Interview with Architect Diana Kellogg: Symbols of Strength

By Ankush Bharti

1. Could you please tell us about your education and what motivated you to choose the profession of an architect?

When I was about 7 or 8, I worked with my grandfather in his woodshop and I always loved it, it made me feel connected to him. Whenever I saw the transformations that contractors, builders and architects made, it seemed like magic and I knew I wanted to make those same magical structures and creations. After receiving a Master of Architecture from Columbia University and a BA from Williams College, I did my apprenticeship with Richland Gluckman at Gluckman Tang Architects and Selldorf Architects before starting Diana Kellogg Architects in 1992.

2. Can you walk us through The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School project?

Located in the mystic Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India, and The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School – a fantastical oval sandstone structure that blends seamlessly into the arid landscape – opened its doors to its first students in November of 2021. The school now serves more than 400 girls, from kindergarten to class 10, that live below the poverty line in the region where female literacy barely touches 36 percent. The school mindfully integrated the community in its realisation, creating the fully sustainable structure primarily from local sandstone and building with local craftsmen—often the fathers of the girls who will be attending the school. Since the school is designed by a woman for women, I looked at feminine symbols across cultures when starting the design process – specifically symbols of strength.

3. What inspired you to design a building in the middle of the desert?

The site of the project was selected by the CITTA Foundation India as a way to help improve the literacy rate for girls and women in a region where female literacy is at just 35.5% – among the lowest in all of India as a result of economic disparities, gender discrimination, caste discrimination, and technological barriers. Unfortunately many girls aren’t given the chance at an equal education, and we wanted to change this.

4. After 20 years of high-profile architectural work, why did you choose this non-profit work?

The first 20 years of my practice was spent in the high end residential space, predominantly of celebrities and wealthy New Yorkers. Throughout that time, I did some community work, and as the high end residential had eventually run its course and become unrewarding, I was compelled to look deeper into non-profit work.

I wanted to use the architectural and design knowledge I had acquired throughout my career to help communities in need, and the concepts that interested me most were projects that addressed the needs of the soul, of community and nature. I eventually found myself in community projects, such as the Children's Library at St Ann's Church of Morrisania.

Once I began my work in the nonprofit sector, I realised that I could truly commit to thoughtful design that was focused on healing or social impact and centred my practice around this idea. The projects I work on now, non-profit or other, are a reflection of the power architecture holds to impact the people who experience it.

5. The choice of an oval is unique. How did you land up with the oval structure idea?

The boundlessness of the desert resonates with me on a primal, intuitive level. There is an innate spiritual quality of the desert that I had never experienced. The endless horizon became a foil for the surprising comfort of the internal courtyard. My goal was not to disturb the dunes as natural works of art but to be inspired by the forces of nature that were embodied by the beginnings of life in the landscape that was created by winds and the nomadic cultures that moved through it. The desert is inherently mysterious and eternal. I wanted to recreate this metaphysical expression and embrace primal existence.

Additionally, as a female architect designing for women, I looked at feminine symbols across cultures and specifically symbols of strength. I ultimately landed on the oval shape that is representative of femininity. The shape is also meant to replicate the poetry of the planes of the sand-dunes in Jaisalmer. It is also how the children play in circles or the women work in a community.

6. The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School was designed by a woman for women. How did you think that the female focus impacted both the process and the feel that came out of the project?

As a woman myself, it was imperative in my design process to honour women to the best of my ability especially from the cultural context in India. When I visited, I was struck by the beauty of the architecture in Jaisalmer: sacred geometries that register with our deepest memory - spaces relating to nature, body, path and history. I wanted to make a building about space and light and community and not about design -- a structure that resonated with the soul and femininity and enforced the natural energies to nurture and heal the women and girls.

Throughout the design process, I wanted to incorporate elements that lent themselves to this healing energy I aimed to capture. I chose to do only the school first as this was of primary importance, to get the girls in school. I also wanted to see how they could build and the best way to communicate my ideas. I could push the design for the next two structures and could be more experimental and push sustainable building concepts further.

7. Can you discuss the challenges you faced and how you overcame them in this particular project?

With every project there are challenges. This project had the obvious challenges of distance and assimilating to a very different culture. I really embrace new challenges in my work. I love the opportunity to work with different materials, construction techniques and people from different cultures. The challenge of solving a puzzle is always exciting to me. I like to think that if I knew how a project was going to turn out, there would be no joy in the serendipitous way that a project can come together. In India this process is embraced, they have an expression called Jugard or loosely translated as makeshift. To me this spirit of Jugaad is the only way to come close to creating magic, and ultimately art instead of architecture.

8. How do you balance the aesthetic and functional aspects of your designs?

The balance is often easier than expected. One would think that an oval shape might not make for the best building function, but it’s all about using an aesthetically interesting idea to your advantage. If you’re being thoughtful and intentional about each aspect of the design, there is no sacrificing function for aesthetics or vice versa.

9. How do you incorporate sustainability and green building practices into your work?

One of the biggest ways that I’ve incorporated sustainability measures into projects is by using local materials and building methods however possible. Not only does this honour cultural practices, it also reduces emissions from transportation. For example with the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School, we worked entirely with local craftsmen -- often the fathers of the girls -- to build the school using hand-carved local Jaisalmer sandstone, a climate-resilient material that's been long used for buildings in the area, including the Jaisalmer Fort. Because the craftsmen were so familiar with the stone, we were able to integrate traditional architectural details and building techniques along with indigenous heritage details so that the structure felt authentic to the region.

Whenever possible, I also try to incorporate self-generated power and resources, such as solar panels like we did with the school and water harvesting systems. We also look for ways to make elements of structures multi-functional. For example, the solar panels doubled as shading over the courtyard, keeping the area cool, which also assisted in reducing any emissions that might have come from installing air conditioning. In the case of the school, we also followed the local ancient water harvesting techniques to maximise the rain water and recycled grey water in the school to reduce excess water use. Integrating local methods of energy and water conservation like these can provide insights into the best ways to bring sustainability into future projects as well.

10. What are the challenges of working with a team? Or collaborating with other professionals?

Working with a team can often produce challenges in terms of differing priorities for the final product. For example, my main priorities with the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School were creating a space that resonated with the soon to be students while honouring local practices and sustainability. These goals could conflict if a partner was looking for even more cost effective options. For example, for the school, I was often told to source things like lights and furniture from cities like Mumbai and Delhi to reduce costs even further, but I felt very strongly that working with the local people of Jaisalmer was a priority.

11. How do you manage your time and prioritise tasks when working on multiple projects simultaneously?

I have a very supportive team and they work extremely well together. Generally speaking if I have enough people we can manage by working cooperatively on many projects. Usually we have one architect in charge of the project but others may jump in to help. If it’s just one project per person I find it doesn’t work as effectively. In terms of my time I handle calls and administrative work in the morning then take a break before moving on to more creative work in the afternoon.

12. How do you communicate and present your designs to clients and stakeholders?

I used the best method possible considering the time and nature of the project. Generally we like to present in 3D. I love building models and try to use materials in models that are as close as possible to the material that the building will be built with. Ideally we will have time and the budget to do an animated walk through

Diana Kellogg at The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl's School

13. How do you handle changes or revisions requested by clients during a project?

When clients suggest revisions, I believe that it’s important to listen and take their thoughts into account without losing the artistic vision behind your own ideas. In residential, it will ultimately be their home so you want the client to be happy with it. Other projects you have a bit more freedom and can push back on input and compromise to find something that is still innovative while also fitting the needs and wants of the client.

14. What are your upcoming projects?

I am working on a dune pavilion in collaboration with Vinu Daniels of Wallmakers, who I connected with at an Architectural Digest India event over a year ago. He reached out to me to ask for a location to create a structure where the roof is made entirely out of sand, noting the sand in Jaisalmer, where I built the girls school, is best suited for this type of structure. I am working on the programming aspect, which will be an arts based learning program for the community, aiming to embrace Indian culture and tradition while using modern learning techniques. I have a team in Jaisalmer who have been teaching creative classes along with science, maths and arts programs. There are also many people from around India and the US who are interested in participating through a cultural exchange between disciplines, generations and ideologies. Vinu’s building will be beautiful, contextual and advance building technologies to help people in similar desert climates.

Another project I am excited about is also small in scope but broad in potential reach. We are redoing an ancient grain market within a larger outdoor marketplace. Located in a historic district of a city in Rajasthan, the project is traditional in the architectural style with beautiful detailing. The renovation will have a market on the ground floor with dining on the upper floors, serving a menu based on Vedic principles and reviving the use of ancient grains. These grains are both more sustainable to produce, as they require less water, and also better suited to the digestive system. The market will be a pilot project for the Design For Freedom movement initiated by Sharon Prince of Grace Farms. The goal of DFF is to reduce and hopefully eliminate unjust labour practices from the construction process.