This month’s feature is Tanya Khanna, an architect and writer based in New Delhi. Tanya’s journey started with a conflicting choice between her love for architecture and zest for journalism, which she ultimately combined over 9 years ago by founding Epistle - a communications consultancy that focuses on content and outreach for architects and designers. Tanya believes in democratizing architecture by empowering architects to talk about their work and making architectural writing accessible to the common masses. She shares her experience in balancing motherhood and entrepreneurship and discusses the importance of leaning into support systems for succeeding at both. Read her full interview with #designstri to learn more about her challenges and triumphs in an untapped field of architectural communication and journalism.
DS: Lovely to meet you Tanya. Let’s start from the beginning, what was your childhood like?
TK: I come from a simple and education-driven background. My grandparents were focused on a good education, and my parents ensured that my sibling and I got that. This was a huge thing. My mom was a teacher and there was a single-minded agenda of working hard. As I grew up, my dad wanted me to become a doctor; it broke his heart when I wanted to pursue architecture. He was not convinced because there was very limited access to architecture, especially for women. I had two aspirations: either to become an architect or a journalist.
The deal I made with him was that I would attempt all medical college entrances and then appear for all the architecture exams. He gave the best advice that I was ever given; He said, you can always practice journalism, even after becoming an architect, but if you become a journalist you can never go back to architecture. So, that's how I narrowed down my career options and then gave the entrances for everything under the sun. I did not get through medicine - I had no aptitude for it. I got through Sushant School of Architecture and moved back to Delhi. This was where my journey in architecture started.
"I had two aspirations: either to become an architect or a journalist."
DS: How did your education and early experiences shape your design outlook?
TK: My B.Arch from Sushant School of Architecture gave me a lot of exposure. The faculty pushed us to learn about international architects and their work. What I enjoyed was the balance between the academic and the practical bit of architecture. The recommended books helped me hone in my interest in writing and reading about architecture. I would be that kid in architectural school who finished all my dissertation assignments the day before the submission because I just loved it. I explored writing in all dimensions in an environment that focused on sketching and drawings as the primary tool for communication: the college magazines, editorial roles, and every single paper-writing opportunity.
When I graduated, I got an opportunity to work with Architecture + Design, which landed in my lap. Somebody called me and told me they have an opening and I thought, ‘should I just leave practice and take up a full-time job in writing?’. My faculty members and my team advised me that the exposure from working with one of the only Indian architecture magazines would be unmatched. Mr. Suneet Paul was a great mentor and I got to travel and see buildings in India. I was a part of all the juries for the A+D awards that exposed me to the best architecture and architects. I did one on one interviews with architects such as Raj Rewal. I got a personalized tour at an institute he had finished in Noida. I was so kicked to do this as a 22-year-old early into my career. And all I had to do was see buildings, interview architects, and write about architecture. It couldn't get better!
I worked in an editorial capacity there for about a year, but the itch to stay connected to practice continued. I thought I'll go for a master's and got through UCL’s MArch program that had a written and a thesis component - a very flexible course. You go there and do your thing and that was a big change for me coming from India. My guide, Nic Clear said, “This Master's will not teach you how to make a building, you already know that. It’s going to teach you something more. If you don't use it to its advantage, you're missing an opportunity”. So I ended up working on a film as my thesis project- this was a completely different and very experimental world. We were asked to go visit art exhibitions and attend lectures by renowned architects every week. My interest in writing, curation, and design was building up all through.
"I explored writing in all dimensions in an environment that focused on sketching and drawings [...] the college magazines, editorial roles, and every single paper-writing opportunity."
DS: How did you move to architectural writing and communications as a full-time career? What were your apprehensions when starting?
TK: After almost 3 years in the UK, I chose to move back to India and joined Morphogenesis as a Senior Architect. The principals there encouraged me to use my writing background. It started with one packaging, one project and a couple of award entries, and some authored articles for the media. Initially, I would spend 10% of my time doing communication work, but slowly it became over 60%. Subsequently, I headed Communications for three years. With time, I felt that there was potential in the domain and the desire to do something more for the service industry in India motivated me to step out- I wanted to research and I decided to take a break. I was 30 and had just got married. People would tell me I’m doing interesting work, but only a limited few have access to Indian architecture. It bothered me looking at all these magazines and international platforms where Indian architecture was rarely ever spoken about and was restricted to a closed community and a limited few names in India.
I remember doing an exhibition for Morphogenesis, at the Indian Habitat Center in the heart of Delhi. But not too many people beyond the architectural community came and engaged with that exhibit. In any other part of the world, the common man engages with architecture, design, and the built environment; This is what gives the impetus to architects to take on responsibility for their work and do more. You have an exhibition, you have an art installation, and people just come. We can blame it on the non-architects, but the problem lies with the architects as they never talk about their work. Even in college, we were taught that professional ethics prevent us from talking about our work. That can't be true! If we don't talk about what we do, how will the common man understand it? Conceptually, that one sketch that the master architect draws is huge in everybody's eyes, but there is no descriptive text that comes with it.
What started as a passion project, became a deep cause that I was genuinely concerned about. I wrote about it, I spoke about it- and I worked behind the scenes- and it kept tying back into the mini-research projects undertaken through the course of my education. And this is how Epistle started with the intent of democratizing architecture- Making it more accessible to everyone around us and ensuring that architects across the country would have access to tools that would help them talk about architecture. The minute we put down what we think, we will do better work. When we consciously start writing about it, packaging it, drawing it, we will start making better buildings.
"It bothered me looking at all these magazines and international platforms where Indian architecture was rarely ever spoken about and was restricted to a closed community and a limited few names"
DS: What was it like to start up your own business in an untapped field? Tell us more about your early experiences with Epistle.
TK: We've just finished nine years a couple of months back. It's very emotional at one level because I still can't fathom where we are today- My peers, clients, and mentors are the ones who tell me. We are a large studio with a presence in different cities. We've done work in India and even in the US, and the UK. It is unbelievable! I started from scratch- one day in my living room, all alone- but with all the branding and a website and everything set. The things that people do now in India are very different from when I started 10 years back. Architects would question “Why do you have a logo?” and “What is the need for social media and Linkedin?”. I was always confronted with such questions, but I spent three months firming that up for Epistle before we went live.
"I started from scratch- one day in my living room, all alone- but with all the branding and a website and everything set."
I was unsure about starting Epistle and making it successful. I remember telling my husband, “if it doesn't happen I'm just gonna take up a job after six months”. But he was very instrumental at that point in my life. He encouraged me and helped me when everyone was questioning my decision to quit my job. Also, a good friend who's an architectural photographer pushed me to step out, reminding me about the cause and that's when it started. When we got our first client and the first thing he said was “I don't believe in what you do. It's all just marketing and selling yourself, and I am timid. But my team feels that our work needs to be out there. So we’ll try it out.” Every time we met somebody, the challenge was always to make them identify and understand the value of what we do. I started sharing an office space that belonged to my husband. Soon, we grew as a team and the office space was too tight. My parents were traveling and I took up their house with the entire team. In the bedroom, the living room, we were sitting everywhere, and we converted the dining table to a workstation with laptops. I was managing everything with minimal resources and working 12 to 16 hours a day.
DS: That’s incredible! What projects are you doing at Epistle right now?
TK: We have a very diverse portfolio. We started by working for architects and designers as a conscious decision to stay focused on doing what we're good at instead of spreading ourselves too thin, which has helped us stay afloat. We are architects and we understand design. In the last five years, that domain has expanded to include the allied products and brands who work with architects and acquire products in the AEC space, essentially. That could be a design software, a stone product, a lighting brand, or a lighting designer. Everything is driven by outreach as the end goal- in a specific language, vocabulary, and with a larger goal in mind.
There is a lot that comes onto our plate. We’ve published books, we've done events, we've curated exhibitions, we've worked with art festivals and we continue to do a lot more. For example, we worked with Triveni Kala Sangam, which is a cultural center in Delhi, for their content and outreach. We became communications partners for GREHA- a think tank that focused on outreach. We do anything that bridges the gap between the design community and the common man.
DS: Do you have a project that's very close to your heart or a favorite project?
TK: All my projects. I love the first three months of any project because getting it activated is the biggest challenge. After that things get a bit automated as the client understands you and it gets easier. For me, the 3-4 people small studio and a 100 person practice are equally exciting- because they are approached differently. Also, the firm that designs the building next door, or the practice that works in the domain of infrastructure and public works is as exciting as another boutique practice that does homes.
"For me, the 3-4 people small studio and a 100 person practice are equally exciting- because they are approached differently"
For years, newspapers and media in India such as Hindustan Times, Economic Times, and the leading dailies were focused on politics. At Epistle, we are proud that we have created a space where there are double spreads on Indian real estate, infrastructure, or office design - all from a design perspective. The common man wants to read about what is shaping their cities and the buildings around and journalists and newspapers are creating room for these conversations. What is motivating is that I'm not writing these pieces- Our clients are leading the design conversation in the country- Which is very fulfilling. Looking at a double spread on the post COVID home in Hindustan Times where the story is driven by three of our clients and their inputs -- is fulfilling. That's also how Epistle’s "Be known" tagline came about, which focuses not just on visibility but also credibility.
"You can work hard and be successful, and still have kids and a family. It doesn't have to be this traditional stereotype of - "Oh! you're a working mother." A lot of women shy away from practice in India because they worry about neglecting their families."
DS: What role does your family play in your career?
TK: I am lucky to get support from my family. Without that, being an entrepreneur and mother today would have been impossible. In the initial years, it was much harder because I couldn’t afford a team. When I had my babies, both our parents said, don't worry we'll manage it. It takes a village to raise a baby and that's how my boys have been raised. As women, or as practitioners we are so independent, we’re taught to manage ourselves and refuse to take help. I've learned while running Epistle that it's okay to take help from people around you. To be able to say that “I need to step out today. Can you manage this?” My husband and I are both architects and we sit down and pick and choose events to go to because one person needs to take care of the kids. It is about finding that balance. One has to make their framework and work around it.
For example, I work for two hours after the kids go to bed. My team is very used to emails from me at night or early in the morning. I have a fixed routine and a shared calendar with my husband. Many things subconsciously enable us to be efficient. You can work hard and be successful, and still have kids and a family. It doesn't have to be this traditional stereotype of - "Oh! you're a working mother". A lot of women shy away from practice in India because they worry about neglecting their families. But they can reach out for support or identify where they need support. We can't do everything right. The day your child falls sick and you have to go for a meeting, you feel guilty walking out of the house. But in the long run, it makes children resilient and independent. I remember once my son was a few months old and my mother-in-law and my parents were traveling, so we dropped our son at a friend's house. It's best to be open to moving things around, that makes it a lot easier.
DS: Describe a defining moment in your life.
TK: There are two moments. The first when I was in London and applying for jobs. I was working for Allies and Morrison but they couldn’t do a work permit for me. Another large firm in the UK offered me a job and a permit. My boss who was almost 80 years old offered the permit because he had never seen a CV like mine; where there was the experience of a practicing architect, and an added layer of writing, curating, and communication work. He saw something that even I could not see; he thought I could add value with my unique skill set. It was life-changing because he had more conviction in me than myself.
The other was while working at Morphogenesis. The time they won the WAF award as the first Indian practice to win that. Working behind the scenes, gave me the confidence that Indian architecture deserves to be out there. It confirmed my belief that architecture needs to be talked about.
"No matter where we are today: I'm sitting in my office in space, you are sitting in your house, you don't have a choice whether to engage with architecture or not. You are always within it outside it standing next to it. It's a part of your life."
DS: How else are you contributing to the design community? Any volunteer work that you would like to share?
TK: Earlier last year, we were struggling with the brunt of the recession that came in. All of us were introspecting; I realized that a lot of architects were looking for ways to promote their work - but did not know how to. To make Epistle’s expertise accessible to the smaller studios across the country, we launched the #EpistleOPD, where you can block 1-2 hour sessions with us and we help people get their practice’s communication strategy together - free of cost. We started #EpistleOPD Instagram Live sessions, where we brought national and international editors, photographers, and journalists to share their experiences on enabling better outreach for designers. We are doing master classes with established architects explaining their approach to communications strategies. We did a session on reaching out to publications and setting up a website for an architecture firm.
We are teaching a 12 session course on Architectural Journalism with @architecturechat attended by people from 18 countries, different age groups, and diverse backgrounds. At least one session in that is just career counseling for those who want to pursue architectural writing. There are questions like “What are my options? I love architecture, I want to contribute to the built environment. But what can I do differently?” I try to give them successful examples of what people are doing in individual domains. For example, if somebody says they want to do history and criticism, they have to plan what to do with that next. It’s okay to plan your life, a little. One can't always dabble in 500 things, this is what we do in architecture school. We should start working towards clarity beyond that. So when a young architect joins Epistle, we expose them to all aspects of communications in architecture for three months. After that, they have to focus on one area, whether it is content, strategy, writing, or marketing, and we work towards it together. Epistle is a training ground in that way. It's a running joke in the office that people come to Epistle to figure out what they want to do after architecture because, for anybody who doesn't want to practice, they don't know what their options are.
DS: What is something that you'd like to see more of in the industry?
TK: In an ideal world, every building should come with a little plaque of who the architect is and what the design intent is. Internationally, this is done for the newer buildings coming up and not just for the old buildings. And it's interesting because ironically, even with art, you have to go and engage with it. You view it, you read about it and then you engage. Unfortunately, it's not always the same with architecture. No matter where we are today: I'm sitting in my office in space, you are sitting in your house, you don't have a choice whether to engage with architecture or not. You are always within it outside it standing next to it. It's a part of your life. Yet, we never choose to give it that importance and are not clued in to read the story.
"Start writing! Just start writing! Write every day, write every minute [...] How an architect makes a building from the ground up, literary pieces also start from the ground up."
DS: What advice would you give to young architects who would like to have a career in writing.
TK: Start writing! Just start writing! Write every day, write every minute. The biggest mistake we make as writers is that we don't write, and then we don’t edit and relook at what we have written. To be honest, I don't write much anymore- I write on my Instagram page, and sometimes I take notes on my phone- and of course, I write a lot for our clients and I edit a lot of content that goes out from Epistle. But to be a good writer, you need to keep writing and my challenge to myself is to keep writing. Writing is not always about long-format writing- it is also when you write an email or when you write for each of the different social media platforms. Writing for a magazine is different from writing for Instagram is different from writing for LinkedIn or a website. I always tell my team to write a nice email to everyone, to make sure it's grammatically correct, that verbs are in place and tenses are right. It's not just about architectural writing- How an architect makes a building from the ground up, literary pieces also start from the ground up. Have a blog post, write on social media, or whatever works for you- just do something every day.
DS: What would you like to recommend to our readers to read, watch, or listen to and why?
TK: 'The Business of Architecture' is an interesting podcast. Architects talking about how they've set up a practice, how they run their practices, and what are the core values that they focus on.
A book that I recently read was written by the founder of KPF- A. Eugene Kohn and Clifford Pearson, ‘The World by Design-The Story of a Global Architecture Firm’. It's on how they set up KPF and what are the challenges that came into practice. It's not a portfolio of good-looking work; It's a book on how successful practices are run. I keep going back to it. Another nice book is ‘Paths Uncharted’ by BV Doshi. It's a book on his life as an architect. It's fabulous, a very informal easy read; It teaches you about what his core values were as he was growing up and his experiences. For architects who write and want to learn the skills of writing, there is a book by Alexandra Lange called ‘Writing about Architecture’. I give it to everybody in my team when they leave because it tells you how to write. The book that I plan to read next is ‘Why Architecture Matters’, by Paul Goldberger- internationally acclaimed architecture critic.