Buildings have evolved from just being physical structures to inclusive spaces, shaping our personal and professional identities as well as governing our overall health and wellbeing !
Sruthi Atmakur-Javdekar, our next pathbreaker, works on improving home, play and work environments through a multi-disciplinary approach involving the practice of architecture, landscape architecture and environmental psychology.
Sruthi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about realising that architecture is not just about designing buildings but also about focusing on issues related to but not limited to climate justice, youth participation and governance, policy-making, environmental protection and human-comfort and well-being.
For students, the process of learning never stops, because learning is all about adapting yourself to changing times and needs !
Sruthi, what can you tell us about yourself?
I was born in Bengaluru, raised in Hyderabad, and later moved to the United States for further studies. I now live in Pune with my husband, two daughters and two dogs.
My mother is from Bengaluru with a specialisation in early childhood education (She was actually a Montessori teacher!) and my father is an architect from Hyderabad.
When I was 16, I helped set up a kindergarten for my mum and worked with her at her school. Early on, I had an interest in teaching and in the fine arts. As a kid, I loved solving puzzles, math problems, drawing; and I remember borrowing tracing sheets from my father’s architectural studio to draw. Though I never aimed to become an architect, after my 12th, I chose to study architecture as I was drawn to the multidisciplinary nature of the subject.
During the initial years of my bachelors education in architecture from India, I was taught that architecture is more than just designing buildings. This thought stuck with me and I explored it when I moved to the United States where I chose to pursue a doctorate in Environmental Psychology.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I received my bachelors degree in architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture, JNTU, Hyderabad; and my Masters in Landscape Architecture from Virginia Tech, Blacksburg.
Later, I received my PhD in Environmental Psychology from The Graduate Center, City University of New York in New York City.
What brought you to where you are today? Can you talk about some of your influences in this journey?
Though my father is an architect, he did not directly influence me to study architecture; however, I did grow up in a community of fun architect-aunts and -uncles, who I always looked up to. Looking back, they did subconsciously influence me and shape my career choices.
Dr. Roger Hart and Dr. Pamela Wridt are my mentors who helped me find my voice and develop my agency through my doctoral journey and during work projects with the Children’s Environments Research Group (CERG), at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Moving out of my home country to the United States helped develop my ‘young-professional’ identity. Studying, working abroad and meeting friends who are now family, were critical life events.
Working with Dr. Roger Hart, Dr. Pamela Wridt and colleagues at the Children’s Environments Research Group (CERG), New York, was a turning point in my career – both professionally and personally. It is at CERG where I realised that empathy and kindness go a long way in one’s life.
A little bit about the career path you took ?
I believe that with a curious mind, learning never stops. Across all stages of my education and professional life, I have followed my interests and worked with people who bring varied perspectives to the table.
During my bachelors, I received two gold medals for excellence in architecture. I could have stopped at that and started my own practice in India, but I always had the desire to learn and invest a few years of my adult life in the academic setting. I then received a research fellowship during my masters in landscape architecture at Virginia Tech where my masters project focused on human behaviour in public spaces.
Unfortunately, I graduated from my masters during the 2008 economic crisis, which meant that my 200+ job applications in North-Eastern America were in vain. It was a tough time to get hired. So, I followed my instincts to learn and continued my exploration of how spaces are used by people of different ages, abilities, gender and race. After meeting with students and faculty at the Graduate Center, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Needless to say, I applied to the Environmental Psychology PhD program at the Graduate Center, and made it through the rigorous admission process.
During my PhD program, I did not receive university fellowships to support my academic fees and living expenses. This meant that I had the privilege of teaching undergraduate students at Brooklyn College and working on live actionable-implementable projects with my mentors at the Children’s Environments Research Group (CERG). CERG is a university research group within the Center of Human Environments at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Essentially, CERG “links university scholarship with the development of policies, environments, and programs to fulfill children’s rights and improve the quality of their lives.” You can learn more about CERG’s work here: http://www.cergnyc.org
I am grateful that my work at CERG gave me a wealth of experience, which I would not have otherwise received. While at CERG, I worked primarily on the Child Friendly Places (CFP) methodology that enabled me to work across the globe in places like New York City, Haiti, Uganda, Benin, Egypt, India and other West African Countries. The Child Friendly Places methodology is an intergenerational, child-friendly and participatory approach to improving lives of children, young people, their caregivers and stakeholders through child friendly assessments and planning of their immediate surroundings, communities and schools. I worked closely with Dr. Pamela Wridt to develop the community assessment tools and methods that continue to be adapted, scaled and implemented in more than 30 countries. You can learn more about the CFP methodology here: https://cergnyc.org/portfolio/child-friendly-places.
You might be wondering, what is environmental psychology? And how does my work at CERG or my background in architecture contribute to the field of environmental psychology?
To put it simply, Environmental Psychology focuses on the relationships between human-beings and the environment (natural and built). Our work comprises issues related to but not limited to climate justice, youth participation and governance, policy-making, environmental protection, sustainability and resilience, community development, post-occupancy evaluations and human-comfort and well-being in architecture and building design. Within this all-encompassing field, my PhD research focused on the relationship between children, their caregivers and the environments they live and play in. My work portfolio includes children’s play opportunities in urban high-rise housing, and design and planning of child-friendly cities, communities and schools with a strong participatory approach.
Today, I put together my varied life-experiences from internships, academic and professional projects, into my multi-disciplinary practice in India that focuses on architecture, landscape architecture and environmental psychology.
How did you get your first break?
I believe that your professors and mentors play a critical role in helping shape your career. As a young architect, I reached out to as many senior architects as possible to train under them. Eventually, I worked with the late Shri. Ravindra Bhan who was introduced to me through a college professor. Also, my later projects were through introductions by professors and mentors.
While I worked as an intern and assistant through the life of my architecture and landscape architecture education, as mentioned earlier, my work with CERG is what really shaped my professional life. And my association with CERG is based on hard-work and merit. To date, I maintain my professional affiliation with CERG, where I connect with colleagues and diverse scholars who work in the field of children’s environments.
Given my global work experience with child-friendly communities, schools and cities at CERG, an old-friend from architecture school shared my reference with her colleagues at World Resources (WRI) – India for the Infant Toddler Caregiver-friendly Neighbourhoods (ITCN) project. Soon, the head at WRI-India’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities asked if I could provide support for this project as a part-time consultant. At that time, I was finishing up writing my PhD thesis and was open to working as an independent consultant. Since, the opportunity was part-time, with flexibility to work from home and involved travel when-needed, I was happy to invest my time contributing to this national project. During my time at WRI-India, I conceptualised, drafted and developed with a research team, revised versions of key policy documents, guidelines and toolkits related to Infant Toddler Caregiver Neighbourhoods or the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge led by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs under the Smart Cities Mission, India; and funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
While working at WRI-India, I realised the need to start my independent professional practice that focused on evidence-based research and design action, a practice where I can address design and research through an intergenerational, participatory and environmentally sensitive approach. Today, this is what drives my professional practice at GRIT: environmental design + research studio.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
My challenge so far has been managing my role as a mother to young girls, taking care of my home, working with clients on global projects and completing my PhD dissertation – simultaneously. While I did have the support of my extended family and a few close friends who had confidence in me, I do believe that it is one’s will power and perseverance that gets you through some difficult times when you lose faith in the system or in yourself.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
After a decade of living, working and studying abroad, I moved back to Pune, India, where I set up my own multi-disciplinary practice called, GRIT: environmental design + research studio. My firm aims to connect people and places through the practice of architecture, landscape architecture and environmental psychology.
Using a critical social sciences approach, I focus on simplifying complex issues related to environmental design and research. My expertise lies in applying knowledge based on current environmental psychology research to think critically and develop projects that are supportive of positive human behaviours and healthy people-place interactions.
An example of the type of work that we do at GRIT studio is to collaborate with real-estate development professionals to conduct post-occupancy evaluations of existing housing developments to improve future designs. Post-occupancy evaluations are detailed assessments conducted in buildings to understand the ways children and adults use different areas of the building, their preferences and dislikes, so, immediate changes or future design of buildings can be improved.
My academic journey, work internships, teaching assignments and the full time experience of working as an assistant, associate and project director with the Children’s Environments Research Group (CERG), at the Graduate Center, trained me well to acquire the skills that my current role at GRIT studio demands.
Currently, I run my practice out of my home. So, I have a home-studio, where my two young girls (7 and 3 years old) who are homeschooled share the space with us. I am grateful for our home and to my two lovely interns who bring in their warmth to the home-studio and make work a fun process for all of us. I start my day early, where I read journal articles or related academic work, take notes, write, and then get to addressing the design and research demands of the day. I typically end the day with my kids, by reading a book to them and asking them about their day. A quick round up of stuff that I love doing on a daily basis is designing, writing and mentoring interns at work.
Aside from paid environmental design and research work, an important vertical at GRIT studio is ‘Pro bono’ work, where we collaborate with organisations who have a strong vision about improving our world for children. With this thought in mind, I am currently a founding member and India country representative for International Play Association (IPA)-World. My role is to ensure transparent communication between IPA-World and IPA India members, and I support in the development, strategising and promoting of key projects related to children’s right to play in India. IPA-World aims to protect, preserve and promote children’s right to play as a fundamental human right – as enshrined in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. You can learn more about IPA here: http://www.ipaworld.org
How does your work benefit society?
My work focuses on improving home, play and work environments through a multi-disciplinary architectural practice. For this, listening to and working with children, young people and adults using participatory methodologies is central to my creative process. Here, I pay attention to translating the needs and aspirations of a range of users spanning across varied ages, economic strata, gender and abilities into the built environment.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I have always learnt something new working with children and young people. So, all of my work with children and young people across the globe in New York City, Haiti, Uganda, Benin, Egypt and India have been memorable experiences.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My advice: Keep Spinning!
Progress is dynamic and looks different for everyone. I love Eric Carle’s children’s story, ‘The Very Busy Spider.’
The story is about a spider who is focused on spinning her web to catch a fly. During the process, there are many animals that come by and ask the spider to go run in the meadows or roll in the mud, but the spider doesn’t give in. She keeps spinning her web. The story ends with the spider easily catching a fly in her web and falling asleep without noticing the beauty of the web as she had a very busy day.
I’ve read a few interpretations of this book stating it promotes workaholism, but my husband-partner and I think otherwise. We believe it’s a story about focusing on your life and shutting out the noise/distractions. We live in an age where we are constantly bombarded with (mis)information and front stage stories of people’s well-crafted lives. It can make the most privileged of us feel we are missing out on something.
It’s important to learn to shut the noise, keep it real from within, and to quietly spin our webs. We may or may not catch a fly but the web will be beautiful, just like the spider’s web.
So, my dear friends, persevere and keep spinning your web.
I would say, Keep Spinning… you never know where you’ll go next!