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Driving change through architecture: Arezoo Mohebpour’s humanitarian initiatives

Driving change through architecture: Arezoo Mohebpour’s humanitarian initiatives

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Your podcast “Design to Connect” seems an interesting and mindful initiative. How did you come up with the idea?

The idea for "Design to Connect" came about as I was transitioning from university and student life to professional life as an architect. After working as an architect, I realized I was not really happy with the work I was doing. Most of my daily tasks in real life, in opposition to what I had experienced during my studies, lacked creativity and felt more mechanical. I found little meaning in what I was doing on a daily basis, which I had loved before entering the professional world. I also had issues with how architects were paid and the lack of work-life balance, and I was fed up with the amount of greenwashing and social washing in our industry. 

It seemed to me like we were often addressing arbitrary problems, i.e., often stressing about the presentation style of a project, and were completely detached from real-world issues like climate change, social justice, and community building. It was as if architects lived in their own architects’ world, creating problems and answering them, and generating stress and competition within the made-up problems that only architects get.

For the first couple of years, I thought many times that maybe I was the problem and blamed myself for being "too difficult," "too idealistic," and "not professional."

But, as I started sharing my feelings about the industry on LinkedIn, I realized many architects felt the same way. They had entered the profession wanting to make positive changes creatively but ended up in a cycle of overwork with little sense of meaningful contribution, or even a negative impact.

One of the connections I made on LinkedIn was with someone who felt very close to what I was experiencing. Her name was Hadil El Baba. We both were looking for answers but didn’t know where to start. So, we decided to start a podcast as a way to begin questioning and reflecting on the architectural industry.

What is the purpose of your podcast? What did you want to achieve when you began? Did it evolve in the way that you expected?

The main purpose of "Design to Connect" is to bring attention to all the issues that are not much talked about in the architectural industry. For years, architects have been seen as elitists and creatives, which has made them completely detached from other fields and the real issues in the world. But, in my opinion, architecture and urban design have and can have a huge impact on every aspect of human lives including our physical and mental health, how we feel, our safety, our planet, gender and racial equality, and so on. At the end of the day, most of us are always surrounded by architectural spaces. They contain every aspect of our lives.

Of course, this change within the industry will not happen within a day and is in need of a paradigm shift, and a big part of every paradigm shift is questioning, reimagining, and having meaningful conversations. That is why using social media and a podcast seemed a good place to start.

Initially, the podcast focused mostly on the humanitarian aspects of architecture. Both Hadil and I were looking for meaning in our work, and looking at humanitarian architecture, I think, was the most immediate answer to that. I think part of that was also, at least for me, stemming from the idea that the “developed world” is without any issues and so if I wanted to problem-solve, I would need to contribute to what we imagine as the “developing world.”

But as time went on, my eyes opened to all the issues that my immediate surroundings were facing. Homelessness, lack of walkability, social exclusion, loneliness, mental health, etc., and I started to notice the impact that the built environment had and could have on all those issues. So the podcast also evolved to include those topics that I could really see happening and had the agency and experience to solve or at least talk about.

I feel the podcast has been evolving with me and who I am as a human. As my understanding of the world becomes wider, so do the topics I talk about.

Giving birth to a project is a brave and challenging undertaking. What were the main obstacles and how did you overcome them? 

Starting the podcast and discussing the topics we chose was really scary, especially because when we first launched it, these issues were not as openly discussed as they are now. I think that, by being vocal about these issues, I made many job opportunities impossible and inaccessible for myself. But at the end of the day, the belief that these topics needed to be addressed and someone needed to talk about them always grounded me.

In the beginning, we also had a lot of self-doubts because we had never done a podcast before and didn’t feel qualified to speak on the issues we ended up discussing. We were intimidated by the many people who seemed and were much more experienced than us in these topics. But we tried, took small steps, and gradually improved.

Another challenge arose when Hadil, the co-founder, had to leave the project. I was very used to sharing ideas and reflecting with her on every topic, which helped me feel less stressed and more confident throughout the process. But ultimately, it was the same belief that “this industry needs changing and I want to be a part of that change” that kept me excited about continuing the project, even though I have never been able to gain monetary value from it.

Right now, the podcast has a group of people who are kindly supporting the work, and I am learning how to create a vision and workflow that allows different members to contribute and enjoy their contributions. That is what I am currently working on and with everything else that I have going on it has been a little difficult, but at the end of the day, every step matters, and even the littlest steps are better than none.

You said your podcast deals with the future of cities and communities and topics like inclusive design, walkability, and placemaking. What role do you think these topics play in contemporary architecture and how do you think they impact on the designing process?

I believe that, although often considered separately, architecture and urban design are inherently interconnected. With every building designed, we are designing and imagining a part of the public space and are putting together the different parts of an urban environment. Therefore, we need to always think about our buildings in relation to their roles in the city and how they can enhance the urban environment and, more importantly, urban life.

The issue is that much of what we learn in architectural education focuses on creating iconic buildings and does not talk about the feelings and the health of urban dwellers who are surrounded by those structures. At the same time, while such structures are necessary for specific functions, they represent only a small portion of what architecture truly encompasses.

Living in various cities, I have observed the significant impact of architecture and urban design on people’s experience—whether I had access to community spaces, felt isolated, could stay fit by simply living in the city without needing a gym, felt safe, and felt a sense of belonging.

Many of these aspects are influenced by culture. However, as we know, our culture impacts how we build, and our buildings, in turn, reinforce our cultural norms, whether we like it or not. Often, if we want to change behavior, we need to provide spaces that support those new behaviors as well.

For instance, think about your apartment building. There is a big possibility that you do not know any of the people living in the same space as you do. This is not a coincidence; most apartment buildings today are made of private houses which are only connected together via vertical (elevator and stairs) and horizontal transition spaces. Transition spaces, as clear by their names, are spaces for moving and not for slowness and, therefore, they create connections.

This principle can be extended to city planning as well. Most of our public spaces today are spaces of transition (fast car-centered streets with narrow sidewalks) or consumption (cafes, shops, supermarkets) which in turn make us passive consumers of our cities that we feel a lack of belonging within. If we want to foster feelings of health, community, safety, and belonging, we need to rethink how we design our spaces. This involves more than just adding lighting or more shopping centers; it requires a deeper reconsideration of how we construct spaces, who we construct them for, and how these spaces, in turn, shape us.

How do you choose the topics of your episodes? Do you conduct any research to understand what architects may need to hear or know nowadays?

I love learning, so I spend a lot of my days reading, researching, and observing humans and the human condition. For me, architecture and cities should enhance the human experience and that of other beings. So, a lot of what I focus on starts with closely observing what I and other people feel while living in cities or urban environments, and then I reflect on how architecture can help support better feelings.

I think architecture has been focused for years on aspects disconnected from what and who it serves, which has contributed to many of the world issues we see today.

So, for me, it starts with life, and what a healthier, more loving, and happier life would need. Then I try to bring that into the conversation and connect it to what architects and urban planners can do about it. In my opinion, we need to start with what we want to see and how we want our human experiences to be in the built environment and then use architecture and urban design as tools to reach those and not the opposite.

You have attended the course in Architecture for Humanity in 2020. Did this experience influence this project?

It definitely did. When I applied for the course, I was in my very first job and really unhappy with it. A friend of mine saw the application advertisement on Instagram and sent it to me, saying, "I think this could be something you'd be interested in." At that time, I did not really know what "Architecture for Humanity" meant, but just the sound of it made me feel better and seemed to have a purpose behind it.

I took the course online from my bedroom. During the course, I started working part-time and studying part-time. I am not exaggerating, but I cried from excitement and happiness during a couple of the lectures. Attending the lectures was honestly a confirmation that I was not totally out of my mind and there were people who had similar views on architecture. Taking "Architecture for Humanity" during those specific months opened my eyes to other possibilities in architecture. I resigned from my job halfway through the course and started to slowly find my own way. Things, of course, did not come fast and easy afterward. But I took one step at a time and slowly got closer to what I imagined my contribution to this world could be.

One of the reasons I wanted to start the podcast was also to show architects who might have been in a similar position as I was that there are other ways to be an architect and that they could have a purposeful job.

It honestly makes me so sad to see how the passion of many architects turns into burnout and frustration within a couple of months or years of working, and I hope that we can all come together and slowly change this industry for the better.

Maybe we need to start by not calling it an industry? I don’t know.

You are also in the process of writing your first book "Conscious Development: How to create spaces that can hold peace, compassion, and community". Would you tell us more about it?

Sure, I would be happy to share.

After resigning from my architectural office job, I tried to work in as many places as I could. I had—and still have—a couple of part-time jobs and passion projects running concurrently. This partly stemmed from feeling isolated as an architect and noticing that many social and environmental issues closely related to architecture, like homelessness, housing access, social isolation, etc., in cities, seemed to lack input from architects and urban designers, which I found very odd because I believe architecture and urban design both significantly impact and are impacted by these very issues.

So, I ventured into working across various sectors, sometimes even those seemingly unrelated to architecture, because I wanted to gain a broader understanding of how things work, especially in the social sector. I joined projects with whatever skills I could contribute, and many of these projects were related to development in one way or another, sometimes urban development and sometimes not.

Throughout these experiences, I repeatedly noticed that what we call development today, despite its positive connotation, often makes us, other beings on the planet, and our planet itself unhappy and unhealthy.

So in short, the goal of “Conscious Development” is to view development through a different lens—not one centered on profit or solely on humans, but from a deeper, more compassionate, and more interconnected place. The book delves into the topics of self, community, and society as a whole. It starts with a section on the self, discussing how our understanding of concepts like belonging, race, gender, and many others can affect the way we design and interact within the world. It then moves to a section on community, exploring the connections between community, space, health, happiness, and city design. The final section challenges certain concepts that human society has taken as truth in past years and discusses how redefining these concepts can help us reshape development in a way that benefits us, other beings, and our planet.

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