Season 2:

Episode 50

May 3, 2022

#50: The Role of Mentors in Design | Apoorva Rao of Michael Graves Architecture & Design

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Today, I’m joined by senior architectural designer at Michael Graves Architecture & Design, Apoorva Rao. Apoorva shares what originally drew her to the field of architecture and how her passion for her family, Indian-American culture, theology, and philosophy ultimately inspired her thesis. She highlights the coaches and mentors who have helped shape her as a person and designer. She also touches on the role that Indian classical dance plays in her approach to architecture, and her dedication to always work from a place of boldness and courage.

About the Guest:

Apoorva Rao is a senior architectural designer at Michael Graves Architecture & Design, where she has worked for almost three years. She previously interned at Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design and Gluckman Tang Architects. She also did research at CEMEX, the Mexican construction materials manufacturer. She received her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Syracuse University.

[00:00:00] What goes into making an iconic building in America? What are the stories and who are the people behind the next generation of architecture? If your work touches the real estate industry in any way, or you’re just curious about what goes into one of a kind cities and towns all across our country, join us on the American Building Podcast.

In season two, we learned about everything from skyscrapers to single-family homes from the famous and soon-to-be-famous designers and developers responsible. This season focuses particularly on the pandemic and how our buildings will change in response. Our sponsor is the iconic design firm, Michael Graves Architecture and Design. And now, your host award-winning architect-turned-entrepreneur, Atif Qadir, AIA.

This is American Building, and I’m your host, Atif Qadir. I’m the CEO of REDIST, a technology company focused on innovative public financing for real estate projects. We are recording from the historic home of world renowned architect, Michael Graves, in Princeton, New Jersey. Check out this amazing space for yourself at the Michael Graves Architecture and Design YouTube channel. Now, let’s build something.

[00:01:12] Atif Qadir: Today on this special episode, our guest is architects. Wow. Apoorva is a senior architectural designer at Michael Graves, architecture and design, where she has worked almost three years. She previously interned at Joshua Zinner architecture and design and worked in Tang architects. She also did research at Semex the Mexican instruction materials men. She received her bachelor of architecture degree from Syracuse university and grew up here in New Jersey. Thank you so much for joining us today.

[00:01:49] Apoorva Rao: Thank you so much for having

[00:01:51] Atif Qadir: absolutely. Walk us through the path to becoming a, in your architectural designer at the firm. And it’s also about the people along the way that

[00:02:03] Apoorva Rao: helped you out.

I grew up in New Jersey, two Indian parents, and I am first-generation Indian American. So my journey starts off on kind of a unique note. I guess the way that I got to architecture is that I didn’t want to be held to other people’s. So I, in my journey. I was trying to avoid becoming an engineer or a manager person, a doctor, or a finance or a lawyer.

And I’m like, what, what is possible? So I gave my mom and my dad a couple of options. I was like, I’m going to be a w NBA player. And then I was like, artists, definitely artists and, you know, opera short deliberation that were like no way. So I looked around and my cousin’s sister in India was the only other person that I.

I was doing a field that was not something that would bring you to economic stabilization, I guess you would say. And she did architecture in India and then did her master’s in Glasgow. And while this was happening, I was like, that seems like a very cool thing to do. And the only other person I knew in my family did a different profession was park ranger.

So. I thought that was very awesome. So either between park ranger or architecture. So when I was in high school, I went through quite a few things. I used to play basketball all the time, and I thought for a really long time that that’s what I would do. And in the middle of, you know, when I played JV, varsity, I came to quite a halting end.

I kind of went into a weird spiral where I’m like, I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, because you know, coming from an Indian American family, you’re expected to have a higher education as like the paramount. And so I didn’t know where I would end up and I threw myself into. In in high school and ended up winning a lot of, you know, competitions and things like that.

So I thought, you know, maybe architecture would be feasible. And so I got into architecture school and I’m like, now that I’m here, you know, what do you do now? My first summer in architecture school, I was able to. And have an internship with my professors who took us to Switzerland. And so that’s when I started working for Semex for a couple of months, got to see what the materials science part of the world looked like in research and architecture, and got to do a couple of research projects in tandem and went around Switzerland and eventually, you know, studied abroad in Italy and got to go around Europe.

And, you know, in tandem every time, you know, my parents would go back to India, I would also go back with them. So. A lot of exposure to architecture made my love for this art and this craft grow even more. And that kind of brings us to the, towards the end of architecture school. I did my thesis and that was influenced a lot by my family, my culture, my community, but also for my passion for it, theology and philosophy.

And all of that coming together from my various passions, if my mom wants a dance school. So because of that, I had a lot of exposure to dance on a very deep level, because it was everything from learning to teaching to history, mythology performance, what it takes to set up a performance, go through performance, make sure that.

You are constantly questioning what you’re doing because you know, Indian classical dance is a living. And the way that it was taught before is not how it’s taught now. So that influence really brought it up into my thesis. And I did my thesis on rocket ship temples because you know, at the end of school, you want to do something bad is going to like fuel your passion and your interest.

And. I love space and theology and everything that goes along with it. So my fascination kind of led me to this place where I was researching temples in India. And then also in Hinduism. In like, you know, various parts of its theology believes in a circular like reincarnation and whatnot. So the time cycle is broken into four parts could, so you got the and so that time cycle goes over and over and over again.

So it was said that gods or DDS inhabited earth at and then suddenly started to disappear and. That you guys went on and by color you coach, we are in, they disappeared altogether. And so humans decided to create a living monument to those DDS that were on earth and that became the temple. So the temple itself is a Vermano and so Germana means chariot or vehicle.

And so it houses the DD that sits inside it. So the temple itself is a physical manifestation. Of the vehicle that holds the DVD and its plan is based on the human body. And so every threshold that you pass is one part of the human body until you get into the womb, almost like to the bigger burger, like the inside of the temple itself.

And so. You know, in this time cycle, if you know, God was on earth and then disappeared, eventually that time cycle, you would be able to meet God again, you know, theoretically. And so if I were to design the next evolution of the temple, it was, it would be a temple that would rise out of the ground and you’ve gotten the air and, you know, that became the next evolution.

What a temple would be like in the time cycle. And so that’s my fascination with how all of this comes together and it really drives my everyday to know that you can. Design, you know, even be a part of the next evolution of a design technology that has been there for thousands and thousands of years.

And that’s just the beginning at that point, I didn’t know as much information as I know now. And every time I see it, you know, it gets more and more interesting. And I had the opportunity to go to India to actually research all of that. And I took my entire family and just went from temple to temple. I think just crowdsourcing all the information I knew from my family, from books that I had read and just, you know, pinpointing all of the different historical temples, even if they were not use and just took a family trip all the way from Kinetica to someone not doing all the way back.

And it was interesting because my family saw it in a very different way than I did for me. It was more observational, uh, seeing how. Ritual and the building and people interacting with each other and for my family, this more spiritual, if that makes sense. And so seeing those two sides of it was really interesting to be like an outside observer.

In a traditional non-traditional south Indian family lends itself to a whole different set of rules. You know, you’re constantly going back and forth about what your identity is and relationship to religion, culture, community, and all of that is extremely important to me, but I. I would say I’m a spiritual person, not necessarily a religious person.

And that affects one’s identity all the time. Like constantly questioning what that means to you and how you’re you’re in service of your community or the community services view. So that has always been a fascination of mine. It’s like how I can control the narrative. Of how either I’m perceived or how the narrative is changing for Indian Americans in America.

So, yeah, and then I applied for a job after my thesis and exhaustion for about six months and I ended up that Michael Graves and it’s been incredible. I am deeply grateful to the mentors that I was presented with along the way. Through my journey of architecture, I have always been helped by other people.

I do not operate by myself when I was in school. My high school teachers would encourage me to follow my passions. And when I got into college, my, there were many professors that supported me in my path to becoming an architect and also supported my research and what, you know, my passions and what I love to do.

And. My parents would always say, you don’t get what you don’t ask for. And that struck me very deeply because there are a lot of people, even, you know, people of color women just don’t ask for what they want. And a lot of the times, if you don’t ask you don’t get it. And so, you know, my dad was like, what’s the harm you can ask.

The, the answer is yes or no. And so I made it kind of like a a month or in my life just to ask for things and see where that would take me. And it’s really interesting. The people that you meet along the way of, when you say I’m interested in this, do you think you can help me and people are always willing to reach.

And give me the guidance that I need. And I’m, I’m grateful. Even my basketball coaches, I therapy, ADHD, coaching. Like I made a decision to advocate for myself and make sure that I gave the best chance that I had at success by making sure that I was taken care of in the, in the sense, like, if I. Address, all the things that I wanted to address, I would be in a, in a better place to make better decisions.

And by giving myself the permission to essentially be guided by other people and mentors, I have put myself in a better place to accept, help, and also to give help

[00:13:01] Atif Qadir: so approval. You have a deep interest in another art form, which is dance. So tell us about.

[00:13:08] Apoorva Rao: It helps me a lot because even in the dance school, now that I teach as well, I am in a better place to teach those kids.

Not only about dance, but also how to learn, how to teach other people interpret dances. You know how they perceive the dance. Cause a lot of these dancers were written, all of the poetry were written by men, you know, thousands of years ago. And so their interpretation of how they view that piece might be very different from the young girls were actually performing these pieces now to put that into context for them in the historical context of the current context, like how they relate to this information and as Indian American.

There’s this weird push and pull because you don’t know how much how Indian you are or how American you are. And so Indian classical dance has always been a way for me to just like center myself in that narrative. Because when I teach a lot of the students. The question is why would they do that early?

When you have stories, why would they have done that? Can they have done it differently? And when you’re explaining mythology, it’s like, I don’t know what I would tell, you know, how you would change the narrative, but you can say, this is how it could have been done now. And you know, that’s how it was then.

But this is the cultural context that we now live in. And it gave me a lot of stability and. Ability to be thoughtful in my own design practice. And when I’m talking to other people in communicating in the architectural world, it gave me a greater sense, like sensitivity to putting myself into the context.

No, what would this person think if I communicated this or how would they better understand it? And so a lot of what Indian classical dance has helped me with is communication and how to get information across to people of different understanding. It’s been incredible because I don’t, you know, when you have a craft and such as dance, a lot of people think about it on a performance level, you know, Is it that you can perform and what can you learn and develop?

And the more you get into dance as a craft, you realize that it’s much more than just a performance value. It’s a lot about, you know, putting yourself into the culture and learning other forms of dance or other forms of music. And all of the art comes together in this like fantastic, extraordinary tapestry where it’s not only your culture, but it’s other people’s homes.

That, you know, get incorporated into this narrative

[00:15:48] Atif Qadir: so far, we’re given the varied interest that you have that you’ve described helped me understand that how you, as an architect approach, starting a new project in terms of, for example, like understanding the users or the types of people that will eventually be occupying the, and inhabiting this space, what are the different processes that you use to.

Take that first step as a designer, given how nuanced and thoughtful you are to your approach in so many aspects of your life,

[00:16:17] Apoorva Rao: the way in which I would approach a project would need to consult mentors. First, when you are. Starting a project that involves another culture. That’s not complex requires a lot of sensitivity because everyone’s blast is full.

If that makes sense. I mean, I would say like design culture. There’s so much that is involved in culture, that everyone’s glass is full. And if you go into a project where you’re trying to service that particular community, then it becomes incredibly important to know their needs. Before you start, it’s not about like you.

Pushing your agenda to the architecture. It would be because what you may think they need for that project is completely different than what they would need for that project. And so coming in with research and then asking questions before you start, you know, saying, so listening would be the core concept that would be listening to everybody, synthesizing the information and saying, is this what you meant?

I guess it’s just good for communication in that case. Is the way that you communicate to people would be to, to listen and to absorb that information and to ask more questions and get to a point where, you know, both of those people on the same page. I think

[00:17:47] Atif Qadir: so. And I would say what has really allowed me to see that really clearly is now being the CEO of a technology company, where we have spent two years building a product.

And every day we ask ourselves and we literally. Talk to our clients every single day to understand what it is that their particular challenges are. So the product that we build is reflective of that. That’s something that is relatively common within the product design technology arena, but shockingly is not as common.

I think within architectural design, oftentimes there are the assumptions that are made. In terms of how people will use or occupy a space. And oftentimes it says you described simply those conversations, uh, that, uh, can help, uh, make sure that the perspective that you are starting from actually makes sense or the end user.

So I’m of that, given the runway that you have, you’re just at the beginning of your career, what do you hope to accomplish in. Your time as an architect and say broadly with your one

[00:18:51] Apoorva Rao: amazing life that you have. I don’t know what the future holds and I hope really not to do everything. I love learning about everything and I would love to learn every day if I can.

And as far as what I want to do. No the rest of my life, it would be to have courage because I grew up in a space of fear, almost everything was always driven by the fear of something else. And I made a decision to, you know, after college to not live in fear. And so having courage every day is a Testament to that.

And so if I live courageously, other people can live with courage with.

[00:19:45] Atif Qadir: I love it. I absolutely love that. And I think what, what you described reminds me about what my mom said to me when I was making the decision to leave XTL development and start my own firm. She said, don’t live a conditional life.

Don’t live a conditional life. And what that means is don’t live a life where you say to yourself, I will be happy with. I will be ready when I can do this. When I will be set. When all of those conditionals are the ones that short sell yourself in terms of your own capacity, your own intelligence, your own drive, your own courage, all of those different things.

And I think that that feels like a very beautiful echo to your goal, which is to have courage every single day. So, thank you so much for joining us today on this special episode of the American building podcasts. And listeners, if you want to hear the behind the scenes stories of how I conic buildings in our country were designed and built subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, iTunes, Google anchor, Stitcher, or wherever you like to listen, rate and review us on iTunes to help us reach a wider audience and follow us on Instagram at American building.

My name is Arthur Codder, and this has been American building.

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