Urbanization shouldn’t come at the cost of eroding the fine ecological balance needed for long term resilience. Our cities and public spaces need to be environmentally sensitive and socially relevant, while providing a superior quality of life to the community.
Seetha Raghupathy, our next pathbreaker, CEO & Urban Planning Consultant at Seagull Studio, works on diverse projects related to public infrastructure, housing, open spaces, mixed use developments, at the confluence of Architecture and Sustainability.
Seetha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the opportunity to impact the society in small and big ways through well designed public spaces that are not only clean and beautiful, but also well-planned and inclusive.
For students, Urban planning goes beyond the realm of individual buildings by re-imagining a futuristic vision for urban environments, with a focus on holistic design!
Seetha, Your background?
I grew up in Chennai and studied at Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan. Although I was fairly quiet in my early school years, I transformed into an extroverted person in middle school. I enjoyed being on stage and would participate in many extra-curricular activities including public speaking, drama, music, quizzes etc. In fact, there were times when I was out of class preparing for events for longer durations than attending regular classes!
I come from a family of doctors and while I had a natural affinity to Biology, my keen interest in art motivated me to explore a professional journey that would be the perfect blend of art and science.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my Bachelor’s degree in Architecture (B. Arch.) from the School of Architecture and Planning (SAP) at Anna University in Chennai. After completing this 5-year course and doing a 6-month internship I joined the Master of Architecture in Urban Design (MAUD) program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Cambridge, USA.
What were the drivers that got you to where you are today?
Until I was in the 10th standard, I wasn’t very sure how my desire to work in a discipline that had art and science in equal measure would pan out. Around then, I had the opportunity to observe an architecture student in action- I was fascinated by the drawings and physical models he was building and subsequently took keen interest in exploring the profession. After that, there was no looking back. My parents played a pivotal role in furthering my goal, and provided me with all the opportunities and resources required to pursue a discipline that they knew very little about at that time. Further along in my journey, I was fortunate to have a mentor in architecture school who has shaped my academic and professional goals in multiple ways- someone I go to for advice to this day!
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
Once I decided to pursue architecture, I prepared for the aptitude test along with other academic requirements. It was a challenging time for me, as I was exposed to a new world of design and drawing for the first time and had to pick up necessary skills to appear for the aptitude test within a short span of time. I remember being very excited about getting into Anna University’s School of Architecture and Planning program and decided to give it my best shot. My college years were fun-filled, but at the same time I was quite focused on honing technical skills that would equip me to be a successful practicing architect. I remember spending many hours in our library and discussing the nuances of the profession with seniors and professors. Around the time I was in third-year, I started to question the fundamental purpose of architecture and felt increasingly drawn to the urban design domain, where I could relate to the discipline’s social relevance. Urban design is a specialization that goes beyond the realm of individual buildings and deals with public infrastructure, be it parks and open spaces to mixed use developments, large housing projects for the needy etc. In the fourth and final years, exposure to urban design studios cemented my desire to pursue a Masters degree (MAUD) in this discipline.
Subsequent to obtaining the MAUD degree, I was keen to explore multiple facets of the profession during my time in the United States. I started with working for a big, award winning multinational architecture firm, (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP), where I had the opportunity to conceptualize and design a greenfield ( development on a completely vacant site) 260-acre mixed use community in Western India which introduced me to the large-scale of intervention that urban design deals with. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to contrast this top-down client-driven design process with grassroots community building through a unique opportunity with the University of California, Santa Barbara. The university was dealing with town-gown issues (conflicts between the residents of the town and the students and faculty associated with the school) in the neighbouring town of Isla Vista and I was tasked with co-opting over 80 stakeholders to address systemic and temporal issues through both longer term visions and tactical approaches. This experience sensitized me to the myriad perspectives involved in executing urban design projects.
I then moved back to New York, where I worked at a boutique architecture consultancy that also ran an interesting non-profit called CultureNOW. This experience helped me appreciate the role of art in the public realm and truly immerse myself in the idea of Museum Without Walls. It also helped me understand that urban design is at the nexus of not only architecture, landscape architecture and planning but that public art also plays a critical role in enlivening our everyday spaces and places. We even developed an award winning app to allow people to experience the vast array of public art that the bustling city of New York offers!
I moved to Singapore a few years later and was keen to be a part of a practice that had a broad range of projects both in terms of scale and geography. I was fortunate to land an opportunity at AECOM, and my stint there was memorable across various dimensions. After spending over 4 years gaining technical skills and competence, I wanted to embellish my credentials with planning and policy related work. I got on board as a World Bank consultant for a project in Indonesia. When I decided to move back to India, this stint served me well and I was able to transition to the World Bank South Asia team with whom I continue to consult on socially relevant and fulfilling projects.
Moving back to Chennai and contributing professionally to my hometown was always my long-term aspiration. Upon my return, I established a consultancy practice and in addition to the World Bank commitments, got onboarded as a consultant for the Asian Development Bank (ADB). With ADB, I have had the opportunity to work on multiple projects within and outside India and this has really expanded my horizons. I also consult with the National Institute of Urban Affairs and undertake design and research projects for public and private sector clients through my firm.
How did you get your first break?
I landed my first internship at RTKL (now Arcadis) while pursuing my Masters. I recall my mentor there sharing many exciting ideas about the profession. While this set me up mentally for what was in store, I would say my stint at AECOM was my first real break as it provided me with a vantage point that was broad and diverse. Being based in Singapore, I got the opportunity to work across multiple South East Asian countries and contribute to important projects such as the Tengah Town Housing Development, Changi Airport Expansion (both in Singapore) and the River of Life project (in Malaysia). During my tenure there, I could not only hone my technical skills but also learn project management and skillful resource planning. This has stood me in good stead as I have taken on the journey of entrepreneurship, which is filled with challenging moments!
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
During my early professional years, I found the multi-dimensional nature of the discipline an interesting challenge. In order to understand where my interests lie, I exposed myself to a diverse range of professional experiences from high-end architecture to grassroots planning and tactical interventions.
Another challenge with the profession is its long gestation period. The real world and its requirements are quite different from what we learn in academia, and sound professional training is critical for a successful career. While this made me impatient at times, I used every opportunity to find mentors and learn by observing my colleagues.
Where do you work now?
I run a consultancy practice, Seagull Studio, based in Chennai, and am also a consultant for the World Bank, ADB and NIUA.
What problems do you solve?
Urban design is at the nexus of planning, architecture and landscape architecture. It plays a pivotal role in enhancing livability and the quality of life of cities. It involves, amongst other things, designing large-scale projects such as public infrastructure, housing, open spaces, mixed use developments etc. and views buildings as part of a larger whole where multiple design elements blend and result in an environmentally sensitive, resilient and lively urban fabric. This necessarily implies complex and interconnected challenges that need to be solved across short-, medium- and long-term horizons. I am personally passionate about solving issues of housing, as it is a core need for every human being.
What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?
An urban designer needs to be very attentive to the smallest details of the city’s systems while simultaneously being capable of creatively imagining a broad vision for the city’s future. It is also critical to have presentation skills and technical know-how in equal measure given the myriad stakeholders (from technocrats and bureaucrats to eventual beneficiaries) that need to be convinced by the design proposals. Over the course of the years, I have also realized that a broader understanding of economics, public policy and other such allied fields are important for a designer to provide holistic and meaningful solutions.
My skills were acquired by long hours of hard work and attentive learning during my days as an urban designer in USA and Singapore. I also take on diverse projects to enable me to constantly transcend scales and contexts, a skill that is very handy for urban designers. I learn by observing others, be it clients or colleagues, as at the end of the day the profession has people at its core, and understanding a range of perspectives enhances design outcomes. I am fortunate to have mentors who always guide me to constantly learn and evolve myself as a professional.
What’s a typical day like?
My day begins very early in the morning when I check my mail. I then refer to my daily planner to confirm my meetings for the day and the rest of the week. I reach out to my office colleagues and give directions for their projects. The rest of my day is usually split between meetings with clients, a mix of design/ research/writing, and meeting with my colleagues for brainstorming sessions.
What is it you love about this job?
Urban design as a profession is still in its nascent stages, especially in India. It is often noted only in its absence, such as lack of public spaces, absence of inclusive and kid-friendly environments etc. The ability of the profession to meaningfully engage on socially relevant problems and positively impact the everyday lives of people is what I truly enjoy about it.
How does your work benefit society?
We have all experienced clean, beautiful, well-planned and enjoyable cities through trips, movies or pictures. India too can have many such cities. However, this requires all of us to become aware about the importance of urban planning and urban design, so that we can plan and design our cities to be better. This discipline is multi-faceted, and one can specialize in mobility, urban revitalization, designing of waterfronts, housing…. the list is long! In each of these realms, there is an opportunity to impact the society in small and big ways. For example, well-designed waterfronts such as in Singapore and Melbourne are not only a tourist attraction boosting the city’s economy, but are much needed green-blue lungs as urbanization is increasingly eroding the fine ecological balance needed for long term resilience. It also serves as a meaningful, engaging public open space that youngsters and elders can enjoy.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I have been fortunate to work on a range of projects across many countries, but one that is really special is the opportunity to project manage as well as design Tengah Town, a housing development for the Singapore Housing and Development Board (during my tenure at AECOM). The site occupies 1% of the city-state’s land area and is the last large greenfield site for housing. I was part of the journey from its initial stages to completion of a concept masterplan that would be home for nearly 1,50,000 people. The design was around the vision of a “Forest Town” with a lot of attention paid to ecology, the environment and landscape. The site even has a 100-metre-wide forest corridor running through the town center! At the same time, it has a futuristic vision and will be the first development in Singapore to have a car-free town center. Smart infrastructure and technologies have been used to design the project from the get-go, ensuring thermal comfort, energy optimization and several other attendant benefits. In all, the development will provide a superior quality of life to its residents, promote health and well-being, and serve as a exemplar for public housing across the world. The project’s focus on design excellence, coupled with the experience I gained working in a multi-disciplinary environment was an unforgettable experience!
Back home, the opportunity to work on affordable housing issues in Tamil Nadu is very dear to me as I have the ability to contribute to my hometown and home state, on issues that are extremely relevant for a large section of our population and impact change in a domain that is of significant personal interest.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Urban design is largely offered as a Master’s program, and a strong foundation in architecture is preferred. Both these professions are not for the faint-hearted! They involve years of hard work, extremely long working hours and the ability to adapt to challenging projects of diverse scales and needs. The profession also necessitates significant investment in time and effort as an apprentice during early years to gain technical skills. Most architects and urban designers choose the profession because of passion, but it is important to keep in mind that remuneration is much lower compared to other professions. Given there is a close relationship with the real estate market, job security is also an issue to be aware of. In all, choose it if you love it and you will find every day of your professional life filled with excitement, new challenges and a lot of satisfaction!
I would like to continue contributing to sustainable urban development in India and abroad. As I plan to scale up my firm, I would also like to expand my client base to include non-profits and delve deeper into research, as I believe a good balance between research and practice is what makes a well-rounded professional.