Farzana Gandhi is an Architect and Associate Professor at the New York Institute of Technology. Her architecture and planning practice, Farzana Gandhi Design Studio, focuses on sustainable and socially conscious solutions, both locally and abroad. Recent work includes a primary school in Senegal, Africa; community visioning and streetscape design in East Harlem, NY; resiliency strategies and NYCHA campus connectivity in Inwood, NY; digital tools and applications aimed at effective community engagement; and replicable, modular infrastructure for Puerto Rico. Farzana is most interested in how widespread social impact can be achieved at the intersection of architecture and its environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic framework. Her deep commitment to community outreach is driven by deep inquiry, investigation, and integration. 

  • What is the role a humanitarian architect plays in facing our contemporary challenges? 

As we all know, our societal and environmental challenges are increasingly more complex and are affecting all parts of the world – vulnerable communities everywhere are at risk. It is essential in this context that architects and urban designers look at things at multiple scales and in collaboration with multiple disciplines. The built environment needs to be rethought with climate adaptation strategies; working with local materials and reducing the carbon footprint. We also have to think beyond our typical notions of design. At times when working on the ground with local communities, we find that the problems being faced far exceed what solutions a new building or urban plan could offer. Hence, we often enter into other realms such as those of policy making, business planning, advocacy and activism, product design, and technology. To maximize impact, we need to be able to collaborate with many other experts and make the most out of each process. The insight provided by others can often inspire more comprehensive and innovative solutions.

  • Your studio has an interdisciplinary approach where spatial practice can act as a catalyst for systemic change. After developing projects in several countries like Senegal, the United States, or Puerto Rico, what are your methodologies to address complexity in your work?

Methodologies are of prime importance while working in the humanitarian field. These involve working with communities hand-in-hand and on the ground, building trust, and maintaining transparency. What is essential is to be quite humble and recognize that the local residents, as the experts, know their problems best and we are there to facilitate solutions. We should aim to empower them in a way that they can help themselves, enabling them to express their problems and concerns in a knowledgeable way – sometimes, they simply don’t have the vocabulary and the means to reach their goals. The engagement process needs to start at the beginning and continue throughout. Most importantly, is to listen deeply and approach without preconceived ideas. The economic, policy, and social frameworks in each place are often quite different. It is crucial that design proposals are developed to meet the constraints and needs of each local community while, at the same time, are possibly prototypical to adapt these solutions in other contexts. 

Community building. Image courtesy of Farzana Gandhi.
  • Your focus on tackling forced migration or any emergency response builds social and environmental resiliency through spatial practice. Why do you think combining the first relief response with long-term solutions is crucial? 

I think it is very important to consider appropriate design responses across complex disaster timelines, from relief to reconstruction to resiliency. First, the relief stage and immediate response may include safety and damage assessment along with meeting basic needs for water, food, and shelter. Second, within the process of reconstruction, there is a focus on rebuilding homes, schools, and offices, but also large-scale redevelopment including roads, bridges, transportation lines, power lines, and communication systems. Lastly, building resiliency is long-term and often the most important for vulnerable areas that are repeatedly hit. This is because resiliency is not only about providing building retrofits and sustainable strategies at the urban and landscape scales but also about constructing social resiliency. Part of what we do is prepare communities by building networks that can collaborate and structure a local level of self-governance in times of crisis. With strong organizational systems like mutual aid groups in place, the next disaster proves to be less damaging than the previous.

At the moment, my team and I are developing a series of apps to help facilitate this process of engagement and that of building community capacity. 

  • You are a professor at the NYIT; how do you see the relationship between your practice and academia? 

My teaching, research, and practice are intimately related, each continually informing the other. I learn a lot from my students; they inspire me so much and it is truly a mutual exchange. I am very interested in developing a role for design beyond a classic understanding of the disciplines, and I find that students of this generation are also very keen to broaden the discourse of architecture. For me, the classroom is a rich testing ground for these emerging dimensions of practice, especially as they relate to unique models for considering multi-faceted social and environmental problems, both locally and abroad. I often teach design and research courses that include collaboration with real clients and real contexts. As such, students are confronted with real constraints that inspire innovative opportunities and solutions. The connection between academia and practice is very enriching, both for the students and also for my own development as a teacher and practitioner. 

Senegal Education Center. Image courtesy of Farzana Gandhi.
  • You are currently collaborating at MICSEA in our local workshop with local institutions (Generalitat de Catalunya and Ajuntament de Sant Cugat) to address climate disasters relief in Catalonia and international scenarios. Can you describe the strategies and issues you are working on? 

Dr. Carmen Mendoza Arroyo and I are fortunate to be working together and with local agencies and the collaboration has been excellent so far. What we have found is that there is a real gap within design when it comes to relief or evacuation center typologies. The go-to solution is typically that of inadequately housing evacuees in buildings such as sports facilities that are not otherwise equipped or designed to accommodate this emergency use. Challenges include spaces with a lack of privacy and insufficient access to food, water, and sanitation. Alternatively, one could ask what a facility that is specifically designed for this emergency use, first, and everyday-use, second, might offer differently in terms of site design, program, spatial organization, materials/construction, and building systems.

We are studying three disaster types: flooding, chemical hazards, and wildfires and comparing contexts and response across specific case studies for each in Spain and the United States. The timelines vary significantly. For example, in a chemical hazard, the evacuation can last for less than 24 hours, while for wildfires or floods, primary homes may be compromised and displaced individuals may remain in shelters for months. While it is crucial to design provisions for food, electricity, water, hygiene, medical aid and mental health, and communications for those who are displaced, it is equally important to design spaces that can enable every-day working and learning activities to continue for entire communities when offices and schools are damaged.

Community workshop. Image courtesy of Farzana Gandhi.

We are considering two cases: First, a retrofit solution that equips an existing building with the needed renewable resources to operate off-the-grid and enables optimal re-use of spaces in emergency scenarios. Second, the design of a new building where emergency evacuation use is considered from the start with a spatial organization that efficiently allows transformation between this use and an everyday community use. 

In collaboration with local agencies, we have identified a series of sites in Sant Cugat, vulnerable to either chemical hazard or wildfire risk. Students are rigorously analyzing these sites and their potential for development. This includes deep community engagement as well as larger-scale urban analysis for mobility, transportation/access, evacuation routes, and relationship to adjacent land use and urban fabric. We hope to develop a series of detailed design guidelines that can enable implementation for pilot prototypes here in Sant Cugat, but also in other places such as the United States.

  • The next step will be the Field Trip to Ecuador, where you will work with the research agency Flacso. Can you share some of the plans for the trip?

In Ecuador, we are going to work in a neighborhood in Quito called ‘La lucha de los pobres’. This is an area that is really dependent on its agricultural production, both for its subsistence and food security, and also for its economy. This production is tied to larger territorial conditions where the green infrastructure systems of landscape, topography, natural elements, and public spaces, are intertwined with the blue infrastructure systems of drinking water, rainwater collection, stormwater drainage, and sewage management. The area is also increasingly being affected by climate change risks from floods, landslides, and temperature changes. We will study these parameters and how they influence everything from urban orchard production to food transportation / distribution to markets as these form the center of commercial and social neighborhood activities. 

The project will involve a multi-scaled approach and include a meaningful process of community and stakeholder interviews and surveys. We will develop a socio-spatial assessment as well as a climate risk report with recommendations for the next steps. Furthermore, we are happy to be working with other disciplines including those of social sciences and anthropology with our partners at Flacso. Their input alongside that of the community will inspire more comprehensive solutions for the overall project.

  1. How do you see the future of current generations involved in the humanitarian field? How do you think its engagement will impact the architecture discipline at large? 

I think that the design profession is rapidly changing and that the way we teach our students also needs to change. In the humanitarian sector, we are starting to have a seat at the table and I believe that it is very important that architects and urban designers maintain and grow this presence. We are uniquely trained to work with both each individual part along with the sum of those parts at the same time. We can work at a very small and technical scale to ensure implementation, while also working to put all the pieces together holistically as a system. We have the capacity to offer great insight to conversations with public policy experts, economists, anthropologists, engineers, and climatologists to name just a few. This comprehensive way of thinking is increasingly important as we embrace broader challenges, and we should aim to design not just a singular building or urban space, but rather catalysts and entire frameworks to enable maximum social impact. 

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