Newsletter | Jul/Aug 2022

A different kind of inspiration

by Sandhya Sood

As architects, if we were to categorize those people that we collectively serve, based on cultural, socio-economical, physical or racial attributes, they would likely fall into the broad category of “mainstream”. With so much upheaval in our world today, we often try to hold on to the course of our careers rather than rock the boat while taking on a different kind of challenge. Such as designing for people that appear different from us or those that exist, metaphorically, on the periphery of society, inhabiting the urban edge, far away from vibrant public spaces. The poor, disabled, refugees, women finding their voice, immigrants, disadvantaged people of color and many such “other” that can only dream about inclusive and equitable cities. While the discourse on how to address this injustice has been triggered in many industries, it behooves us as architects and design professionals to embrace and seek opportunities that level the playing field, so to speak.

My Aunt’s disability from polio seemed to inspire me as a student of architecture in India. I designed a piece of furniture for our shared room; seats that brought guests to her eyelevel with storage accessible from the floor as she walked on her four limbs, dragging her right foot with her right hand. I was filled with so much empathy that this human emotion led me to figure out design solutions to ease her movement. A few years later, a poor man asked me to design a house for his growing family in a neighboring village since he could not afford to live in my city of privilege -Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh. I knew that climate responsive design based on principles of vernacular architecture could lead me to an appropriate built form. Considering the high cost of electricity, a simple design of a courtyard dwelling to mitigate tropical heat while infusing daylight in winter, incorporated a shaded verandah for his playful children.

In the late 1990’s I immigrated to the US to pursue a Master of Architecture degree at the College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley. The academically rich program was not particularly directed at teaching design concerning the poor or disabled, although social and cultural factors were evaluated through seminars. Perhaps this was a pedagogical gap in most design schools at the time, although it is being addressed with course offerings on global poverty and designing for justice. Regardless, as creative and experienced thinkers we have many design tools to bridge this apparent paucity. We can hone our skills further to positively impact communities that would benefit from our vision, compassion and power to influence stake holders and impact the built environment. Once the “other” is seen as deserving of delightful design, inspiration could expand our mind to think of sustainable solutions that cater to all people. In my architecture practice, Accent Architecture+Design at Berkeley, I am working towards broadening my client base while diversifying project types, including some pro bono work.

Westerbeke Ranch is such an invigorating place for our annual retreat. Watching the sunlight dance on the pool’s rippling blue water, ruffled by the lazy air settling on the lush garden is mesmerizing. The sumptuous food satiates our bellies and the vibrant conversation tickles our brain cells. While we might seek inspiration from this breathtaking setting, all we need is a catalyst to precipitate that human endeavor which lies very much within each of us.

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