully operable by the blind.
The project, two years in the making, is the outcome of a unique partnership between Mark Cavagnero and Chris Downey, who became blind at age 45. Both were easy choices: Downey is a noted architect whose blindness gives him indispensable insight into this project, and Cavagnero’s many award-winning projects include the acclaimed SFJazz Center, with its superb acoustics, and the new Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera.
The heart of the project lies in its attention to things that sighted people might not even notice but that are crucial to the LightHouse’s blind clientele, like building materials that acoustically resonate in exactly the right way. Downey says that it was only after he lost his sight that he realized how limited his architectural training was. “It’s not just about how it’s seen through the eyes, but how it’s seen through touch and hearing and all these other experiences,” he says. “Architecture should aspire to more than accessibility, especially in the case of the blind. What is delight and beauty if you can’t see it? What makes for that enriching, beautiful experience if you’re going to experience it with something other than sight? For the blind, of course, that is sound.”