This month’s feature is the effervescent Ramona Adlakha, an architectural designer and fearless advocate for women and minorities. Ramona’s story begins in her Punjabi-Bengali household in Kolkata and continues to a ‘hoity-toity’ prep school in England, family relocation to Canada, and her recent pursuit of a Master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania. In her interview, we talk about her various accomplishments from publishing “Women [Re]build”, building a legacy through ‘PennDesign Women in Architecture’, working at Diamond Schmitt Architects, volunteering with BEAToronto, and her unabashed views on equity and professional development in architecture.
DS: Ramona, so glad to have you on design stri! Can you tell us a little about your upbringing?
RA: I was born in Kolkata, India, and I lived there until I was about six years old- at which point I moved to England. When I was ten years old, my family and I ultimately moved to Toronto, Canada. Between this period and grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, I also completed study-abroad programs in Siena, Italy and London, England! So I would characterize my upbringing as ever-changing with many large, cross-culturally transformative moves.
It’s especially interesting because although I am fully Indian, my dad is Punjabi and my mom is Bengali, which is an unusual blend of two Indian communities. I grew up spending weekends at my grandmother's house, so my Indian identity is rooted in Bengali culture, learning all about traditions and eating all the food - daal, machor bhath and jholl. My dad has a Punjabi joint family including my grandparents, my two uncles, each of their wives and children - they had a large bustling household in Ghaziabad where we would spend our summers, completely opposite from my Bengali grandmother's quiet little pristine apartment. These two cultures and households were instrumental in shaping the world as I know it. Even today, when I speak with my parents and sister, we often chatter in a combination of English, Hindi and Bengali, and to be honest half the time I’m not sure what language I'm speaking in.
"When I speak with my parents and sister, we often chatter in a combination of English, Hindi and Bengali"
DS: Would you say one of these moves was a defining experience for you?
RA: It was probably when I moved the very first time from India to England. In India, I lived in Kolkata, which was a buzzing metropolis of 14 million people, and I moved to Yorkshire, Huddersfield, a small town of 100,000 people. We were the only Indian family in our neighborhood and that was the first time in my life I felt different from anything that I've ever known. My sister and I went to this fancy private school, what you read about in books; crisp blue blazers, little ties, fancy shoes and leather book bags.
When we started at our private school, I remember thinking I would never fit in because I was so different and I didn't understand their customs. But the ability to adapt and to assimilate, to understand another culture and to weave your own cultural identity into it, was a defining lesson. And to do that at such a young age helped me to build great confidence in knowing who I am. I honestly thought I would never make friends, not because they weren't nice people, but because you only realize how different you are when you're put in a situation where everybody else is the same except you and you are not sure how to connect with the “other”. By the end of my three years there, I knew every single person at school. I still have a group of friends who live in England that I keep in touch with.
"...you only realize how different you are when you're put in a situation where everybody else is the same except you and you are not sure how to connect with the 'other'"
DS: How did you become interested in architecture?
RA: During high school, I was enrolled in a special art and science program called CyberARTS, where every semester we had to put together a design portfolio with artwork, drawings, sketches and photos. We had drafting, CAD, video making and website design classes, and it was an additional program with lunchtime and after school classes. CyberARTS helped me hone my passion for design because it quickly made me realize my strengths and taught me how to put together creative work.
CyberARTS also had a mandatory co-op semester and for that, I worked half-day at a small architecture firm in midtown Toronto. That exposure to architecture at the age of seventeen was incredible! It made me figure out that was a path that I could take, and one that I had the aptitude and desire to pursue. In my work there, I was compiling change orders, editing as-built drawings in AutoCAD, and putting together booklets for RFPs. Being in that design environment was a very valuable experience.
DS: How did your education and experiences shape your design philosophy?
RA: I went to the University of Toronto for my undergrad where I double majored in Architecture and Comparative Literature with a minor in Fine Art History. UofT was an amazing place to study and my program was very architectural history heavy, fostering design thinking and understanding the theory of architecture on a pedagogical level. I decided not to pursue graduate school right away because as I was exploring my options, the consistent feedback I received from my mentors was to go to a grad school that was different from my undergrad experience, where I would be challenged. In essence, once more adapt to the unknown.
After working for 3 years at a design incubator in Toronto, I cast a wide net of applications and ended up choosing the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania following advice from my mentors. UPenn put heavy emphasis on crafting digital design methodologies within the professional practice which I loved. I had the opportunity to learn from highly accomplished people within the field and my experience at UPenn was amazing!
I believe there are as many ways of thinking about architecture, as there are people on this planet. One thing I would say about my design philosophy is that you should be open to looking at things in various ways. Because approaching a design problem, or any problem for that matter, from another lens, gives you the latitude and understanding to find the best possible solutions. Design can often be subjective, and there are often no right or wrong answers, just a million possibilities!
"I believe there are as many ways of thinking about architecture, as there are people on this planet."
DS: Tell us a little about the group you started in grad school - PennDesign Women In Architecture.
RA: As a woman who identifies herself as a product of many cultures, I'm super interested in equity in architecture and a very strong advocate for increasing the voice and visibility of women and minorities. Typically architecture has always been a privileged white male profession. That's starting to change but I think we have a lot of work ahead of us. This “sameness” in the field is something we've all become very aware of, but it's a generational construct. The shift in demographic is happening now at a junior level, so you're starting to see minorities, people of colour, more women in positions of leadership. But it’s going to take a few generations to move into that next phase of visibility and promoting this growth and facilitating the transition is important within the industry.
PennDesign Women in Architecture was a reaction to this realization. I and a few friends were very aware of the metrics which shaped the profession, particularly the poor retention rates of women in senior positions in the industry in the US. And the five of us, Ramune Bartuskaite, Rose Deng, Kirin Kennedy, Mary Swysgood and myself, came together to organize a group at UPenn which could facilitate networking and cultivate leadership with a series of conferences, mentorship opportunities, firm visits, and exposure to powerful women in the field. This group has grown beyond our wildest dreams in the last 4 years, and today it is a large organizing body within UPenn known as Penn Women in Design.
DS: What inspired you to write the book ‘Women [Re]build’?
RA: ‘Women [Re]build’ was my baby for two and a half years. My co-editors, Franca Trubiano and Ramune Bartuskaite, and I worked on that book for such a long time. It was the product of a symposium that Penn Women in Architecture had organized in the Spring of 2017 titled [RE]Form: The Framework, Fallout and Future of Women in Design. The symposium was incredibly well attended and we realized there was a real appetite for more conversations on the subject. Hence, we decided to publish a book, a logical and gigantically massive endeavour. It was a miracle publishing it because there were days when I just didn't think it would happen; there were so many moving parts to completing that book with an international roster of incredible women involved. The book launched in October 2019, and unfortunately COVID-19 has put a bit of a damper on a series of book talks and symposiums we had organized, but I'm hopeful that we get to do it next year.
"A few friends and I were very aware of the metrics which shaped the profession, particularly the poor retention rates of women in senior positions in the industry"
DS: Ok so now we’re going to transition into the present: you graduated from Penn, you published a book, what else are you currently working on?
RA: Currently, the project I am designing is a school for performing arts, and it has been a really fun learning experience. I'm also pursuing my Ontario architecture license which is a terrifying process because in addition to taking classes, and logging hours, there's a two-day four exam process which I am currently studying for. I'm a LEED Green Associate and would like to get my BD+C accreditation within the next year.
DS: How else are you contributing to the design community?
RA: I volunteer with a group called the BEAToronto (Building Equality in Architecture Toronto), and it's part of a national movement across Canada which promotes equality in the profession through advocacy, mentorship and networking. The organization runs events that are open to everyone and which target all phases of an architect’s career. Due to COVID-19, we have gone virtual and we're doing a lot of online programming.
DS: What is something that you'd like to see more of in the architecture workplace or the industry?
RA: I have been very lucky to have cultivated a network of people that have supported me, but I see how hard that is to find. I know many people that don't get the kinds of opportunities that I have received and fall through the cracks because there isn't a mentor helping them navigate the field.
With architecture, it's often a culture of using young people to “just get the renders out” or “get that 100th 3D model printed” and there's little opportunity for career growth. That culture needs to change and it mostly depends on where you end up working and what you are willing to tolerate. I was very careful when I was applying for jobs, and I ended up choosing to work at a firm whose values I identified with. I think working at a firm which can support your professional aspirations and whose values you identify with is incredibly important as it’s instrumental to cultivating a valued and talented industry who produce meaningful work.
"I was very careful when I was applying for jobs, and I ended up choosing to work at a firm whose values I identified with"
DS: What is the best part of your day?
RA: My favourite part changes with the seasons. Right now it's summer in Canada and my favourite part of the entire day is from 8:30 to 9 p.m. when the sun is setting. I live in downtown Toronto and I have big floor to ceiling windows looking northeast, so I'm not directly looking at the sunset, but the colours of the sunset reflected off all the buildings in the evening. It's so beautiful, a vast sky on a giant canvas with all these incredible colours.
DS: Do you have any other interests or hobbies?
RA: I love reading and writing and I am obsessed with yoga. I also love cooking. I'm very inspired by my Punjabi and Bengali roots and try to make fusion food. Growing up, I had this little notebook in which, I would scribble my grandparents “secret” recipes. I am now the sole owner of all these recipes!
DS: We’re gonna keep that in mind! It was a pleasure to know your transformational story!