Welcome to Future Talks by RTF – a captivating series of conversations with the visionaries who breathe life into architecture and design narratives. Today, we have the distinct privilege of engaging in a conversation with a trailblazer, Ms. Nandan, an architect, designer, educator, and a leader whose commitment to design and community resilience planning has left an indelible mark on the industry.

Ms. Nandan stands as a co-founder of thread collective, an award-winning multi-disciplinary design firm. Her journey extends beyond the conventional realms of design, as she serves as the board chair and founder of RETI Center, an institution where her fervor for implementing climate adaptive strategies finds expression through education and coastal innovation. As an Adjunct Associate Professor at Pratt Institute and an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, Ms. Nandan not only shapes the present but also molds the future minds of design.

At the heart of Ms. Nandan’s philosophy lies a profound belief in regenerative design, an approach that she describes as elastic and supple. Her work seamlessly integrates social, cultural, and economic considerations with high design principles, giving rise to innovative net-positive urban environments. It is at the nexus of design and the ecology of place that Ms. Nandan’s endeavors thrive, seeking to future-proof communities by creatively addressing complex problems and intricately weaving social justice into the very fabric of the built environment.

Armed with a Master’s in Architecture from UC Berkeley and licensed as a practitioner in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Ms. Nandan brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to our conversation. Join us as we delve into the mind of a visionary, exploring the intersection of design, resilience, and community building. Together, let us uncover the stories that inspire and shape the future of our built environments.

Credentials: M. Arch, UC Berkeley / licensed practitioner in NY + NJ + PA.

Future Talks by RTF: In conversation with Gita Nandan - Sheet1
Floating reef garden_Image by RETI

RTF: Hi Gita, We are glad to have you as a guest on Future Talks by RTF. Thanks for joining us. Along with your excellent work at Thread Collective, you are also contributing to sustainable design policy, and designing broader urban planning projects. What does the balancing act look like?

Gita: There is a need for architecture to be connected to broader relationships that bring our homes and communities to life. Policy, advocacy, urban planning, these all have deep impacts on how and where architecture is built and for whom. It feels important to me to be a part of the larger conversation which means balancing time and effort to focus on projects that are beyond a typical architectural practice. Balancing a variety of media, methods, and even sometimes language can be challenging but rewarding. It means that no two days are the same and one is often bouncing between scales, and types of work. Conversations can go from ordering a non-toxic carpet sample to discussing how land-use might impact the design of a greenway. Flexibility and being agile and open in one’s practice allow for this broad range of interests to be incorporated. The rewards lie in the synergies created, especially when you see them come together, feed, and inform each other. Advocating for policies related to the expansion and codification of green roofs over ten years ago is now making a real impact on our current projects through Local Law 94. 

Future Talks by RTF: In conversation with Gita Nandan - Sheet2
QCG MAP GRAPHIC collage_Image by RETI

RTF: Being an educator too, how do you look at the responsibility of informing others and inculcating architectural and design wisdom in people through lectures and workshops?

Gita: Learning is a lifelong process and teaching is an integral aspect of my own practice. For me, teaching is a collaborative process. I am often learning from my students as much as they are from me, and I consider it an exchange and exploration of ideas. I founded and co-teach a course called Delta Cities which is rooted in climate futurism through the lens of community planning. We work with local community partners, a process that shapes the dialogue and deliverables, rooting them in reality. The studio looks to see how we can achieve a radical reimagining of NYC’s future and defines real and actionable steps to achieve this vision through policy changes, site design, and programming. The future does not exist (yet!) and shaping it is in our hands. Students joining the design community now have a lot of power to foster real and big changes, and I hope that my teaching instills a process and ethics that allow the next generation to think radically about how we can inhabit the earth in 100 years and more.

Future Talks by RTF: In conversation with Gita Nandan - Sheet3
thread_blackbox garden_Image by RETI

RTF: How does Thread Collective reflect your design philosophy?

Gita: Thread collective was founded by myself, Elliott Maltby and Mark Mancuso – the three of us share a deep interest in how architecture and its context inform each other, acting and reacting to create a responsive and elastic approach. For us, buildings never stand alone. The site, whether it be the landscape, cityscape, social or cultural constructs, informs and guides the direction a project should go in. We spend quite a bit of time researching and “reading” a variety of current and future conditions that the project will inhabit in order to design for a world that goes beyond our own generation. We see the integration of interior and exterior as a spatial flow that is critical to achieving a more humane and human-scaled experience. The scale of our design varies widely from large urban park projects to small-scale field stations to interior adaptations, but the approach remains with a desire to achieve a more sensitive architecture that is approachable, meaningful, and positive.

Future Talks by RTF: In conversation with Gita Nandan - Sheet4
thread_stair atrium_thread collective_Image by RETI

RTF: What are your views on sustainability in urban design and architecture? How far have we come from sustainability renders and plans to their real-life execution?

Gita: I think creating sustainable environments is no longer the answer. We can’t sustain the current level of consumption, waste, or injustice in our built environment. There is a deep need to think more radically, holistically, and with a deeper commitment to creating environments that are positive contributions to changing our world. Buildings and landscapes that are regenerative, ones that actively clean the air we breathe, support food systems, store water on rainy days, and encourage a communal vibrant atmosphere are not just important but are really the only way we can responsibly build. 

Visions, renderings, and imaginations of what the future can look like continue to be critical tools for helping all of us see the potential of our world. However, it will take a more radical approach on behalf of government institutions, policymakers, and developers to realize these visions and allow for radical change. Implementation has been slow, expensive, and not always accessible to those who are in the most need. It is also critical that communities be involved in shaping their futures with sincere engagement strategies that listen, consider, and implement a community’s desire. It is one of the reasons that I founded RETI Center, a team dedicated to building out climate solutions through workforce development. Creating opportunities for implementing the blue-green economy is necessary in order to test and learn and innovate. We have designed floating marshlands, a kelp farm, floating reef structures that aim to rethink how our coastlines will be inhabited.

Future Talks by RTF: In conversation with Gita Nandan - Sheet5
thread_blueblocks_Image by RETI

RTF: How does a community make ‘An Architect’? And how important is the role of parents in shaping a child, who is sensitive towards art and architecture?

Gita: I love the idea of a community “making an architect” instead of an institution. While it is important to gain knowledge about architectural history, code, and standards that are often taught in school, the best architecture in the world has often been created by those who are self-taught, those who understand the world through other lenses. Being sensitive to one’s surroundings – and not just the physical space but through all the senses, is key to learning the artform of architecture. Learning the art of observation, slowing down, and drawing. Drawing is key, as it is a form of thinking and brings the brain, and body together and your mind will start to make connections that are not obvious at first glance. Architects who come out of a sensitivity for creating community-responsive design, and understand how to shape human-scaled spaces.

RTF: Which has been the most rewarding project for you until today? And, what factors made it so?

Gita: Since our practice has been around for over twenty years (which is hard to believe), there are quite a few projects that have been incredibly rewarding. There are three that stand out, TroutHouse, a building we developed for ourselves – and the restoration and expansion of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last homes, the Olfelt House. 

TroutHouse is where our offices are located in Bushwick. We decided to buy a parking lot and build a 4-story infill building to house our offices with 3 residences above. It was a transformative experience, in that we were the architects, developers, and tenants, and we learned quickly to see all sides of the process. We built it to showcase our commitment to low-carbon architecture and what is always surprising is that it is still a joy to come to work everyday. 

It was an honor to have the opportunity to work on an original home design by FLW. I grew up with him as an important figure in the architectural canon, one that brought an understanding of how nature and architecture could reference each other. We had worked with the cleints on a previous project and this second one felt even more important as it was their forever home. Frank Lloyd Wright’s original drawings for the house included a site plan with a proposed future wing.  While it was never built, the plan anticipated the need for additional space for the modest house and provided a provisional location and form for the expansion. Starting with Wright’s ‘future wing’ sketch, our approach was to create an addition consistent with the design logic, materials, geometry, and distinctive characteristics of the Olfelt House. The new wing takes a position of deference to the original structure and Wright’s dramatic roof continues to be the center of focus. As Wright’s ‘future wing’ is non-compliant with building setback requirements, we adjusted the location to meet zoning code and to take advantage of the existing topography. The wooded hillside ensures that the addition is low profile and screened from view, and the iconic perspective of the original house remains intact. The addition is a master suite, with a buried, conditioned garage below. ADA access is provided from the garage to both the original house and the new master suite. 

Olfelt House_Image by RETI

RTF: What is your perspective on the evolving role of architectural criticism and the influence of architectural critics in the digital age?

Gita: I think today’s world, full of images and opinions, we are beyond the sole voice of a critic who might stand on a soap box and profess the success or failure of a project or designer. We are living in a world of systems and networks, and to fully and critically understand these complexities we need to hear a wide variety of opinions. But it is also important throughout the design process to gain feedback, and as the designer, to be willing to listen. Critical thinking, conducted through a supportive environment is valuable to assess, analyze, and evaluate and should include not just experts in the field, but the users, maintenance staff, and community members to name a few – a broader array so that architecture can best serve society. 

RTF: Can you reflect on your journey as an architect and give young students and architects some wisdom to excel in this field?

Gita: The field can be both incredibly challenging and rewarding. I don’t think that one must follow the typical path in order to be successful, and it is important that you find a sense of joy in your work. Determine what you find rewarding even in the mundane everyday tasks. We started thread collective when we were just out of graduate school, and while we had to learn as we worked it was exciting, very rewarding, and hard. It is not always easy to find the right projects and clients to work with, especially when one is starting off, but now we have carved a niche for ourselves and have had a great set of clients whose missions align with ours. 

You should also get out of the office – take walks to new places, go to a workshop or a concert. Architecture is about creating experiences not just buildings and you have to take part in life to learn, observe, and grow in your design practice. One of the most important things I have learned is how to be proactive in our work, not just reactive to a client’s brief. Taking risks and thinking outside the box, generating ideas, and proposals, and over time these have grown to be realized.  But time is really key. Architecture and the design field necessitate patience, and perseverance to see ideas grow and morph from the paper to the real world.

Author

Rethinking The Future (RTF) is a Global Platform for Architecture and Design. RTF through more than 100 countries around the world provides an interactive platform of highest standard acknowledging the projects among creative and influential industry professionals.