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When We Learn to Listen

A conversation with architect and educator Mia Zinni about design as a tool for
social justice, for building resilience and the importance of finding our mission.  

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About Mia

Born in Chicago, Mia is a New York-licensed architect and educator based in San Francisco. Mia runs her design studio, Zinni Architecture and is the co-founder of the EMpower Collaborative . Her work is focused on designing safe spaces for women that facilitate their contemporary goals and aspirations.

In the fall of 2017, Mia joined the Architecture faculty at UC Berkeley to teach design studios in the undergraduate program. Previously she was an Associate at IwamotoScott Architects & SHoP Architects. She holds a B.A. in Architecture from the University of California Berkeley and an M.Arch from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the Charles McKim Prize For Excellence In Design / Saul Kaplan Traveling Fellowship. In 2012 she was named AIANYS Student of the Year.

Photo Credit @ Mia Zinni

What do we stand for as designers, and what does the architecture we dedicate our lives to bring into the world?

Coming across Mia's work was eye-opening. Her social focus and advocacy made me question when, why, and how we begin to carve out our mission as designers. As we come out of architecture school, we dream of joining pioneering practices - where 'mission and vision' statements are most often already penned down - or even running our own offices. But Mia believes that before jumping on the employment train, it's essential to first and foremost get engaged with a variety of organizations and causes that align with your inner set of values, those that fuel you at a deeper level. Only then can we expect architecture to gain meaning and purpose beyond the drawing-room and propagate real change into the world.

Throughout the years, Mia’s work as a professional and educator led her to concentrate her research on architecture as a tool for equity and social justice, specifically domestic violence shelter design. For her, architecture should create an environment of growth, stability and rehabilitation rather than an isolated cell for those in crisis. Most importantly, she encourages us as architects to listen to the needs and wishes of the community we design for in order to create meaningful and successful work that goes far beyond the visible. To stay empathetic and tuned in to the hidden language of the communities we operate within, to be flexible and try to understand their truth before leaping to the drawing board. By elevating the conversation, we can bring strategy and practical relevance into our designs.

Background & Mission

Let's start at the very beginning: tell me about how you grew up and what drove you to study architecture. How has being an architect enriched the other areas of your life?

I am dyslexic, so I tended to struggle within the traditional academic system during my early education, however, my parents quickly noticed that I saw things differently and needed to learn in a more atypical way. They supported learning through art, drawing, and making, and this was a path that I absolutely loved; it was them that taught me to see my dyslexia as an asset instead of a detriment.

My father is an architect, so I was exposed to architecture at an early age. One of the amazing things he did was to set up a model-making studio in the basement for my sister and me - it all started with mud, then using the foam cutter, and I eventually began making models for his office.

Growing up, I actually didn't think I was going to be an architect. I knew I wanted to be in the design world, and it was ultimately my first class at Berkley in the College of Environment and Design when I fell in love with architecture; all of a sudden, everything clicked. I was able to overlay my interest in art and model-making and overlay it with the parametrical dimension of architecture. That's when I truly committed to it.

Another fantastic thing that my high school curriculum included was a drafting class, so I learned Autocad early on. I was one of the two girls enrolled, but the teacher encouraged us to learn the ins and outs of the drafting process. Looking back, it was a wonderful opportunity.

I also love construction. I'm not a builder, but I do think the more women can be involved in this field, the more it can become a powerful outlet for our profession. There are so many job opportunities in the world of construction, and I think women should become more visible in this sector.

Did you grow up with key/defining female figures in sight?

I would definitely say my mother. She was an educator and got her master's degree when we were young, and then, later on, she received her PhD. So she was instrumental in both my sister's and my professional drive. She stressed the importance of education, always encouraging us to give back and continue the tradition of mentoring through teaching.

She continued to strive to pursue her goal of working in administration and eventually became a superintendent. My dad owns his own architectural firm. Looking back at it all, I think they both had that drive to be in a leadership position. My mom, though, was by far my mentor in that.

People always say: 'oh, you're an architect like your dad', and I say '...and a teacher like my mom.' (laughs)

I love construction.

I'm not a builder, but I do think the more women can be involved in this field, the more it can become a powerful outlet for our profession.

How important have you found the presence of a support system throughout your life, and how has this guided you to become a part of one through the very nature of your work?

Once I got into academia, my teachers became my support group. And this is precisely what's so special about the pedagogy of architectural school - our studio classes tend to be small, meaning we have the chance to work very closely with our teachers. In my case, working 1 to 10 or 1 to 12 meant I could develop close ties with all my professors and lecturers both at Berkley and Columbia.

It's how I ultimately got the most out of my jobs. My teachers continued to be great references long after I graduated, encouraging me to take on more, pivot professionally and continue to teach.

For instance, Lisa Iwamoto, who was my professor at Berkley, encouraged me to go back to Columbia. Afterwards, I went to work for her office, and later she was the one who encouraged me to take on the opportunity to teach at Berkley.

You hold a Bachelor's Degree from the University of California, Berkeley and finished your Masters at Columbia University. Has being educated on each coast of the U.S. enriched your view of academia and approach to design?

While at Berkley, I was introduced to the socially active culture of the Bay Area and, the Faculty at CED continued to promote architecture as a tool to provide for communities. My interest and belief in architecture's abilities to really enhance and challenge the built environment to support communities definitely stemmed from there.

Two things happened when I went to Columbia – first, I found this amazing New York-based network of women in architecture while learning to navigate the fast-paced east coast culture.

And second, at Columbia, we were encouraged to think of technology as a tool for equity and for redefining the meaning the word empowerment has nowadays.

As a female in architecture, I found that truly beneficial to my growth - the exposure to technology and its application in architecture became an invaluable skill and tool for me as I moved into the professional world. So I used the flexibility we were given at Columbia in our final year as an opportunity to bridge these two pedagogies - one more socially, activist-minded, and the other formally-focused and rooted in the realm of technology. My research explored how those two dimensions could come together and eventually became pivotal to finding my role and voice within the industry.  

Your mission is to empower women through design. Could you tell me what inspired you to channel your professional drive in this direction?

I graduated from Berkley with the idea that architecture has the power to change our environment, and I kept searching for the right application of that.

While at Columbia, we were getting a lot of publicity on the topic of security on campus, with a focus on the dangers and safety issues women experience on a day-to-day basis.

The group of women I was working with at the time started thinking - what does this mean for us, and how can we be impacted? We would spend late nights at the studio and have to walk home, so we began questioning what that felt like for us and, by extension, if our male peers felt the same way. Were they also scared to walk home at night through the city? What part of the city did we walk on, and which did we avoid. For our final project, we designed a city light that could be activated as a communal way to light a street and engage with the pedestrian to make sure they feel safe and secure. That's when I first got interested in this idea of security and safe environments and how a lack of feeling safe can halt one's opportunities and aspirations.

Shortly after, I became interested in domestic violence shelters and how they operated. I began thinking about these environments where the notions of safety are challenged and how we provide for them as policymakers and architects. That period was all about immersing myself in that community and asking all the difficult but necessary questions to gain a better understanding of what is needed.

Architecture, Social Justice and Empowerment

You hold a position as the Co‐Women's Group Design Director for Sanitation Health Rights in India (SHRI). Tell me more about your mission and experience in Bihar, India and how it has changed you and your practice. Was this the moment you realized you wanted to continue exploring the idea of design as a tool for social justice?

It was a fantastic opportunity. I used my fellowship from Columbia to join the Sanitation Health Rights in India, an organization whose mission is to build toilet blocks in rural India and educate the local community on the importance of sanitation.

I quickly realized there was a real issue with women using these toilet blocks, so they brought me in to facilitate this women's space, help them feel safe, and encourage them to use the facilities. Before we arrived in India, we had all these design ideas and strategies in mind; once we arrived there, it was clear we had to change all of our assumptions. That was a pivotal moment when we realized that if we don't talk, interview and understand what the actual users need and want, there's a total disconnect between our design and its end purpose.

We learned how critical it is to invest in communities and genuinely listen to community members. The local women challenged our premises: 'yes, we get it, and we appreciate the facilities, but what we really want is to learn how to read. And without being literate, we don't have other opportunities, and that's what's stifling us. If you really want to help us, help us read.'

So that's what we did. We turned a room that we originally thought would be a gathering space to discuss reproductive rights, sanitation and health into a teaching room, and we invited a teacher to come in and teach Hindi to the women. They learned to read and write, and the use of the toilet block followed. In the case of projects where our aim is to impact and support the community, it's essential to have input from the end-users and carry out a deep investigation into what they need.

We realized that if we don't talk, interview and understand what the actual users need and want, there's a total disconnect between our design and its end purpose.

One of your most striking projects is the Johannesburg Women's Shelter. Could you tell me more about why you directed your focus on improving the experience of women and children as domestic abuse or human trafficking survivors?

My understanding has grown a lot since I completed the research for this project. I was in Hilary Sample's studio at the time, and we were looking at parallels between New York and Johannesburg. I became interested in Domestic Violence (DV) shelters mostly because I couldn't find anything on them. I knew they existed, and while there was an awareness that they are a building typology, I hadn't seen an architect at the time who had designed one.

So I was drawn to what these spaces were like, why weren't architects overtly involved in them, and if they were, what were they able to share. After reaching out to the New York Consulate for DV shelters in Manhattan, I was fortunate enough to be invited to their offices to talk - meeting the building maintenance team was so interesting and incredibly insightful. 

It was surprising to hear what someone had to do to be in these facilities, which essentially acted like prisons at the time – strict no-cellphone policies, tall fences and even barbed wire. There was so much secrecy around their location and endless rules about access.

As a response to the context of Johannesburg, where the violence rates against women are extremely high, I proposed rethinking the DV shelter and challenging its typology. How can it operate as something different? How can we keep it from becoming this completely isolated space that women were struggling to leave the familiarity of their communities for?

I began thinking about introducing these layers of security to camouflage the ultimate programme while giving women the opportunity to have some stake and shareholdership into some of the public programs.

Since my initial research, there has been a wave of rethinking the rules and new ideas. It's important to remember that DV shelters are not just women's only, but there is also extreme DV against the trans community. We have a lot of men in our shelters, a lot of labour trafficking victims coming in, all of which fit under the umbrella of domestic violence. Another layer of the problem is that people don't like exchanging the familiarity of their communities for the environment of the shelter. They don't feel safer, and they have a hard time living and co-living where they have to share a lot of spaces.

The more we can get architects involved in these projects and raise awareness, the better. Sometimes we think more housing is better for these people, but that's not necessarily always true. The architecture world loves the idea of communal living, and there's this glorification of it, but in shelters, it simply does not work. It doesn't work if you're forcing communal living on anyone, and I truly think there are more informed and thoughtful ways of introducing and re-framing these generalized ideas.

You once mentioned that we should step away from designing for people as victims and instead keep their desires and aspirations at the forefront of the design process. Could you explain why it's so important to make a distinction between these two approaches?

It goes back to the idea of architecture creating new possibilities and encouraging more equitable living environments. If we are only addressing a problem, then we are not encouraging any change. If we are only thinking of people as victims and addressing their immediate concerns as victims, then were are not preventing it from happening again. It's just a Band-Aid.

Specifically, in the case of DV victims, statistics say that a person will leave their abuser seven times before they actually leave. And their number one complaint is that they don't like the environments where the system places them. I understand why someone would go back to what is familiar to them – to their home, their kitchen, their bed. And maybe the benefits of that outweigh the negative of the violence that they're experiencing. So even though placement is helping the victim immediately, it does not change the bigger picture. Let's listen to people and ask what their needs and aspirations are. It's the only way to make systemic change and help the community evolve and foster their aspirations.

This is a reminder that architecture can't change everything, and we need politicians and policymakers involved in this. For instance, there's a programme in Denmark where the abuser is asked to leave the living situation instead of the victim. It makes so much more sense. Shifting the focus to thinking about rehabilitations centres or educating abusers - it's about critically rethinking the problem. We have victims, and we need to support and design for them. We also need to step back and think about the psychology of it, what's causing it, what do these people really need, and how can we address that. That's what architecture should be pushing to support.

Let's listen to people and ask what their needs and aspirations are.

It's the only way to make systemic change and help the community evolve and foster their aspirations.

Since the outbreak of COVID‐19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified. By extension, essential services such as domestic violence shelters and helplines have reached capacity.

Could you explain why the thoughtful design of these spaces is so important in terms of occupant experience? And how can they be successfully integrated within the communities where they are based?

It was worrying at the beginning of the pandemic. During the lockdown, we saw the highest rates of domestic violence we had seen in a very long time. Being confined in a small space creates a lot of problems. One thing that happened during Covid that was amazing for DV shelters was that we were no longer allowed to put two families in the same room together. This is exactly what shelter occupants have been requesting for a long time. In the Bay Area, we re-purposed unused hotel rooms, and we were able to re-locate people into these spaces. The chance of having their own autonomy, of enjoying their own space and freedom, was priceless.

As soon as it happened, everyone realized how important it was, and this strategy is still in place. However, we need more shelters and donated, un-used facilities to be able to make this become the norm. Private rooms simply work better - they reduce conflicts, they let people parent in their own way. If you are single, you want to have your privacy. Not worrying about noise, and being able to participate and engage when you are ready to do so, works so much better. COVID was challenging in terms of finding more beds, and for the staff working at these facilities, it was a turbulent time, but we were able to locate people in their own spaces, and it worked out for the best.

What does being a board member of Ruby's place, the U.S.'s leading non-profit committed to ending domestic violence, mean to you?

The executive director at Ruby's place is extremely forward-thinking. I reached out a long time ago when they posted a campaign to build a new shelter, and I offered to help, explaining the background of my research. I was then invited to contribute to the design of a new shelter and became a board member. It became an outlet for me to connect with the community, share my research on a broader platform, and get the funding for the organization they need.

During my time at Columbia, I had this amazing Professional Practice instructor who said: 'Many of you are going to want to go on to have your own firms and practices; my advice is to get involved with organizations that do the type of work that you want to do.' I thought that was the best advice, and I did just that. When I was in New York, I was involved with PathFinder International and Human AirPower (now the Sanitation Health Rights in India programme) and Planned Parenthood. I always tried to get engaged with organizations led by a mission that I feel strongly about - sometimes they need an architect, and sometimes they don't. Still, just learning about them and saying, 'I'm here to listen, and my professional goal is to build environments that support your mission' can make a huge difference.

This has been some of the greatest professional advice I have ever received. I tell my students that it's important to get the jobs you want but it's equally important to get involved with the organizations they are interested in. It's more fulfilling if that's the type of work you want to be doing as a professional.

I always tried to get engaged with organizations led by a mission that

I feel strongly about.

How can we, as architects and designers, become more sensitive to the experiences of marginalized communities finding themselves at a crossroads between social, political or economic pressures?

I'm always looking for outlets for new ways of education through communal engagement. At Berkley, for example, I hosted the exhibition at the 50th anniversary of the DV shelters. We have to help foster conversation and encourage education in directions people might not be aware of in order to engage communities. We come across many 'not in my back yard' ideas, and I think a lot of that fear comes from a lack of education and understanding of the situation. As architects, we have a lot of skill in presenting work and educating people on our work, so I encourage and challenge architects to do that more, engage communities more and look at different ways of trying to educate and incorporate collectively work alongside these communities. A drawing or a model can go a long way. If we take a step back and think of how to use representation tools thoughtfully, we can create the space for a powerful, meaningful exchange of thoughts and ideas.

On Vulnerability, Resilience and Change

Tell me more about setting up your own design office and being the co‐founder of EMpower Design collaborative. What do you aim to achieve through each of these practices?

I partner with Emma Jasinski as part of the Empower Collaborative that we co-founded for more social impact-oriented design projects. And as much as I am passionate about doing impact-oriented design work, I'm equally passionate about running a successful company as a female. I'm a sole practitioner and started my own company Zinni Architecture two years ago. I think it's important for women to care about income and make sure they are setting up a sustainable business model - it's a challenge, but I'm trying to navigate it and do my best.

You have recently become a mother yourself. How has this experience changed your perspective on your own practice and research?

To me, it's been a test in time management and trying to truly focus and reprioritize. My son is very important to me, and we spend as much time as possible together, but I'm also very passionate about my work. So I'm trying to find a balance for that. I've heard people say they love to hire moms because they're super- efficient; they set a schedule and get things done. I also plan my day, get the work that I can get done within that period, and spend meaningful time with my family. And while this is absolutely a challenge, it's worth it. I have amazing clients and work with really flexible builders, so when an impromptu site meeting is necessary, my son comes with me - everyone knows he might be showing up (laughs).

Looking back at it all, what have been your biggest challenges and highlights?

The biggest challenge I had was trying to focus and synthesize the work. So balancing external pressures with more internal research goals or design objectives. I get most excited when I feel I am supporting my students. When I see them starting to succeed, that's when I feel most proud. This idea of mentorship, letting go and delegating, and trusting others to continue the work collaboratively is a huge motivator.

It takes a lot to be a mom, and you shouldn't be doing it all on your own. So ask for help when you need it and rely on your support system.

What does success look like to you nowadays?

To me, success is a couple of things. On the one hand, it's seeing students growing, being active in their communities, and continuing the broader ideas of how architecture can work through social justice. I think it is also being my own boss and financially stable. This has always been a goal for me as a woman practising in our industry. I have a son, but I want him to grow up seeing that his mom's work is important, equitable and helps our family.

Do you have any words of advice/ a direct message to women navigating motherhood, their professional lives and the pandemic at the same time?

It takes a lot to be a mom, and you shouldn't be doing it all on your own. So ask for help when you need it and rely on your support system. Don't pressure yourself to do it all; realize you have a bandwidth and always remember to advocate for yourself.

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