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For our first installment of MOYA Voices, we talked with Olivia Calalo Kumar, a Junior Project Architect at Moya Design Partners. Olivia talks about design, sustainability, and the importance of representation and role models.  
Q: How did you get into architecture? 
I’m originally from San Francisco, and so is my family. I grew up in that area, but my maternal grandfather was an architect and he practiced in Southern California and in Mexico, which is where my mom was raised. Even though he passed away when I was really young and I never really got to know him personally, I grew up hearing about him and his work as an architect. That was my first introduction to what architecture actually is. When I was youngerI got to visit some of his projects after he had passed away. Since that early age, I always wanted to do architecture, even though I didn’t know too much about it. I just had that idea in my head. 
When I got to high school, I really liked math and physics and I thought “oh this is perfect” – I’ll study hard and try to do well in math and science to get into architecture school. However, when I started architecture school at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, I learned very quickly that there’s very little math and science in architecture, at least not in the way I understood it. That was more the realm of engineers. At first, I was a little scared because my idea of what architecture was for a long time was different than reality. It was more conceptual and artistic. I actually ended up really liking it, and the creative aspect drew me in even more than I’d anticipated. That’s where I got started iarchitecture, and I have loved it ever since.     

 


                                                                                      

What’s interesting is that architecture and design, in a broader sense, essentially would be unnecessary if it didn’t serve people. There would be no reason for us to even have this discipline if it wasn’t at the service of the community. 

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Q: In your decision to join MOYA, how important was it that it is a woman-owned and minorityowned company? 
I think that actually had a huge significance. I had worked in San Francisco for a few years, and then in Washington DC for a few years. I was eager to learn, trying to figure out what architecture meant to me. I went back to graduate school in 2019 to do my post-professional Masters in Architecture at Cornell. This was at a time where we were beginning to understand the importance of representation in every single discipline; trying to understand what role each of us had to better represent the people that we serve. That became something my studies and my academic work focused on. When I graduated, I wanted to be more thoughtful in my next employment and put into practice the new knowledge I had. 
I’d actually seen Paola speak a couple of years before at a women’s panel in architecture. She talked about coming to DC and starting her own practice; being the only person in the room that kind of looked like herthat resonated with me. When I started looking for employment again after graduate school, I had a desire to do something different, and Paola was one of the first people that came to my mind. I reached out to her, and we had some really nice chats, and I thought this is the environment that I was hoping to find after Cornell. 
 
 
The Eleanor Crook Foundation is a nonprofit organization that started in 1997; this organization is an active leader in the global fight to end malnutrition and hunger. The foundation commissioned Moya Design Partners to renovate the exterior and interiors of their four-story office building located in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. Olivia is the Junior Project Architect in this MOYA project. 
Q: What’s the role of architecture and design in building diversity? 
 
What’s interesting is that architecture and design, in a broader sense, essentially would be unnecessary if it didn’t serve people. There would be no reason for us to even have this discipline if it wasn’t at the service of the community. It begins to be really hard to fulfil that service in the most genuine and authentic way if the people making those decisions don’t have any kind of association with the community. The more role models there are that come from a community-based understanding of what design should offer, the more it encourages younger members of the community to see themselves taking on that role. 
In architecture, women have made many strides in the last decade. I think on average, the majority of students are women* in architecture schools. You just don’t always see that reflected as much in the discipline. You do in terms of the general firm makeup, but once you get up to management levels, it drops off dramatically, and even more so for women of color. It is really hard to conceptualize what you want to be, if you don’t have a tangible example of what that is. It is vital and important to see women or women of color, and a wider array of people brought to higher levels so they can be an example to younger generations that there is a place to continue your career.  
 
*Note: According to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, while 2 in 5 students of architecture are women, only 13% of firm managers are women.  
 
Q: The Eleanor Crook Foundation’s mission is in line with what you expressed above about putting design at the service of the community. What was your experience working with them? 
 
It is very inspiring to work with nonprofits, especially with one like the Eleanor Crook Foundation, which specifically targets global malnutrition. It’s one of the advantages of working and living in DC. This is a community that has a wide range of different development sectors and nonprofits, and It is great to be able to participate in some sense with them. 
 I worked with a lot of tech companies in California because that is the adjacent field. You get familiar with the tech world, and you get to understand the people who navigate it and work there every day. In comparison, you are surrounded by government agencies and nonprofits in DCAs a citizen it helps to give you an insight into a field that is very different from yours. When you design spaces for all these different industries it opens your eyes to an array of important things that people are tackling in different ways, whether it be the nonprofits, the government, or a private agency. 
With the Eleanor Crook Foundation, you are trying to understand the more tangible ethos or aesthetics of their brandTheir brand is tied to the work that they do, and what they want to transmit to people coming from the outside world into their space. It is always important to be cognizant of their identity and how they desire and want to be perceived in the community, and in a greater context.
     

                                                                                     

Even a very well-intentioned agenda needs to be nuanced with this stage of listening to what people really need. Think holistically about what your project means. 

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Q: How do you see the role of designers and architects in the present and moving forward? 
 
It comes down again to this notion that you can’t have this top-down designer anymore. I don’t think it is reasonable to assume that a single person can decide what’s the right answer to a problem in a community, or the lack of something in a community. It’s really a matter of engaging in and trusting the community. The answer might already be within the community, and as a designer it is really tricky because architects should be better listeners and observers rather than asserting an agenda.  
Even a very well-intentioned agenda needs to be nuanced with this stage of listening to what people really need. Think holistically about what your project means. It’s not just the function of the building, it’s always the greater impact – whether it is economic, social, or environmental at all stages of the building, and for decades after the building has been constructed. It is crucial for designers to have a much broader picture and be flexible. Concede on some of the things that we feel so passionate about that we want to have authorship over, and be okay with including more people rather than just the designer. 
 
 
 Q: Is the academic training of architects in tune with those needs? 
 
I think that is a good question. I feel there has been a lot of broadening of our profession in the last decade. I see the young students today are much more aware of the role and the impact architecture and city design really has. It is already trending in the direction where people are much more aware and I don’t think they are as enthralled by flashy things that really don’t have a lot of substance. Especially with our current climate of crises, there’s been a much different conversation about sustainability. When I was in school, sustainability was very much something not understood in a holistic sense, but more in a performative sense of lower flushing toilets, and solar panels; whereas now, sustainability ia broader and deeper issue that has to do with global poverty, and the localization of materials. I feel optimistic that academia is trying to train more conscious students.  
I do think there’s always going to be a little bit of a disconnect between the profession, because architects are inherently going to be tied to central structures of capitalism that make those very well-intentioned ideas of a socially-minded practice very difficult. You still have budgets, clients, and deadlines, so I think that there is always going to be a bit of a reckoning with that. However, the students that I see nowadays have much more awareness than I had at that age. That’s encouraging. 
 
Thank you Olivia!