Listen and Absorb: Nisha Mary Prasad on Architecture as Research and Attention to Detail
By Julia Gamolina, cover photo by Austin Joffe
Nisha Mary Prasad is an architectural designer and professor of design & visualization. She graduated with her Master’s degree in Architecture & Urban Design from Columbia University in 2011, and her Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the New York Institute of Technology. In the past decade, she has worked in all phases of design through projects varying in scale & scope. Whether she's figuring out how a cupcake sits in a millwork display, or how a couple experiences the scale of an event barn on their wedding day, or the precision required for the light trough details she collaborated on with James Turrell for the design of his latest Ganzfeld “egg”, she has always found herself immersed in details. She speaks to Julia about being dedicated to pushing the limits of design through human experience and leaving places better than she found them.
JG: How did you interest in architecture first develop?
NP: Before he passed away, my dad was a real estate agent for a good chunk of his life. I remember being a kid and spending most of my weekends at his open house events. He told me that his chances of selling a house were higher if I were there because it was easier for people to imagine themselves living in that home with a child around [laughs].
I remember walking through these empty homes, and having the space to take in the details - how my voice would bounce around the room, how the wood planks of the floor met the threshold of the door, but most importantly, how a space could make you feel. Big, small, safe, lost, warm, the list goes on. That’s when I truly learned of the power that a space could have over you and how the details hold that space together.
What was the moment you officially decided to pursue it?
When I finally vocalized to my family that I wanted to be an architect, I was met with discouragement. From hearing that “Architecture is no place for an Indian girl” to “It’ll be too hard for you” to “Why don’t you become a doctor like your sister,” I was definitely disheartened. But I remember my oldest brother Ashok telling me “Try it.” Being thirteen years my senior, he believed in my future long before I did.
What did you learn in architecture school?
Architecture school was full of its ups and downs, but it was the first time I felt like I had power over my life and the first time I was proud of myself too. I spent the five years maximizing on my experience and seizing any opportunity I could to learn how to think in as many ways as possible. Whether it was through studying abroad, internships, being the president of the AIAS, or miscellaneous competitions, I felt the need to be a part of and absorb everything. None of it came easy to me but I found that if I put all of myself into an idea, the output was worth more than I could put into words. I wouldn’t have done any of it differently - well maybe I wouldn’t have left my thesis model on the roof of my car that one time [laughs].
You then got your Master’s at Columbia.
Yes, both in Architecture and Urban Design. I thought because I was still in the flow of studio compared to my classmates who had worked for a few years before coming back to school, that I’d have an advantage, but boy I was wrong. We were all in the deep end, this was on a whole different level than undergrad. The teachers were tougher, the expectations felt impossible to reach, time felt like it was always running away, but I just had to keep on keeping on and rise to the challenge.
Columbia was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had, pushing me every single second to be a better designer but also a better human. I was surrounded by brilliant minds from all over the world. Each had a different story, a different style, a different way of getting things done, and we were all constantly challenging each other to be better. I respected every single one of my classmates and professors, they taught me more than they’ll ever know about life, about our planet, about myself.
How did you get your start?
My first full-time job out of Columbia was working as an Urban Designer in upstate, NY. This was during the recession, so even though I was driving three hours a day, having a cool job and a steady income felt like a blessing. The time I spent there had me looking at cities from 30,000 feet all the way down to the pedestrian realm.
After some time, I felt conflicted and realized I was missing something. It took me years to realize that what I was missing was working through the details. I remember thinking, “Did I really just spend 100K studying Urban Design just to go back to Architecture?” I didn’t see it at the time, but all of those experiences were for a holistic and a greater purpose.
What did you do next?
From there I went to work at firm focusing on transportation design. I was learning the nuts and bolts of how bridges could stay suspended in the air to how often to space control joints on a subway platform. I was also exposed to some fierce women who knew that they deserved to sit at the table. Most of them however were in management roles in lieu of designer ones. I sought to stay on the designer track and hoped not to be pushed to the stereotypical “women are organized and better suited as managers track”. The work was fulfilling but the politics between NYC agencies always pushed projects far out - I would have been lucky to see one project built in my lifetime.
I then worked at A+I in the Flatiron District. There, I learned how to be a truly thoughtful designer with great attention to detail. I started with a 120,000 SF project that included the design and construction of a Ganzfeld installation by the artist James Turrell. The “Egg” which I would call it but never believed it would stick (my bad) was one of my proudest moments. I know every detail of that Corian Egg inside and out.
Most recently you were at a boutique firm in North Carolina.
Yep - after 28 years in NYC, I moved south to the complete opposite of a metropolis, an extra small city by the name of Winston-Salem, to be closer to my sister and try and make an impact. I took a position with a young firm – it was me and four guys, the smallest and most “masculine” studio I ever worked at for sure [laughs].
The design field in Winston had a dated approach compared to bigger cities in that it still considered the interior design of a space as an application to the building design. I quickly blew that approach up to pave the way for the city to look at the entire design holistically from core and shell to floor finish to millwork detail. We also started winning more work through introducing a transparent and thorough programming process. To me, architecture has always been applied research and in order to develop an efficient strategy for the design, you truly needed to understand who a client is. I take pride in the programming and strategy foundation that I not only established at Stitch, but for the city of Winston-Salem, setting a truly new precedent.
Where are you in your career today?
I’m currently grappling with asking myself what this moment is, because in the past 12 years, I’ve been everything from student to TA to intern to urban designer to transportation designer to renderer to freelance graphic designer to workplace project designer to project architect to project manager to strategist to Professor Prasad. Part of growing to your fullest potential is acknowledging when you’ve reached a plateau and resisting the urge to settle there - life is about moving forward, not standing still - so I recently took a leap and accepted a position at Gensler Miami within their workplace & lifestyle sectors.
My best friend Katina and I are also working on a little side project and are super excited for what is to come. It’s still in the preliminary phases but the entity we formed is called Shakti, which was inspired by the ancient Hindu belief in the concept of divine feminine creative power. It involves the design, build, and development of female empowered getaways to reflect and recharge – stay tuned.
You also teach! Tell me about this.
I’ve been teaching at night for the past seven years, both design studios as well as visualization courses from New York to North Carolina. I do it because I feel indebted to anyone who has ever taught me anything - every teacher, every classmate, every stranger - and I feel like the only way I can ever give back is to pay it forward. I find it so unbelievably fulfilling to get my students excited about critical thinking through design.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
The biggest challenges so far have been the “isms” – the sexism, the racism. It takes strength and endurance to work through them and I don’t think people notice that. Sexism is nothing new; that has always been a thing for women who are also architects, and women in general.
When I moved to North Carolina two and a half years ago though, it was the first time I experienced real racism. Growing up in the melting pot of Queens, NY, I was exposed to people of all skin tones, religious backgrounds, and class levels. In the past two years, I’ve been called “Mexican” and “Muslim” in negative ways and have been told to “go back to where you came from”. I’m not either, and I love anyone who is Mexican or practices Islam just like I love all cultures and ways of thinking. Thankfully, these feelings and the discrimination hasn’t disheartened me; instead it’s made me determined to make things better for those who are discriminated against a thousand times worse than I have or will ever be. The isms are a daily struggle, but it’s a battle worth enduring and winning, together.
What have been some highlights and what are you most proud of?
I’m proud of many of the projects I’ve been lucky to be a part of, especially “The Ganzfeld Art Volume” by James Turrell. I know that “egg” inside out and was part of a fantastic team. Everyone from the design team, to the fabricators and engineers. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and I learned from some of the most brilliant minds in the world.
I’m also proud of what I’ve been able to create for STITCH Design Shop in the past two years, not only in terms of the interior architecture and programming presence, but also a fresh graphics and design style to the studio. You’d be surprised of how many people are still stuck in PowerPoint! I jumped right in and made the changes that I knew were needed.
What else would you like to do?
I want to help people - that’s where my heart truly lies - by volunteering in work with social impact. I want to build something that doubles someone’s life expectancy or improves their quality of life with something as basic as access to infrastructure. I want to build a school somewhere where young girls aren’t encouraged to get an education.
My thesis project in architecture school was designing an orphanage and a school on my grandfather’s mountain in India. My mom, the most selfless woman I know, took me to India winter break to do my research. For a week, she took me from orphanage to orphanage where we came across hundreds of children who had nothing, but were filled with more love and kindness than you could ever imagine. I left India with the clothes on my back and shoes on my feet, from simply following my mother’s way of giving whatever I had to people who weren’t born as lucky.
What has been your general approach to your career?
To listen and absorb as much about as many things as I possibly could have. We were given two ears and one mouth, and I believe we were meant to use that proportionally [laughs]. I ask a lot of questions. I listen to understand, not to respond. I do my research. Architecture is applied research, so I gather all the data in order to apply it creatively and responsibly. Building trust in clients and your team is also vital to your success. Be a good person, be collaborative, challenge everything.
What advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
To fall in love with the design problem, the process, and the details. Learn how to listen to understand, and put the time in for the research. You will acquire all the skills that you need to in the field, but it’s up to you to push yourself and learn how to think differently. Everyone has a struggle, and everyone’s working on designing their story. Design yourself a process and I’m convinced it will lead to a fulfilling ending.
Nisha by Rose Wind Jerome