Exuberant optimism resides at the core of architecture as a vocation. Inherent to the array of opportunities in the field is the potential to shape a brighter future through the built environment. This sense of optimism and purpose is nurtured from the outset of architectural education.
Ultimately, many emerging professionals find themselves struggling to reconcile the unbridled optimism, idealism, and sense of possibility sparked in their education with the realities of the architecture profession. Doing good—by way of social impact—and doing well—as a commercial enterprise—can seem mutually exclusive, attained by a tiny echelon of architects or by those who have eschewed the for-profit model of practice altogether. But must it be so?
Occasionally practices emerge that demonstrate a plainly obvious and overlooked fact: The norms that govern the architecture profession were fashioned by people, for people, and thus can change by the will of people. For better or worse, there is nothing sacrosanct about the way the profession works today. So, can an architect operate a viable commercial enterprise whose work focuses squarely on today’s pressing social challenges?
I first met Danish Kurani when he lectured about his work with ambitious organizations engaged in work rooted in equity, justice, and social impact. The architect and urban designer, who splits his time between Atlanta and Mountain View, Calif., founded his namesake organization, Kurani, in 2013. The remote-first operation currently has eight full-time employees.
In his presentation, project after project was an inspiring story of how architecture can help manifest a more equitable, just future. Meanwhile, the incessant questions rattling through my mind were "How does he sustain this work?" and "Is his practice a nonprofit?" Inherent to my internal inquisition was a mental model of architectural practice that Kurani parted ways with at the inception of his practice—one that presumed an architect couldn't do good and do well.
Early in his career, Kurani practiced architecture in New York and Los Angeles with many reputable firms. Over time he grew frustrated with models of practice buoyed by ego, formalism, corporate interests, and unfettered consumerism. "If you're going to build something, build something that the world needs, that's going to help the world,” he says in our recent conversation. “[Build] not just because someone says, 'Hey, I'll pay you if you make this.’''
There, he was referring to architects of a particular mold. However, a second unspoken subject of his appeal is the client who solicits architectural services. After all, they decide what is built on their behalf. In Kurani’s appeal, I see a genuine split between the traditional preoccupations of business development and the path that he is paving for his practice.
Kurani is a keen observer of the intersectionality of factors that contribute to pervasive social maladies in America: starkly disproportionate educational outcomes, the chronic lack of diversity in STEM professions, and the high propensity of interactions between the criminal legal system and communities of color, among others. The built environment is omnipresent in these conditions. Its role is amorphous, at times protagonist, at others nemesis; sometimes overt, others latent. As a result, Kurani organized his practice around advancing more just, equitable, and effective outcomes with an acute awareness of architecture's ubiquitous yet nebulous presence.
Kurani posits that, "Architecture is a tool—one that can be used for good or evil. Like chemistry, you can create batteries or the atomic bomb. We need to make the conscious decision about whether we are using this tool for good or ill."
The world is seldom this binary. Nonetheless, Kurani's words raise a larger question: What does an architect believe is their professional mission? There is no universal response. If architecture is a tool, the disposition from which it is wielded can lead to substantially divergent results. A mission of making buildings may lead to the "better" design of carceral spaces, including those for solitary confinement. In contrast, a mission to improve social equity may lead to the reimagination of the very definitions of justice and restoration and the role of space.
Kurani’s firm was hired in 2016 to design and build the main campus of the Reset Foundation, a Berkeley, Calif.–based organization dedicated to creating an alternative to prison for sentenced young adults. Young men between the ages of 18 and 24 spend three years with the organization receiving education, rehabilitation, therapy, and job training. The campus is a conceptual inversion of typical carceral space; it fosters a sense of agency and community among its residents, who feel cared for, nurtured, and valued despite their misdeeds. Both the space and programming stand in stark contrast to the typical path of criminal justice: banishment.
Kurani acknowledges that many organizations with similar missions have tight timelines and limited resources for design and construction. "It's important to be scrappy," he says. For Reset’s project, Kurani found himself on-site building custom furniture to complete the project, helping however he could. (The hearts of insurance brokers worldwide just skipped a beat.) Here, Kurani demonstrates his commitment to fulfilling his company’s mission.
The firm also designed the New York headquarters of Black Girls Code, which aims to increase the number of women of color in the tech sector by exposing girls ages 7 to 17 to computer science and technology. Founder Kimberly Bryant reached out to Kurani after learning about Google's Code Next Lab, a space in Oakland, Calif., designed by Kurani and his firm that houses a computer science education program for Black and Latinx high-schoolers.
"I felt a sense of responsibility to inspire and provide comfort to a group that has been historically underrepresented in tech,” Kurani tells me. “How do we build confidence and comfort when they don't see themselves in the heroes of tech?"
In the Black Girls Code space, Kurani pursued a "gamification" strategy where the physical environment becomes an interactive didactic instrument about technology. Girls can physically break things open and delve into the nuances of how objects work, ultimately fostering a sense of agency to shape technology themselves. The building's services, exposed overhead, are color-coded to mimic a monumental motherboard and analogously convey copper's functionality vis-a-vis the mechanical and plumbing systems.
Like Google's Code Next Lab, a vital component of Black Girls Code's headquarters is something space alone cannot provide: a community. However, Kurani and his team were keenly aware of this. From the moment the girls enter the space via the Spark Room, they can see aspects of themselves reflected on the display monitors introducing the organization's coaches and staff. The message seems clear: You belong here, and we are going to do amazing things together.
But how does Kurani’s enterprise work tactically and operationally? In building a social-impact focused firm, Kurani wanted to avoid the “feed the beast” phenomenon that he believes significantly influences how many firms evaluate opportunities. By keeping his business small, operationally light, and geographically agnostic, Kurani and his firm are able to decline opportunities that don’t align with their mission and to be more inventive about how they pursue the opportunities that do.
Kurani understood that being a generalist was valuable but made market differentiation all the more challenging. He decided to focus on education spaces, seeing education as the core component of potential solutions to the myriad social issues of his interest. School districts in New York, Colorado, and California hired his firm to design progressive education spaces, which he framed through the lens of social impact. In 2015, Kurani received a surprising email from Errol King, then an experience manager at Google, which was seeking to create an educational space that would help cultivate engineering talent from underrepresented groups in tech. (Perplexed by the outreach, Kurani asked how he landed on Google’s radar. King replied, “Well, I just Googled you.”) To date, Kurani’s firm has designed five education spaces for Google, including a collaboration between Google and Howard University on Howard West, a satellite campus of the Washington, D.C.–based institution on Google’s campus in Silicon Valley.
Beyond the luck of search engine optimization, a unique aspect of how Kurani secures work relates to whether an organization has funded the project’s design at the outset. Cases like Kurani’s Google experience are typical in the industry. However, in cases without an explicit project or project development capital, the design firm proactively identifies and engages with organizations whose mission and work it is keen to support. Where there is potential to help an organization with its physical environment needs, the firm, in essence, will defer its fees and create a robust concept design package that organizations can subsequently use to fundraise for the project. When the funds, including the soft costs associated with the designer’s work, are raised, the firm continues to develop the project.
Danish views his approach favorably over another common route architecture firms take to finding work: design competitions. “Let’s say you have a one in 100 chance of winning a competition,” Kurani says. “Even if you do win, the chances of it being built are maybe 50%. That’s a 0.5% chance of entering, winning, and building it. With us, the chances [of building an impactful space] are much higher.”
Kurani and his firm recently embarked on developing a web-based sponsorship platform that seeks to connect donors with specific projects whose missions they support. During the lecture where I first encountered his work, Kurani described it as “a six-figure Kickstarter for architecture.” Today, the platform targets high net-worth individuals and environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) groups. But, Kurani notes, the platform is evolving and that the target donor profile may expand.
Prior to the platform’s launch, the firm estimates its work has catalyzed $20M in construction cost fundraising, impacting seven social issues via 14 projects, affecting nearly 6,500 lives to date, measured by the number of occupants using Kurani design spaces. This surfaces for me the old Peter Drucker saying, "What gets measured gets managed." I'm prompted to return, once again, to the question of what does an architect believe is their mission? For Kurani, it's clearly about more than making buildings. The mission of advancing just, equitable, and effective outcomes where architecture is but one of many useful tools seemingly lends to a landscape of strategies that is broadly imaginative and robust.
For professionals reassessing their mission, Kurani recommends asking, "How can I find the people who align with what I believe?" While making change through large-scale consensus building certainly has merit, sometimes the world needs mission-aligned individuals coming together to cast light on a new path forward. These examples can become guideposts in the effort of persuading a larger audience, building a new consensus.
I can think of few periods in modern history when it was more important for architects to imagine ourselves anew than now. The work and experience of Danish Kurani have the potential to provoke, at the very least, a moment of self-reflection and, at best, a reacquaintance with one's exuberant, optimistic, and idealist student-self to reaffirm one's professional mission and to see with refreshed eyes the immense possibilities ahead.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.