Upali Nanda: I’ve never thought about breath as much as during 2020

Upali Nanda
Upali Nanda, director of research for HKS Inc. Image:

Upali Nanda is director of research for HKS Inc., a global architectural firm, and associate professor of practice in architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. She also serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation. In 2015, Nanda was recognized as one of the Top 10 Most Influential People in Healthcare Design by Healthcare Design Magazine. Most recently, she was honored with the 2018 Women in Architecture Innovator Award from Architectural Record.

Natalia Olszewska: I’ll ask you about the consequences of COVID-19 for design. You have opened the Conscious Cities Festival in October 2020 with a discussion on this topic. Could you share some of your thoughts with Venetian Letter readers?

Upali Nanda:  Yes, I spoke about the ABC of my thinking in 2020: agility, breathability and consciousness. Those are the three things that I thought we would take away from this era. 

Agility, because, I think you cannot keep thinking about buildings as fixed assets that everyone else has to adapt around. Buildings have to be adaptable, agile, responsive things. That’s what we really learned because we had to transform very quickly, we had to respond to something that we didn’t see coming. It was easy to respond in some types of buildings, but difficult in many others. I think the agility of our environments to me is part of responsiveness. If you create responses, ecosystems, they are agile because they respond to internal and external pressures and shape shifts as required. 

Breathability, I think was for me, one of the biggest takeaways. I felt like it was a time that our breath was held hostage at so many different levels. This right to breathe, this right to be able to protect myself, but connect with you. These should be fundamental human rights that became premiums. We discovered so many types of buildings that didn’t have options like openable windows. 

Efficiency took over my right to actually breathe and to interact with what is around me, witnessed by sealed buildings that were not able to open a window when it was most needed. This concept of breath is not a sustainability or a building performance question. It’s a human survival question. Nothing survives without breath. So I think breathing buildings, breathing ecosystems and breath exchange became important. What is breath? It’s an exhalation and inhalation. Breathability is about responsiveness. It’s about creating things that inhale and exhale in the ecosystem that they live in. COVID held our breath hostage. We need to get it back.

Year 2020 made us realize the importance of breath and fresh air. Image: Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash

I was reading a wonderful New York Times article this morning saying that the risk we run with COVID is the shift to absolutism. We start engaging in hygiene theatre. We start engaging in absolute prescriptions of how we should do things. And we forget that at the end of it, we are all still human. We are human. We have fundamental human needs. We have human needs to connect. We have needs to be with other people and that is not going to go away. I think that we should focus on this concept of how do I breathe and how do I breathe in a way that is healthy and safe, how does my building breathe and how does my city breathe.

It’s a really simple question, but you can come up with incredible innovation, rather than getting very quickly to tactical solutions that make us feel better. The hygiene theatre we see today affords instant gratification:  ‘I see that you’re doing something, it feels like it might be something that is probably good and it is evidence-based. I am going to do that, too’.  We don’t stop to think of the science, or the sensitivity to human & environmental needs, when we react and follow new and shiny trends. 

At another level breath was also something I thought about when the George Floyd case and the Black Lives Movement resurged. “I cannot breathe” became the national mantra showing us that our fundamentally right to breathe was not equal and not equitable. Our freedoms, our opportunities, and our environments, are not yet equal and equitable.  There’s a physical and a psychological component of being able to breathe. I’ve never thought about breath as much as I’ve thought about it during 2020. 

How we let buildings breathe, cities breath, and people breathe is the fundamental question. In my opinion psychologists have to engage much more with ecologists, and work hand in hand in with the architects of cities and buildings, to get to where we want to as a civilization. 

2020 was like this giant band-aid getting ripped off. We were forced to look at wounds we didn’t even know were there.

And the last one of course is consciousness, that is this deep consciousness, not just awareness, not knowing what’s happening, not being informed, but being deeply reflective, being conscious of the effect now, the effect it might have later, and the history of why we are seeing the effect. I think consciousness is beyond perception. It’s beyond awareness because it has depth to it and it has a reflective component to it. 

2020 was like this giant band-aid getting ripped off. We were forced to look at wounds we didn’t even know were there. I personally had this deep awareness of many issues i hadn’t truly thought about before. It would be a shame if put a whole bunch of band-aids on top some deep, systemic issues of our times, as we go into 2021. 

What we need is a deep consciousness of what it really means to live in a system. The body, the brain, the collective brain, the shared reality, the community and the citizenship components that work in nested scales to create dynamic systems. 

Michal Matlon: If you were to give one example of building development which you think applies all these principles that we were talking about, which one would you select and why?

Upali: I would recommend a new Living Learning Campus that has been designed in UC San Diego, for multiple reasons. It was built with a lot of these concepts like ventilation, social connection, making the healthy choice the easy choice. It is also the site of a longitudinal research project created via a coalition between academic and industry partners. 

UCSD North Torrey Pines
UCSD North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood. Image:

I’ve learnt a lot with this process. We are doing a longitudinal study on that building around around health, well-being and other outcomes that we can measure. We’re also learning from a fellow who lives there and her daily observations about things that we didn’t even think of measuring. That would be my example for both a design that was very intentional and a process where you’re immersing yourself in it and learning every day so that you can evolve the next generation of spaces as they happen. 

One of the things that we found through the study with Eleanor is the changing nature of the window. It was very interesting because we started with the window being able to be a space for light and air to come in. During COVID it became an avenue for social connection with others, because you could open the window, you could be inside, but you could reach out so balconies and windows became something very important. It let you breathe physically and socially.

We found in Eleanor’s observation how students turned their rooms into TikToK rooms. They changed colors in their rooms, and they started putting social and political messages through the windows.  It showed us how windows have become an avenue for social signaling and social agency as well.

The college campus is a live, learn, play ecosystem that is a prototype for a city, and a community. I would choose UC San Diego not because of it’s incredible design, ecological sensitivity, deep research and strategies to prompt healthy decision making, or all the incredible components that promote student community, but because it is a living, learning ecosystem committed to changing and evolving.

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