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Danish Kurani: Creating Transformative Physical Spaces for Learning and Human Flourishing


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Video Recording (Jul 18, 2020)

Nuggets From Danish Kurani's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Danish Kurani.

Can architecture be life-changing? Architect Danish Kurani has demonstrated that it can. Recent decades have seen advances in pedagogical methods, but the shape of our learning spaces remains largely unchanged since the 1950’s. Think: rooms filled with desks in rows all facing front, an environment stifling innovation and creativity. Seeking a remedy, Kurani links architecture with student-centered learning. His innovative designs help schools empower students and teachers in the learning process, thus helping communities prosper. His most recent 2020 project is Riverbend, a boarding school near Chennai, India, where the design of the campus is based on studies about what makes people the happiest. The answer is relationships, thus the design leads students of all ages to cross paths. Kurani's other recent projects support underprivileged kids in Brooklyn and elsewhere.

Moderator Negin Khorasani has a degree in architecture herself, and it was lovely to experience the exchange between the two. Danish's perspectives repeatedly shattered traditional conceptions of the field, blurred boundaries between disciplines, dismantled societal barriers and beautifully highlighted that intersection where our inner and outer worlds meet.

Here is a glimpse of the early part of the conversation:

Formative experiences?

I lived in three different countries before I was 3, and in 8-10 different places by the time I graduated high school. I became adept at navigating different types of environments — I think you become more sensitive to something when it’s constantly changing and affecting your life. I grew up in a Muslim community steeped in the ethic of service— that played a shaping role as well.

I was naturally inclined to building things — whether it was with Lego, or building robots out of cardboard boxes from my parents dry cleaning business. At age 12 or 13 we had a mock trial at an actual courthouse and I believe I was prosecutor but I can’t really remember because I was lost in the design of the courthouse. That age is when it really clicked that what I was interested in had a name, and was called architecture.

Your mission in architecture?

I believe deeply in the power of architecture to influence our lives. I believe I could alter your family dynamic or your relationship with your partner just by changing the architecture of your home. Changing the shape of your dining table, or the design of your shower curtain — these things can change our dynamics. If you understand the power of architecture, why not use that power for good? To improve education, health and well being, and even things like food security and water security.

A lot of emissions come out of the building process — for instance even shipping materials from around them world to build buildings — like stones quarried in Italy being shipped to LA —it makes no sense. As architects we are part of these problems, but we’re rarely at the table when global leaders are making decisions on the big scale issues. So for me it’s all about making sure that we are— and to do that, as architects we have to drop the obsession with aesthetics and making things cool, and think instead about the social, ecological and political ramifications of what we do.

Architecture started around shelter and agriculture — a roof over your head, a fence around your livestock — it was started to meet basic needs. And yet somehow we have 8 billion people whose needs are not met. We are building useless or redundant things instead of trying to meet the needs of the 8 billion.

How can architecture pave the way for a kinder more sustainable world?

Sustainability is a big problem— it’s probably because of the industrial revolution that we have gotten into this mass production, mass consumption cycle. I heard a statistic recently that was staggering—the fashion industry made 150 billion garments last year and 55% of those are in landfills already. Think about the extraordinary waste! These days if your toaster breaks you don’t try to repair it you go on Amazon and buy another one. Look at Cuba — they’ve been somewhat isolated from the rest of the word for decades so import export wasn’t happening --they have cars that are decades old that are still working. It’s part of their culture to not trash things. We have to put ego aside. It’s not about starting from scratch — if the bones of a building are good then use them. A lot of my work is renovation — I’ve taken an old industrial warehouse and turned it into a rehab center. We don’t have to waste all the energy and material resources to build new every time.

What does architecture that’s not focused exclusively on the visual aspect offer?

For us aesthetics is just there to be in service of function. What comes first-- form or function is a long debate and I think too much of the industry is focused on form, but function is where we can serve society. A lot of architects focus on what we build. I focus a lot on the why. It’s not building for the sake of building. You are potentially adding to waste and draining resources—when you ask the question, “Why am I building this?” it forces you to think deeper.

Say you’re asked to build a prison — a lot of architects will say, "sSre how much can you pay and when can we start?" For me it’s like, "Well do I believe in that system?" We often get so obsessed with the craft — but so what if you do build a beautiful prison? If you don’t believe in what prisons do and think rehab centers are a better option then you would never build that prison because you’re thinking about — what am I actually putting out into the world?
Hearing you refer to architecture as art is interesting — I think of architecture as a very small percentage art but it’s mostly science and anthropology and sociology— I think really you have to build what you believe in because everything we build we’re imbuing it with societal values.

School design was originally conceptualized by a society that valued obedient workers who could be part of the industrial revolution-- and that’s clear when you look at school buildings. You can look at a culture that believed in certain sacrifices and celebrations —they have sacred buildings built in a particular way-- they are saying, “This is how we want to live — and so we built this” So now, let's think about how we want to live and then let’s build that.
Architects actually get the joy and the responsibility of turning that aspiration into concrete tangible realities. You have to build only what you believe in.

Why did you choose education as the subject of focus?

I knew that I wanted to do good. Even when I started practicing on my own I knew I wanted to tackle everything from poverty alleviation to climate to education, women’s rights, and social justice. I started with education because it’s the most proactive thing that we can do. The way I see education is if we had an educated population we couldn’t create the problems in the first place.

My definition of education is holistic— a part of it is learning how to be a good human. To me the definition of education is you’re also learning ethics and morals, and if everyone had that education then we wouldn’t be creating these problems.

How are you trying to serve education through architecture?

You can draw a parallel to Maslow’s hierarchy — before anyone can reach self actualization you need to have basic needs met. If you look at education spaces around the world — think about public schools in America — those are not places where kids basic needs are met. They aren’t clean., safe healthy environments to send our children too. So we work with schools to figure out-- why do these kids come to you 8 hours a day — is it for getting information drilled into them? Are you providing something that’s an added benefit to online education? Are you just a place for the kids to be while their parents are at work? Or is it — you’ve been given these children to nurture --and what you nurture in them is what the future of the world is going to look like.

We did an after school program in partnership with Google—Code Next Lab. In public education in inner cities Latin and black kids are not getting comps sic education-- and that’s like being illiterate these days it’s becoming a key skill that you must know. And the lab we built is in Oakland — so close to Silicon Valley and yet they live a world apart and a are so disconnected from opportunities to build their lives. So to tackle this problem we designed a lab for them.
We built it in the heart of their community — the kids can walk there and it signals to them that, “Good things can happen in my community it’s not this hopeless derelict place. I don’t have to go out of my community for positivity." A lot of the black and Latin kids weren’t feeling a sense of belonging in tech — the media shows you Gates, Musk, Zuckerberg — white males. So these kids aren’t seeing anyone who looks like them.

We wanted kids to have aha moments with understanding what makes the building. We put in sliding barn doors made of plexiglass so they can see the framing, and every window has the screws exposed — all these subtle things that you might not even notice but they are sort of passive teachers. Over time they contribute to aha moments-- and kids are more in tune with that kind of stuff than we are.

Even before there’s a client we go out and find problems that we want to solve and the community that we can help and then we find a sponsor later. Connecting with the communities in need and then understanding them is the key thing — I can then bring in the architecture part. I am just a fly on the wall observing-- because you really want to understand on the day to day level what they are going through. I use anthropological techniques often.

***
Check out the call recording for:

- Danish's thoughts on designing thoughtful virtual classrooms for students transitioning to online schooling in the midst of the pandemic

- A glimpse of how Danish "architects" his days, his appreciation for Eckhart Tolle, and his thoughts on style as a form of ego.

- Details of his current efforts to open source this innovative approach to architecture and social change and support others around the globe interested in working in this way.

And much more!

A profound design process eventually makes the patron, the architect, and every occasional visitor in the building a slightly better human being.-- Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa


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