Member Spotlight: Interview with Mani A. Farhadi, LEED AP, Assoc. AIA, Senior Facilities Planner

A global thinker and creative thought leader, Mani Ardalan Farhadi’s experience spans three decades of design programming/planning. Currently, she is Senior Facilities Planner, Stanford University School of Medicine, OFPM (Office of Facilities Planning and Management). Mani combines her passion for education, with extensive planning skills to conduct feasibility studies and programming on research space. Prior work includes Taylor Design, Steinberg Hart, and Sasaki Associates. Using strategic thinking, she is integral to campus projects, having collaborated with public and private institutions from K-12 to Higher Education. Described as ‘the client in the room’, Mani’s keen ability to listen builds consensus with end users.

Mani’s leadership extends into a wide range of volunteering. Her roles include former Board of Trustee (Los Gatos Union School District), and Chair of Bond Oversight Committee, receiving ‘Citizen Architect’ award. She mentors for WIA (Women in Architecture) Silicon Valley and co-founded BIBI (Banou’s in Building Industry) for Iranian-Americans. Current duties include serving as DEI Officer for Wellesley College and on the Board of NICA (Niosha International Conservatory of Arts). Mani has served as moderator and juror, given presentations on panels at workshops/conferences (SCUP, AIA, SPUR, EQXD, ACSA, CCFC, CCLC, A4LE, CAE, SF Design Week, GenARTS, at Mills College, Santa Clara University, Radcliffe College, Harvard University, and Wellesley College) on topics ranging from Case Studies to Inclusivity and Intersectionality. Graduating from Wellesley College (B.A. Architecture), and subsequently Boston Architectural College (B.Arch), her formal education was supplemented with SCUP Planning Institute (Step III), LEED AP and Leadership Los Gatos.

What sparked your interest in becoming an architect?

Growing up in Iran, I was certainly aware of the significance of architecture. My father is an international architect, Nader Ardalan, who was educated at Carnegie Mellon and Harvard GSD, having practiced in the US, Iran and Kuwait. He and my mother, the late author Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, researched Sufi traditions of Persian architecture. They took us as they traveled throughout Iran to observe, sketch, photograph and learn about the rich heritage of Iran, after which they wrote the book ‘Sense of Unity.’ We explored small towns, villages, palaces, gardens, mosques, bazaars and caravanserais. Each beautiful and iconic structure was deeply rooted in nature, geometry, landscape, culture, and ecology of the place. Above all, the buildings had spiritual meaning, mystical symbolism and connection with the community.

The pivotal moment for me came at the International Congress of Women Architects, held in Iran, 1976. The former Queen Farah Pahlavi had studied architecture in Paris, before marrying the Shah. Given the climate of the 70’s and mounting women’s rights in the world, she was inspired to host well-known and rising women architects from around the globe. My mother was invited as a speaker, though not an architect, as an author/scholar to talk about spirituality in architecture. My parents had recently gotten divorced, I had become a teenager, and my Mom thought we’d enjoy this special moment. She was right as always. Being even a minor participant there changed my life!

There were representatives from 23 countries, including emerging women professionals in the Iranian architecture industry. The stars included Denise Scott-Brown, Anne Tyng, Alison Smithson, Jane Drew, Gae Aulenti, among many. Women came from Nigeria, Japan, India, Finland, US, England, Australia, Mexico, and other faraway places. The way they collaborated and related to each other conveyed a camaraderie. It was energizing to hear them philosophize and discuss the relevance of regional design, sharing the important role of women. They spoke so passionately about how women could change the world through architecture, developing a Resolution as a ‘Call to Action.’ Mom published the Conference Proceedings, which I still refer to, as relevant today as it was then. Though I’d seen my father as an architect, it wasn’t until I saw these phenomenal women architects that I decided to study architecture myself. To this day, their words resonate with power and possibility. It was a transformative experience.

What are the kind of projects that you currently work on?

After 30+ years of working in architecture firms on educational projects, I’m now a Senior Planner at Stanford University School of Medicine. Having been on the consultant side for decades presenting to schools and designing learning environments, I’m now embedded within. It’s a whole other perspective! In my role, I conduct strategic planning with our team, as we discuss and determine future relocations, building new research space or renovating to accommodate change. We are continually evolving, with growth primarily taking place in Research Park, a few minutes away from the historic main campus. Learning about the faculty and student innovations, grant-funded explorations and groundbreaking work, it is fascinating. Creating feasibility studies and draft layouts, it is a constant flow of activity. I’m more productive than ever. During the programming phase, I get to engage directly with the faculty, administrators and labs, meeting to discuss their requests, hearing their viewpoint, and collaborating with our design firms to formulate solutions and build consensus to move forwards.

How did multicultural experiences help you evolve as a professional?

Given my roots in the eastern hemisphere and lived experience in the western continent, I’ve developed a fluid understanding of multiple milieus. It’s a hybrid existence that draws strength from both tradition and modernity. I have reverence for the ancient aspects, such as respect for elders, combined with a forward-thinking mentality, such as a fervor for advocacy. I have an understanding and appreciation of minorities and immigrants, being an Iranian-American-Muslim woman. I have empathy for others who have not been represented, because I know what it feels like not to fit a typical mold, and to be prejudiced against. Granted my case is not as extreme as those in the BIPOC community, and I try to learn more about systemic injustice every day.

These foundational elements have built the person that I am today. Another key asset of eastern culture for example is the concept of community. It’s not about solo achievements, but about a unity of purpose within a family and a neighborhood. We’re not brought up to become individual contributors, but to be part of a group and to have each other’s back in support and solidarity. As such, I’ve been lifted by my network of sisterhood, whether through girl scouts or girls summer camp, by attending an all-female college, and then finding my mojo within a collection of women architects in my professional career. In our built environment and social construct, we can have influence to raise awareness and improve conditions.

Do you have any feedback on other possible ways to be an expert / leader in the industry for someone who chose not to pursue licensure?

To begin with, I had a liberal arts degree from Wellesley College majoring in architecture, and upon graduation, commenced work at Sasaki Associates. To pursue the professional path, I enrolled in the BAC (Boston Architectural College). The BAC architectural degree was a unique experience, being that we were in school at night, concurrently with the requirement to work in architecture firms during the day. Due to the grueling schedule, it took many years to accomplish. By the time I graduated with my professional degree, I had been working for 12 years, married for 8 years, in my mid-30’s, and promoted to Associate, so we focused on having a family. As such, I was pregnant during my thesis, and my first child was born right around graduation. I went back to work after a 3-month period, which left little time for studying.

I did attempt the route of licensure, taking 3 of the 9 exams required at the time, and passed 1 of them. We then moved from MA to NC, where I focused again on our family, and my second child was born. From there, we soon moved to CA, and after getting our family situated, I went back to work again in an architectural firm, at Steinberg Hart. By now with two young children and working in a highly productive capacity, it was next to impossible to continue licensure. Based on that, I would recommend everyone obtain their professional license soon after graduation.

In my career, my projects were primarily for educational institutions, collaborating with schools, colleges and universities. My role was mainly a Project Manager, with expertise in Programming. I was always teamed up with colleagues who had technical and design background so I used my organizational and communication strength to manage the team. Promoted to Senior Associate, I continued to expand my professional network, and evolved skills in master planning, visioning, consensus-building, design guidelines, feasibility studies, community engagement, etc. These became my area of specialty within the educational field, and did not require licensure, as I pursued leadership opportunities in business development, marketing prospects and conference presentations.

How is your current role different from previous experiences of working with a traditional architecture firm? How has this experience shaped your perception of the profession?

Campus planning projects entail thinking about micro level and macro level. The sites were mini cities, with project types such as classrooms, dormitories, libraries, cafeterias, athletic facilities, parking garages, student unions and most importantly understanding the learning environment. A few years ago, the opportunity came about to work within the education environment I had nurtured, which is how I came to be hired by Stanford University. In the role of a Senior Planner, there are so many aspects of the practice that can be conducted similarly as in architecture firms, in particular the programming and planning piece.

However, now I have access behind the scenes. I can see how direction is set, why decisions are made, and in what way the process evolves throughout design, as I synchronize the projects we are navigating. Since all my experience was based on the upfront work to set the vision and engage with the community, it has been fulfilling and I’ve found alignment with my expertise. It can be enlightening to find a place of belonging and a work environment where your strength can shine. If a traditional architectural practice is not providing opportunities that fit your specialty and your passion, there are other avenues to pursue. In alternative careers, one can influence outcomes, steer the process, provide input and contribute to the overall project direction.

You are an active member of AIA Silicon Valley’s Women in Architecture Committee. Can you elaborate on this experience?

I’ve been a member of WIA (Women in Architecture) Committee of AIA Silicon Valley almost since its inception in 2015. I was approached by former Steinberg Hart principal Brigitte Williams who created the committee with a handful of others, including Pamela Anderson-Brule, Britt Lindberg, Stephanie Silkwood and Katia McClain. We began with the express intention of hosting the WLS (Women’s Leadership Summit) in the Bay Area. Over the years, we have held events on self-confidence, salary negotiation, leadership path, emotional intelligence, career-building, networking, and a pipeline for minorities into architecture, to name a few of programs. In addition, we have written blogs, amplified the voices of others, and increased membership of women in the AIA chapter. In particular, with my own visibility representing Iranian women, the participation by other Iranian women has been augmented.

In the WIA forum, we support each other, mentor those who need career advice, make introductions, share articles and lift one another. This platform has given us a group voice from which to advocate for J.E.D.I. (Justice Equity Diversity Inclusion). Through our efforts, we elevate those from underrepresented backgrounds and amplify their voices, as we can become cognizant, to then thoughtfully consider others in our design practice and in our working relationships. When we have an opportunity to engage with the community for our projects, we can approach it with more compassion and listening skills, removing preconceived notions. It helps us to design with inclusion for our disabled clients or to think more holistically about the neurodiversity of the population. Ultimately it enables us to consider making spaces more welcoming and representative of the fabric of society.

Why do you think initiatives like the upcoming Women in Leadership Summit hosted by AIA Silicon Valley are important to the profession?

The WLS is what our committee has been planning towards for 6 years! We’re expecting 500+ women from all over the US to attend in person. It will be held at San Jose Center for Performing Arts, Sep. 28 – Oct. 1, 2022. We are excited to connect with women and allies in person after the forced hibernation from Covid-19. The speakers represent a broad range of industries and perspectives, from mental well-being to world-renowned designers, from those in academia to those in transportation, from activists to sustainability experts. Attendees will hear from those outside our own Silicon Valley bubble, learn about issues facing other parts of the country, and be exposed to ideas. We will hear from diverse voices and perspectives, whether representing an ethnicity, an alternative career path, or a different mindset. We’ll encourage women to build their network and create an atmosphere of camaraderie. Under one roof with all these aspiring architects, designers and planners, we will be woven together into a blanket of support, to give us strength and direction, to show us we can achieve our dreams.

How do you think the architecture profession can improve equity and diversity?

The profession has certainly evolved and can continue to be a place where we are encouraged to listen, learn, observe and contribute to the built world with everyone in mind. Over the years, the programs offered are beginning to change the mindset, but the very systems of our profession have to become more inclusive. Establishing a pipeline of minorities to pursue architecture and providing formal mentorship in the path to licensure are some of the actions. Incentivizing firms to reach out to high schools in underserved or rural communities, holding workshops to engage and educate non-architects about the work we do, as well as working with the disabled to design more inclusive spaces will erode the perception of architects as a privileged profession. We have to improve the working conditions, eliminate the expectation of long hours, and change the dynamics of the construction environment to be more respectful of women. If we’ve learned anything these days, we have to offer flexible hours, allow employees to balance family / work life and implement well-being in the profession. Certainly, we have to provide equal pay to all genders, ensure racial diversity in the workforce and increase the salary levels by raising the fees we charge in the industry.

In my own circle of Iranian women architects, we hosted a safe and frank conversation about working conditions in America under hierarchical environments with older generations. As we talked about working with older white male bosses, many shared awkward, uncomfortable and horrific stories of what happened to them when they first began working in the US. They had to put up with demeaning situations because their bosses held the upper hand with their immigration status or because they needed the job to stay in America or because they didn’t know they could speak up or didn’t know how to take action. If we hear from the marginalized community, it will change how we work together and the respect we have for each other. In turn our customers and clients can see that we are human, we represent a diverse range of people, and that we walk the walk. Our employees will feel better about solving problems for our clients because they will also have been seen and heard. When we build our empathy skills in-house, it in turn helps us build our empathy skills externally.

If you had one message you wanted to share with the community, what would it be?

Why do we have design standards that are predicated around a euro-centric homogenous male experience? In my current work environment at Stanford, we have a mini United Nations of backgrounds on our campus. My dream is to create cultural design based upon representing the multitude of ethnicities, nationalities, colors, shapes, sizes and perspectives we come from. The same way my father talks about designing for ecological adaptation, my mother talks about spiritual adaptation, and the women at the International Congress spoke of designing for regional adaptation, we can all design for cultural adaptation. We can be that bridge of understanding that transcends across ecologies, spirits, regions and cultures.

Interviewed by Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C

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