This month’s feature is Isha Anand, a New Delhi based architect and the Vice President for spatial design at RMZ Corp. She has an eight-year legacy working with Morphogenesis, where she led over 20 projects. Having lived in almost fifteen cities in India and around the world, her experiences range from being taught by a local Pandit in a small school of Rajasthan, living and studying in Le Corbusier's designed city- Chandigarh, to obtaining her master's degree alongside top architects at the Architectural Association, London. She is passionate about sustainable design and emphasizes that the industry needs to act now to create regenerative architecture. Read her full interview with #designstri to learn more about her reflections on architecture discourse, design philosophy, leadership styles, and everyday habits.
DS: Tell us a little about your upbringing, and who you looked up to while growing up.
IA: While I was growing up, every two years, we were packing our bags and moving to a new city. I was in Guwahati, Chandigarh, Kanpur, Mathura, Benaras, Sawai Madhopur, eight cities, and nine schools. I went to some very peculiar schools, one especially which just had two rooms, and I feel I got my best education there. Back in the early 90s, Sawai Madhopur was a village, now it's a small town next to Ranthambore sanctuary and my father got transferred there. The Hindi and Sanskrit teacher was the local pandit from the temple, the maths teacher was the local retired postmaster of the city, and the way they taught me, my fundamentals couldn’t have been clearer. That was great learning, going to the cities, and extracting the best out of them. The fact that I went to so many cities, had to change schools made me very adaptable as a person. It is an important trait in this profession because the technology changes, the engineering system changes, and the design styles change, evolve, and re-emerge and it is important to keep up with them to remain relevant.
Also, growing up I got the best of both worlds, my parents were the extreme opposite of each other. From my father, I learned to be patient and develop a logical sense of mind. And from my mom, having ambition and passion, you do need both to pursue architecture.
"I went to some very peculiar schools, one especially which just had two rooms, and I feel I got my best education there."
DS: How did you become interested in architecture and design?
IA: I was always creatively inclined growing up, although I did not know that it would turn into architecture as a profession. However, I was in class 10th, during my dad's last posting in Chandigarh. So, in every city that my dad used to get posted, we had these very nice bungalows to live in, with a nice kitchen garden and front lawn. His company had a policy that if you own property, you won't get the company accommodation. When my sister and I went to our flat in Chandigarh which my dad had bought as an investment, we started crying “how can we live here? We've always lived in such huge bungalows!”
My parents hired an architect, who completely transformed that apartment. It was one of the best accommodations we lived in. What did he do? How did he convert this dingy apartment into such a lovely thing!? He converted that apartment into a very nice duplex. With the specifications that he gave to the apartment, I thought he created magic and a home for our family. It was the most comfortable and ergonomically planned apartment. All of us had our own spaces with so many people living in the same house. I realized the power of this profession to impact individuals in such a great way. That had to be a turning point and I decided to pursue it. The ability to transform something in that manner, and how it could impact someone’s life afterward and their everyday life in a positive way.
"My parents hired an architect, who completely transformed that apartment. It was one of the best accommodations we lived in. What did he do? How did he convert this dingy apartment into such a lovely thing!?"
DS: How your education and your early experiences shape your design outlook?
IA: I pursued architecture at Chandigarh College of Architecture. And apart from the curriculum, being an observant person and traveling helped me learn a lot. For me, every object, space, street, the plaza was a learning tool; observing, critiquing, appreciating. It has become a habit now, a very annoying one. My husband just hates it, every place I go I just start and he has to check me: Stop being an architect. I am lucky to have lived and studied in Chandigarh, it's well planned and designed, and is home to some of the great works of Le Corbusier who is also one of my favorite architects. There was an article on BBC that said Chandigarh is the most livable city in the world. From urban planning aspects to building design, I started noticing some of the finer nuances that are there in all aspects. I even went for a pilgrimage across France visiting Corbusier’s projects. Visiting Villa Savoye and the chapel at Ronchamp probably have to be the best moments of my life.
"I am lucky to have lived and studied in Chandigarh, it's well planned and designed, and is home to some of the great works of Le Corbusier who is also one of my favorite architects."
I then pursued a Master's in Sustainable Environmental Design from the Architectural Association (AA), London. At AA you've got various diplomas and master's programs together under one roof, and there was a bar in the college which was the heart of the AA and students got together, people struggling with the models, people crying because they probably had a terrible critique. The interaction and the cross-pollination of ideas that happen at AA was a great experience apart from the course itself. Fortunately, right after submitting my thesis, I got a job in 2008, right in the middle of the economic crisis. It was a small practice and I was able to see projects right from the planning stage to the construction stage in two and a half years. To see the whole lifecycle of a project was quite brilliant. The planning application process was very interesting compared to India, as it was so subjective and design-oriented. You had to justify why your project needs to be here and why should it be built as opposed to satisfying preset design criteria.
DS: How would you define your architecture style or design philosophy?
IA: As a detail-oriented person, I like to zoom into points where people would interact with a surface or a particular space within a plan. I like to play with the materiality and texture, light and darkness, acoustics of the space, how sounds need to be reflected or absorbed. Whatever spaces I design, I feel that they should evoke all the five senses in some way, where architecture often tends to be focused on visuals alone. Another key aspect that I bring into my projects is a reflection of the personality and sensibility of the owner. There was an office project for a company called Hamdard and they do a lot of philanthropic work, so we didn't want an ostentatious building. The architecture needed to represent the humility of the company whilst reinstating the notion that it was the headquarter. It was going to be net-zero energy and net-zero water, which was not only in line with their sustainability goals but also their social goals of being mindful of consumption and being efficient in resource management. We preserved all the trees that were there on that site. The Unani philosophy that they follow also reflects thematically across their spaces and landscape. This project unfortunately never got built.
I worked on a couple of factories for Forest Essentials, which is a luxury Ayurveda brand in India. The design was focused on sustainability, both environmental and social. One of their buildings that got completed is energy positive. It's in Rishikesh, which is a difficult climate to deal with, and we were generating one and a half times more than the required energy. The most interesting part of the project was working with the local community and the local talent. It just won an award at Future Arc Leadership Singapore 2020. The effort and the process followed has also been discoursed into a research paper published at the Passive and Low Energy Architecture (PLEA) conference held at Coruna, Spain in 2020. It was a tiny project, about 10,000 square feet, but building it was the most fulfilling experience for me as an architect. An interesting incident with the project was as to how my colleague and myself set out the building as the local contractors were unequipped with equipment such as a total station. The building was to be on an inclined site and they were trying to set out the building manually, which was impossible to do. So finally the surveying and leveling course in undergrad paid off. Also used it extensively for the documentation of a monastery in Himachal back in undergrad.
DS: What are you currently pursuing?
IA: I was working at Morphogenesis for about eight years and it started with commercial projects. When the firm kind of realigned the studio, I was heading the boutique projects such as hotels, private houses, institutes, corporate headquarters, etc. Before I left, I did about 20 projects, leading a team of about 15 people. I want to explore all facets of architecture, my career started in the public sector and I worked for the HSCC under the Ministry of Health, designing all the AIIMS, Safdarjung Hospital. Then I worked in London, then for Morphogenesis. And then I started thinking, ‘okay, what next?’
So, I recently joined RMZ Corp as Vice President of the spatial development team and am heading the Hyderabad and NCR region, working on three commercial projects. The process and the experience is quite different from working in an architectural firm, but the essence is the same: building brilliant projects. Timelines have a whole new meaning now, as the duties are linked not only to drawing delivery but the whole business plan of the project. The cross-functional teams have overlapping roles in making that happen and in the past 6 months, the learning has been immense. When we work as architects, we just focus on the design, but now I’ve become conscious of every line I draw and the impact it will have for the leasing team or the finance team or even from a legal purview. And it's so sensitive, this whole relationship and balance, so it's good to be aware of those aspects. Although my title is VP, I would say I'm in my internship period, but it's going great so far. I feel they are one of the most progressive developers in India as they place good design at the heart of the entire process and that’s what sets them apart.
"When we work as architects, we just focus on the design, but now I’ve become conscious of every line I draw and the impact it will have for the leasing team or the finance team or even from a legal purview."
There is a great thrust on training, growth, and development. I was fortunate where RMZ enrolled two colleagues of mine and me, to do a design thinking course at MIT. As architects, all of us think we are design thinkers. What a lot of architects miss is structuring their thoughts. You just keep going on and on. You're designing, you’re thinking, but there's a point where you need to pause, move on, and develop it further. The course guides you to work on a Real Win Worth Philosophy, where each problem needs to be reduced to these three questions: is it a real problem, is it technically feasible, and thirdly does it make business sense. Although it was a three-month course, it's changed my thought process. I started structuring my thoughts and started planning better. It's not just meant for architects, there were people from IT, HR background, legal background, etc.
DS: What other ways are you contributing to the design community right now?
IA: It's very important to pen your thoughts and share them with the world. During my stint at Morphogenesis, I managed to churn out a few international research papers. One was based on the Hamdard project for Advanced Building Skins (ABS), Switzerland and, two research papers for the PLEA conference. In terms of lectures, I used to go to GRIHA as a guest visitor for training programs. I presented at Aangan by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) on net-zero buildings and at the IGBC conference for sustainable residential developments. I even attended as a visiting faculty at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) Delhi. Last year especially was very productive for me when it comes to academics, discourse, and conferences.
Now, I am trying to take that initiative at RMZ Corp. There is a great push from the leadership here, which is encouraging. It’s interesting to see how I can expand my outreach from Architectural platforms to real estate and business. Covid has made the world feel so small and it has blurred the boundaries and exposed the dependencies between various verticals. So everything has become intertwined, architecture, buildings, business, health, wellness, economy. Through our projects and the various cross-functional teams, we are closely trying to examine these relationships and gauge their sensitivity.
For instance, we are doing in-house research on social design, and how it is going to impact the office. We are trying our best to give it a formal framework so that it can be adapted easily and discoursing it, not only for architects but also for a wider audience. The most recent addition has been a series of podcasts under the title “ The Future of Space” where the episode featuring me talks out about” making Sustainable Architecture a priority”.
DS: What role does your family play in your career?
IA: Two women in my life play a very important role. They're my heroes - my mom, and my sister. My mom is a Ph.D. in food nutrition and since my dad had to change cities she gave up her career to take care of us. At the age of 50, she reinvented herself and started her own catering company in Chandigarh. She decided to focus on herself and explore her potential. It's called Kitchen Kemistry, started in our backyard, and now has a full industrial kitchen. Pre pandemic, she was serving about 5000 meals a day. It's been 13 years and she's going strong. I wish I had half her entrepreneurial skills
And the second person has to be my sister. So she's an economics major from Delhi University. She then did an MBA and got into investment banking. She’s always questioning if it's fulfilling enough for her. She dabbled with corporate strategy. It's been a year now, she's working in the social sector for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is another jump. She’s made 180 degree turns, from the financial & corporate sector to the social development sector, and adapted so well because of the amount of hard work she puts into everything, it’s commendable. So these two people, my mom for her courage, conviction, and passion, and my sister for the amount of hard work that she puts into everything and the ability to adapt herself to any challenge.
DS: What is the best part of your day? And what are your interests and hobbies?
IA: So architecture is a stressful profession, and for the past two years I've been doing yoga. And that's been the best decision because it calms your nerves. I do it early in the morning. I wake up at 5:30 and start my class at six. I'm sorted for the day, you get up with a great frame of mind, it cleanses all the negative thoughts.
Now, in the second part, I love to cook, I find it therapeutic. Especially in the pandemic, I was always trying out new recipes. My biggest success story of the pandemic has to be made this very mean, moussaka that I made. It's on my Instagram and my Greek friends were impressed to see that picture. Like wow!
DS: So what is something that you'd like to see more of in your industry that you think is missing right now?
IA: I feel concerning sustainability there needs to be a greater push. I don't think it's a question of whether we do it or not. It has to be done. The way climate change is happening, this pandemic is just the beginning. They're going to be a bigger crisis in the future driven by climate change. People talk about net-zero buildings, but that's not enough anymore, we need to have buildings that are regenerative and have a positive impact on the surroundings. Referring to The Paris Agreement, it pledges to curb the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C. However, even if we follow the current best practices in sustainable design, and magically convert all the buildings in the world to LEED Platinum grade or other benchmarks overnight, the global temperatures are still going to rise to three degrees by 2030.
It's so funny when people come and say “can we make this building net-zero?”. No, you have to reduce the energy demand for the building first. It's an integrated process. People think, “I'm going to put solar panels and therefore I've made a sustainable building”. That's not the case. I read a study where they mention that ten years down the line the biggest e-waste could potentially be solar panels because they too have a lifespan. So the point is that all buildings need to be designed optimally, so energy demand is minimized before you put in a source of renewable energy. The first step is optimization. The basics need to be right, such as correct orientation, correct shading, window wall ratios which require the investment of brainpower. Being mindful of every little step for building design can have an exponential impact on optimizing building energy demand and operations.
"People talk about net-zero buildings, but that's not enough anymore, we need to have buildings that are regenerative and have a positive impact on the surroundings."
DS: Describe your ideal life in five years, personally, or professionally.
IA: Personally, my thought of an ideal life has been the same since I was a kid to have a large farmhouse with about 100 dogs, all retrievers. It’s the same emotion since I was five years old. I still have that dream.
Professionally, I just hope. Five years down the line, I still have the passion to keep learning and growing. Because now with this whole pandemic situation, I don't know what's gonna happen in this next minute, learning and evolving is the only way to adapt.
DS: Name another woman who inspires you.
IA: I commend all the women who are there in architecture because I feel it is a very demanding and unforgiving profession and it's unfortunate but you do see quite a few women dropping out, and hence it is a man's world out there. Due to the dearth of women in any forum, it takes a lot to be heard and make your presence felt.
To name one in the recent past, I admire the ladies from Grafton Architects. The first female duo to go to win the Pritzker Prize. They have very understated work but are so well designed and detail-oriented. They are my current favorites.
DS: What advice do you give to those in design fields taking up leadership roles?
IA: When it comes to leadership, you need to find your style. I read an article about the seven styles of leadership. One was called pace setting- do it my way, commanding- do it, because I say so, etc. A leader needs to identify the situation and switch their style accordingly. The article said if you can switch between more than three of these you're going to be a great leader. But I disagree with that, you need to switch between all the seven styles. Another important thing is you need to develop a tolerance for failure. Architecture is a very unforgiving profession, your mistakes are not forgotten or forgiven easily. It's very important to build a tolerance for failure because you're only going to grow from there. Leadership is something that can't be taught; you need to identify your style and build from there.