Yasaman Esmaili is an award-winning architect originally from Tehran, Iran and the founder of studio chahar, a design practice and research collective focused on projects and design initiatives that engage the community at every step of the design process, explore localities, and transform the built environment in an equitable and innovative way. Yasaman believes that architects play an important role in empowering the community and forming a social shift in the global society. Her collaborative work has resulted in the realization of several highly-praised community-based projects which have received several awards including a LafargeHolcim Regional Gold Award and Global Silver Award, and a 2018 AIA National Award of Honor. Her most recent project, “color my home,” is a research initiative in collaboration with Architect for Refugees USA, focused on reflecting on the experience of displacement though spatial thinking.
Q: What does BALANCE mean to you when you think about design?
A: I define Balance in the way we treat our immediate and global surroundings. Design encompasses the people and their environment. In our global society we are failing to keep access to the common wealth, opportunities, and natural and man-made resources in balance for all people. I believe by putting social and environmental investigation at the core of the design process we can take the right steps toward creating resourceful and responsible interventions instead of imposing our personal vision onto the world. Any design intervention influences the balance of the lives of those whose environment we are changing.
Q: What do you predict is going to be BIG in 2019 in terms of design?
A: Displacement forces the loss of one’s most intimate space, the house, and therefore leads to individual and collective identity crisis. In the current political climate, we are experiencing a growing number of displacements due to political misunderstandings and economic disparities. Also, displaced communities are experiencing harsh backlashes against them which makes their experience even harder. My hope is that in 2019, the design community will find ways to empower those who are experiencing displacement in their own home or far way from their homes and help them find a voice through design.
Q: How do you explain what you do for a living?
A: I am an architect and my work is focused on inward exploration and examination of existing presumptions in order to create innovative, socially-responsible, context-driven and beautiful spaces. As a designer, I join or form design initiatives that place social and cultural awareness as the core value in the design processes and make sure that the community for whom the design is intended participates in every step of the decision-making process. I am seeking new ways to show that design must improve everybody’s life. I am a global citizen and therefore I study how my work influences both the local and the global community.
Q: What are your go-tos for when you’re seeking inspiration?
A: I go between spending time in the city—being surrounded by people and their activities—to being in nature. I try to observe and listen to what surrounds me and broaden my perspective about life by remembering the big picture and my goals in life. I listen to people and their words; I read poetry which guides me to stay balanced.
Q: Tell us about a project that you worked on that you are most proud of
A: Right now, I have co-founded a community-based participatory design project in collaboration with Rania Qawasma of Architecture for Refugee, USA, called “color my home,” which I am very proud of. Through architecture and poetry workshops, this project traces the path of recently immigrated and displaced children. The workshop guides these children to reimagine the architecture they have inhibited and left behind, and shows them how to sketch and build their first ever architectural collages and write about their future “home.” We had our first workshop with about 20 children in early December, 2018 and right now we are planning our second workshop which will be held at Center for Architecture & Design on January 26, 2019. As our next step, we are interpreting what the children made in the first workshop into new architectural formats with the goal of narrating their story and building awareness around the issue of displacement—especially as experienced by children—through the means of architecture and spatial thinking.
I am also very proud of designing a religious and secular complex in the village of Dandaji in Niger in collaboration with Mariam Kamara. By bringing the community into our decision-making process, we were able to design and build a culture and education hub including a library, a mosque, a garden and an auditorium where the secular and religious peacefully co-exist, study and converse.
Q: If you were to give a TED talk, what would it be about?
A: I would talk about why Architecture is an inseparable part of everybody’s life; why it is important to shift the meaning of architectural design from a profession that mostly serves the privileged, to a process that can improve everybody’s life; and why this shift is a necessity and not a choice. I would argue that by focusing on the people and the environment, we can design very original and creative forms and create a phenomenological experience for the users, because originality is about the process and how we put ideas together and not about finding forms that nobody has thought of before. I would particularly talk about geography and boundaries, and how politics is reflected in the way we design and how space-making could be different if everybody had an equal voice.
Q: My favorite thing about my city is…
A: The community and the supportive people who I have met here. Seattle has empowered me from being an international student with a restrictive visa to an independent thinker.
Q: If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?
A: “Ensan zadeh shodan tajassode vazifeh bood.” It is a Persian poem by one of my favorite Iranian poets, Ahmad Shamlou. It means “Once we are born as human, we are responsible. We can’t ignore and pass…”
Q: Why do you do what you do? What do you want to leave behind for future generations?
A: I have become an architect to help create a safer, more meaningful and joyous built environment for everybody. I believe architecture is a service and an ethical responsibility, and yet as design thinkers we do have the right means to be visionaries within our ethical boundaries. I hope the future generation will find their homes and their surrounding built environment as extensions of their beings, aligned with their backgrounds, history, and what they cherish in life.
Q: What is your super power?
A: I have determination to look within the negativity and find positivity, and take action upon it. I believe if we look carefully within all the problems we are facing as a global community and don’t give up easily, we can make small changes that can have big impacts.
PLUS, don’t miss Yasaman this week at Color My Home: An Architecture Workshop for Kids, Saturday, January 26, 2019.