Suchi Reddy is CEO of her NYC-based architecture and design firm, Reddymade. Influenced by her mother’s love of materials and her father’s love of philosophy, Reddy’s spaces are defined, not by aesthetic, but by their ability to sustain and better the spirit of all who use them. In a recent conversation, we explored her approach to the fundamental question: “How do we make our world?”
VOICES // SUCHI REDDY: DESIGNING SPACES THAT CREATE A SENSE OF WELL-BEING
What elements in your childhood influenced your current practice and how you've shown up in the world?
When I was quite young, my mother, who had this intense affinity for materials, was in charge of overseeing the construction of our house with the architect and his team. In India it's very difficult to find pure white anything on the outside of a house, but she picked white flint for the exterior walls. I would play as a kid, striking stones against it to make sparks. I think growing up in a house while it was being built introduced this love of materials. It was like a subliminal seeding of the soul.
Because there was a lot of petty theft, we had grills on our windows, like other houses, but ours were more decorative. We also had these big sliding French doors that would always be open, which was a very unusual thing in India. But we could do it because we were also separated from neighbors by my mother’s large flower gardens. When you're a kid you don't realize that these things are special, but I have a clear memory of the moment I realized that I was different from my friends because my house was different. And that allowed me to always think about how space shapes our feelings about ourselves.
When you are designing spaces, how do you think about the human connection taking place in them? What kind of behaviors do you aim to bring out in the spaces that you create?
One of the greatest privileges of being an architect is that we get the opportunity to make spaces that serve and uplift people. That is something I take very seriously: the fact that the ideas we bring to a space actually shape what happens in it. It's like you’re trying to establish a kind of communication between the space and the people in that space. And even though the people don’t speak the language, they immediately understand it and respond to it.
Particularly for spaces that people use every day, I want that experience or communication to support them in different ways. So, practically speaking, it’s creating windows that allow them to see that the light is changing all the time, or it’s modulating the heights of ceilings — so that flowing from one room to the next, you change the feeling.
It’s like fashion, which to me is no frivolous thing. What you wrap yourself in is your first home. Then you move out of that into your room, then into your house, then into the world. And I think at each of these levels, your “house” can be made to sustain and better your spirit and your function. It helps you go out into the world breathing a little easier, less stressed about whatever you’re tackling.
Where do you see the practice of architecture headed, and what opportunities are you most excited about for your own firm?
I see architecture more and more incorporating sound and light and quality of air — generally, we want spaces that create a sense of well-being. I think it started with a focus on materials that are more sustainable and better for the planet. Now I see this idea of well-being translating into architecture and design on every level.
A big interest of mine is to try to quantify this aesthetic experience. In our data-driven society, we're already quantifying the experiences of our bodies — so it’s not such a stretch. For example, I know that people recovering from a serious illness pay close attention to how the space around them feels. I’m working now, in partnership with the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, on designing a healing room for children who suffer from consciousness disorders, such as comas. The idea is to create sensory experiences in the room that put patients’ bodies at ease — the opposite of dis-ease. I expect the room will also support the well-being of patient families and caregivers. It’s exciting to me to prove that the experience of a space has a measurable impact on the care and recovery of patients.
When you were starting your firm, how did you define your brand?
The brand question has been a very difficult one for me. In fact, I've never defined it. I think that the architectural response to any situation or challenge has to be something unique to that particular problem. You can bring your aesthetic but that shouldn't be what defines your response.
My hope is that instead of a brand, my firm can generate a reputation for thinking of the right solution to the problem.
Would you say that gender informs your work?
I don't think that gender informs my work. I have seen men and women architects show the same degrees of sensitivity to various things. I do think gender plays a role in the opportunities that come our way. Men tend to receive automatic attention for their ideas, so I would say a woman in this field really does need to work a little harder to be heard.
If you had to impart of three pieces of wisdom to an entrepreneur or another architect, what would you say?
Spend the time needed to develop your own compass, so you know which way it's pointing then follow that. One of the most distracting things in our world is the range of opportunity and influences that keep coming at us. You have to know your skill and what you have an affinity for to be able to keep your compass pointed in that direction.
Always stay creative. Always find space to play. Even in business, it’s essential to integrate a play into your work. If you do, there’s joy in it that stays alive for the long term. And in creative fields, like building an architectural practice, it’s long term. Other types of businesses are relatively short term: make x amount of money, sell the company, move on, do something else. That is a different kind of energy. When you’re in it for the long term, you need to keep it fresh and playful. Then when people come to you, they sense youa enjoy what you're doing and that you're going to enjoy their project.
Don’t be afraid to trust yourself. I truly believe everyone has inner power. It's not something that some people have and some people don't. The difference is people’s ability to trust it. Trusting yourself also makes you a better collaborator, because the clearer your voice is, the clearer it is to collaborate with others.
In our office, when we start to work on a new project, I like to have the entire team present, with everyone throwing out their ideas. The first idea thrown out is the first to be discussed. And it could be anyone’s idea. It could be an intern’s. That’s the kind of atmosphere I like to foster: all of these beautiful energies and passionate forces coming together.
The other really important thing to have on a team is dialogue: one person who says, "Hey, why don't we do this?” And another person who says, "Hey, we can't do that because..." Both views are vital. Fortunately, architecture school trains us well for this because you get taken down pretty brutally every time you present something. Inevitably someone says, ”Is that the only answer?" No, there are always other answers.
Parts of this interview were originally published in Forbes.