As India continues its march towards building world class infrastructure and meeting sustainable development goals, our towns and cities need to keep pace through citizen centric design, globally par civic amenities and environmentally friendly planning practices.

Surya Srinivas, our next pathbreaker, works on urban projects – Master Planning of smart cities, new cities, towns, streets, trying to understand site context and providing strategies and design solutions for everyday urban issues, thus creating a better future vision for the city.

Surya talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his multi-disciplinary work with various experts such as planners, landscape architects, engineers, social workers, economists, environmentalists, etc., to build new communities, solve urban issues and develop existing cities, that makes him feel at home as an Urban Designer.

For students, we spend more than 90% of our lives in our towns and cities, apply your design and problem solving skills to create inclusive living spaces for citizens !

Surya, tell us about Your background?

I come from a small village called Timmapuram, East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh. My father is a small farmer with a few acres of land and my mother is a homemaker. They both had to discontinue their education at a young age because of family responsibilities. Thus, being passionate about education, my mother was determined to give my siblings and myself a good education as the most valuable asset. A few of my uncles who had managed to complete diploma and college degrees at that time were my parent’s inspiration. 

Thus, my parents decided to move to the city of Visakhapatnam for access to good education, facilities and opportunities when I was in class 3. My father started a small business and used to visit the village a few times to look after the farms. 

I completed my schooling from the DAV Public school in Visakhapatnam. I enjoyed my schooling there because I was exposed to a whole new world of sports and cultural competitions in which I participated, besides education. Cricket has been my favorite sport since then and I used to play with my contemporaries most of the time after school hours or on the streets. I also wanted to be trained in dance as a hobby but couldn’t pursue it due to a lack of proper guidance. I was a bright student in school, not always the topper but managed good grades. Growing up, I always wanted to get into the civil services, because the role it played in the functioning of our society interested me the most. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my Graduation in Bachelors of Architecture (B.Arch) from the Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture and Fine Arts University, Hyderabad and continued to do my Master’s degree in Urban Design (MUD) from the School of  Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

After my 10th grade, I also joined the race for cracking the IIT and AIEEE entrance exams like most of the students around me. The whole education system in the state of Andhra Pradesh at that time had taken a different shape as it revolved only around engineering and medicine. So, coming from a middle-class family, I also aspired to get into one of the prestigious colleges in the country.  

While applying for the AIEEE exam, I saw the section for architecture and consulted one of my relatives who is an architect. ‘It has got something to do with buildings’, this was my only introduction and knowledge about the profession at that time. (Fun fact: He is the same uncle with a college degree I referred to earlier. Until that day, many others like me didn’t realize that he is an architect by profession, NOT an engineer. Many people still don’t know the difference). And thus, I gave the test with hardly any preparation and got a decent rank. Later I studied for the state test in architecture and got one among the top ranks which got me straight into one of the oldest colleges for architecture in the country and that was my first shift to a bigger and new city Hyderabad.

It didn’t take long for me to understand that architectural education is one of the toughest professional courses in the world. Architecture, being a creative field, you are trained to explore spaces and buildings using your creative skills, but with an overlay of technology. There are no fixed formulae or definitive answers, unlike other courses. The whole idea of architecture interested me and I started enjoying the whole process. I very quickly got used to late-night work, long hours, design thinking and problems, sheets, models, rejections, redos, design arguments, discussions, learning from seniors and working for them. There is an annual national congregation of architecture students , where all students across the country meet. It is a great opportunity to understand the work of students across the country. This experience got me really inspired and I felt the urge to study in a national level college. 

One of our semesters had a studio on the theme “Urban Design”, that was my introduction to the field of Urban Design, and the very idea of it really created an impression on me. In due course, I learnt about the subject, realised the importance of urban design in our cities and decided to pursue a  post-graduation in urban design and got admitted into one of the most prestigious institutions for Architecture and Urban Design education in the country, SPA, New Delhi. The entrance process for the institution involved a strong application, good design portfolio and rounds of interviews; GATE score is an additional advantage. Many students across India, freshers from college, to people with work experience, mainly from the architectural background apply for the course. The main important criteria is your work and the interview, and the passion to take the up the course.

This was a major turning point in my life as I met students from different parts of the country, cultures, languages which gave me a better perspective about people, and helped me gain knowledge about various places, food, cultures, backgrounds, professions etc. Urban design is the study of the public realm and involves master planning, designing neighborhoods, existing and new cities, streets at varying scales. It made me a better architect and a better citizen. In India, urban design is still a lesser known profession and is still in a nascent stage. 

As an urban designer, one works with multi-disciplinary teams of various experts such as planners, landscape architects, engineers, social workers, economists, environmentalists, etc., to build new communities, solve urban issues and develop existing cities, and the idea of this made me feel at home.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

In one of the semesters towards the end of the fifth year of my bachelors, we are required to do a professional internship for six months with an architectural firm in the country. Impressed with the works of various firms and their architectural design language, I decided to do my internship in Bangalore, with an architecture firm called Satya Consultants, led by Ar. Satya Prakash Varanashi. This firm is mostly involved in the design of residences with sustainable principles, such as working with local materials, traditional principles and styles, less impact on the environment, local craft, etc. It has created a great impact on me, and I still follow those principles in my designs. I had applied to few firms by sending out my portfolio and CV (this is the first time I made one). After interviews, I got selected in two firms. I joined Satya Consultants because i was inclined towards their type of work. As part of my internship, I worked on many residential projects. The Internship helped me understand the ground reality, improve my technical skills, apply various learnings from college for real projects, develop design schemes, make drawings and scaled models and interact with people from various colleges and with varied experience. I did lot of mistakes during this period and learned from them. My seniors and colleagues helped to improve. 

After my graduation, I took up a job in Hyderabad, working under an architect named Nanda Kumar for one year. In this firm, I got involved with a different scale and variety of architectural projects, which were in different phases in terms of timelines. The working experience enabled me to deal with the on-ground situation with contractors, clients, vendors, etc. I designed a few residences, commercial offices, housing projects, and interior projects. 

After my masters, I worked with INTACH, an NGO for architectural heritage in India for about 6 months. I worked for a national mission called HRIDAY cities for the city of Warangal. Working on this urban conservation project, I got an opportunity to work with city authorities, bureaucrats, planners, etc. right in the early phases of my career. After my masters, my thesis guide has suggested me this opportunity. I had given an interview and got selected. The project involved mapping of heritage assets of the city, categorising them into various types (historical, natural, cultural etc.) and providing a strategic plan to protect and enhance the heritage of the city along with a city heritage design toolkit for Warangal. As per the mission guidelines, the interventions are mainly urban or infrastructural improvements around the monuments, instead of the actual restoration/conservation of the monuments itself. So my profile as an urban designer suited the job. The opportunity to work on a historical city from my own state and be part of a national mission project, had excited to take up this job.

After that, I took up a job at a multinational consulting firm called AECOM, working on smart city projects and various master planning, urban design projects across various geographies. I have worked on different scales of projects during my four- and half-year tenure here. I am mostly involved in smart city projects. As consultants we work with the city officials to understand the existing situation, the aspirations of the citizens, establish vision for future developments, develop strategies and create long term-short term goals and projects to achieve them. A multi-disciplinary team, such as planners, designers, social experts, infrastructural engineers, environmental experts, economic experts etc. work on the project. As urban designers, we contribute and help in envisioning the city, developing strategies and mainly intervene in the sector of master planning, built improvements, open spaces and public realm of the city. These involve small to large scale interventions in the city which improve the everydayness of the city, create better spaces for the people, design sustainable mobility choices for people and make cities a better place. 

In 2018, I got selected for a Young Professional’s Program by the Government of France and India as a participant of the first batch of the YUDAP Programme. It was a new program launched by French government in collaboration with Government of India. This program involved two institutions in India, one institution in France and many other agencies, and was designed for young professional with minimum 2 years of experience in the field. The selection process included three rounds of interviews with different panels. The program was introduced for the profession of architecture, urban design, conservation architecture and planners.  As part of it, I worked with a conservation architect, at the Louvre museum, Paris for 6 months. I learned about the French way of doing things, how they approach design, think beyond just solving problems, planning of the urban projects and their execution, and mostly their redevelopment/refurbishing projects for defunct places and dilapidated structures. Cities are continuously evolving as per requirements in terms of future design needs, and goals keeping in mind both their heritage and new developments. This experience was one of the turning points in my career and in my life as I travelled extensively across various countries in Europe, attained a first-hand experience of many historical and contemporary architectural and urban design projects by eminent architects. This helped me deepen my understanding of the subject and evolve as a professional.

How did you get your first break? 

In the Architecture and Urban Design profession there are next to NIL campus interview opportunities. You need to approach the offices and firms with your work portfolios for getting a job. Here, networking helps in a great way to know about the opportunities.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

It is always a challenge to shift to a new place and struggle with a new language and a new set of people, but it also provides an opportunity to learn a new language, know about the people and explore the place.

As an architect and urban designer, it is difficult to convince the client with solutions, and ensure their thoughts are addressed. We should do a lot of research and get ourselves updated with the changes to address the requirements appropriately. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

I am currently working with AECOM India, a US-based Multi-national consulting firm in Gurugram, as part of their Design and Planning department. We work on urban projects such as smart cities, master planning, new cities, towns, streets etc. We try to understand the site in its context and provide strategies and design solutions for everyday urban issues and work towards creating a better future vision for the city. One needs to be efficient with design skills along with being well equipped with software scales and informed about urban changes and innovations happening across the globe.

A typical day sometimes can be a normal 9-5 job, but that is a very rare scenario. The intensity of the projects and tight timelines of deliverables requires us to work long hours, something that we get trained for right from the days of architecture education. However, the importance of the job and the social impact of the project always encourages and inspires one to go the extra mile and work hard to create a good environment for ourselves and the public.

How does your work benefit society? 

All architectural and urban design projects benefit the society either directly or indirectly. Architectural projects help to realize a person’s dream of having a house and realizing the idea of their work and leisure spaces by the design of housing, apartments, offices, hotels etc., These projects directly plug in to be a part of the larger city fabric. 

Urban design projects have a direct impact on the society, from designing a small public space like a community park or a street to large neighborhoods and cities. It directly impacts the everyday lives of the people. In any urban project the ultimate and the most important stakeholders are the people.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

In my humble career, even though I believe the best is yet to come, any project where a creative idea and the client’s dream is realized into a physical project, is always a special and memorable one.

As part of the Smart City Visakhapatnam Project, I worked on the upliftment of government schools. This is a very small project having a great impact on the children from very poor families who come here for education. I have worked towards improving the study environment, providing better sports facilities and providing access to the latest technology while most importantly improving basic infrastructure such as sanitation, water facilities etc. The impact of this project brought a sense of belongingness, happiness and smiles on the faces of the students. The enrollment of the schools also improved in the coming year. This project will always be special to me.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My simple advice to students is to enjoy their education, have goals and try to achieve them, but don’t pressurize yourself for it. The journey and process are more important than the destination. So, enjoy every moment. Always take risks, it’s okay if it doesn’t work out, the idea of taking risks is important. Learning and change is constant, so one’s ideas and goals constantly evolve.

Try to excel in your favorite activity, sports, cultural etc. as equally as your studies. They will always help you in gaining new perspectives and face challenges and becoming resilient. Always improve your personal skills, like reading, writing, public speaking and curiosity to learn new things which will always lead you to success.

(Fun Fact: Even though I am preaching and suggesting all of this, out of my experience, I still struggle with a lot of these so it’s okay. 😊)

Future Plans?

After a good 4-5 years of exposure to the architecture and urban design world, I now aim to start my own architectural and urban design studio and work towards creating better spaces and places for our cities and the society.

Parallelly, I also wish to work with organizations or individuals in the sector of small towns and villages of our country. Coming from that background, I feel that there are issues that need to be addressed and can be resolved with proper strategies.