Raj Patel explains the value of absorbing experiences and how mentoring can help young architects – a discipline he feels is disappearing
Mentoring, inspiring and unleashing the creativity of young architects are all close to the heart of KEO International Consultants design director Raj Patel.
The Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Cincinnati, who is also the holder of a Yale University Master of Architecture degree, says he was extremely fortunate to combine his academic studies with practical experience gained during internships.
And Patel, 45, says he was given the opportunity to experience design in cultures across the world – all of which has contributed to his noted ability to put together a contemporary design language, which combines modern building forms and techniques with traditional Islamic aspects of form, pattern, shape and geometry.
But the architect – ranked at number nine in MEA’s Power 50 ratings – says that this level of experience is becoming rare in today’s ever more competitive profession.
“The whole apprenticeship idea, which was so valuable to me, is dying,” Patel explains.
“You get architects graduating who don’t even know how an office works – yet they feel they can open up their own practice after a few years.
“There is a whole level of experience – working with experienced professionals who can offer the best advice – working with and understanding other cultures – that they are missing out on.
“Of course some will succeed but others will not and they will never know what they have missed.” Patel has worked on design projects across the globe and his travels started – involuntarily – at the age of just two years as his Asian family was forced from the country of his birth, Uganda.
“My grandfather was a city mayor and so a prominent person in an eastern African state under the rule of dictator Idi Amin,” said Patel.
“He got on Amin’s ‘hit list’ and that meant we had to leave.”
The 1970s were a period of great upheaval for Ugandan-Asian families and many moved to Britain after the dictator gave them 90 days to exit the country – saying he had been ordered to do so in a dream.
The Patels chose Toronto, Canada, to be their new home before relocating to Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.
“I went to high school there and then on to university – where the course was a balance between study and practical experiences working on projects,” he says.
“Outside the lecture halls I got to dabble a bit in design work, but managed to get to know how an architectural office operates, which proved invaluable.”
Patel was given the opportunity of a six month period working alongside Indian architect Charles Correa in Mumbai – and he became a major inspiration to the young man. Deeply honoured in his country for his commitment to the poorer people Correa once outlined his philosophy by the following statement: “Just as there is writing and then there is literature, there is construction and then there is architecture. Great architecture can change society.”
Patel said: “The whole experience was of great value to me. As well as having the opportunity to work closely alongside Charles Correa, it was the first chance I had to experience a lengthy duration of time in what is my mother country.
He said he felt the impact of the environment as soon as arrived.
“The human interaction, for instance, which has so much less of a distance than is usual in the west. I also started to study the movement of the sun, shadows and shade.
“I’d never been interested before but I began to look at how passive solutions could be employed in building design.”
Patel then explored how successful designs which did not involve investing huge amounts of money, could be achieved and how natural means could be used to achieve realistic practical goals. Hethen went on to join Perkins + Will before studying for his masters degree.
“I felt I needed something more professionally,” he says. “Something was missing. I didn’t realise how difficult it was out there in the business world, how competitive. I wanted something different and that set me apart.”
A spell with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill followed, where Patel worked on “massive projects” such as the Samsung Tower in Seoul, South Korea and London’s Canary Wharf.
He explains: “These projects bought together my passion for design, large scale buildings and different cultural aspects. I found my calling – massive projects in different cultures.”
It also gave him an understanding of the delicate relationship which exists between the spirit which is so much a part of an architect’s work and the financial considerations of the client Patel came to KEO in 2001 focusing on projects across the Middle East in Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Oman.
He says: “When I came to the Middle East half of what is here now was not even developed. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen it would all explode. I wanted to try new things out in this region – including getting closer to my projects.
A new satisfaction then emrged – the achievement of designing a builing, seeing it rise from the ground and finally being completed. Alos working with individuak clients gave him more opportunity to express himself.
“For instance I was designing a university complex in Kuwait and up until then all such projects had just been boxes with a couple of wings.
“But I wanted a concourse where students could mingle and cross paths in an informal way with their teachers. It was a big success and has influenced the way educational facilities are now being designed in the country.”
Patel outlines his philosophy when it comes to design: “It has gone from being very modernistic to something more contemporary – which I define as modern with a cultural relevance.”
Specific to the Middle East this includes a strong social aspect to building design. “Now you can live in a tower block and not know anyone on the floors above or below. I was involved in a project which looked to break down a 50 storey building into eight storeys each with their own atrium, so promoting some social interaction.
“When designing a building I look at the culture it will exist in, Islamic geometry and how tradition can be incorporated into the modern. I think architects develop confidence when they see their designs being constructed. At the beginning you can be nervous – but with, say, a dozen or 18 buildings finished that disappears.”
A full “hands-on” approach is something Patel also now adopts.
“I like to turn up on the building site and ensure that the design is being kept honest and true to its original form,” he says. “All this come from the mentoring and experiences I had while young. I hope young architects still feel they want to learn and I want them to be inspired still. I want them to be inspired by reading this article. I want to put something back into the profession.”