AIA Chicago’s Young Architect Of The Year Focuses Her Efforts On Building Communities

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Nootan Bharani at Place Lab

Nootan Bharani quite possibly found her first spark of creativity growing up in Downer’s Grove. She made things out of a nontraditional building material: pompom balls. “I cut them all off of my mother’s and sister’s socks,” she said.

She then used the pompoms to add flare to dollhouse furniture.

Fast forward to 2014 and Bharani’s career as an architect has taken an equally nontraditional course. She spent the first dozen years of her professional career in a conventional architect role. Along the way, Bharani gained an appreciation for community and sustainability. Her expertise in this growing area of architecture earned Bharani the honor of AIA Chicago Dubin Family Young Architect of the Year.

I sat down with Bharani to talk about the award, the meandering route of her education and career, and her new passion—to help strengthen under-served communities through the arts and architecture.

Architecture, however, wasn’t her initial focus in college.

“I thought I was going to go to music school, so I chose a school that had a great music program but it also had a really great architecture program,” she said. “I found architecture was really about making things. And I always wondered ‘what else can I make?’”

After graduation from Carnegie Mellon University with a bachelor of architecture degree, Bharani worked at several Chicago-area firms as a project manager and architect on a variety of projects. She joined CB&I in 2012 as the managing director of the firm’s sustainability consulting division.

“I was helping municipalities figure out ways for their constituencies and populations to be more energy efficient and think more about the environment, reduce kilowatt hours, and count kilowatt hours.”

Bharani’s newest challenge has a similar community focus. In September, she joined the University of Chicago’s Arts and Public Life Initiative as lead designer manager of Place Lab.

“It’s a new initiative,” she said. “Place Lab’s charge is we have three years to come up with best practices and a manual around reinvestment in under-served neighborhoods.

“Our immediate goal is have our space in place and get our team on board. And reaching out—we have several case study cities in addition to Chicago. We also are seeking partnerships in Detroit; Akron, Ohio; and Gary, Indiana. We are seeking partnerships there, looking to support partners and provide any sort of consulting and grant writing we can, to help them create something that can catalyze the arts community.

“Ultimately after three years, we want to have the manual of how to best catalyze divested, traditionally under-served communities through arts and culture. So what might be an interesting discussion that could come out of this, is that there are different economics, what pieces are put in place, just housing or is there something else? We would argue that there’s programming involved—arts programming in particular—so proving that and getting the metrics behind that, that’s what we’re studying.”

Bharani admits her career path probably didn’t make her an obvious choice as AIA’s Young Architect of the Year.

“My portfolio is not design-building based. It’s nontraditional, compared to typical award winners. So I was really surprised and that makes me super honored that they recognized that there is so much work, so applicable to everything architects need to think about, bringing so many disparate branches together for a solution, whether it’s a building or a system of programming for community.”

Nootan Bharani Highlights

  • Co-founder of the Community Interface Committee of AIA Chicago
  • Deputy Project Manager for Sustainable Chicago 2015 Action Agenda
  • Project Manager of Chicago Public Libraries and Facilities LEED gap analysis
  • Favorite Chicago iconic building: John Hancock Center
  • Inspirational architects: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (designers of the Logan Center for the Arts)
One of Nootan Bharini's favorite Chicago Buildings

One of Nootan Bharani’s favorite Chicago buildings

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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