Women in Architecture:

Kristen Sidell and Rudabeh Pakravan of Sidell Pakravan Architects

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Wagner Creative is pleased to present our second interview in our Women in Architecture series. Today we speak with Kristen Sidell and Rudabeh Pakravan of Sidell Pakravan Architects in Berkeley, CA, about how they met and decided to open their firm, designing for the community, why they love models, and how the pandemic has changed the way they work.

To start, can you both describe your background and what made you want to study architecture? — was there a defining experience that drew you to the built environment?

RP: The short answer is that buildings make me feel things. The longer answer is that I have always been drawn to the relationship between atmosphere and emotion. In high school, I designed theater sets and it was so fortuitous to see that link between the creation of space and how it affected people’s movements, their choices, and what that could project to the public.

In college, I studied engineering (strict Persian parents!), but when I finally found architecture it was such a revelation. It gave a conceptual framework I could use to string together these disparate ideas about buildings, emotion, and the collective experience of these shared atmospheres.

KS: Although studying architecture interested me when I was young, I resisted. I thought I had to do ‘something that mattered’ and that I lacked the necessary math skills. As an undergraduate, I studied art history. Looking back now, I see that the art that most compelled me used light to convey space or included architectural scenes as a tool to represent societal conditions of that era. I finally came to my senses when I realized that whenever I traveled I always wanted to visit buildings. I decided to go to grad school to study architecture. Ultimately, the art that I studied as an undergrad shaped my formal interests in architecture and guided me to understand the social power of design.

The two of you met while attending grad school at the University of Pennsylvania. How did you come back together and decide to join forces and start your own firm?

RP: The conversation between us never really paused. Although we ended up working in both the US & Europe for the 15 years following graduation, we continued to collaborate, critique each other’s work, and talk about buildings.

KMS: Not only did we talk design, but we also talked about our work experiences and how we would use that to shape a future practice. Two themes keep re-emerging: 1. How to shape a practice to reflect our values and world perspective. 2: How we saw the architecture in our respective locations impacting the public realm.

RP: We started our practice knowing that there were certain types of firms that we were drawn to — firms that remained committed to ideas while also doing the daily work. We knew that we wanted to remain nimble, to find a balance of speculative and built environments, in order to stay inspired.

Have you encountered any challenges being a woman-run firm?

KS: Yes! We try not to dwell on it.

RP: But we also don’t pretend the challenges don’t exist. There are longstanding issues in the discipline that cause women to leave the profession. Although architecture classes are well balanced from a gender count, this disappears within the actual profession. The number of women architects within 15 years from graduation is shockingly and depressingly small. The reasons for this have to do with how the discipline is structured.

KMS: One big systemic problem is how projects are awarded. So many clients hire architects through established business connections based on gender, race, and class. If you aren’t part of this system and want to create a practice that builds, you need to find work through atypical channels. Since this isn’t easy, it becomes an additional challenge to building a practice or having a career in the field.

You build a lot of models and find that to be a very integral part of your process — talk about that a little bit.

RP: Models give form to concepts we are interested in exploring. They are the best tools for exploring volume, mass, scale, and light.

KS: It is critical to see these ideas physically, in 3-d. When we hold & move the models to look at them closely, we make exciting discoveries about the potential spaces. This process allows us to accelerate creative explorations and to engage in a really visceral way.

RP: Although every project starts with a physical model, we iteratively test the ideas by moving through 2-d drawing, 3-d computer modeling, and back through physical models.

A big part of your practice is based on social engagement, both small and large scale. How does this inform the type of projects that you take on and/or pursue?

KMS: For us, this is really straightforward: it’s essential to contribute to our community.

RP: We seek opportunities to help non-profits. We do pro-bono work in the public realm. For example, we recently partnered with the City of Berkeley to create a parklet template for restaurants. Since restaurants have been so impacted by the shutdown, we used our design skills and construction connections to help them build outdoor seating that is critical for their businesses. The nice thing about something seemingly so small as a parklet is it can help a restaurant stay in business but also it really changes the streetscape and street experience.

Are there any aspects of your background or upbringing that have shaped your philosophies about design?

KMS: To answer this, we first have to state our design philosophy.

RP: True! I think maybe instead of a specific philosophy it’s a certain set of questions we keep returning to. How form affects individual and collective experience, how do you both work within and also shape the rules and processes that influence building, architecture’s profound influence on culture and the city.

KMS: For me, these questions have arisen through travel. By comparing design and the public realm in different places, I could see how different approaches — or priorities — yield different results. I grew up in Florida, where the public realm was essentially private space — the mall, the movie theater — or the beaches. Through visiting radically different places such as Copenhagen, Panama City, and small towns in northern Spain, I learned not only to appreciate design but also that an intentional approach to the public realm expressed distinct cultural values.

RP: You can learn so much by looking at a city like Paris, that has such a strict urban form, and then comparing it with a city like Tehran which has grown exponentially without following a strict plan. There are economic, political, and cultural forces that have shaped those cities but what is left of those forces is the architecture and how you engage with it.

What type of environment do you strive to provide in your office?

KS: Creative, supportive, fun

RP: There is an established dialogue about shared design values. Most of our staff were originally our students, so there’s already a dialogue in place. Since we’ve seen our staff develop aligned work ethics and design voices, we give them a lot of independence to lead projects. Additionally, we respect everyone’s life outside of the office and keep a regular work schedule.

How has the pandemic changed or/or shaped the way you work? (Are there some positive things that you can take away from it?)

KS: The pandemic has highlighted how in-person collaboration was seamlessly woven into our practice. When we initially shifted to work from home, we lost so much of what we love about creating architecture: building models, informal design critiques, and discussions. Although we’ve definitely learned that these things don’t work as well when we aren’t together, we have also learned that we need to really intentionally schedule them into our practice culture. Now we schedule a discussion or meeting and make sure everyone can be there. We also make sure to do this equally for all projects. Although we miss the informality of unscheduled discussions, we realize that approaching things more systematically is more egalitarian.

RP: Early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of pressure to rise to the occasion and celebrate new working techniques. It seemed like everyone felt business could continue as usual. We think, though, it’s important to acknowledge the challenges of working from home and with different resources. We look forward to being back in the office and having our staff together soon.

How do you think about mentorship?

KMS: Conceptually, mentoring — or being role models- is really important to us. Neither of us, though, have adopted a formal structure for mentoring. Instead, it has become a fluid part of how we interact with staff, students, and colleagues. Because we believe everyone should inspire and teach others, the structure of our office also enables more senior staff to mentor newer staff and interns.

RP: Our mentoring has emerged out of our years of teaching. Former students and staff regularly drop by the office to discuss accomplishments and new endeavors.

How does teaching continue to shape your daily practice?

KMS: Teaching allows us to look at things differently. Although we ask similar questions in both practice and teaching, the different pace of studio gives us more time to dig in deeply to challenging questions. Similarly, studio prioritizes different outcomes, so we get to test new model techniques or drawing formats that then inform the creative strategies employed in the office.

Teaching really helps us think about ideas on a different scale. As a younger practice, we haven’t yet had the opportunity to design at the scale of the theoretical projects we speculate on at the university.

RP: It’s important to have concepts that you care about. That clarity comes through teaching. You learn that words have meaning. Objects have meaning. Concepts have meaning. Teaching helps us prioritize what we explore because we know it has power. If we teach something to students, we know our ideas better have value. Otherwise, we’re wasting their time.

Where do you look for inspiration?

RP: Our ideas can start anywhere, both within architecture and without. We are inspired by things and also creative people and what choices they have made in their work. Agnes Martin’s grid paintings but also how her working method is an exercise in extreme patience. Julia Morgan’s swimming pools, but also her insistence on becoming a registered architect.

KS: Since I was young, certain pieces of art have been magical to me: Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew; Duchamp-Villon’s Horse; and Dan Graham’s Pavilions, to name a few really influential ones. I sought them out like a pilgrim. While these pieces are still incredibly powerful, it’s now an understanding of a larger body of work or a process that inspires me. Right now, I’m really inspired by how Olafur Eliason uses a range of media to explore experience, time, and perception. That this work is done by a community of artists, engineers, architects working together to create beautiful, compelling pieces really inspires me.

What is your favorite part of the design process?

KS: Discussing models with our team. Seeing the ideas come together three-dimensionally in a really compelling form. In close 2nd place, though, is construction. I love walking a job site and seeing the project incrementally become what we’ve envisioned and detailed.

RP: That’s exactly what I was thinking! We often steal the words (or text messages) out of the other’s mouth. I agree with all of that. Walking back through a project with a happy client. It’s the best.

What and where would your dream project be?

RP: Housing!

KMS: …but in Paris.

RP: and with a swimming pool on the roof.

You can learn more about Sidell Pakravan Architects, their practice, and the projects they work on at https://www.sidellpakravan.com/

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19th Street Residence in San Francisco, CA
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Model for a new ground-up accessory dwelling unit in Berkeley, CA
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Parklet for La Med restaurant in Berkeley, pro bono services with the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce

On Monday, October 19th, join Rudabeh Pakravan and Kristen Sidell, along with Maxine Skaggs Kennedy for a discussion on designing practices that engage with the community and the culture of architecture through building with the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design. For these west coast architects, designing practice means foregrounding design, but also relates to making choices about how to run their offices while at the same time, looking at what projects to pursue, shaping a place for their teams to thrive in, and creating opportunities for their communities through architectural advocacy.

Virtual Weitzman School Talk; Designing Practice

Monday, October 19, 2020
1:00pm — 2:00pm (ET)

Learn more and register here:

https://www.design.upenn.edu/alumni/events/virtual-weitzman-school-talk-designing-practice

Written by

Founder of WAGNER CREATIVE, a boutique PR and marketing and firm specializing in the A/E/C industry. Based in San Francisco and New York City.

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