“I’m really interested in civic architecture, and things like libraries, and airports, and museums. These cultural institutions. Things that people have access to, just like a public institution, but more so things that have a political significance. I think it’s important as architects to make sure that the work that we do, does impact people’s lives not just on a personal basis, but on a more social basis. That’s what I want to do. I want to design buildings that have a political significance and people can really visit and enjoy, and it’s not something that’s just only for one person or one group of people. .”
HIBA TAGELALLA, FULL INTERVIEW
ASR: [00:29] Hiba, thank you so much for joining me. Tell me your story, what led you to apply to architecture school?
Hiba: [00:37] I went to Brooklyn Technical High School in Brooklyn New York, and the school gives you the opportunity to select a major very early on in your education in sophomore year. They had one that was dedicated to architectural education. I came into high school wanting to be a doctor, but it was never something that interested me. I found that architecture was a really good bridge between arts, but also a more disciplined approach to arts and that’s why I chose that major. It was through interacting with the professor’s there that encouraged me to apply to architecture school. It was something that I knew very early on before I got to college, so I made it my goal and target to make sure that I did get into an architecture program.
ASR: [01:30] Which school did you apply to?
Hiba: [01:32] I applied to very few schools. I applied to Pratt Institute. I applied to Syracuse University, RPI RISD, and that was pretty much it. I committed to Pratt Institute, so that’s where I started in the fall of 2016. It was an amazing time that I was there for two years before I decided to transfer, and now I’m at City College in Harlem New York City.
ASR: [02:00] 135th Street, right?
Hiba: [02:02] At 135th Street.
ASR: [02:04] It’s a great school. What was it about architecture that inspired you to follow that career?
Hiba: [02:17] For myself, it was the commitment to people. I felt that there was a humanistic touch to it. You can’t really lose sight of the fact that the things that you build and things that you design are going to impact people’s lives, and that people will interact with them on a daily basis. That was something I felt was very important to myself because ever since I was young I always found that the things that interested me the most were conversations that I had with people, and anything that I do in my life, I want it to have a positive impact and on people themselves. I thought that architecture was a good way to do that, in that, you can’t really escape. It’s all around you. It’s the home that you live in. It’s the buildings that you walk past every day. It’s where people go and get the important services in their life. I felt it was something that I had a personal interest in, but also could serve this grander purpose that I want to do.
ASR: [03:20] What’s your vision as an architect, for your career? What do you want to achieve?
Hiba: [03:26] I’m really interested in civic architecture, and things like libraries, and airports, and museums. These cultural institutions. Things that people have access to, just like a public institution, but more so things that have a political significance. I think it’s important as architects to make sure that the work that we do, does impact people’s lives not just on a personal basis, but on a more social basis. That’s what I want to do. I want to design buildings that have a political significance and people can really visit and enjoy, and it’s not something that’s just only for one person or one group of people.
ASR: [04:25] That’s a great goal. Do you feel that architectural education is preparing you to achieve that goal?
Hiba: [04:33] My first 2 years at Pratt, I didn’t really feel that yet. Perhaps it was only because it was the very early beginnings of the program, but it’s a private Institute and the professors that I was coming in contact with, I didn’t see them really interested in what I wanted to do. When I transferred schools and I came to City College; I’ve only been here for about two semesters now, but I see a massive shift in the way that they based their program. They very much are aware of the fact that we are in New York City, so it’s a program based in its connection with the outer city. I feel like at City College I’ve taken classes now that have prepared me for that. We took a class that was based on urban mapping and looking at how the city grows and how the people in it use the city. I felt like that class was something that I could use in my future professions and future endeavors. So right now, yes, I do feel like it’s helping me move towards that goal.
ASR: [05:54] What are the fundamental differences between what your educational experience is now, versus what it was like at Pratt? Which is an art school.
Hiba: [06:05] I feel like my professors at City College are a lot more invested and more engaged with the students. I think that comes from the fact that the professors at City College are younger, and they are ones that have just recently left their own architectural programs and are actively working in the field. They come in with this excitement and this vigor. They are very pragmatic in the way that they teach, they are teaching you skills that you can directly translate into your professional experience. I felt at Pratt, I was getting a more dogmatic approach. A lot of it was theory and every time that we would talk about what our professional experience would be as architects, there was a disconnect between the two. They told you that what you learn in school is one thing, but your internships are really supposed to build the bulk of what you’re supposed to do in your professional life.
I feel like if you’re going to school that the education that you receive at your school should be a direct route to what you want to do in your professional life. I felt that at Pratt it was sort of, “This is the education that we are teaching you, and you go out and you figure out how you’re going to convert in your professional life.” Whereas in City College, there’s an awareness that we will be going out into the world at the end of our 5 years, so you need to equipped with the tools to be able to handle working in the real world. Even when it comes to technical skills, specific programs that you’ll need to have. Not even just, but being aware of the fact that you are working in a city, and there are different agencies and people that you need to come in contact with. There’s just an awareness that you will be working in the professional world after you graduate, so I feel like you’re more prepared to do that at City College, versus at Pratt.
ASR: [08:22] Can you be more specific about how they prepare you? And by the way, when we talk about the professional world, what do you mean? How would you describe the types of skills that would be useful to you in the real world?
Hiba: [08:41] Inbetween transferring from Pratt to City College, I took a year off and in that year, I was working at a small office in Tribeca. They are a residential private office, but that year gave me a lot of perspective on the differences between being in school and working in the real world. I was lucky enough to be working in an office with other architects who had just left their program. Some of them had actually just left Pratt too. They were very generous and explaining to me the things that they wish they had taken from their education and the classes that they wish they had taken.
The big thing for me is the fact that you don’t design in the vacuum, there are a lot of people that you need to communicate with. So the first is your communication skills, whether it’s in writing or face-to-face communication, but the other thing also was clarity in your drawings, and also the streamlining of your drawing process. I remember in school when it came to producing drawings, we would do them, and you know that you have to present it at your crit, but that’s the only place that exists. So you drew it to be able to stand in front of it and present it, but in the real world that drawing goes off and has to speak for itself. There’s a lot more attention paid to just how clear those drawings are, so that was one thing. Learning to draw with clarity and learning to draw with intention.
Through that year, I realized that there were things that either, I myself wasn’t aware that I needed them, or I just wasn’t getting at all. When I came to City College, I went in there with the intention of taking the things that I believe that I needed. I did a lot more research on my professors. I chose professors that I thought were working in civic architecture themselves. I tried to choose classes that would give me the technical skills that I felt that I needed, and I made a lot more effort to build my networks. I would speak to my professors after class. I would speak to my colleagues, to my students, and I’m just trying to make more of an effort to practice the things that I found that you need more when you start working, after you in school.
ASR: [11:18] There must be something that you disliked about City College as well?
Hiba: [11:22] Yes, of course, I think that…
ASR: [11:32] Not disliked, more like something that you would want improved. Maybe not at City College, maybe just architectural education in general?
Hiba: [11:39] One thing I would improve, and City College is definitely a lot better at it, but I think that we do need to see a lot more diversity in the field. That was one of the most discouraging things for myself, especially at Pratt. I got there, and there was nobody that really looked like myself.
ASR: [12:00] Well, that’s because you are a minority in architecture. Someone recently told me that there are like 200 black women in America that are registered architects. That’s crazy.
Hiba: [12:11] It’s insane. It’s mind-boggling. It’s really puts into perspective just the world around us.
ASR: [12:23] Why do you think that is though?
Hiba: [12:25] I had this one experience in my history class where it was the first day and he was going around the class, and he was asking everyone, “Why did you study architecture?” For almost everyone in the room, it was because they knew somebody who was an architect or knew somebody that was in the creative field. Like a parent or something and that’s why they chose it, but when he got to me, immediately he was like, “Oh, you must not know anybody who’s an architect.”
ASR: [12:55] He said that?
Hiba: [12:56] He said that to me. He was like, “You must not know anyone who is an architect, so what led you to chose this field?” There’s that assumption that within the property… [Crosstalk] [Laughter]. It threw me off and I was really confounded. He wasn’t wrong, I didn’t know anyone who was an architect or was in the field, but it was just more so the fact that he had that preconceived notion already. So that’s one thing I would change, and I found it very hard to see myself as an architect because I didn’t see anybody who looks like myself working in the fields. It took 2 years until I saw the first person of color give a lecture at my school, and I think it becomes a little bit discouraging when you can’t really find somebody that you feel like you could relate to in that field. That would be just one thing I would change. City College is definitely better because it is a public school and I feel like the places that they are looking for professors are more diverse, and they’re younger professors, people who just graduated. It’s a little bit better there.
The other thing I would change is that there needs to be more of an effort to get students funding for their education. That was one thing that I struggled with, paying for school. It was one of the big reasons I transferred, I just couldn’t afford Pratt Institute, it was very expensive. I would reach out to the professors and I would reach out to the financial aid office for more aid, and they would always give me forms to sign for loans. There was no option of a grant, or a scholarship, or anything that I can apply to. It’s definitely better at City College, they make more of an effort to come to you with opportunities for grants and scholarships to apply to, but I think the cost of the architectural education is a big thing. It’s not just your tuition, but it’s also paying for your materials. It’s very expensive the paper…
ASR: [15:10] So it discourages people who may not be upper middle class or even lower middle class to apply?
Hiba: [02:00] Of course, and that’s one of the biggest things. For myself, I’ve always had to work through school. There’s never a time that I haven’t and I still do now in order to be able to afford everything that I need. Even the cost of printing your drawings, It’s USD$6.00 or USD$9.00 for 24 by 36, and you might have 8 boards for a presentation on Monday. It really adds up.
ASR: [15:49] They charge you that much?
Hiba: [15:50] Yeah. it’s so expensive. I know that some schools don’t charge you and it’s like a fantasy.
ASR: [15:57] They do charge you ahead of time.
Hiba: [16:00] Yeah, they just charge you before [laughter] and you pay for it and you feel like you are not paying for it.
ASR: [16:03] You could have paid USD$60,000 [Laughter].
Hiba: [16:08] The cost is already included. It hurts a little bit less, but it still hurts.
ASR: [16:16] City College is one of my favorite schools in the United States because I know how much effort they put on a great curriculum. They have a great history of excellent professors. Michael Sorkin used to be the dean, right?
Hiba: [16:35] Yeah.
ASR: [16:36] When did he stop being the dean there, was it a few years ago?
Hiba: [16:18] Really recently because the dean that we have now, her name is Lokko, Dean Lokko. She’s fantastic. She’s a South African architect and she started this year.
ASR: [16:54] Right, I just read an article about her. I didn’t read it yet but it’s on Archinect.
Hiba: [16:55] She’s fantastic. She’s such a strong woman and presence in the school. In the short time that she’s been there, she’s made so many changes and their changes that we actually see as students. The school is a new building, relatively new compared to all the other architecture buildings. Even though it’s new, we didn’t have enough pin-up space and that was one of the things she promised us as students. That she was going to make an effort to better our pin-up spaces and our presentation spaces. Right before the school shut down, they were actively painting all the spaces, moving things out of the hallway that she was going to put up, and adding televisions for us to be able to present media that we wanted. She made a lot of effort to make sure that the students had spaces that could give them a better way of presenting their work. She did deliver on that, so she’s been really great so far. I think she’s going to do a lot of really good things for the school, and also the fact that she’s a woman of color as the dean of the school. It says a lot about the values of the school. It’s forward at City College. A lot of the older, more established architecture schools are dug in their ways and are very committed to maintaining the way that they’ve always done things and it’s not always the most productive for growth.
ASR: [18:37] How diverse is your class, your demographic?
Hiba: [18:40] Very diverse, because everyone is mostly from the city. There are a few international students and a few people from surrounding areas. But mostly everyone’s from New York City, so you get a very diverse pool of students. I think that’s been my favorite part, and it’s not just demographically but also socioeconomically. Everyone’s from different places. For the first time, I met students that also were working part-time while going to school. At Pratt, that was not a thing. It was me and one other friend who did that. You feel like people can relate to your experience a lot more, and that’s something that everyone shares. Having to pay their way through school, and having to fight for the fact that you want to study this field that is privileged in a way. You have to work hard to be able to do it.
ASR: [19:42] Do you think that if they mandated internships during your education, that would flatten the field little bit and allow students who need to work, to work without losing a competitive advantage compared to others? At the same time, give you the skills that you need to function better in the professional world?
Hiba: [20:06] Yeah, that would help a lot, if internships were mandated during your education. When I first took that gap year and I was working, I was very sad that I had lost time in my education. I’m going to graduate after all of my classmates at Pratt, and I thought that was a massive disadvantage and disservice that I did to myself. I was upset about it for a long time but looking back at it now, it was the most valuable thing I did for myself. It even increased my excitement to become an architect in a way, I would not be where I am without that year. It’s so important that you enrich your education in that way because being in school is one thing, but actually putting those skills into practice is a completely different thing. If you had to work, while you were at school and internships are mandated, every student would come away a lot more confident in the decision that they made to be an architect because you actually get to see what’s waiting for you outside of school. Also like you said, they would be paid, so you would have money to be able to support your education.
You would also gain experience and know what you’re going to do after you leave school. It’s so important because I kept asking my co-workers, “How do you continue your education after you leave school? Does that stop? Do you just put a pause on things and you never really learn anything else anymore?” They told me that it’s a continuing process, you still are a student at the end of the day, and you have to enrich yourself in other ways. If you already had that experience before being a student and working, it will just be something that you naturally continue after you graduate. You will always have that yearning to learn more and to do more, and that never really stops. I know some programs are mandating some internships while you’re working, but I think it’s only for a small part of the program. It would be amazing if we could see it integrated every summer, that you get placed somewhere and you do it. It would be super helpful.
ASR: [22:27] Hiba, thank you so much. This was such an amazing conversation.
Hiba: [22:35] Thank you for taking the time to talk.
ASR: [23:20] Thank you so much for participating. The points that you brought up were amazing. I love City College. I actually taught an urban architecture… [Crosstalk]. Sorry?
Hiba: [23:31] I’ve been falling in love with it now too. I’m so happy that I transferred, it’s such a great program.
ASR: [23:38] Absolutely, especially compared to Pratt. It’s like night and day.
Hiba: [23:42] It is night and day.
ASR: [23:44] The differences are huge and the cost for Pratt is almost unjustifiable. What is it, USD$60,000 now? USD$50,000? Close to that?
Hiba: [16:16] It’s like USD$65,000.
ASR: [23:58] Oh my God, that’s insane. That’s per year for 5 years?
Hiba: [24:06] Yeah, and that’s excluding the cost of supplies and everything else.
ASR: [24:10] That’s USD$325,000.
Hiba: [24:12] Yeah, it’s insanity.
ASR: [24:14] If you get a loan on that at 3%, that’s crazy.
Hiba: [24:23] I have loans still from Pratt, and they are at 6% or 7%.
ASR: [24:27] How much, 6%?
Hiba: [24:29] My loans are now almost 7%. It’s crazy. I’m grateful for the time I spent there, I met a lot of really great people, but it’s something that will always follow me. Having to pay them back for those 2 years that I was there. In the 2 years, I have amassed USD$20,000 and that’s with scholarships and with myself pursuing and looking for scholarships and grants. You have no concept of the fact that you have to pay it back whilst you are in school because it’s so easy. You sign your different papers, and you take on this money, but it’s real. You have to pay it back. Right now I’m grateful that I can afford my education.
ASR: [25:30] At least had a scholarship. There are people that I know, that pay the full tuition, which doesn’t make sense to me. At least you can pay them off, get it over with, and move on. It was a very wise decision, good for you.
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