Always in Motion: Amina Blacksher on Foundations, Reflections, and Expression
By Julia Gamolina
Amina Blacksher is an architectural designer based in New York City, and founder of Atelier Amina. She has a decade of experience working across a wide range of scales and building typologies as a designer for Bjarke Ingels Group, Ennead Architects, and G TECTS. Prior to joining the design faculty at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Amina taught architecture studios at Yale School of Architecture, where she was a presidential visiting fellow and has served as a guest critic on design juries at Sci-Arc, Princeton School of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania Design, Tulane School of Architecture, Pratt Institute, Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture - City College, and New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Amina holds a Master of Architecture degree from Yale School of Architecture, where she was named the Robert Leon Combs Scholar. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Amina speaks about building a foundation and gaining the most out of every experience, advising young architects to just take that first step and never second guess.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
AB: The interest developed the summer after my junior year in college. I majored in government and minored in dance, and was doing an independent study fellowship in Spain where I was writing, from a government perspective, about one of the last dynasties of the Moorish Empire.
At the same time, I had an internship at the Archaeological Museum of Sevilla, and through traveling to Seville, Granada, and Cordova, I was overcome by the architecture. It had a huge impact on me to feel the the history of civilizations through physical and non-physical culture, even the rhythm of the day, but mostly the way culture was communicated through buildings. Definitely an “aha” moment for me, noticing the creative and the analytical coming together.
When did you officially decide to go to architecture school?
While my realization percolated, I finished my undergrad, traveled, and took some time to find my way. I modeled and worked for a hotel for a bit, and serendipitously met my now mentor, Gordon Kipping. I was complaining that I didn't have time to work on my portfolio for graduate school for architecture, and he was teaching at Columbia and gave me his card.
I called him the next morning and ended up working for his practice in New York. His firm G Tects is a small office with very capable people, so I had the opportunity to learn and be exposed to everything, and after a year and a half I finally decided it was time to apply.
Why Yale and what did you learn about yourself there?
From visiting, I could tell that there were a range of studios and a good cross section of faculty who were all active. The proximity to New York also made New Haven the perfect working environment - you could immerse yourself but when you needed a breath, New York was accessible.
I had a few professors who taught me a lot. Arianne Lourie Harrison had us propose our own individual manifesto by the time we graduated. That sets you up, even if you work for offices, to know what you value. My last year, I took two studios with Lise Anne Couture and Mark Gage to Berlin and Monaco, respectively. That was an opportunity to throw myself into a new software - we each had to be experts by the end of the semester in a certain area of Maya. I was able to really unpack this interest in surface that I've had from the very beginning, and looking at form as an event-based process.
The main thing I learned though came from a plaque in Sterling library, for the first black PhD graduate in the mid 1800s. He earned a PhD in physics within two years! How does one do that! So, whenever there is a perceived limitation in something, I just think, “No, no - you have the capacity.”
Where did you work after Yale?
In transitioning, I came back to New York to work for Gordon again, and coming back to the firm, having project designer experience, was a good start. Then I worked at Ennead for four years and that was really foundational. I understood the importance of design through to the details - that was a good office to learn about putting together a drawing set. As a young designer it was super valuable to always be part of the meetings and seeing the client respond to the work. There’s a lot of people at Ennead with 10, 20, 30 years of experience that were so available as a resource. Then I worked for Bjarke Ingels for three years.
What did you learn there?
BIG was a great model of fearless leadership. I learned that you must always say yes, and with exuberance. Everything there is done with such passion and zeal, which really made an impact - you should be doing everything with passion.
The office maintained a climate of a start-up, so everyone did everything no matter how old you were. If there was a meeting with a mayor, you went. You didn't let anything hold you back because you were young and everyone assumed pivotal responsibilities. That motto of, yes, you can do it and hit it out of the park. It's really key to architecture to not have to feel like you need experience to go after something. It was really empowering to come from a firm of people with a lot of experience to then become someone that was relied on for my experience.
What did you do next?
At that point, I had been really engaged on design reviews and thought about teaching. It was through being on a panel about women in architecture put on by the students and sharing my experience, that I was really excited to engage another aspect of my career, this one-on-one contact with students, directly engaging ideas. There are so many different pockets of a project or of an architecture firm, and I had been in the pocket of drawing and computers, so it was great to come back to thinking about basic concepts, like what an envelope is and can be. I find an immediacy in engaging with really creative minds a back and forth that keeps the design process active.
The opportunity to come back to my alma mater to teach was pivotal. That was when Deborah Berke was in her second year of Deanship. She's a big champion, so that was another “you can do it” moment.
What else are you doing now apart from teaching?
The strongest act of will I've ever done is to found my practice, Atelier Amina. It operates as a design and research practice, with a component of a physical experimental lab. I’ve also taken on film as a medium for discourse which is a part of articulating and expressing ideas. I just got the platform up and running and am excited to take on what’s next.
When did you decide to launch?
After my first semester of teaching at Columbia. The Dean made it very clear from the beginning that she believes in supporting the next generation. Hearing from icons on how they started out with their own practices and teaching and how things balance, I dove right in. I was teaching a lot the first year so now in my second and third year have taken a little bit more space to focus on the practice.
I didn't leave the large offices seeking to start my own but I see what a crucial outlet it is to have a platform and framework to consistently develop a conceptual vocabulary, and how designing syllabi and the engagement and feedback from my students can actively feed one into another.
Where do you feel like you’re in your career today?
I feel like I’m on the ledge, in a good way, of self-determination. Like I’m at the beginning of a decisive and exciting step. Starting the firm really got everything together, because I kept asking myself the reason for its forming. That has been a great process of reflection - literally just holding up a mirror, which I never do. I'm always in motion. So this stillness and reflection is something new and really deep. It feels like there’s a silence, belief and discipline in the beginning, to the launch of expression.
Looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
The current challenge is starting small, as a one woman team, and from there building a team of collaborators. I benefit from a dialogue - even to unpack an idea, to execute a whole host of tasks, from designing to managing, and to establish what the structure of work is - I find engaging with other architect and artists to workshop is so productive. I'm drawing a web of what the work goals look like and who I'm in contact with - it's the initial setting up of collaborations and exchanges.
Looking back, the M. Arch was challenging in realizing how many things have to get done in a certain time. Then working in offices, the challenge was anticipating how I wanted to use each situation. When I was a student and hosted talks with women in architecture, there was a lot of talk about getting to a skill and experience level and then leaving without being recognized as a VP or another similar title.
I found that it wasn't just the architecture and design process that I had to fit into, but a way that work gets done. In architecture, there's a part that's the cerebral and creative and then a part that’s almost like how a kid has to learn how to go to school, and thrive within a system of people. It’s good to learn tactics, skills and strategies for how to work with the people of the system you're fitting into. I’m constantly developing skills and strategies to rise to the top.
What have been the biggest highlights?
I’ve had pretty incredible training. Seeing how Bjarke Ingels works was amazing - I really am like a master apprentice type of learner. I’ve been shaped by working side by side with various people that I really admire and realizing, “Oh, that's what it's like, you can just be yourself.” It was a model of being your own light. This new stage of speaking my voice in form and practice has been a huge gift to step up to.
What has been your general approach to your career?
The way I found what I wanted to be was through an internal realization. It felt like, “Oh, this is who I am.” I'm starting to be more self aware and in tune with my purpose, and that’s an approach, a state of being..
Being able to be a mentor to other people is also part of my approach - I gave a talk to a college in Maryland as part of recruiting for Yale, and my message was find a mentor but to also be a mentor; you're never too inexperienced or too young, because if you're in high school you can mentor a middle schooler. Being able to give and realizing that you have something to give is my motto. Use yourself as a conduit of expression. That idea has transformed me.
What advice do you have for those just starting out?
Any step is the right step. Even if the first couple of steps turn out unexpected, go forth boldly and never second guess. Architecture is an industry and a career that requires boldness - you're always going to be trying and striving. To develop the conviction for people to get behind an idea enough to build it, you first and foremost have to believe you can do it yourself.