Fauzia Khanani is no stranger to challenging the status quo. Working on a range of projects around the globe, from New York and Zurich to Budapest and Geneva, she continues to rethink the process of design across the built environment. Her firm, Studio For, is pioneering new prototypes for the future of work in a post pandemic era. At the same time, she's working on a number of pro-bono conceptual community-driven projects.
Fauzia looks at design through many different lenses, as she was born in Canada but grew up in North Carolina. Her parents immigrated to Canada and then the United States as refugees from Uganda in the early 1970s due to a military coup by Idi Amin. Prior to launching her architecture studio, she received degrees in sociology and public health, and worked in the public health research world. In an interview with ArchDaily, Fauzia discusses her interests and why she began her own studio, as well as her thoughts on how architecture and design will evolve.
Why did you choose to study architecture?
From my early teens, I had an interest in architecture but ended up studying sociology and public health in my undergraduate education instead. As I dove deeper into my public health career, I began to make the direct connection between health and shelter, and their combined impact on quality of life for people. At that point, I was debating between getting an MPH, MD or MArch and ultimately I decided on the last option.
Can you tell us about how you started Studio For, and how is the studio structured today?
I never really imagined myself having my own firm but I was approached back in 2010 for a house commission in New York. At the time, I was living in Oakland and had already been considering moving back to the east coast to be closer to family. We were still dealing with the effects of the 2008 recession so I was hesitant to make any big moves, but that solo project allowed me to do so. The firm has generally been run by me with the support of one or two other people but I have always tried to create a collaborative office culture where we provide the space for people to contribute to the big decisions in our office.
As with most firms, our studio is in flux as we navigate these uncertain times. But in many ways, the pandemic has given us the space to reflect on the first 10 years (our 10th anniversary is February 28th!) and really think proactively about our next 10 years. We’ve been in discussions about things like: How do we develop as a group of like-minded designers from multiple generations and diverse backgrounds? How do we bring to the forefront the social and design justice projects that brought us together in the first place? How do we get those types of projects as a small firm?
Your work is rooted in social science research and public health; how can architects learn from and engage outside fields?
Historically, there has been this notion that architects are “experts” when it comes to design, space and buildings. This to me is the antithesis of what I learned from my sociological and public health education and work experience. Research and engagement were fundamental parts of that previous career and I’ve tried to carry that over into my architectural practice, regardless of project type or client. Bringing in others with knowledge and experience, be it professionals or the client community, should be the standard practice from which all projects start/originate.
What are some recent projects you’ve been working on?
We’ve been working on quite a variety of projects lately including two global pilot projects for the future of the workplace in Hong Kong and Zurich. Some of our past residential clients have come back to us with alteration ideas now that we are all spending so much time at home. We’re also doing some pro-bono projects through Design Advocates, which benefits underserved communities and those who generally do not have access to architects and designers. One project involves the design of an outdoor community center for a food justice non-profit called Healthy Hearts at an urban farm in a Northern California housing development. Another is the redesign of the public spaces for Zaman International, a nonprofit organization in Michigan that helps marginalized women and their children break free from the cycle of poverty.
You are part of the Design as Protest Collective; how is the group advocating anti-racist design and justice in the built environment?
We at DAP are trying to create a movement towards not only a more just and equitable built environment but also aiming to change the architecture and design industry as a whole. We call it Design Justice. Our collective work focuses on areas from youth organizing to direct action organizing and design education. We believe in holding firms accountable when they claim being anti-racist practices - be it in their internal practices or the work that they produce. Two direct action campaigns that began in 2020 and continue into 2021 are DAP GOTV (Get Out the Vote) and DAP Buildable Memorials, a campaign honoring Black Lives lost in police encounters. We are also trying to partner with like-minded collectives and organizations to support each other. By joining forces and energies, we hope to create swifter change at a larger scale, at both the structural and policy levels.
With changes to climate, technology, and construction, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession?
The built environment has a tremendous impact on our planet and climate change so part of our role as designers is to be innovative and to design for lesser impact and greater resilience. Whether it’s building materials and systems, construction techniques or environmental impacts like heat islands in urban areas, all of it ultimately relates back to public health. The way in which we, as architects and designers, implement our work directly correlates to quality to life for communities.
Changes due to COVID-19 have been swift. How do you think the pandemic will shape design?
The impact of the pandemic on space and design in general has unfolded in so many ways and tangents. It’s hard to predict how many of the changes will be long term but the whole concept of “personal space” has totally shifted to a larger expanse for safety reasons. With our workplace clients, we’ve seen remote working become the norm. This is fundamentally shifting how offices will function and how interaction takes place once people return. Our studio has been working on two global pilot projects to see how these ideas manifest in reality. There has also been a big spotlight on how existing housing policies have perpetuated the economic divide, highlighted inequality, and ultimately resulted in a greater spread of COVID-19. Policies related to eviction, public health access in housing communities, and the quality of housing need to be addressed now. These are pervasive and persistent conditions that will continue into the future unless we are better prepared to address them.
As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
Architects and designers have the ability to create spaces that improve experience and quality of life for people, but they also have the capacity to be advocates and amplify the voices of communities when it comes to the built environment. They can act as agents for change when it comes to city programs, the rights of construction workers, small business owners, and JEDI with regard to our industry and practices. One thing that this past year has proven is that we can leverage our positions to be catalysts for change.
I’ve certainly learned how much impact is possible when architects and designers come together through my recent experiences with Design Advocates (D/A). A group of small firm owners, including myself, initially came together with the idea of putting our skills and time to address design challenges stemming from COVID-19 and formed D/A in Spring 2020. Our network has now expanded to 150+ small architecture and design firms, individuals and advising firms who provide pro bono services to small businesses and community organizations with a focus on creating a more just built environment through design and advocacy.