Women of FA: Anjali Iyer
Q: When did you first become interested in architecture?
I must confess it took me a while to find my bearings. I felt quite lost and underwhelmed by architecture school as well as practice during my first few years working out of Bombay, India. In retrospect, the best decision I made was to move out of a developer-dominated real estate market to a smaller city like Bangalore, where there were opportunities and appreciation for design interventions. I managed to get into a small design studio that did great work. I am relieved to say that it was the right move and I fell deeply in love with the design process, and every nook and cranny of the labyrinth that is the architectural practice.
Q: What is your favorite part of the design process? What kind of projects do you gravitate towards?
I thoroughly enjoy working on single family residences. I love that on every new project we embark on a personal journey with the client(s). You do a deep dive to uncover their vision, and along the way infect them with the excitement you feel, as that vision manifests in design possibilities. You foster that relationship, earn their trust, and hold their hand through this entire process - through highs and lows. I also love that as architects we get to be the hub in the wheel – we are generalists who get to leverage the expertise of consultants, contractors, sub-contractors, vendors. Solving complex problems with a group of specialists, you are always learning, getting better at real-time critical thinking and problem solving – that is a wonderful by-product of this job.
Q: How long have you practiced architecture and design? How has your understanding of the industry changed since the start of your career?
I have been practicing for over half my life now – it has been 22 years since my first job as an intern. My career has taken different directions as I have moved across cities and countries– making for a fresh start and new learning experiences in each station. But the one thing that I appreciate most about the profession is that we do our best work when we are collaborative. Architecture is a team sport, and the best projects are backed by a team of stakeholders that challenge and bring out the best in each other. And have fun while they are at it! The stereotype of the architect playing God (strongly reinforced in architecture schools) needs to be dismantled – it does take a village. Looking back, now is an exciting time for female career professionals as the industry has acknowledged previously hushed issues and is more open to agendas that empower women (and men) to foster their personal/ family life without detriment to their career goals. It is still very much a work in progress, but the momentum is there.
Q: What challenges to do you face as a female architect in a male dominated industry?
Gender inequality is real and we as a profession can fix it only with a unified effort from both men and women. Challenges mostly include preconceived biases because you are a woman in what has traditionally been a male domain. I feel like I go through a rite of passage to earn my seat at the table every time with a new client/ consultant/contractor, unlike my male colleagues, who seem to walk in the room with the confidence that they own it. As a female architect, you feel the pressure to exceed the bar – not just meet it. It can also be challenging to grow in your career or get access to networking opportunities when a lot of them tend to be boys’ clubs and male centric.
Q: Who is your favorite female architect?
Hard to pick one – there are some incredible architects out there who are women that have paved the way for the next generation, including mine. I have benefited from the wisdom of female mentors who guided me through tough times. Zaha Hadid deserves a mention because of how gutsy she was and how she stormed into the profession at the period that she did. She was a very inspiring figure to many of us when we were in architecture school.
Q: What is the most interesting project you’re working on right now?
We are currently designing a home in Santa Barbara that is on a spectacular but challenging site. The clients’ vision for a rugged outcropping on a hill, evoking the spirit of an architecture that is centuries old, of-the-place, organic and native, has made for a fun design challenge. How do you make something feel timeless, lived-in? Looking back, I have come to appreciate the growth that comes with projects that stretch you out of our comfort zone – so I am excited about the potential on this one too.
Q What project are you most proud of?
I am kind of proud of them all - how each one has transformed and hopefully enriched the lives of our clients. I will go with the Round House – as it is such a one-of-a-kind project. Compounded by the fact that it was a remodel on a challenging site, this project with its unique geometry demanded excellence and creative thinking from each member of the team. I learned a ton on that project. There is a reason we don’t see too many round houses😊.
Q: How does your personal identity shape your design practice?
I like to think that I challenge my team members to bring their A-game to the project, support them so they can have a critical voice in the design conversation. That is the type of acceptance and space I sought out for myself during my formative years, and I hope to provide that for the teams I now manage.
Q: How do you express yourself creatively outside of the office?
Interesting question… architecture practice demands all of it and some more. But seriously – your creative spirit carries into how you live day to day – the way you dress, the way you furnish your house, the way you entertain/host at home, the music you play, the environments you carve out for your quotidian life. These are small but extremely transformational experiences that one can consciously cultivate as a creative person. I love to bake and cook -activities that I do not necessarily see as artistic pursuits– but ones that immerse me in a completely different space from work. I pride myself on drumming up a scrumptious meal with whatever is in my pantry and refrigerator.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring female architects?
Do not get intimidated by deep-rooted cultural biases. Be curious, tenacious, passionate, and fearless. We all have insecurities but believe in yourself. I am a huge fan of speaking my mind and giving people a chance to respond/react to something you may otherwise be grappling with on your own. Communication is key. Find a mentor you can lean on or, a group that embraces you and relates to your journey. We are all in this together. Last but not the least- get licensed!