When you embark on a career path with no antecedents or footsteps to follow, only your determination can guide you through the innumerable challenges in your journey . But you also have the opportunity to carve your own footprint for others to follow !
Utkarsha Laharia, our next pathbreaker, Marketing Manager at University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts, puts her communications skills to work while contributing pieces to various magazines and connecting with people who are involved in arts.
Utkarsha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the need for responsible journalism in the field of Architecture that led her to pursue Arts Journalism after studying Architecture, and taking on the responsibility of communicating correct information to the society.
For students, every piece of Art around us has a context and history to it. If you love Art, it also becomes your responsibility to help preserve it for posterity by being the voice of Art!
Utkarsha, tell us about your background?
My name is Utkarsha Laharia. I am trained as an architect and an Arts Journalist. My connection to architecture goes back to the late 90’s when I was a kid. As my grandmother recalls every time I visit her place, I used to worship (literally putting flowers on the gate) a stone house while on my way to the school every morning. I do not recall that, but I remember recent tangible achievements. I graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Pune, India. Since my second year into architecture, I fell in love with mud buildings and travelled to places like Bhuj and Ladakh to understand mud as a material. As an intern architect, I worked with Hunnarshala Foundation in Bhuj and SECMOL in Ladakh. It was during this journey that I felt a need for responsible media presence in the field of architecture. Soon, I came to the U.S. to pursue masters in Arts Journalism. (There is not master’s degree in architecture journalism as of 2021)
My writings have been published in several national mediums like the Architect’s Newspaper, the American Theatre Magazine, the Syracuse Post-standard, local papers like the South Side Stand, the Newshouse among others. Do give it a read!
Art, architecture, history and small places—this is what I dream about. Most of the time you will find me with my camera and my journal. I chase squirrels in my free time.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my M.A. Arts Journalism (Syracuse University) after B.Arch .
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
There are 1 or 2 qualified architecture journalists in India, lack of them and a dire need of them made me pursue this career (my recent piece might explain that need https://www.archpaper.com/2020/12/impending-demolition-of-louis-kahn-indian-institute-of-management-ahmedabad-prompts-outcry/ ). I always read pieces by architecture critics in the U.S. like Blair Kamin, Inga Saffron, Alexandra Lange, Michael Kimmelman, Paul Goldberger, Allison Arieff, Mark Lamster among others (I got to meet and workshop with two of them in NYC!!!!)
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
I was the Newsletter and Magazine head at my B.Arch institution, but that work was never put above architecture design. I would say that the thought and inclination towards critiquing and writing about architecture was always present somewhere. After I took studying journalism seriously (explained in earlier questions at how and where), it took me 3 months to find out a masters program to proceed with, while preparing for my GRE AND TOEFL and masters applications, I kept talking to practicing architects from Delhi, Pune, Mumbai, Nagpur, Ahmedabad, my professors, friends, anyone who might know anything or who has done anything similar. It was in Ladakh, while working at SECMOL, I met with Mr. Sonam Wangchuk and talking to him cleared many doubts. I was there for almost 3 months, gave my grad school interviews at 2 a.m. in that January cold of Ladakh with not so good internet and I was still there when I received the acceptance from 3 schools in New York. I was lucky to discuss it with Mr. Wangchuk again and make the right choice. I accepted the offer from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. It is one of the leading universities in journalism and architecture.
I was involved with both —the J-schools and the arch-school. I worked with campus newspapers and as the communications intern, with the School of Architecture at Syracuse University while working as a teaching and administrative assistant ,and of course doing my classes, the mandatory ones plus many extra ones that simply interested me, like scriptwriting and history of American Television (admitted overachiever here)
Definitely, reaching out to people helped a ton! I love how emails work here. Almost everyone replies and it is easier to contact people
I took an architecture theory class by professors Mark Linder and all the rich readings and discussions that followed those readings developed my critical thinking. Of course, I come from an architecture background and that contributed a lot. It was journalism that I had to start from zero here and Newhouse prepared me well. My professors, mentors and great pool of visiting journalists were always helpful.
How did you get your first break?
Sure. After my internship got cancelled due to the pandemic which I was supposed to join as soon as i graduate, I looked at my skill sets and applied to most jobs that had them under requirements. Because I am not a US citizen, you are only permitted to work in your field of study so that naturally narrowed down my search. I had many interviews before landing this job. It is easier to find contacts and I reached out to people (working in the places I applied to) everywhere, including social media!! I made sure my approach was right and most people got back. At my current job, my boss, who is the Dean of the School of Fine Arts liked my resume and uniqueness of being educated in architecture, arts, journalism and communications. That landed me the interview and it was good from then forward.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Starting on this path wasn’t easy because there were no footsteps to follow. Doing journalism after architecture still meets with raised eyebrows and confused looks. I addressed it by following that path. And I do not think I would have it any other way. I love how no two days look similar.
Graduating in a pandemic!!! And losing a very important internship due to the pandemic. I handled it by never sitting idle. I am a workaholic and that sometimes helps.
Where do you work now?
I work at the University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts as their Marketing Manager where I put my communications skills to work while contributing pieces to various magazines where I use my journalism skills. I am also currently volunteering at the Embassy of India Student Hub in their News and Media vertical. A typical day looks like reading-writing-designing on repeat. (Including weekends sometimes)
One of the best advices I received was never to have just one job when you are an early career professional, especially in the field of journalism. Narrowing it down to architecture journalism takes the difficulty bar even higher. It takes time when this profession can provide you with stability. So, I was clear that I want a job that will be flexible enough to let me write on the side.
The best part about my current position is connecting to new people who are also involved in the arts. We have four departments in the School of Fine arts — Digital Media and Design, Dramatic arts, Art and art history and music. Never a dull day around with so much going on in all these 4 departments. I also work on developing proposals, marketing collaterals, website designing — skills which are required in most professions now. As I mentioned, I plan to start my own publication and I will definitely need all these skills that I am using on my work on a daily basis. Meanwhile, it also allows me to write about architecture.
How does your work benefit society?
Journalism is a huge responsibility of communicating correct information. My work benefits the society by keeping it correctly informed to form their own perspective and make their own decisions. Just like the narrative of architecture is a strong silent story maker, benefits of responsible journalism form history and society. Sometimes you see immediate effects (just like in the case of the writings on IIMA demolition, the governing body took back their original decisions of demolition a day after this piece I wrote went up https://www.archpaper.com/2020/12/impending-demolition-of-louis-kahn-indian-institute-of-management-ahmedabad-prompts-outcry/ ) Of course it was a collective effort of all of those who signed the petition, wrote about it and joined in to create a media uproar, but I feel happy about being a tiny part it. I spent the last 2 days of 2020 working on this piece and woke up to the positive news on the 1st of January.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
It is difficult to answer, I will put it how my mentor used to say that, each story lets you become a tiny expert on that tiny piece you are writing about. I think remembering that makes every story memorable.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Long term plans include having my own publication focusing on architecture and design based in India.
My Website : https://www.utkarshalaharia.com