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Conversations with the Inspiring Luciana Varkulja

Today we’d like to introduce you to Luciana Varkulja.

Luciana, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I am an architect and urban designer originally from Brazil, living and working in the US for the past 15 years. LA has been home since 2017. I am currently writing from an apartment in São Paulo, Brazil. I have been here since the end of March due to the pandemic. I was living in a 15 people house in Ktown – coliving is one of my teaching and personal research subjects but that turned into a health concern issue within a very short span of time. My personal belongings are currently in boxes in a self-storage in LA and I am still working with organizations in California – so my laptop computer is set up to display LA time and my phone shows São Paulo’s time zone.

Before moving to LA, I lived in DC, New York City and Portland, Oregon. All moves were triggered by job opportunities (including when I relocated to Washington, DC from São Paulo, back in 2005), except when I moved to New York City, prompted by a master in architecture. I met dear friends in all those cities but LA did win my heart somehow.

As an architect and urban designer, I see myself as a generalist with experience in assorted projects’ types and phases, and jobs from various scales, from object to furniture design and brand identity, environmental design, domestic space, institutional buildings and public spaces, transportation and urban planning. I consider all those as design opportunities. When starting a job, the goal is to build a diverse team, aiming for the high quality of the final product and the efficiency of the design process as a whole.

Has it been a smooth road?
Navigating through the profession hasn’t always been easy. After working in the Exhibition Design Department at the National Gallery of Art in DC, I was offered a job in a small architecture and urban design firm with a strong portfolio in transportation and planning projects, one of the few offices to survive the recession in the city back in 2007. I missed more design-related discussions, so I kept working on architecture competitions and side design jobs after the office shift, working sometimes until 3 am, 4 am. I tell my students that yes, one can sell design ideas to an office, but there is something unique to develop and learn when working on one’s own projects and ideas. I also volunteered teaching industrial design classes to high-school kids at the National Building Museum. In 2010, with a curiosity in the relationship between architecture and textiles, I launched an online necklace store, developed its graphic design identity, took business management and marketing classes, sold a few pieces and realized that to own a business it is required to be more than a designer!

In that same year, during a Halloween party where I was dressed as Lisbeth Salander – the computer hacker from the Swedish novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson – a friend advised me to apply for a Masters in the US. It was the end of October and I had a month to study for both GRE and TOEFL tests and to prepare for the application to Columbia University. Next thing I saw, I was driving a U-Haul truck with my then-husband to NYC. School time was intense – I was back in school after almost ten years of practice but I could count with a good number of younger peers who were not afraid to share their knowledge, making late studio hours more fun. After school and a few contract jobs, I landed in a full-time position in Portland, Oregon. It was also in Portland that I endured my divorce –pushing me to explore outdoors via hiking, camping, fishing, stand up paddleboarding and martial arts/women’s self-defense. After four years in the Pacific Northwest, it was time to see the sun again, now in LA. What I am still learning is that having plans is necessary, but we also have to be malleable to ride some of life’s moments like a surfer rides a wave, being curious to what comes next and to where those waves may take us.

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
In LA, I had the chance to work with transportation again. As a senior designer, I was in charge of developing a document to envision the future of the ConRAC building at LAX – the Consolidated Rent-A-Car facility at LA’s airport, which is a six million-square-foot facility to house approx. 18,000 cars. It was my first day at the job and I saw some important issues posted by the building’s design developed until that moment and the necessity for that to be flexible and adaptable to the future – considering the world’s transformation we are right now with the sharing culture and the future of mobility plus the challenge currently set by the pandemic to the future of transportation and public space. I worked close to a group that studies advanced technologies related to mobility, such as autonomous vehicles, electric cars and micromobily and their direct impact into architecture and the urban realm with new construction and existing structures now having to embrace that change.

The way we live has also been affected by the sharing culture and as part of this personal research, I decided to experience coliving myself. I also propose those themes for the studios I teach and coordinate in the architecture schools. In one of those recent studios, existing parking structures were repurposed to become housing, and vacant historical buildings in DTLA adapted to house coliving and coworking programs – programs currently confronted by the pandemic. Adaptive-reuse aligns with my working approach and interest in more sustainable ways of designing and constructing, also taking into consideration local and renewable resources and understanding local labor expertise which I learned from work experiences both in Latin America and in Africa.

What do you feel are the biggest barriers today to female leadership, in your industry or generally?
Schools of architecture show female students’ numbers similar to male numbers, but in practice that changes. We need more women being promoted to leadership positions and many have the talent for the job. That sets up the path for the younger ones. It is not enough to hire more women; we have to be invited to sit at the head of the table, being a participating voice and contributing to the decision-making.

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