Gensler Voices: María José Tasada on How People and Culture Drive Design

This Q&A is part of a series of interviews with Gensler architects, designers, and others in the firm about their career journey, and the impact that design and architecture can have on our communities and the human experience. Here, we sit down with María José Tasada, project architect, Gensler Chicago:

What was your first introduction to the field of architecture and design?

I don’t recall a specific time in my childhood when architecture or design became a strong passion. I come from a long line of medical background, and I used to believe that was my destiny, but as the youngest of three children with a more rebellious spirit, I realized this was not my route. I had no intention of joining the family business. My father followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and became a doctor, although his true ambition was to be an architect. We didn't have any architects, designers, or artists in my immediate circle, but my father’s creative mind was shown via his passion for painting magnificent oil landscapes. I think seeing him paint was my encouragement to pursue a career in art and design.

I began attending various drawing, painting, and pottery lessons to share my father’s interest. I was always making and producing things, and as my interest and enthusiasm for creating developed, I realized that I needed a more visible place to practice. I recall redecorating my room regularly, and each time I did, I was immersed in a fascinating new atmosphere. As a result, I repeated this process in other areas around my home.

What was an early experience that influenced your career?

After college graduation, a journey led me to take on an internship at José Maria Saez Vaquero’s office in Quito, Ecuador, to further learn about other cultures and grow as an artist. This was a life-changing experience; I stayed there for six months. It was a fantastic chance to learn about international architectural standards and collaborate with a skilled architect. In addition, I was able to interact with a foreign academic environment, where I was exposed to various views and perspectives on the field. When I came back, I joined Diego Arraigada’s studio. He was a great mentor; his influence and stories about his experience in the U.S. during his master’s at UCLA influenced me to move to the U.S. to pursue my master’s at the University of Illinois Chicago.

How has your career shaped your understanding of the world?

Over the years, architecture has evolved into not simply a career for me but also a means of comprehending and expressing the world we live in. What draws me to photography is the same thing that draws me to architecture: a rich imagination, a passion for the image, and a desire to learn more about the people around me.

I’ve lived and worked in four countries (Argentina, Spain, Ecuador, and the U.S.), and I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many others throughout the world, which has allowed me to experience and observe different environments. I learned that despite the differences, one common factor drives design: people and their culture. Initially, I was drawn to buildings and their aesthetic, but over time, I’ve come to realize that it’s about much more.

How can architecture and design advance wellness, equity, and inclusion?

With a wider and comprehensive approach! In addition to designing and building places, we, as architects, create experiences. The health and safety of building inhabitants are our responsibility. We aim to support individuals and communities with the work we do. Construction may significantly affect people’s quality of life; it can boost or limit their feeling of belonging, raise or decrease their security emotions, encourage or hinder mobility, and benefit or harm health. In addition, buildings may eliminate natural and imaginary boundaries among populations.

Social, cultural, and economic inequalities are still being built into new places, and planners and designers need to examine the impact of their decisions more closely. As designers and architects, it is essential to be involved in our communities and gain as much perspective as possible.

What role do architecture and design play in shaping the minds of future generations?

As a base definition, architecture exists to create people’s physical environment, but architecture is more than just the built environment — it’s also a part of our culture. It is a representation of how we see ourselves and how we see the world. We need to lead with the example for our future generations that, as populations grow and resources become scarce, the efficient usage of limited goods becomes more important. Smart cities are a critical factor in the consumption of materials and resources.

As an architect, you are undoubtedly aware that sustainability is essential to the success of a building today. Previously, the primary emphasis was on the buildings themselves, but the health and well-being of the inhabitants are increasingly becoming the focus. Wellness architecture is one of the fastest developing areas in the industry, indicating a rising concern for our surroundings’ effect on us. We have sustainable design strategies to conserve our resources and resilient design strategies to protect us from the changing environment. Now “Active Design” is emerging to encourage better health.

In sustainable development, reference is often made to the ‘triple bottom line’ of physical, economic, and social. The health and well-being ‘triple bottom line’ could be summarized as health, comfort, and happiness. And this, in combination with sustainable design, should be our focus to have a positive impact on our future generations.

The most important thing I've learned as an architect/designer is...

Here are four important things I’ve learned during my 11 years in the industry:

  1. Everyone makes mistakes. The sooner you can own up to it, the sooner you can spend your time finding a solution.
  2. Lead by example. Don’t expect your team to show up and get the job done if you don’t. There is no substitute for hard work, and sometimes it takes 80-hour work weeks to get the job done, which is ok because there will also be 20-hour work weeks.
  3. Live your life outside of your comfort zone. By asking for more responsibilities and moving out of my comfort zone, I’ve found that I enjoy having challenges and engaging in discussions.
  4. Never be afraid to ask questions. Architecture is a team-oriented profession, and architects are like conductors for an orchestra who coordinate a large team.

If you could choose anyone, who would you like to design a project for?

I don’t have one particular person, but hundreds of them! I love music and going to concerts. A warm, calming feeling envelops your body as you and the hundreds, if not thousands, of people surrounding you sing along with one of your favorite artists to their biggest hit. Being there in a moment like that can feel dream-like. I would love to design a concert hall or stadium that enriches this whole experience even further.

Name a building or space that every designer should see in person.

I have so many on my must-see list, but I will limit them to those I have already visited myself:

  1. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. My first time in the church was incredible and breathtaking. The light that came through the colorful stained-glass windows illuminated the room in different shades of colors and created an astonishing atmosphere.
  2. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris. No word to describe the feeling of being inside this incredible space.
  3. Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Durazno, Uruguay. (Eladio Dieste). Yes, this is all brick. His innovative structural approach and unique use of a conventional brick wall that dematerializes its rigidity are worth seeing.

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