25 Nov 2020 • What I've Learned
'You can't think of design without thinking of politics,' says Suchi Reddy
Architect Suchi Reddy of Reddymade discusses the impact of her family home on her design philosophy, why giving residents agency is vital to domestic design, and how technology is transforming our understanding of spatial aesthetics.
SUCHI REDDY: Growing up in Chennai, India, my parents had a big garden with lots of different fruit and flower trees. I remember how as a child I would pick the little white flowers and arrange them on top of the leaves in a pattern – I think that was the first time that I realized that you could put things together to make something completely new. I recall looking at this arrangement and thinking, that’s really beautiful. To me, this idea of the collaboration between design and beauty gained importance at a young age.
Our house was created by an architect friend of my father’s who was fascinated by Japanese culture. It wasn’t so common in those days to build your own home. My mother filled it with all sorts of amazing materials. For instance, she invented some kind of new terrazzo with bits of the marble left over from the construction of the building. Her natural frugality led her to think how she could turn it into a design element. All our floors were different. Our walls were different. She was maybe one of the first people to use a large-format wallpaper, just like a landscape. Our house actually often got used as a set for movies, which should have rung some bells in my head about how special it was, I guess.
I had the unusual pleasure of growing up in this house. These things have a huge impact when you are a child, which really gets me on a soapbox about how important good design is – it’s a democratic thing that should be available to everyone. I had access to air, to light, to plants. I would go to my friends’ houses and keenly sense the difference. I know that my own house fundamentally changed how I felt, or perhaps the way I could feel. That formative experience has remained a huge imprint in the work that I do; it totally drives my understanding of the importance of architecture on a primal level.
I first studied architecture in India, in Chennai. I went to college there for a year. Then I came to the US and finished my professional degree at the University of Detroit. It was certainly a challenge. Aside from the culture shock of being an immigrant, the styles of learning were definitely very different. The focus on drawing was intense in India, learning the value of texture, line, colour and weight. That was invaluable, but what really excited me about coming to school in the US was the exposure to all the other arts. It gave me my first introduction to studying philosophy and art history. To have a more well-rounded context within which to place architecture was inspiring. I’m humbly respectful of the vast amount of knowledge that, as architects, we are expected to be cognizant of, conversant with, and really able to have at our fingertips. It’s a lot. But it’s also what keeps me from ever being bored with what I do.
I then went to work for several architects around the country, moving to Florida first. I came to New York in 1997. Spending over 100 hours a week at work was absolutely formative. I also began to understand that having a good idea wasn’t everything. You actually needed to be able to communicate that and bring the other person along with you. I started appreciating the fuller skill set that was necessary to be an architect.
In school you’re taught that if you can think about a problem and find a functional solution, if you can figure out what the aesthetic parameters are and how to make this a thing of poetry, you have done it. But when you are out in the world, architecture has to meet so many other criteria, it has to be on budget, it has to be on time, it has to be this beautiful orchestration of the skills of all of the people that are available to make this a real object. Architecture is only interesting when it is imbued with the spirit of all the hands that have worked on it. It’s always the most depressing thing to me when you visit a building and you can’t feel that.
Architecture is only interesting when it is imbued with the spirit of all the hands that have worked on it
I didn’t really intend to set up on my own, but the firm I was working with lost the client whose project I had been working on and had to downsize. I went into this big office space with lots of other architects who were also trying to get their practices off the ground. That’s one kind of education that you don’t get in architecture. You’re not taught in any way about how the business world works.
I learned from a former colleague about a prospective job redesigning the interior of a venture capital firm that was looking to relocate from its office in the Rockefeller Centre to the Gordon Bunshaft-designed Lever House on Park Avenue. Bunshaft was my favourite architect at the time and that became my first big project. I was running around full of nervous energy with only the help of one or two friends while the floors above me were being renovated by practices like SOM and Gensler, 3,400-person firms. These are the sort of things you take on when you’re young and don’t have anything to lose.
When you’re young you don’t really think about the balance between work and life. You learn from your mistakes – and other people’s – so I’ve been quite careful with how I run my own practice. I was an unpaid intern for so long – we make it a point to pay everyone who works for us fairly. We also make it a point to try not to work on weekends or too late into the evenings. I won’t say it’s a 40-hour-a-week job, especially when we work on a competition. But at that stage it’s a collective decision. We’ll all sit down and say: ‘This is what it’s going to take, are we willing? Are we committed?’
We’re about 15-strong now. It’s a great number and allows us to be very focused and really provide something that’s intentional. I don’t think I’d want to be much bigger. Part of that is how the industry has changed. Collaboration has become a much more viable option for smaller firms. You can work coherently at a distance and pool resources so much better thanks to the internet and digital drawing tools. The main necessity is that you share a similar design DNA.
Part of our DNA is of course the emphasis we place on making. It’s right there in the name. We start our projects by thinking in terms of materiality, in terms of the most primal elements of design and the idea that form follows feelings. It’s really dependent on how things manifest themselves through the hand of the maker.
You can’t think of design without thinking of politics. You realize very quickly that there are different standards of design depending on which social economic strata you’re designing for.
We need to be more concerned about the nature of aesthetics and their importance to human experience
We need to be more concerned about the nature of aesthetics and their importance to human experience. This is indivisible from my experience of growing up in India, because I experienced first-hand how happiness isn’t necessarily related to your position in society. The energy of your environment can be just as important. For me, domestic design is really about creating a feeling of made for you, because whenever you feel that your world is in some way attuned to your needs, that it demonstrates that kind of care, you will flourish. It implies that you have agency in, and even the ability to change, that world.
These are the ideas that I try to keep foremost in my mind and the sensibility that our work needs to be able to impart to people. So if you’re doing a large housing complex, you still have to talk about how it’s made for each resident. Even in the common spaces, the challenge is to not make it feel like it was designed with the presumption of a generic person, but for the individual. You can do that through materiality, through detailing, and by giving people the power to change one thing in their apartment that sticks. It often doesn’t make any kind of difference in terms of the bottom line. What it really requires is a thoughtfulness on the part of developers to say: ‘Here’s where you can have agency, here’s where you can affect your environment, because your environment is affecting you all the time.’
That’s why my project in partnership with Google during the Salone del Mobile in Milan was so important. The ability to combine science and technology to accurately measure user responses to environmental aesthetics is one of the most wonderful discoveries of my professional life. You often read reports of how the wellbeing and design sector is worth however many hundreds of billions of dollars across the world, and that then becomes a very easy way to justify saying to clients: ‘Okay, I’m just going to throw in some green plants and I’m going to improve the quality of light and that’s going to achieve X and Y.’ But that equation obviously doesn’t line up. As architects we need to develop our understanding of how we’re actually manipulating people’s chemical, physical and emotional experiences when we’re making space.
There are caveats however: this kind of ‘knowing’ can be dangerous territory, because what science is looking for is a totally non-objective language and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with how architecture operates 100 per cent of the time. We shouldn’t promote a culture of people running around with Fitbits constantly measuring their heartbeats, because then we risk losing the essence of what it means to be embodied.
We can use technology to discover more about who we are as humans
Rather than hijacking culture, technology should play a meaningful role in our lives. We can use it to discover more about who we are as humans. That’s why the Google project was so interesting. There technology was employed to reflect back to users exactly how environmental design was impacting them. Architects increasingly need to be advocates of the human value their work can bring, especially going back to large-scale domestic design. We need to say to those in authority: ‘Listen, you can improve employment rates by just improving the quality of the homes of the people in this area because it will empower them to go out and do something.’ If we can get close to quantifying that to a better degree using data, that will only help our case.
This interview was originally published in our Nov/Dec 2019 issue, Frame 131. Get your copy here.