Ep 1: Building Inclusively for Women, Disability and Rock Stars with Pinar Guvenc

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In our first ever episode we speak with Pinar Guvenc. Pinar is a partner at SOUR, a human-centric architecture firm based in NY and Istanbul. Pinar is an amazing advocate for Inclusive Design and shares with us some incredible examples of true collaborative design and her experience being a woman the male dominated industry that is architecture. Look out for her tips on how to start conversations with diverse communities. 


Intro Snippet, Pinar: Inclusive Design, inclusion are words that we need to use more and more, in especially the architecture industry, because I think for an industry that prides its progressiveness so much, it’s not inclusive.

Intro, Manisha: So you’re waiting in line, complaining on social media, or talking to friends about something that just doesn’t work for you. How often do we think, if only the designers have thought of this or that? There’s often some really easy fix that we all know would make something much, much better than it is already.
Welcome to With not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Cammeraygal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we record this podcast today and pay my respects to their elders past, present and, of course, emerging. We’re so excited to have you all here today with us. So often, things are designed for us, but here we explore the magic that happens when we design with people, not just for them.

In this episode, we speak to Pinar Guvenc, who embodies the ethos of designing not for people but with them. Look out for her tips on how to start conversations when you’ve got diverse communities. So let’s get into it. So I’m really excited to introduce you to our guest today – Pinar Guvenc. Thank you so much for being here today.

P: Thank you so much for having me Manisha

M: And it’s actually night time for you, right? So I was saying today because it’s morning for us, but you’re in New York at the moment

P: Correct. And it’s late evening, not night. But yeah we are later in the day.

M: So I’m very grateful that we’re actually able to talk nowadays and technology has changed so much. I think two years ago the idea of us starting our podcast with somebody in New York would have been really unheard of. So the world has become a little bit closer to, home and far away at the same time.

P: I agree 100%. I think if there’s a silver lining of last year it just it created more access globally, and everybody became more open to being in digital presence, which connected us more. But we do miss hugs, and also there is a huge other discussion on, like what if people don’t have access to computers or Internet? But in our end, at least we’re together because of it.

M: Absolutely. And for people who haven’t met before, we’ve been talking for a while, actually, through Covid.
But Pinar is actually a partner at Sour, which is an architectural and digital firm based both in Istanbul as well as New York, and they’ve created unique and timeless experiences using human centric design. Now that last sentence is obviously one that has come from your site. Can you tell us what that actually means?

P: Well, I think we’re a very mission driven studio. Our mission is to address social problems through architecture and design. And obviously it is a very big mission, and we are a team we intend to be that way and not turn into corporate anytime soon. So that calls us to really be doing collaborations with everyone, including people who are the end users, really. So that really enables us to do comprehensive research and proper synthesis of what we’re researching and really be able to create design solutions for the problems that we’re trying to address. So we are genuine believers in bringing people into the process and not necessarily just having them give feedback later on. This is kind of uncommon, I would say, in the architecture industry. May be a bit more common, practise more and more so in, like product design. But we try to, really do that in any type of projects that we do and really be open about it to a share our experience. So it creates more of a conversation in our industry.

M: And as you said this is actually quite unusual. So how did you end up in this space and place in the first place?

P: I think…We set up shop here in your city around 2015. Right prior to that, we won a competition in Istanbul. It was an international architectural design competition for Radio and TV Tower, and winning that led to, I guess, like the initial idea of opening up a studio. Then my partner is an architect who worked with Zaha Hadid for about 10 years. -obviously was equipped with working in like various different psychologies because that’s what Zaha’s style is, and also sort of saw, a transition of a company growing from 20/30 people to 200 something when that he left.
So that was also a big learning curve in terms of like, how do you stay in touch with the design? So that was already, very much a thing that we were keen on. It maybe also became sort of our chicken or egg thing like, yes, we want a grow and do all the cool projects in the world. But we never want to scale that much. So how does that happen? It’s always something that we like, discuss. So that was early on before I think we even discovered our identity. It was very much like, how do we stay true to design and why do our designs matter? Like, why are we putting them out there in the world to begin with? And how do we always stay in touch? So that was, like, always the motivation.
And so we were both in Istanbul, in New York, as of, like, 2015. As we started to work on projects, we more and more felt that we had a responsibility with its team, with such diverse skill sets and capabilities, we felt we had a responsibility that we had to deliver to the world. So, I think with that starting around like 2017, we started to discuss – we do a lot of research for all of our projects – we ask a lot of questions but it doesn’t help the industry if we asked these questions internally. So we really need to open up the conversation and we really need to more be direct on why we’re here. And we really do want address problems and if not that, at the very least, create a unique experience to elevate the global landscape around architecture and design. So we felt stronger, and stronger about our responsibility. Which sort of resulted in our rebranding, I guess last year, where we just decided to name ourselves Sour. And not only because, you know, the word was like a play for us around the words of social and urban, but also we felt like it represented our attitude. We thought, the world is doing enough sugar coating. And we want to be more real and have real conversations and tried to have a mission within every project that we’re working on too. So that kind is kind of our journey as a young firm.

M: So when you talk about that, what are some of the projects that you actually work on that really encapsulate that – I love that idea of what Sour means because we always hear about if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. So I’d love to hear about your lemonade projects.

P: Of course. Oh my God, there’s so many. So I guess, like before talking about the typology, it would make sense to see how we work as a business model because I think it’s a little bit unconventional compared to the many architecture firms. So let’s say in one side, we have client projects, you know, just like regular commissions that we might get and then on on the other end, because we’re so research driven then we come up with our own concepts and challenges, which then turns into like self commission projects, which we then either go and pitch to clients or we submitted a competition or use it as research. So with that, we have, typology wise, we have always worked across like different typology – from urban designed to architecture, and product design. And, currently, this results in… we were working on an urban design, a project in Istanbul, which sort of looked into how to sort of revive a square – a very famous public square of Istanbul that sort of lost its identity over the past years. And we looked into opportunities of how can we reactivate the space through
art activities or really just greenery and engage the public back in. So that’s like something on the urban scale.On architectural scale we’re working on probably the world’s last recording studio that will ever be built so in that, not only are we exploring a lot around building materiality, and how do we set up a circular model in construction where there is actually no set up in the market because it’s an island in Turkey? We’re also, like, really trying to identify what does a unique sound look like for this space? Because if anybody’s going to travel to record their own songs there as a band, why would they want to go there? So it’s a very sensory experience that we’re working on there. And maybe on a product scale, we’re currently working on rugby caps actually on and seeing how we might make them accessible to children with autism, especially with the ones that have sort of sensitivity towards loud sounds. So that is one project that we’re working on in Ireland.And one example on the interior. In interior we’re working on… I guess maybe for us its the first office space that we’re exploring, you know, post Covid. So it is not only like, well informed by our sustainability and adaptability criteria, but also now very much so focused on wellbeing. And, this is also, I guess, more feasible because now we’re more aware of the importance of that as an industry, so it makes our lives easier to be able to pitch that and present the research and apply the design directives from the research on our designs. That’s a like a very good overview of different typologies.

M: And there’s so many different projects there. I kind of want to pick into all of them and deep dive into all of them. So I’m picking sound today just because it sounds so fascinating. When you look at a project like that, that’s on an island in Turkey and you’ve obviously got an incredible, diverse team within your organisation. How do you bring humans into it? And who are those humans that you bring in when you think about Human Centred Design of a project like that.

P: I think it’s just ourself with first, like well, in a very basic way. Like how would we would create our persona diagram right? Like who’s going to that destination? Or would want to go to that this station to begin with, in addition to the locals who might be using it? Because, yes, it is a recording studio. But it also will come with around 12 rooms because it’s let’s say you want to travel there with your band and you’re going to stay there throughout your recording, it serves as a hotel, too, right? So it then becomes a hospitality project, and then you’re looking at like who would want to go there anyway? So that really like helps us look into the project in terms of everyone’s perspectives. And then we go into doing individual, I guess, exploration sessions. I would call them with all the user groups, like the most recent one that we’re having now is with artists who actually do often record in recording studios in different genres so they could be classical. That could be like alternative rock bands or just really in pop music and really try to understand, like, Why do you pick one studio over another on? This especially becomes an important conversation when when we’re looking at the recording studios throughout the world really, even the most like top ones that the top artists go to. They look very similar. They’re probably all equipped with the best technologies, and there’s certain criteria around acoustics and insulation. Then they meet the criteria. But then the question is, will what does make a unique sound? How? We have watched so many documentaries around this, like working on this project. Artists know where the recording happened by just listening to the track.

M: Are you serious? They can actually tell?

P: That’s fascinating to us! And that’s not something I can understand or relate to. But then, how do they understand? What type of feeling are they looking for? Really? What type of the unique sound is good to certain extent And what would actually be bad? You know, like you actually need to talk to the artists themselves to really understand. What are they looking for in the studio? And why would they want to go there again? So when you’re working on such different projects, every time you really do need to have people in the process we’re actually using right? Not only on the very end, doing the design and then say what you think – at that point we believe it’s too late. I think they have to be part of the research – really position them as experts because they are the experts in the field and really hold expert interviews with them and then have co ideation sessions during ideation and before even going into design so, that their wants and needs would really inform the design itself, and then we can go into feedback around the design or prototyping, if that’s possible.

M: And so how does that work when – we find this a lot in our worker as well – where when you bring people into that studio or into that space and we listened to other people’s ideas, I think sometimes as practitioners, it’s very easy to go from listening to a problem to solution mode and missing that co design space. How do you think about this when you’re bringing on new teams young, different people, so not necessarily people who are as well versed in this area as you know yourself and your partner are. But as new people come on board, how do you help them to, or facilitate that process of co design rather than solution design? If you like.

P: I think the best insights – which kind of is frustrating when we see like in the general landscape how quantitative data is usually more powerful than qualitative data – you find the best insights and qualitative data, which comes with, like, casual conversations and you know, not everybody coming to the team or to sessions really understand with and result might be, or what are going to be the deliverables or what is even architecture, you know? But they come with expertise within their own domain, and all we need from them is to have an open conversation with us. So I think the question more there is to enable that transparency and genuine feedback. How do you set up a comfortable environment for them to, just have a conversation with you, so you can really listen?
I think we are guilty and it’s a constant exercise to not rush to a judgement or wait for our turn to ask our own questions or come to a decision because we have no time with the deadline. But we just really need to listen. And as we listen more, I think that presents the best insights for design anyway. So that’s why I think what we do like in our effort is start off with these like, really weird exercises, that no matter where you are in the world or what language you speak it would kind of just be a common ground and just we could move around a little bit and then go into a conversation – very unstructured and comfortable. And we don’t ask them to do anything. If, let’s say, we’re using Miro Boards, we would facilitate on their behalf because we don’t want them to worry about anything but only share their experience with us and feel comfortable when they’re doing so, it’s harder when you’re doing digital. I think, you know, in a physical space with food and some exercises of meditation and whatnot it’s a much warmer set up to do that. But I think, we’ve been like, exploring to sort of create that comfort over Zoom as well.

M: So that’s so cool! I want to know what one of these exercises are. Can we try one?

P: Well, first of all, we love GIFs. I don’t know, depending on part of the world, some people called them GIFS we call them GIFs [different pronunciation].

M: Yes, we call it GIFs as well.

P: You can fact check! So we do a prompt sentence and then we ask them to pick a GIF. That sort of makes them think of whatever that sentence says. And then we sort of talk about our GIF. Sometimes we create our own
creatures. Like one we did recently was that everybody designed their own monster – what a monster should look like. And then we voted for our monsters, you know, and just talked about monsters. Sometimes if we know the group have a certain like, or interest, we sort of pick a subject around that and just sort of have a casual conversation around that, almost as if, like, you know, the group is a huge Harry Potter fans. So we’re talking about, like which Hogwarts’s house you belong. to and why. So everything but the project that we can have an exercise on and just chat and then slowly warm up to the project with just project related questions, but not necessarily the project itself, because it’s our job as the designer or the architect at the table to understand what the answers to those questions might be for the design. It’s not their responsibility. So really find out questions that are relatable, accessible and meaningful to the group that we’re having the session with and try to generate insights from those and slowly also build up into more specifics about the project.

M: Look, I really love that, and I love this idea of actually finding common ground and meaning before looking for meaning.

P: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I think food is generally very common – like it’s a great icebreaker. You can chat over food. You could chat over clothes. So there is a lot. When you’re in person, there’s so many more things.  Sort of like let’s know each other and create a friendly environment and comfortable and, I guess a space of, I want to say, security. Because, you feel secure to be honest about what you think. It’s easier doing it in person in that sense. So losing food is like a big challenge on these sessions

M: Then what about different countries? Because in the four projects you mentioned, they were all in different countries. Do you find that there’s a difference? I mean, it’s interesting right, because food obviously transcends every culture in every country. But do you find differences between different cohorts in different countries? Or is it more different types of people? Where are the differences and similarities there?

P: 100% And I think with that we are very big on having local consultants, right? Even before having the session. So that is common in architecture. Let’s say, as an architect you’re working on a project in a different country. You are supposed to have a local architect, or maybe a sustainability consultant or a mobility consultant for experience in the region. But we actually like to reach out to also maybe anthropologist or sociologist or historian in the area. Really because we can offend people. We can say something that no one might find funny, you know? We can just, be very awkward and so we really need to prep ourselves and have that conversation first for people who really know the culture, and also have them present in the sessions. Because I think that common factors are like the bridge that person plays as a part of the team are super important to create that sort of. Yes, this is a space of trust, and I feel comfortable here and like, this is my domain.

M: Right. And I mean, I think that when we think particularly about architecture and products, there’s this unintended consequence that comes from our own biases. Right? And we’ve seen this through history. Well, we’ve seen the intended consequence of particular design decisions
that are exclusive, if you like. How do you think about those unintended consequences? There’s biases that we all have. How does that play out when you’re thinking about working with people?

P: Yeah, I think, it is a common – very common –  problem. And I guess that regardless of the industry it is, as we become or feel like we become more and more experts in a domain, even if we don’t do it literally, we could talk over people, right? Or decide on behalf of people because we think it’s the best for that. It’s like acting like a doctor. Whereas even in a doctor situation, they don’t know that 360 life of that person. You may be giving prescriptions to the person and maybe they have tendencies to addiction and maybe they shouldn’t be using drugs. Having a very informed decision for a community or a person is actually very, very, very hard. Which is why I like going back to what I said in terms of listening. I think if we sort of, stop ourselves, really – and it gets harder. Like I am a person who talks a lot. The more I am in the business, too, I think it will be harder for me to just stop talking, but it really just to comes that because the reason why you’re even… I think that the planned and practise sessions, help for that because you know you’re there, to listen to them, right?
So once you create your own boundaries on how you’re going to interact, it’s easier to do that. But if you don’t have those panel discussions or just some type of  generative process within your design processes, how are you going to do that? You are going to go by however you thought was the best practise.  The more you’re experienced and the more you know how something can be built or constructed, then the more you decide on behalf of other people. And then before you know it, you realise the project. And then people are giving, like, terrible feedback about the project that and didn’t even involve anyone in the in the process. I think having a generative process really sort of disciplines you to sort of, like, pull yourself back and recognising ‘Oh, I’m bringing in experts to the team for a reason. I’m just going to listen to them’ And when you’re in that created and safe space, you do know that person actually comes with useful advice for you, and you’re already ahead of the game for having
conversation with them, you know? So I think once you’re and that awareness, you’re not defensive about anyone’s feedback. You’re not trying to prove your point over somebody else. It’s stops becoming about you, and it just starts becoming the design process itself, right

M: So it de personalises it completely, which is lovely. I think that leads to inclusive design, right?

P: 100%. I think, inclusive design, inclusion are words that we need to use more and more, in especially the architecture industry, because I think Well, first of all, for industry that prizes progressiveness so much, it’s not inclusive, right? From gender differences to racial differences to ability differences. I think we’re seeing that regardless of the country in the workforce, and that reflects in the outcomes. So if you are not in tune with other communities, the project you’re going to create for that community is not going to speak for the community nor is it going to become successful, and it’s going to feel very top down. So I think we first need to start with, changing our mind set. If you can employ, employ. If you can’t employ collaborate, bring in consultants. Do the expert sessions – whatever you’re doing. But really reach out and create a first inclusive process. If you really want to create an inclusive design. And for example, even in terms of accessibility, we now prefer to use the word inclusion more and more because in the field of architecture when we talk about accessibility, the general thought or suspicion, especially like in the States, is the “Okay, ADA!” (Like physical access). So the bathroom and and elevator. But it’s so much more than that, right? And that’s why we need to change our understanding. Just because a law passed, years ago, that doesn’t mean we’re at the progress level that we should be. Nor does it also, represent so many diverse groups. That’s why I think using, ‘Oh, this project is accessible’ – that started to
become a disservice to the industries itself because it’s tied to just  certain regulations. And we assume, like, Okay, we were accessible. But we’re really not.

M: It’s like the lowest common denominator. I mean, I think I’m just thinking about what you were saying about the profession as a whole. As a woman in architecture, can you tell us about the experiences of being…you know, we know it’s still a male dominated industry, right? Do you know why? Because as we’re talking and as I was thinking about this, it doesn’t sound like it should be. I don’t understand why architecture would be male dominated.

P: Yeah. I mean, I think I’ve been in the real estate industry since like 2011, in different roles. I used to be in consulting, I worked with developers and brokerage firms – also majority male. Then you know, I became partner here at Sour. And I think I’ve been in environments where you’re heard, but not really. Like, your opinion comes second. I sometimes felt that I was just invited to the room, so that they could say there’s a female in the room. You definitely do feel you have to change yourself in order to be heard. Which is why so many woman that I know that are successful in the industry are very… I don’t want to say men like because there are very gentleman like men. And then there are men that are, let’s just say rude.

M: But they have to play the system…

P: Yeah. So I’ve seen so many women also blending into that harsh character. And, I think that became something that I have been more and more conscious about.  I think the hardest thing in the world is to remain yourself despite everyone else and everything else. Like I look, a person who smiles a lot, And I thought about like when I was younger, I thought, OK, I’m going to be more serious in meetings. I’m going to be very firm. I’m not going to be myself. And then I think, like also, you know, being a mom helps you with that. What type of a model am I setting up for her if I’m faking to be someone else in a business environment? So especially in the past few years, I sort of I guess told myself that I was just going to be myself. And I don’t care how that reflected in a business setting or if we weren’t getting a client because that wasn’t perceived well or because I wasn’t harsher putting people down. You know, I think we have responsibility, to all the women following us in the industry, to just be ourselves, because we bring so much assets into the industry and the sector itself by just being us. You know, clearly it’s a very dysfunctional industry. It is one of the most archaic industries – there’s a very famous saying that we love that says, if the car industry it was like a construction industry was still be riding horse carriages. Like the
mindset is so backwards. There is no room for innovation prototyping, which is why we’re so lagging in sustainability, circularity, access or innovation in built environment in general.
So clearly, the current recipe or the workforce or the big players – it’s not working. So we need more of our touch in there. And I think by changing ourselves to survive in the industry that’s also not working. So I think it becomes easier as you get more experience. But I think it’s a challenge for a young woman to enter the industry – even still today, to sort of really remain true to themselves and not to change their personality. But, you know, I think now, if I would give advice to my 23 year old self, I would just say you’ll be fine!

M: Yeah, right. And that’s a beautiful way to sort of end this conversation, as well is we will be fine, right?

P: Yeah, it’s just going back to transparency and honesty and being true. I think, I do have more faith in Gen Z. I think they’re really calling out for authenticity and really questioning things where maybe us millennial started it. But we really didn’t maybe like call out on companies or people who really weren’t true themselves or to what they’re saying. So I think it’s going to shift. It may take generations, but the shift has started already. And I think us also, as next generation’s either teachers or role models or parents, we kind of have to be on board with that, too, because, you know, they also learn by example.

M: And I think, you know, we learn so much from our elders. But we also learn so much from our young people from the time they’re born on, because it’s that mirror to ourselves, right?

P: Yes, I think – I never forget this in our podcast actually, we were interviewing Duncan Baker Brown who’s also professor on circular design and environments in England, and he was saying for the first time ever, my freshman students are climate strikers, right? I’m like, wow, that’s very powerful. So going into the field of architecture with that mindset already – you’re like ten steps ahead.

M: Absolutely, absolutely. And that’s wonderful. And you know, you can see how if we take your framework and this idea of how we collaborate with people and then change the people we’re collaborating with. All of a sudden, magic happens.

P: Exactly. And really, I think we also need to change the mindset around like everything glorious we do, we market, but everything wrong we do, we sort of hush about it. Especially if we’re not a big company, and we don’t have the budgets to make everything possible we will make mistakes. We may not be able to realise all the goals in a project. But I think, again, if we want to really address any problem, it has to be collaborative. People need to be talking about this issue that they’re facing in projects and really encourage almost what would be open sourcing in the tech world among our own industry and peers and just saying like okay, if we are more transparent about our processes, we will all actually be better for it. So I think making mistakes is also fine. If you really failed in one project, owning that and learning from it is also okay. We just need to make progress and improve ourselves one way or another and not just make an excuse saying, like, always all or nothing, I can’t do anything on that anyway, so I’m not going to do it. Start somewhere, you know, and we all can.

M: That’s fantastic. And thank you so much for being with us today. It’s been absolutely a joy and a pleasure to talk to you, as always.

P: Oh my God, yes! It’s such a treat to always talk to you and I feel like if Pen Pals were still a thing –

M: Yes, we would be pen pals!  100%! It is, it’s always really invigorating talking to people who have
similar mindsets but work in different industries as well.

Manisha’s outro: So thank you all so much for listening to this episode off the With, not For podcast. If Inclusive Design is something you’d like to learn more about or if you’d like to work with us, please do connect us at the Centre for Inclusive Design or with myself on LinkedIn or head to our website centreforinclusivedesign.org.au.au
The links can be found in the episode show notes.