Ambition and Doubt: Zuhal Kol on Taking Risks and Gaining Perspective
By Julia Gamolina
Zuhal Kol is the Founding Partner of OpenAct Architecture and Design Studio. She received her Bachelor of Architecture from Istanbul Technical University with her 1st Honors degree in 2011 and her Master of Architecture from Cornell University, AAP in 2013. She has previous experience working as an architect in Istanbul and as a teaching assistant in Cornell University. She led several workshops for architecture students organized by Columbia University & Bilgi University, and SALT Research. She received a number of awards during her studies and professional practice and contributed to published academic writings. Her current work and research focus on the notion of indeterminacy within architecture and the city, aiming to envision the design of open-ended systems as the basis for adaptable, flexible and organic infrastructures, across a multitude of scales that support and promote contemporary urban life. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Zuhal talks about finding what she loves, starting a firm, and overcoming an unthinkable challenge, advising young architects to nurture the meaningful relationships in their lives and to never lose sight of what is most important.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
ZK: I was born into a family of architects – my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my cousins. I grew up watching my mom draw into the night, and spending weekends on construction sites with my dad, seeing those drawings turn into reality.
Growing up in Anatolia, I also had the chance to visit a lot of ancient Greek cities. I loved seeing the drawings of the buildings and then their remains on site. I never considered anything else for my career – I always wanted to be an architect.
You studied in Turkey, in Germany, and in the United States. What did you gain from all these experiences?
I learned to bring together all the different pedagogical approaches in my work. Turkey was all about being rebellious; finding your own process and bringing something new to the table. In Germany, we were taught to be very thorough and specific in the study of precedents. And Cornell encouraged us to be the most of what we were, so I was able to combine all of my strongest skills in my work there. I also met people from all cultures and backgrounds, including Carlos, my partner in life and in business.
Before you founded Openact, where did you work and what did you learn?
One of my most important experiences was working for Global Architecture Development, an office in Istanbul, right after graduating from undergrad. In my interview, I told them that I had planned to pursue my masters in one year and asked if they would be OK with that. When they heard this, they offered me a different position – they always wanted to open a “GAD Lab,” to focus on research and publications, and hired me to spearhead it. I was writing text for the firm, organizing workshops with students, hosting conferences at schools, and interviewing the lead architects.
I loved it; I had the chance to work side by side with the partners every day, in one of the biggest offices in Turkey, and realized I also wanted to have my own office. Normally a young architect doesn’t have such insight into how a partner organizes his day, how he organizes people, how he explains the same project to students, to clients, to reporters, and how he was speaking to his employees, at all levels. I also saw how you can be involved with a project without being the one to actually do the drawings [laughs].
How did you decide to start Openact?
I first wanted to work as a designer at an established office in New York, but when I visited some big offices with my MArch class, I saw the conditions that architects were working in, heard my friends complain, and I just couldn’t picture myself working like this for next ten years. I thought that the work was probably going to become very repetitive, and unfortunately in America, health insurance, rent, mortgage, and future education expenses of kids, can easily turn into priorities that dictate what you work on.
I said to Carlos, “Let’s try to open the office right now, while we don’t have a lot of responsibilities and there’s not a lot to lose.” I had a background in urban design and Carlos had a background in material experiments – in Spain, they detail and materialize the craziest of ideas, up to 1:1 scale! We had a friend, Jose, from our time in Erasmus, who also lived in Madrid, and who was very interested in structural design. We convinced him to join us to round out our skill sets, and officially started Openact during my second semester of Cornell. While working my way through studio, I was also working on a competition in Turkey with Openact, and then our submission won an award! We decided that the early success was a sign, so when I graduated, I officially moved to Spain, and we continued with more competitions.
Openact is receiving awards left and right! How do you strategize the competitions and opportunities you pursue?
We purposefully focused on competitions at the beginning to announce who we were, what we were doing, and what we believed in. As soon as you decide to have your own firm, you think, “Who will come to me, a 25-year-old brand new practitioner, coming out of school with no experience [laughs]?” Competitions were the way for us to build a portfolio and get our ideas and name out there. We started in Turkey – Turkey was and is still heavily building, and there are a lot of public competitions going on, all to build. We then moved on to competitions in Spain, and other parts of the world. There were some that were of course not successful, but most of them were awarded, with paid awards that helped us survive the beginning stages of launching our firm.
Somehow competitions worked out for us because all three of us came from and have very different focuses and interests in the field, personally, culturally, and architecturally. Whenever we combine our strengths, it produces something very unique. I come from a culture of chaotic clashes and open-endedness, and my partners come from a culture of precision and hyper definition. We try to see the advantages in our differences and aim for strong combinations.
Do you have anyone working for you?
Currently we are a team of ten. We also do a lot of collaborations, especially for competitions. The collaborations develop naturally from our social life – we have a lot of friends in Turkey, a lot of friends here in Madrid, a lot of friends in Germany still, and we might agree to do a competition together over dinner [laughs]. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t – during the process you can develop a great personal relationship, but the work doesn’t end up being great, and the opposite can happen too. We collaborate with other architects, but also with landscape architects, urban planners, structural engineers, electrical engineers, telecommunications engineers, and more! We combine a lot of disciplines in our work, and we learn a lot from each one of them.
What have been your favorite projects with Openact?
The two projects that we won our first awards for, in Zagreb, Croatia and in Turkey for the Design Institute Park, will always stand out. Our project for Zagreb is a resilient and soft intervention which adapts itself to flood conditions. We hope to create activity areas on the riverbanks that are caused by the flood and integrate this part of the city with the daily life of the citizens. The other is a park for the Bandirma Design Institute project, one of the few international competitions in Turkey with an open call and with an international jury. Currently, we are working with many disciplines ranging from historical preservation to urbanism to landscape architecture; I am really happy that all the research and the learning will turn into something real.
What has been the general approach to your career?
My approach comes from something my mom told me – you’re going to be working for the majority of your life, so it’s not enough to like it, or to kind of be interested in it. You really have to love what you do, embrace it, and make it a part of your life. I made sure to find what I love in architecture, and the moment I don’t enjoy it, I don’t do it. Of course there have been moments where I’ve said to myself, “I have to do this job because I have to make money and survive.”
There was a moment two years ago where we had jobs we really didn’t want to do, but had to, to keep ourselves and our business afloat. When they became the main topics in the office, we became really scared, but we put in more time and worked some weekends to do what we really liked and I’m happy to say it paid off. We try to think of the less-than-ideal jobs as stepping stones, and that they will enable us to do what we like. Sometimes projects bring you money, but sometimes they bring new experiences, or new ideas, or lead you to do things differently. All of those problems, if you see them as puzzles to solve, will bring a benefit to you.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
When we decided to open our own office, Carlos and I were constantly trying to convince each other that we could do this and that we had nothing to lose, but then we would go out and socialize with our friends, and they would ask how things are going, and we found ourselves giving vague answers and realizing that we didn’t really know where we were headed. A lot of people were really supportive, but a lot were dubious. The subtle judgement and pressure was the biggest challenge – we started to question, especially after sleepless nights, if we were doing the right thing or not. When people doubt you though, you push yourself harder. You look harder for clients, you work harder on competitions, and you find new ways of bringing work into the office.
Another significant challenge I know you have overcome is regarding your health. Would you like to talk about this?
I don’t want to get into it too much, but I think it’s important to mention, especially because I see a lot of students working so hard. Ambition is great and exciting – it pushes you further, opens up your boundaries, and makes you do things you never thought you would – but we should not lose sight of what is most important. There was a moment when I overdid it – I think I was maybe a little too ambitious and lost some perspective. I remember being in the hospital bed, in the ICU, and the doctors told me that I had cancer. My first reaction was, “I can’t, I have to get out of the hospital, I have to finish my work!”
I had to stop working for a while – I wasn’t happy at the time, but I realized that if I don’t take care of myself first, I’m not going to be able to do anything. I realized that work is not most important – I am still ambitious, I still have goals, but I know that my health and my family are my priorities. Right before I was diagnosed, I had a lot of trouble breathing, and Carlos was encouraging me to go to the doctor. I kept saying, “No, no – we have to finish our work. Let’s get a few things done, and then I’ll go and check it out.” I kept postponing and postponing my doctor’s appointment, and I’ll never forgive myself for that. Everything is great now – I am completely done with treatment, I beat it – but I learned a very important lesson. We lose perspective sometimes when our ambitions take over, but we can never be blind about our health. If you don’t have your health and the right people around you, you won’t be able to reach your professional goals anyway.
I also have to tell you, right when you cut your hair off into a pixie, I was going through treatment and needed to do something about my hair. I loved it, so I showed my hairstylist your photo, and said, “I want that”. You cut your hair at the right time – it really lifted my spirits [laughs].
What are you most proud of?
Openact has only been actively functioning for two years – we launched and worked for three months, and then I got sick and had to stop for more than a year. During this time, we have been travelling and pursuing projects, attending every conference or project review we were invited to, and establishing a branch of Openact, Openact Orient, in Istanbul. Within this cross-cultural nomadic life -which can be quite exhausting – I am most proud of the team’s energy and excitement to discover new challenges and experiences, and I am grateful to have witnessed the collective energy that enables us to lift our spirits when we are most tired and feel like we’ve failed.
Looking forward, what else would you still like to accomplish?
We have various goals towards our practice – first we want to create a research lab and concentrate on publishing and on exhibitions. We’ve worked so hard on projects these past few years that we have accumulated a good chunk of work that needs to get out into the world. We also want to continue collaborating and meeting new people, because we learn so much. Finally, after living such a nomadic life, Carlos and I would like to settle someplace, at least for a while. We would also really like to build our house ourselves here in Spain and eventually start growing a family.
What about the biggest lesson you’ve learned with Openact?
I’ve learned that talent is not enough. Running a company and employing other people requires so many social skills, and knowing how to interact is very important. I cannot stress this enough – I speak with students and their questions are always about what my grades were, who wrote my recommendation letters, where I took my TOEFL exams. The more important questions instead are, “How did you decide to collaborate with these people,” or “How did you decide to have Jose or Carlos as your partners.” Your interpersonal skills, towards your clients, your mentors, your collaborators, carry great impact on your work. I don’t mean you need to become super extroverted and the life of the party – I just mean you need to take care of and nurture the meaningful relationships in your life.
What has been the biggest highlight?
I was pretty curious how Carlos and I would work together and I’m happy to say that our collaboration is going really well. Things can get complicated because we have a home office in addition to one at the city center, so we have discussions about work at all hours and share our life 24/7. Some people think we’re crazy, but we are so excited – we’re growing up together, and building this firm together, and I love that.
*originally published on ArchiteXX.org on March 8, 2018