Outside the Box: Mary Kohilam Chandrahasan on Working in Sri Lanka, Launching an App, and Starting a Business
By Julia Gamolina
Mary is a co-founder & partner at NDNY, bringing an interdisciplinary and humanitarian approach to her work. She believes that bespoke solutions can be achieved by drawing inspiration from other disciplines and focusing on contextual factors. Mary’s fifteen years of experience in the architecture industry spans residential, commercial and institutional work. She is a registered architect in the State of New York, is licensed in India, and is a LEED accredited professional.
Mary holds a Master's degree in Architecture & Urban Design from Columbia University, New York, and a Bachelor's degree in Architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, India. She is also co-creator of a free, mobile iPhone app called Labyl (Learn About Buildings You Love) which allows users to identify buildings of interest, simply by taking a photo of the structure. She lives in the New York City with her husband and two girls. In her interview, Mary speaks to Julia Gamolina about starting a business with her partner and working in Asia, advising young architects to keep an open mind.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
My interest in architecture arose from a combination of things. I pursued a science and math curriculum in high school, but always loved art, architecture, history, and politics. My parents are both lawyers, and I didn’t know too many architects. However, I do remember listening to an architect during a career development day at school, which struck a chord and architecture became something I started considering seriously.
What did you learn about yourself in architecture school?
I learned that I had to be tougher, able to handle criticism, and persevere through the rigors of school. There is a significant workload and a lot of teamwork involved. Your personality evolves, as you learn to deal with different personalities, deadlines, and competition.
How did you get your start in the field?
I came to New York to start graduate school at Columbia University in architecture and urban design a week after completing my undergraduate studies in architecture from India. [laughs]. That was a very intense year and a half. Completing my masters, coming to a new country and learning the ropes. It was a fascinating experience for me.
What was your first job?
I graduated in the midst of a recession, so it took me a long time to find something full-time. After many applications, I ended up working on a skyscraper in downtown New York - so I went from designing grand proposals for thesis to working on bathrooms, and kitchens, and staircases [laughs]. It was a reality check.
How did you decide to start your own firm?
I worked for several architectural offices in New York and got a wide range of experience. Learning to put together a comprehensive set of drawings, obtaining regulatory approvals and working with the city and its various agencies were valuable lessons I learnt on the way.
Eventually as I worked in different offices and didn’t see myself there forever, I started thinking about what else I could do. It seemed that I had to find my own way. Becoming a registered architect was a milestone that made me realize I could start my own practice.
What were the take-aways from the offices you worked at?
I worked with Robert Stern Architects for a couple of years. I learned to focus on design, to think about materials and alignments, and to look at historical references, the site, and the context. At other firms I was able to obtain technical and construction experience on a smaller scale. Looking back however, I would have liked to get some experience in how to run a business - some marketing or business development skills, like what you’re doing. That would have helped a lot.
How did you know it was the right time to start on your own?
Once I realized that starting my own business was something I wanted to do, having independence and flexibility were important aspects of that. I had a very young family at that time, so it made sense for my husband (also an architect) and I to start our own practice.
We also had the opportunity to work with an organization in Sri Lanka, which is where I am originally from, to design an auditorium in the northern part of the country. Sri Lanka was just emerging from two decades of civil war, so it was probably very early to start the rebuilding efforts, but the idea was to revitalize the economy by hiring and training local labor and sourcing all materials locally. We also needed to travel back and forth. It was an opportunity for a ground up building, and for a young firm that was just starting out, it was an exciting undertaking. The project and ground situation had a lot of challenges, but this was a unique opportunity for us, and we decided to jump in.
How did you decide that working together with your partner was the right way to go?
I still debate that [laughs]. Having a partner is helpful - to bounce ideas off of, to get a different perspective, and to make important decisions. We’re both architects and have similar outlooks, but it’s also challenging - sometimes we want to do different things and pursue different goals. It’s all about communication and making sure we address each other’s concerns.
What is the work flow like?
He’s the creative, and I’m the practical [laughs]. That’s really how it works.
You said you had a very young family when you started the firm - how does motherhood play into all of this?
I had a newborn and a three-year-old when we started our practice. That along with the overseas travel made for a very challenging couple of years.
I do feel like we’re constantly juggling our lives, especially with the kids, but it gives you a different kind of focus and perspective in your work. You become much better with time-management and prioritizing what you need to do within the time constraints.
I love that your firm name is about New Delhi and New York. What is the balance between projects there and here?
Since we’re both from Asia, our goal was always to have a practice that is transcontinental. We are licensed to work in India as well as in New York, so we intentionally wanted to build a practice and work in both places. However, having worked on our first overseas project in Sri Lanka, for over four years and realizing the strain that it takes to travel and coordinate projects overseas, we have decided to focus more on building our practice in New York for now. Our work in New York has gradually grown over the last few years to include new construction and gut renovations.
Where are you in your career today?
We are transitioning our practice from a start-up to a growth phase. I have a lot of things I want to accomplish, which seems like a list that’s never ending, but we are at a place where we can focus on growth and diversifying our portfolio.
We also recently launched an architecture app, that makes New York’s built landscape accessible to anyone with a smartphone. The idea is inspired by the Shazam app for music and allows users to identify buildings of interest simply by taking a photo of the structure. The app is called Labyl - Learn About Buildings You Love - and we are working on building a database of buildings in New York.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Starting a practice while trying to raise a family was definitely a challenge, as well as struggling through the business aspects of how to grow and sustain a practice and keep it profitable.
What have been some of the biggest highlights?
My kids are one of my biggest highlights, my two girls - they provide me with the balance I need. The other is building our practice and expanding it - we’ve have grown our portfolio to include residential and commercial work in New York City and surrounding areas while also putting together a 1100 seat auditorium in Sri Lanka. Finally, the app is something I’m very proud of and hope that we can develop it further.
An auditorium in Sri Lanka and an app focusing on buildings in New York could not be two more different projects - how do you apply all that you know to both, and excel at both?
As a practice, we want to do different things and explore architecture in different ways - definitely through building and through experiences, but also through technology and digital media.
On the other side having grown up in Asia and witnessing the strain that large populations have on basic resources as well as the destruction caused by war, I would also like to focus on the humanitarian side of architecture.
What has been your general approach to your career?
As an entrepreneur, I believe that focusing on the positive rather than the negative is something that keeps you moving forward. Another approach is to always challenge and push myself to do things that are outside of my comfort zone, and to keep learning.
What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
Over the course of the last five years I have realized that it is important not to burn any bridges and keep a positive outlook on life and experiences.
What advice do you have for those just starting their own firms?
To think outside the box - there are so many architecture firms doing amazing work - so in order to distinguish yourself, you need to think differently. At the same time, you also need to be practical and learn how to run a business.
Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting out in their careers?
Going forward into the future, I think architecture could morph into something new - now we’re designing buildings, but perhaps in the future we’ll be designing stations on Mars! Everything around us is changing - the environment, materials, technology - so my advice is to keep an open mind and embrace new ideas.