Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Architecture
For Iranian-born architect Mona Ghandi, architecture is as much about the social interactions and user preferences that take place in a space as it is about the space itself. In an ever-changing social world, she believes that the most congenial built environment is the one that does not limit users and impose itself on their aspirations, but rather has the capacity to change and respond to their needs. Much of this thinking originates from her keenly observational mind, having grown up in the dense multicultural urban environment of Tehran, but it is also born out of the academic research she has carried out as a professor of architecture at Washington State University.
Born in Tehran, Ghandi’s early environment was, as she calls it, “a tense social, political circumstance.” But she found great learning opportunities in the capital city’s cosmopolitanism. “It’s a mix of multiculturalism with different languages and people from different cultures and perspectives.” Even as a young person, she recognized the role of architecture in facilitating those interactions. “As an architect, the strong sense of community and social interaction within the very fabric of urban life in Iran have developed a passion in me for unifying human interaction with built environment,” she says.
After discovering this early appreciation for the relationship between buildings and civic life, she went to the University of Tehran, where she studied architecture. It was formative not only on academic terms, but also because of the social environment. “My classmates came from different regions, ethnicities, and cultures, so I gained an appreciation for the social and human aspects of architecture with an interaction with my classmates,” she remembers.
Though she was thriving in Iran, both academically and professionally, she recognized limits to opportunities because of her gender. “I wanted to explore something new — state-of-the-art topics in the architecture field — and pursue my goals in a more equitable context,” she says. So after graduating, she practiced architecture in Iran before moving to the US to pursue a graduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley. This, too, was a formative experience. At UC Berkeley she came into contact with experts in computational design. As she remembers, “I was fascinated by the role of data in our design processes and the ultimate benefits that it can have in making invisible aspects of our design visible, and therefore open up new and comprehensive ways of thinking. In UC Berkeley I learned how data-driven design and emergent digitally mediated methods could transform socially abandoned urban sites into social and ecological resources.”
The quantitative approach to design that flourished in the UC Berkeley curriculum appealed to her way of thinking. In recalling how she first came to be interested in architecture, she says, “Beauty through math has always been part of my aesthetic perception of the world. I decided to study architecture because I loved the unlimited joy of exploring art and mathematics together.” UC Berkeley provided the intellectual environment where she could couple her concern about social issues with her interest in data and math. If architecture could affect someone’s psychology (which data does suggest is the case), then better-designed spaces, she reasoned, could enhance social accord. As she says, “I believe that architectural space has a great role in shaping the user’s personality and character, and, therefore, it has a great role in shaping our society.”
Ghandi has continued to develop this line of research in teaching appointments at UC Berkeley, Ohio University, and in her current position at Washington State University, exploring the relationship between architecture and psychology. By using her expertise in advanced computational technologies, she has been able to examine this relationship with quantitative rigor. She is currently exploring neurological and biofeedback data — brainwaves, heart rates, blood pressure, electromagnetic charges — to create smart and adaptive built environments that can feel, learn users’ behavior, and respond to their emotional state. As a result, they can generate an empathetic relationship between users and their environment through a unification of materials, form, structure, and interactive systems of control. This, she hopes, will give architects the tools to better make what she calls “compassionate spaces” that contribute to both users’ and society’s well-being.
Like any relationship, though, dynamics can change, so Ghandi considers the relationship between architecture and psychology not as something fixed in time, but, instead, as a fluid and changing balance. She is part of an emerging school of design thinking, exploring what has come to be called “adaptive architecture,” and she refers to architecture not as an inert object, but instead as a “living organism.”
What her approach attempts to do is to make environments that can change based on certain input. For some involved in this field, those inputs have to do with climate, making buildings that adapt to fluctuations in data points like temperature, precipitation, or sunlight. But Ghandi sees opportunity to explore the psychological and emotional dimensions of space. Her focus is to develop tangible reciprocities and an empathetic relationship between users’ thoughts and feelings and the built environment. “I am interested in this idea of seeing if architectural spaces can become an extension of our mind, and how we can make spaces concerned with feeling,” she explains.
To do this, she creates mock-ups of architectural elements and links them with biofeedback and neurological data. She is currently working with a full-scale wall that can change in shape, lighting, opening, and skin depending on the emotional and psychological profile of users connected to its data reception. “I’m trying to heighten the level of intimacy between the mind, body, and the environment to the point of dissolving the boundaries and making a single entity,” she explains, citing the tightening feedback loop between personal psychology and architecture that learns and responds to human behavior using embedded responsiveness and material intelligence.
Even amidst this changing technological complexity, Ghandi’s interests have remained consistent. As both a young person making observations about civic life in Tehran’s public squares and now, as a professor conducting scientific experiments about neurology and space, she is committed to making environments that encourage empathy, and, ultimately, improve social welfare.
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