An Architect Applies Her Skills to Giving Back

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that profiles women leading the way on climate, politics, business and more.

Diana Kellogg is the founder and principal of Diana Kellogg Architects, a firm that specializes in high-end residential projects in New York. Most recently, she has shifted her focus more toward nonprofit work, conceptualizing and designing the GYAAN Center in the Indian state of Rajasthan, home to the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls School. Approaching the first anniversary of its opening in June, the school serves about 120 girls in a region of northern India where their literacy rate is barely 36 percent.

Ms. Kellogg is now designing the GYAAN Center’s next two elements: a women’s community center and a cultural exhibition space. She spoke by phone from Jaisalmer, the city in Rajasthan where the center is located. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Diana Kellogg, on site at the school, has recently shifted her focus toward nonprofit work. “I wanted to use the architectural and design knowledge I had acquired to help communities in need,” she said.Credit…Deepti Ashtana

How did your work evolve from high-end residential to nonprofit projects?

The first 20 years of my practice were spent working in the high-end space for celebrities and wealthy New Yorkers, but I did some community work, as well. Eventually, luxury projects became unrewarding, and I was compelled to look deeper into nonprofit work.

I wanted to use the architectural and design knowledge I had acquired to help communities in need, and began with a project designing a children’s library in the Bronx at St. Ann’s Church of Morrisania.

Once I started, I realized that I wanted to center my practice around design that was focused on social change. The projects I work on now are a reflection of the power architecture holds to impact the people who experience it.

What led to you working on a project in India?

The GYAAN Center was commissioned by the Citta Foundation, a nonprofit working on projects in India. They had built a school in Orissa [now Odisha], another impoverished part of India, and asked me if I would design one in Jaisalmer. I was drawn to their commitment to helping underserved communities.

The school was built using hand-carved local sandstone. Ms. Kellogg incorporated Indigenous heritage details into the building’s design.Credit…Vinay Panjwani

How was Jaisalmer chosen as the location for the GYAAN Center?

The site was selected by the Citta Foundation as a way to help improve the literacy rates for girls in the region that are so low as a result of economic disparities, gender and caste discrimination, and technological barriers.

Can you talk about the design of the GYAAN Center?

I wanted to create a space where girls felt safe, comfortable and embraced.

Sustainability was key. We worked entirely with local craftspeople — often the fathers of the girls — to build the school using hand-carved local sandstone, a climate-resilient material that’s long been used for buildings in the area. Traditional architectural details and building techniques were combined with Indigenous heritage details so that the structure felt authentic to the region.

Sustainable design elements include recycled ceramic tile for the roof, lime plaster for the classroom interiors and 95 percent local materials. We also built a solar panel canopy on the roof, which serves multiple purposes: providing all the electricity, creating shade over the courtyard, and serving as a play structure for the girls. I also used local ancient water harvesting techniques to maximize the rainwater and recycled gray water in the school.

Another sustainability effort comes from methods we used to cool the school, in place of air-conditioning. Because temperatures peak close to 120 degrees in the region, we knew that we had to keep the interiors cooler, and utilized both the solar canopy and jallis wall to help create shade and a cooling panel of airflow. Elevated windows also help allow hot air to escape once it rises.

How were the girls who attend the school chosen?

Enrollment in the school was open to all families who live below the poverty line in the Thar Desert region. At this time, around 120 girls are enrolled. Citta conducted community outreach to appeal to families in neighboring communities to enroll their girls, and invited them to visit the school.

Can you talk about the roadblocks you are encountering in working on a nonprofit architectural project in India? Are there factors specific to the country that have made construction or anything else particularly difficult?

One of the biggest hurdles was executing the project through the pandemic, especially since India has been greatly affected by Covid-19. The timing of the pandemic also came at a very unfortunate moment, because we had to design the most complicated part of the design, the solar panel system, remotely.

Additionally, some of the toughest moments for me are experiencing sexism and misogyny from some of the men I work with outside of my team. This completely blindsided me. I was surprised that a project meant to empower women would present this obstacle, but it further highlights the need for spaces such as the GYAAN Center.

Girls playing on the roof of the school, in the shade of the jallis wall. Credit…Vinay Panjwani

When the women’s co-op opens at the GYAAN Center, the plan is to have artisans teach women local weaving techniques. What takeaway do you want them to have with these skills?

The goal is to enhance gender parity and encourage the preservation of local culture and techniques. Unfortunately, many of these concepts are on the verge of being lost. These lessons will also help give women economic independence; our hope is to pair them with contemporary designers who are producing clothes and accessories to sell around the world.

Have you visited the school? How does it hold up to your intent and expectations?

I have traveled to Jaisalmer upward of 18 times throughout the process, both pre- and post-completion. The hands-on experience was essential to the vision of the school, as I worked with a group of locally based craftspeople and contractors, and became friends with many people in Jaisalmer. It was immensely helpful to understand the region from the perspective of teachers, textile merchants, and entrepreneurs.

Every time I visit, I see the change in the girls, from being shy to becoming these bright lights who are devouring whatever kind of information you put in front of them.

How can other female architects like yourself find a balance between projects that help their bottom line and ones that give back?

Practically speaking, we need money to live, and my goal is to have as many for-profit projects in the works as possible so that I can keep doing nonprofit work. It can be hard to find a balance and the time to do both. However, my aim is to take on one at least every two years. Other women can do the same. In addition, I have a nonnegotiable that every for-profit project that I’m doing has some element of giving back. It could be a high-end hotel, for example, that has a school for the underprivileged in the community or provides help to families of employees. The ways to give back are endless, even if you’re making money.

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