Welcoming the second keynote speaker of their “Women in Architecture” series, the UNC Charlotte chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students, or NOMAS, kicked off their latest symposium at Storrs Hall on Wednesday. Under the title of “Jane of All Trades,” the symposium looked specifically at women in the architectural discipline who hold interests in a diversity of other mediums. From installing captivating art pieces in museums across the world to dissecting data concerning race, gender and other demographics, these women bring to their main practice a variety of bold influences. In their second symposium concerning women in practice, NOMAS invited practicing designer Yolande Daniels of studioSUMO to speak on the expansive and multifaceted nature of contemporary design. Daniels is the founding principal of studioSUMO with Sunil Bald. The studio focuses primarily on residential and institutional projects, as well as exhibitions and installations based in the United States and Japan.

As her opening remarks put it best, Daniels deals with the art of “building and unbuilding.” From her design work in Tokyo, Japan at Josai University to demographic analyses of migration and domesticity, Daniels is constantly drafting the narrative of her career. At first glance, she might look like your everyday ambitious designer, eager to travel to a new destination and embark on a new project. Beneath the surface, however, Daniels is always contemplating, always looking at emerging ideas from multiple angles. Within the realm of architecture and interior design, Daniels often draws from her own architectural meditations. She seeks to build something, be it a versatile theater space or an economically-minded dormitory, but must first “unbuild” it. That is, break it down to means she and others can understand and work with. With many of her Tokyo projects, set for the most part on or around the Josai University campus, she deals with simple forms to begin. From there, an idea emerges: an unraveling program, sustainable facades, an art museum for the people. Through it all, Daniels and her team revel in both the collection of data and the collection of ideas.

While Daniels’ and studioSUMO’s work in architecture might not stop there, it was the keynote speaker’s adjacent work in other narratives that brought her constant contemplation to full circle. Well, not completely full circle, not yet anyway. She described the additional works of her career through methods of what she called “building race” and “building gender.” Herself a woman of color in the discipline, Daniels approaches these narratives with aspirations to turn them on their head. In looking at the typology of the traditional shotgun house, she approaches the subject in an intimate yet far-reaching way, balancing the perspectives of contemporary domesticity with reference to African slaves. In “building gender,” Daniels challenges the notions of male and female bathrooms, electing for a homogenous solution in the female urinal. Through all of this contemplation of ideas, these sometimes absurd but complex meditations that stretch beyond her practice in architecture, Daniels continually finds intriguing narratives among the data.

Following her keynote lecture for the symposium, Daniels was joined by UNC Charlotte faculty and fellow women within or adjacent to the architecture discipline to discuss a number of subjects, but particularly these narratives. As the conversation swung between visual versus kinesthetic thinking and the art of dance, Daniels unveiled more thoughts on her own work, as well as the work of the other women present. While the talk between them might have been brief, it ended on a note that highlighted what lies at the core of the symposium, as well as the organization that hosted it. As the event strove to call upon greater diversity of race and gender within the realm of architecture, it also welcomed the appeal of diversity among one’s trades. Holding interests in outside activities like art, science and other disciplines brings new, contemplative interpretations and increased value to one’s primary subject. It allows those without a voice to be heard through the distinct narratives they tell. As Yolande Daniels put it: “I had to go outside of architecture to speak about architecture.”

In an effort to touch on some of the main lessons behind Daniels’ lecture, as well as give an overview about just what NOMAS is really all about, I spoke with NOMAS Media Coordinator Ryan Smith about the event. Ryan is a current third year Master of Architecture student.

NOMAS dedicates itself to giving a voice to the more underrepresented individuals within the discipline. The organization participates in annual design competitions and other events that showcase the unique work of the emerging designers of today. Why do you personally believe NOMAS is so important as one of the student organizations here at UNC Charlotte?

“NOMAS is important as a community of architecture students with a focus on diversity and design collaboration.”

What approaches do you take in recruiting individuals and other students to join the club?

“We mostly recruit by word of mouth and participating in events. We use flyers and social media like Facebook and Instagram to get students interested in what we’re up to. One of the main things we want students to know is that you don’t have to be a minority to be a member of NOMAS. It is open to everyone.”

One of the things Yolande Daniels mentions in her lecture is about stepping outside of architecture in order to speak about architecture. Her career so far hasn’t been limited to strictly architectural practice, as she has participated in numerous art installations, data analysis and has often spent time constructing narratives through writing. As an architecture student yourself, what encourages you to sometimes step out of your focus in architecture and explore other mediums? Also, what outside interests do you find help the most when faced with a design challenge?

“What I’ve found most interesting about my architecture studies is that what I’ve learned can be applied to several disciplines, and what my other design interests can be applied to it. If I’m stuck on a class project/assignment I’ll take up another design or craft interest to get some creative juices flowing before returning to work.”

What is one thing you think students and others should take away from this lecture, as well as from what NOMAS is doing as they continue to support diversity within the practice of architecture?    

“Daniels’ work was interesting because she notes that she is unable to separate all of the defining characteristics of herself and unable to separate all of her architecture and research interests. She’s constantly applying her life experiences and findings to her built work and that’s why diversity is important in architecture. Everyone has a different perspective to bring to the table.”

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