Welcome to Future Talks by RTF, where we engage in conversations with the pioneers shaping the world of design. In our upcoming session, we are delighted to interview Utkarsha Laharia, an architect-trained architecture journalist and critic. Utkarsha’s passion for earth buildings, cultivated during her experiences in Bhuj and Ladakh, has driven her commitment to fostering responsible media presence and criticism in the field of architecture.

Armed with a Bachelor of Architecture from Pune, India, and a Master’s in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University, New York, Utkarsha has made significant contributions to renowned publications such as Architectural Record, Architect’s Newspaper, and Newsweek, among others. Currently based in Chicago and working at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), she uses her platform to mentor architecture students seeking to transition into journalism.

As young learners,join her enlightening lecture, “Architecture Journalism and the Role of Media in Architecture,” where Utkarsha Laharia shares insights with architectural students who are trying to transition to journalism.

Join us today, as we explore the importance of responsible media in architecture, and her critical perspectives on the built environment in both the US and South Asia. 

Follow her on Instagram @architecture_journalist for a glimpse into her ongoing dialogue on architecture.

RTF: Hi Utkarsha, We are glad to have you as a guest on Future Talks by RTF. Thanks for joining us. An architecture graduate in 2018 who steered towards journalism. What propelled you to pursue writing over architecture as a career?

Utkarsha: That’s a great question to start with. I wouldn’t count it as pursuing one over the other. I believe writing in architecture is as equal a part of industry as design if not more and it has always been that way. Otherwise the theory of architecture would not exist. Architects were writing! Now it would be a whole another discussion as to who got the opportunity to have that voice and why doesn’t the architecture curriculum in india  include more South Asian architecture writers and books, why are we so focused on learning about our own history of architecture from a western lens, why are design practices in India so poorly archived and documented and why is it the case that the mainstream global architecture fraternity could hardly reach beyond Doshi when it comes to talking about Indian architecture? I guess to answer your question in short, I had questions and I needed answers and for the answers I was given (and not given), I needed to write to start a discussion.

Unfortunately in the architecture education in India, more focus is given to the design aspect of architecture —what they typically call as AD in academia—which is only one part of what comprises architecture. While studying B.Arch in India, I equally valued and thoroughly enjoyed architecture theory, history, structures, research, basic design, etc and would always constantly write. I needed to know everything (I am mostly the same even now). I headed my college’s Newsletter and Magazine while studying architecture but somehow imagining it as a full time career option with firms in India was too bizarre. Only after my professional practice training with Hunnarshala, which was my first internship as an architect, was I able to strongly find my way towards architecture journalism and criticism. Not many were writing about earth construction, not many were writing about the built environment in India from the point of view of India. Western canon existed and still exists.

RTF: There can not be a better person than you to advise young architects who are thinking along different lines than creating and designing buildings. How much freedom and knowledge does architecture as a course provide?

Utkarsha: Architecture as a course provides all the tools to go seek the knowledge. Learning how to learn is crucial. What follows after that learning and knowledge is confidence and only that confidence can provide freedom. 

RTF: Culture takes a different shape daily. What does it take for you to be on the bandwagon and put up relevant content constantly?

Utkarsha: It has become my lifestyle now. I talk, read, breathe and live architecture (also guilty of romanticizing it at some point of time) but I like to believe that that’s only a byproduct of my passion towards it. As long as it is not blocking my words or coming in the way of writing about the causes that I strongly feel about, it’s a pretty good combination to have. About jumping on the bandwagon, I think I am in the driver’s seat. Because being there is to be alert, decisive in knowing when to hit the gas and when to hold the horses.

RTF: How would you describe the evolution of communications looking at your work and how the changing landscape of media has impacted it?

Utkarsha: How often have we either used or heard the phrase “lack of communication” and how often we hear that the architect was not able to finish the project on time and on budget? I think the three are very much related. In architecture, it is more important than most industries because it is also a business of time. I do believe that the changing landscape of media has only impacted my work for good. I was able to find and further build a community of diverse minds who equally care about architecture and are actively working toward bringing positive change. The only time I questioned it was when I wrote about the news of the possible demolition of IIM Ahmedabad for the Architect’s Newspaper and my views about saving it. The piece was soon taken up by various local media platforms (some with my permission but many without it) and the comments/messages I received were nasty. It only reflects on the sensitivity people have towards the built environment which is insightful because we can try to harness it positively. 

RTF: What do you think about the flow of creativity? What are the factors that halt it?

Utkarsha: The flow of creativity is cultivable, I believe. Ideas might come to you and I am sure no one’s complaining about that but at times when I feel the block, I tend to run towards books. Not walk but run! There might be many factors that halt it, one that’s on top of my mind is the environment. 

RTF: What are some challenges that general exchanges with architects and designers present?

Utkarsha: Language! This is not a new problem and many have written about it since Modernist times till now. A more precise answer would be vocabulary. It is okay to call windows and doors as windows and doors instead of fenestration. Architecture is about people and people “outside of the profession” also want to connect with people “in the profession” if only we try to speak the same language.

RTF: How do you consider the importance of building a personal brand as a writer or editor apart from the organizations for which one works? Can these go hand-in-hand?

Utkarsha: Definitely! One can learn a lot by being a part of an organization and great team but finding and retaining your style is self work, a constant work in progress. 

RTF: How has the content published been impacted by the presence of social media? What are the ‘positives’ and ‘negatives’ of it?

Utkarsha: I think I answered this above. Media and social media are becoming synchronous, especially in the visual industry like ours. I don’t think the consequences can be put in binary as positives and negatives because they are not so black and white. A lot of most is happening in the gray space especially PRarchitecture.

RTF: What are the other paths that you stroll on when not working?

Utkarsha: I am almost always working. Right now, there is no boundary between work and personal life. I recently moved to Chicago to work for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) so I am completely immersed in the newness of exploring this city which truly is an architectural pilgrimage. My office and my apartment both are on the Magnificent Mile, so, twice on weekdays I walk by some of the most important works of architecture —world’s tallest skyscraper designed by a woman, first tallest reinforced concrete structures in the world, world’s first mixed-use tower (I am fortunate enough to call it home) which is also an important piece of south asian history and culture, Chicago Architecture Center, the Chicago Tribune Tower,etc. Beyond the superlatives, these structures among many others on Mag Mile were engineering/architectural marvels that marked the age of innovation and possibilities. I grew up studying these during my time in the architecture school and now being constantly surrounded by them and living in one, the whole of the built environment, for me, is an open museum to experience, learn and critique. Architecture has become my lifestyle (I am blaming both my architecture and journalism education!). Since moving into my condo in John Hancock Tower, I’ve also gotten back into painting, mostly drawing the vast views of Lake Michigan framed in x-bracings of Hancock. I also play unofficial Architecture Tour guide of Chicago, thanks to my friends.

RTF: We would like to get your idea of a good pitch and how you differentiate between a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ approach from the writers and architects.

Utkarsha: Pitching about the topics that you feel the most for will always make the research and writing natural. I was once told that just like how a coin bounces off when thrown on a taut bedsheet, a good pitch should immediately bounce back the answers for the questions thrown at first reading. Differentiating between positive and negative approaches requires experience however, again, I do not look at them as two binary opposites. I play in the grey space. When it comes to pitching, that’s where the most interesting work happens.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. We look forward to publishing this interview on our website soon.


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