Interviw: Ana d’Castro of BIA Design on designing with art in the heart

Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic speaks to Ana D’Castro, Founder of BIA Design, about how she started, where she’s heading and whether women in architecture and the design world really have to work and fight harder to prove themselves?

It is difficult to define Portuguese-born architect Ana D’Castro only by her career title as she has been working across multiple disciplines, including street art installations, painting, interior design and architecture. As an architect and visual artist, she believes that scale, proportion and colour are the core principles of drawing and painting. With these powerful tools D’Castro creates a canvas of sensorial experiences.

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She talks about how she learnt to paint from her grandfather; playing with her brother’s Lego bricks but without following the instructions; studying at The University of Architecture in Porto where traditionally architecture and fine arts were cross-taught together along with being exposed to art and design while living and working in Brazil, Switzerland, Portugal, Singapore and France. All of these experiences are inherently linked to her work today.

“I feel that all these cultures and local traditions have strongly influenced my designs and boosted my creativity when it comes to designing a new project,” she says.

D’ Castro moved to the UAE six years ago to work for Dubai-based company Meraas. Three years ago she established her studio Bia Design. Since then she and her team have worked on several residential and commercial interiors, including the Art House in Dubai and a Boulevard Plaza Office, which was shortlisted for the 2016 CID Award in the office category.

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“This is one of my favourite projects since we had a green light and total freedom to design,” she says. “It reflects a lot of my personal style when it comes to the material palette and the design with edgy lines and a minimalist style.”

The team is currently working on an urban master-plan, which varies from a large-scale landscape and pavement to furniture and street lighting.

She explains: “It’s a very exciting project and in a very prominent location but for now the details remain confidential. We have just completed two mixed-use towers in Business Bay and Culture Village Hotel with the full architecture and interior design package and two more G+4 residential buildings in Jumeirah Village Circle and Jumeirah Village Triangle in Dubai,” she says.

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When it comes to obtaining clients D’Castro says she does not believe in pitching. She says: “In most cases, I realise that clients just want you to submit your ideas and literally copy them without reimbursement. I do international competitions only and believe in word of mouth. That’s the best client portfolio you can achieve.”

And with clients expecting quicker deadlines for project delivery, D’Castro explains that can negatively affect her creative process.

She says: “Projects have schedules, so if clients want shorter time frames a bigger team is required. There’s no magic in architecture or interior design; there’s a creative process, a design development phase and then the construction with site supervision.

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“If these parameters are messed-up and timescales shortened, quality will be jeopardised. No patient goes to the doctor telling him to shorten taking antibiotics from seven days to two days. Architecture and design should be the same; it’s a serious job we are doing.”

D’Castro says her studies at the University of Architecture in Porto, Portugal strongly focused on basic design skills.

She continues: “It’s a very traditional university where the importance of proportion, scale and harmony are given using the core principals of hand-sketching and building physical models. Computers were not even authorised in the first three years of practice, so I used to hand sketch, using a Rotring [technical writing pen], leading to obsessive and countless hours of technical drawings.”

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D’Castro says she came to realise that it was necessary to master architecture drawings on paper to be able to reproduce them in digital media.

“When you are sketching there’s a free connection from your brain to your hand and this free flow of thinking allows you to be very creative, but at the same time it controls the level of detail in a very accurate way – the next line, the distance between lines, the thickness of the line; you turn the paper around; you look from another angle; you look again, and sometimes the drawings speak back to you,” she says.

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“I truly believe that an architect and designer needs to be able to draw. It’s his or her language as a professional, and a simple sketch can elucidate a conceptual space. I always carry a small notebook and a pen wherever I go, to sketch and take notes. I now have a collection of almost hundred notebooks full of sketches. One day it will be lots of fun to show it to my grandkids.

“Bearing in mind that the human brain is loaded with more than 34GB of information on a daily basis I feel safer with my backup plan notebooks. It’s like I’m building a visual memory of sketches from around the world.”

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Her team is composed of young and energetic architects and designers, coming from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Spain and England. They all work to combine architecture, design and art, and D’Castro believes that creates an interesting vibe for her team.

“Our cultural background is what makes us stronger. At our studio, we also believe in an open-house concept, which means we all freely share our ideas, constantly brainstorming throughout an entire project.

“Projects are live elements, as are the people involved, and they need to communicate back and forward in a constant symbiosis. Furthermore, I don’t believe in laboratory work where one task is assigned to one individual; I find that extremely claustrophobic. People are a major asset to any design studio, so if you work with your team in an engaging way and with confidence, no other motivation is required.”

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Commenting on the Middle East design scene, particularly, Dubai, D’Castro says there is a “hipster, cool and chic movement” happening in the city.

She says: “Dubai is definitely a prominent city and the leading tourism capital of the Middle East, which never stops evolving. Since I moved here six years ago, I’ve witnessed a great positive change in developing a cultural scene, and a big effort has been made to ‘culturise’ Dubai with design, architecture, fashion and art coming to the fore.”

If there is a common thread to her work philosophy, she describes it as “Artchitecture”.

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“As an architect, my goal is to achieve a symbiosis between art and architecture, and therefore let these two disciplines merge, taking the best of one another. I believe that design should rest on the core principle of sensorial experiences and therefore everything I conceptualise aims to create a rich and engaging experience to the end-user,” says D’Castro. “I’m currently working in Summer Rain the Maze, a large-scale art installation made with 6,000 highly reflective acrylic pieces assembled in a parametric design and displayed inside a mirror box.

When asked how she sees women in architecture and design, D’ Castro feels that they have to work and fight harder to prove themselves.

She says: “Generally, the world sees architecture as a man’s job and tends to attribute interior design and decoration to women. In the 21st century, I believe that all of us should have the right to pursue whatever profession we want without any assumptions.

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“It’s frustrating, to say the least, that quite frequently men simply don’t take women architects seriously.

“Quite often, we have to ‘swallow’ those indirect looks and prove that despite gender, age or even looks, women can have a point and offer good solutions. On the other hand, many great men recognise that you are a strong and hard working woman and they support you in your professional path, which is very gratifying.”

D’Castro admits to being a workaholic and feels sometimes that is a good thing and pushes a person forward.

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She concludes: “Sometimes it’s challenging especially when you have a small baby and care for your family. I believe that when you deeply love what you do, you always find a way to progress and with hard work and perseverance objectives come together.”

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