Upali Nanda: The project doesn’t end when the doors open, that’s when it begins

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

Upali Nanda is a 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.

We are continuing the first part of the interview with Upali which we published in March 2021.

Michal Matlon: In one of your interviews, you said we need to stop seeing buildings as passive objects and start seeing them as living organisms that can be in conversation with our brains. Do you feel this is already being applied? And is it mainly on the technological level, as in the case of smart buildings, or is it also about qualities implemented into design?

Upali Nanda: The application seems to be more through smart cities and smart buildings. However, that is not always the intent. We are now moving almost from a human-centered to a living-centered way of thinking. For any systemic ecology to survive, it has to work in an interdependent way. 

Buildings, for the longest time, have just foisted themselves within an ecosystem, and they haven’t talked to the world outside of them. They haven’t even talked to the humans inside. That’s what we’re starting to change now. 

Sadly, although sensor-led smart cities give us enormous opportunities to do so, the conversation has shifted away from the original intent of being contextually responsive, to something more shallow. If you go back to villages made of adobe houses, those are contextually responsive solutions that do change with the weather.

I don’t believe that responsive environments are necessarily technologically enriched environments only, but technological enrichment allows us to have a conversation in a more nuanced way.

Contextually responsive design doesn’t need to be based in digital technology. Much of vernacular and traditional architecture is crafted to respond to its environment. Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Years ago, MIT was working on responsive environments. It was the idea of being able to walk into the room, and the room being able to sense what your heart rate was and what your mood was and then responding to what your needs are. That nuanced personalized approach is now possible through technology. 

The challenge is that very quickly it can become a very ego-centric approach that is not going to help us to be as eco-centric as we need to be. So it’s a very delicate balance. We can be so quickly seduced by all we can do that it’s very easy to forget what we should do. 

Michal: And what do you think we need to do to make this a purpose-driven thing?

Upali: Traditionally, architecture has always been about signature projects, saying: “This is me, this is a man, this is a statement,” and at least for some signature projects, about the claim to fame.

We have to start thinking about getting humility into the DNA of the profession because we have to remember that we cannot survive if we’re always battling against the resources we are working with. It’s a delicate balance because there’s something to it – making your statement on the planet and saying: ‘This is me, this is my overpowering of nature’, ‘This is me being able to tower and touch the sky’. 

That’s been part of the signature architecture we’ve seen. And now you’re suddenly realizing that when you can do that, you’re doing it at what cost? And is it keeping the people within it happy, healthy, and purposeful? I don’t believe that it will ever go away. I think it’s an inherent human trait that has put us at the top of the pyramid. It’s just trying to get a little more humility into the DNA of how we practice and a little more awareness of interdependencies. 

Natalia Olszewska: I remember reading an article written by one of the founders of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), John Eberhard, who said that it was crucial to understand consciousness, so we can better understand the dialogue between buildings, the human brain, and mind. Neuroscience research goes on, but if we want to rely solely on traditional research to better understand the interactions between humans and buildings, it’s going to take us a few decades. 

Now we’ve got all these technologies measuring our heart rate or skin perspiration, which on one hand advance our understanding of interactions between humans and the environment, on the other, they change the nature of these interactions. But the paradox is that they don’t tell us a lot about consciousness, they register mostly unconscious reactions. Is the idea of Eberhard still valid?

Upali: John Eberhard’s original idea was that there is knowledge that should be the foundation of architecture. Not sure that we are there yet. Forget neuroscience, we don’t even get a psychology 101 as a basis of our education.

We design for people, but we have nothing in our curriculum to understand people. We do a much better job at teaching sustainability and understanding our ecosystems, but probably have just assumed that because we are people, we understand people. That’s not how it works.

In an era that values quantification, the paradox is that we land up measuring what is measurable, but what is measurable is not always the most meaningful. And what is the most meaningful is not always the most measurable.

It is why our profession, more than any other profession, has to be very comfortable walking the fine line between art and science, between measurable and immeasurable. That is the bane and the blessing of our profession.

Natalia: Speaking of art and science, I had a chance to watch a talk at the 2019 European Healthcare Design conference in London. The title was “The Role of Intuition in Evidence-Based Design” and it was presented by two architects, D. Kirk Hamilton, a professor of design and architecture from Texas A&M University, and Stefan Lundin from White Arkitekter. 

Hamilton believed in evidence-based design, while Lundin thought that architecture was all about intuition. Despite having different perspectives they engaged in a thoughtful disagreement and now they propose that the best architectural practice lies between evidence and intuition, understood as personal knowledge and not arbitrary subjective decisions. What do you think about it? 

Upali: I agree completely. I think that was the point that I was making, it’s always a dialogue. It’s always a conversation. You want to be able to hold opposing points of view and hold them lightly so that the tension between them is what creates really interesting solutions. Evidence-based design faces the very real risk of becoming prescriptive.

What is the true environmental and human cost of “signature architecture”? Photo by Reno Laithienne on Unsplash

So oftentimes I will use the term evidence challenging design because the people who challenge the evidence are often the ones who truly engage with it. If you follow the evidence you’ve learned nothing from it, but if you start with challenging it and saying: “Okay, why did this design have this outcome? What were the affordances of the design?”, then you can build on it. That questioning, that dialogue with the evidence is necessary. And it has to come from designers, not researchers. 

When I first learned about evidence-based design, and when I read the famous article of Roger Ulrich published back in 1984, which spoke about a particular view from the hospital room’s window and impact on the healing process, I remember being the biggest skeptic of it. 

I was a grad student at that time and I started seeing posters in the university being changed from ‘knowledge-based design’ to ‘evidence-based design’. I thought it was ridiculous. I liked ‘knowledge-based design’. I also thought about Ulrich’s study critically – if you compare the beautiful brick wall to the view of the park, obviously the beautiful park is better. 

Evidence matters. Evidence keeps us accountable. But evidence doesn’t dictate design, it informs it, and is formed by it. 

But one day I was in conversation with a colleague from public health and he said: “Are you kidding? This is a game changer! If you can show for such a small thing, such a big impact, then you can actually start changing policy around it because otherwise you can keep shouting from the rooftops that design matters and no one will ever take that seriously.”

It changed my perspective fundamentally. Evidence matters. Evidence keeps us accountable. But evidence doesn’t dictate design, it informs it, and is formed by it. 

Michal: The current architectural process often forces architects to follow very strict deadlines and established procedures. Especially younger architects are often judged by the time they spend sitting in front of a computer and creating the drawings, instead of engaging with research, evidence, or users. What do you think could be the first step for the people who want to change this in their practice, their companies, their studios, to start engaging with design and evidence?

Upali: I think for it to be effective it has to start before you come into practice, it has to start with how you are taught architecture. We do have a discovery process, but typically the discovery process for architecture is case study-based. How we approach a problem, how we pose a question, how we architects learn to craft exploratory questions as well as experimental hypotheses for our design, has to be in the DNA of our curriculums.

The two or three tenets I try to follow, both in practice and pedagogy are:

  • balancing evidence and empathy
  • linking design to outcomes
  • understanding that at least in today’s world, we are designing in a world with both a footprint and a cloudpring, working between, as my colleague Deborah Wingler would say, “physical, digital, and human realms”.

The space in which we operate has become very different because the space has a new digital component to it, which didn’t exist before. Questions about “presence” are now existential questions and place-making has always fundamentally been around presence. How we define presence when I can physically and cognitively be in distinctly different spaces is the conundrum of our times. 

I have found, in my experience, that designers are deep thinkers. They are very much in tune with what they feel a certain context needs, but they do not always have the tools to frame that, or articulate it in terms of research questions or design hypotheses. It all happens in the black box of the designer’s mind. 

Pulling out the design intent and clearly stating: ‘This is the design intent, these are the intended outcomes’ is an exercise that they don’t traditionally engage with. I think there is a lot of room to do the discovery and then at the very end to do the feedback loop component, because this is another piece that’s missing. We somehow stop engaging long before the building is occupied.

An understanding of the human brain can help us progress in meaningful rather than simply speedy ways.

If every designer, at a bare minimum, had to immerse themselves in the context that they’re designing, for some time, and then after the project was completed, to immerse themselves in the lived experience, that alone would make such a difference in how we think. 

That’s not rocket science, that’s not evidence-based design. That’s just building the skills of empathy and realizing that there is a big gap between rendering and reality. Another line that we often use is that “the project doesn’t end when the doors open, that’s when it begins”

Natalia: What role could translational research from neuroscience and behavioral sciences play in your field? Can these insights inform design decisions? 

Upali: A foundation in human perception is a powerful design tool, a hundred percent. There is a wealth of information that is relevant. Just take simple things, like how perceptual illusions work. They tell you something about how our brain processes stimuli- which architects design!. 

Such things should be 101 knowledge for an architect because you’re designing for perceptual systems. The human brain has evolved over millennia. Buildings are much younger, and our technologies are even younger. An understanding of the human brain can help us progress in meaningful rather than simply speedy ways.

We are still pretty much a variation of that prehistoric brain in a rapidly transforming world. So if we do not understand how our brain works, we lose opportunities. Translational research has never been more critical, to develop common ground between architects and neuroscientists, and move us forward as a society.

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