|Fauzia Khanani of Studio Fōr
My formal education in architecture began the year before I attended graduate school when I decided to enroll in a pre-Architecture program at Parsons School of Design in New York City. I had previously applied to a masters’ programs but was not accepted, so I decided to enroll in this program as a last-ditch effort to assemble a more robust and acceptable portfolio.
The plan worked and I was accepted to almost all of the schools to which I applied including my top pick, UC Berkeley. So my traditional education in architecture continued for the next three years. While I learned much from the curriculum, one thing that had a lasting effect on me was my peer group.
Many of us in the three-year program were there because our previous degrees were in fields other than architecture and we basically enrolled in a crash course. Studio discussions and reviews were engaging due to the project interpretation of a peer who came from an engineering background versus someone who had previously been a children’s television show illustrator. Our previous educations and careers influenced our new endeavor in ways I don’t think we initially perceived. It was near the end of my time at Berkeley when I realized my architecture education had begun well before grad school.
During the summer prior to my senior year of undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (I was a sociology major with a focus in public health), I landed a part-time job in the School of Dentistry. I was to work on a public health research project funded by the Centers for Disease Control. It was a national recruitment study for the HIV/AIDS vaccine trials specifically focusing on high HIV/AIDS at-risk groups: gay men in San Francisco, IV drug users in Philadelphia, and African Americans in Durham, N.C.—our site and my hometown. The study staff at each location was to interview members of each designated community to understand if people might be willing to take part in the future vaccine trials.
There was a high level of mistrust towards the medical community in all of the groups and the project attempted to see if it was possible to overcome these hurdles with hopes of ultimately finding a cure for the epidemic.
We were staffed with people from more walks of life than I could wrap my head around—medical doctors, dentists, epidemiologists, anthropologists, sociologists, whites, blacks, Christians, Muslims, Jews, women, men, straight, and gay. It was an amazing assortment of people from whom I learned so much while also gleaning just as much, if not more, from the community members we interviewed.
I gained an understanding that a person of color might feel more comfortable and be franker when speaking with another person of color because there is something in common, in this case, race and even religion. Or when an African American woman would feel more at ease talking to me, a woman not of her race, about her medical experiences versus a man of her own race. I’m sure some of you are saying “duh” but to have actually experienced it is so eye-opening. It was overwhelming as a 21-year-old, but I grasped so many insights about people during those two years and it has all stayed with me.
Fast forward to now: I’m fully immersed in the world of architecture and the notion of diversity and inclusion is (or I’d like to think) a well-known topic. There is a buzz about the need for more woman and minority representation in our field and I believe it’s slowly moving toward this goal.
For example, I’m an immigrant woman of color who owns and runs an architecture studio. So, I do think those of us who feel strongly about diversity need to keep pushing. Like the public health study that I worked on so long ago, providing multiple perspectives in our process and the ability to connect with users of our environments can only make our work better and more informed. On the same token, I do feel just as strongly that we need to diversify our practices by incorporating experts from other disciplines in our work as well.
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Spending time and energy on pre-design research will help us to really understand our clients on a deeper level. As architecture and design practitioners, this may not be an inherent skill set we possess, so why not involve those who have it? Maybe something along the lines of the “A-Team” for architectural practice? It could include architects, planners, landscape architects, cultural anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, geographers, historians—the list could go. Imagine a process with outside experts who could help us glean information we need (and might overlook) before we start design and then keeping them engaged through a project alongside our clients.
A little more than two years ago, the Social Science and Architecture Committee (SSAC) was established at the AIANY Center for Architecture. It was as if my multiple worlds had finally come together and there were other people who saw the value in working with both social scientists and architects.
During introductions at the first official meeting, I half-jokingly told the group that I had been waiting for this committee my whole academic life. I’m sure they all thought I was crazy or at least a little over the top but that’s how I felt and I still feel just as strongly. Our committee’s monthly discussions and events have only confirmed that we need diversity in our practice, including between disciplines. It has encouraged us as a group to think about how we can start to change the process of architecture.
We’ve explored topics such as the education of the architect and how we influence curricula or how we might convince clients that it’s a good idea to hire a social scientist to be part of a design team. While we don’t have any definitive answers just yet, I feel we’re on the right path.
With that, I’ll say yes, I’m still pushing hard for inclusivity in our industry from a gender, race, culture, and religious perspective. At the same time, I hope my colleagues and I are also paving the way to incorporate expertise from other disciplines into our practice and process.
Fuazia Khanani is principal of Studio Fōr, founded in 2011 in New York City.
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