Jan 12, 2018
THEME: Learning

How Vandana Nayak Shapes Buildings

Born in Bangalore, India, Vandana Nayak left for Dallas in 2000, where she has spent the last 17 years adding to her client list and portfolio. She joined Perkins+Will only three months ago, as a regional practice leader for our K-12 and higher-education work in Texas. She spoke by phone from the Dallas practice’s new office (which happens to be in a reimagined high school building).

What was your earliest experience of architecture?

When I was a little girl, I had an artistic side. I loved to draw and paint and create things with my hands. Then there was this other side, which I absolutely adored: mathematics and science, the geekier stuff. When I was very young, my dad asked me if I’d ever considered being an architect, and said I had the talent for it. He introduced me to architect friends of his. He’d take me out on daddy-daughter dates, and point out buildings by famous architects. Very early on, I could tell this was it. When I reached high school, that work began in earnest.

Do you remember which buildings?

One of my dad’s friends, a Mumbai architect named Brinda Somaya, designed the interior of a Holiday Inn in Bangalore. She also did a couple of interesting commercial buildings. I remember going to her office sometime around 1986 or 1987 to see how it all worked—models and paper everywhere, I just thought it was really cool.

So I remained focused on architecture throughout high school and eventually studied architecture at Bangalore University. While there, I only wanted to do high-end homes. I joined a council of young design students, similar to an AIA student group. And through that group, right before I graduated, I met the founder of a boutique firm doing nice work in that region. I initially got to work on many residential projects, with great detailing, modern touches, all very contextually thoughtful. But then we won a competition for a school building, and I started working on that. It was called St. Patrick’s High School, in Bangalore, at the intersection of two busy urban streets, and there was a church on campus. So we wanted to use the streets as a point of access, but once the kids were on campus, we wanted a very focused, inward-looking private space with a sense of acoustical separation. And working with that client was so much more satisfying than doing houses. I started to feel that educational architecture had a real sense of place—a sense of permanence and purpose. A house doesn’t feel the same, when you compare the two as types.

When it was time to come to the US, I looked for a firm that was known for schools. And the most successful in the region was SHW, in Dallas. I started as an intern. Within my first five or ten years, I got to work in all aspects of architecture. I worked in Texas and all along the East Coast, staying firmly in the educational realm. I became a partner there about six years ago, three years before we merged into Stantec. And I’ve been at Perkins+Will for three months!

How would you characterize the conditions facing the sector in your region?

As far as opportunities go, this continues to be a fast-growing region. We have a lot of younger families shopping for best schools and there are a lot of interesting and worthy educational projects. It’s a great time to be in the educational architecture world. The challenges center around that same success. The unemployment rate is very low so find staff isn’t easy. Secondly, there a lot of players in this region, so we as a firm must create good stories to differentiate ourselves and win even more work.

How do you distinguish your work from that of others? What helps, when looking for projects?

In the past fifteen years, I’ve seen a change in the higher-ed world. There is a greater need for making a difference through design. They’re all competing for students, and design is no longer an afterthought in the client’s mind but key to attraction and retention. I like to build clients’ trust by giving the service they want and deserve. That’s really important today, where everyone on the owner’s side feels pressure to make sure that they are being transparent, communicating well with their board and their constituents. Understanding what will make them successful will deliver our own success.

You’re new to Perkins+Will. Why did you choose to work here?

Design is at the core of everything we do as architects. And Perkins+Will is one of the top design firms. I actually toured Crow Island School about fifteen or twenty years ago. I also heard Ralph Johnson give a talk at Dallas Architecture Forum. I’ve seen a lot of really interesting work over the years. And I want to do interesting work! Speaking of Ralph Johnson, I mean, look at one of his recent projects, for instance, the Shanghai Natural History Museum. If you think of the very dense context of Shanghai and China’s larger cities, it’s such a profound gesture to give back land, to allow people to walk up the lawn, which becomes a roof, which gives you a view of the city from atop this giant eye—wow.

How do you think architecture benefits students? How does it define learning?

I have to quote Churchill. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” And I think it’s so true. If you’re looking at human behavior, it’s different in every context. If you’re at, say, the Cowboys stadium, the way you speak, the way you dress, the way you are, is different than if you’re walking through Nasher Sculpture Center. Nobody’s coming and telling you to be different. You are different, because the space is different. The student experience is the same. We have expectations of student behavior and achievement, and as they occupy all these different spaces, facilities play a big role in those expectations.

You asked about how space affects learning. If you look at the world we are in today, from 2000 to today, you can see that the world is a lot different. Retail, calling a taxi, getting food, nothing is what it used to be. With the advent of artificial intelligence and big data analytics, the deeper role of machines in our life, and the general entrepreneurial spirit that comes from a more connected world—it’s obvious that we are in an era of rapid change. If we are educating our children for success in the prime of their career, we can’t teach them only what I learned back when I was a kid. Today’s students are learning the reason we do things, not just that we do them. They’re learning soft skills, and finding opportunities to reflect, and making their own path through life. It is so important that our spaces allow all that. We are designing educational facilities that reflect the future of learning.

Speaking of educational facilities, how’s that cool new office?

I absolutely love it. It’s got great light, it’s open, it’s beautiful. And it’s not only a former high school, it was abandoned for years. So it gives back twice as much.

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