• Harika Bommu

The Language of Architecture

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

The following essay is a day (12 hours) in the life of an Urban Design graduate student, Mai. We will understand her lifestyle along with her studio culture in the process, to get a more nuanced learning about the life of Architects & Urban Designers.

M, cutting the laser cut Mill board to form buildings that go on top of the topography model

Mai (for the sake of privacy) is an Architect turned Urban Designer who studies at the School of Architecture in the University of Texas. Traditionally trained as an architect, Mai found herself liking a more high level planning and policy while she was working on design competitions and chose to pursue Urban Design as her masters. She chose UT as many of her college seniors back in Mumbai joined similar programs at here. "It is a safe place in a way because you have peer guidance" she says.

Talking to her about her inspiration to pursue Urban design, she says:

"My Mom works as an Urban and Regional Planner with the World Bank, and watching her as a kid, I always wanted to be an Architect. There was nothing else."

Being a very diligent worker and an extrovert, Mai often finds herself actively engaged in activities like participating in competitions while also juggling her dual work as an Architect, architecture professor and researcher.

10:00 am

Mai's House

West Campus apartment with windows almost touching the floor, beside which is M's desk so she can see her friends as they walk by on the street

Situated in West campus, Mai's house is a typical international graduate student's apartment; bare living rooms, loaded kitchen supplies and bedrooms filled with memorabilia from home. She has her quintessential cardboard box sent by her mom with spices and finger snacks.

She has a religious corner where she places her favorite god "Ganesha" whom she prays to occasionally.

Top: An idol of her favorite god placed in the living room, whom she occasionally prays to

Bottom: A care package sent from India by her mom to make certain that she doesn't miss home

Mai is an organizer and a hostess who values and celebrates people in her life. She has people over to play poker or watch a movie. She says that was the main reason she bought a TV, which is the most expensive piece in her entire house. She has memorabilia scattered all around her room given to her by her friends. The mouse pad that she owns is customized by her to commemorate her work trips to Delhi with colleagues turned good friends. Her study corner has photos, greeting cards and letters which were given to her. To make sure she and her friends do something fun every week, they filled out some notes with all the places and activities they want to do in Austin, folded them and placed them in a glass container which one person picks out that marks the activity for the week.

I have a TV but I don't really watch it by myself. I only see it when my friends come over.

A collection of items that informs us about how she values her souvenirs, some given by her friends, some bought by her.

Mai is also an avid traveller. She points out to her recently purchased, scratch-able world map hung on her wall. She scratched all the three places she has been to; Sweden, India, Thailand. She also enthusiastically scratched of Spain, where she will be visiting in December. She says she did that to celebrate getting her visa for the trip. This is placed next to a calendar given to her by her grandmother which shows how she likes to travel the world but also trying to find the comfort of home.

The scratch-able world map placed next to a Hindu calendar given to her by her grandmother that she occasionally scans.

10:30 am

Journey of the Cutting Chai

Pouring milk into the concentrated tea water, with garlic bread to relish with the hot beverage

Mai makes tea, as is her ritual, once in the morning and once after she returns home from a long day in the studio. It's a little bit of her home city's "cutting chai" culture she brings with her to a new country for comfort. Cutting chai, as the name suggests, is literally cut in half both in quantity and in cost, just enough to refresh your senses.

She first starts off with boiling water in a metal pot. While the water slowly boils she takes her time in assembling all her ingredients on top of the empty stove top. She begins by dicing ginger without any care for the size, "It is for the gingery essence only no? So I don't really bother about how it looks" she says and places them into the boiling water.She grabs an almost empty plastic container with tea leaves and empties it into the boiling water. As this simmers she opens her top shelf that contains a bigger tea container and pours it into the now empty tiny plastic one. When asked why, she says this is to save the potent essence from escaping from her main stash. She then carefully pours the milk into the flavored water and smiles as she watches the color change in the pot. She says this is the most satisfying part of her day. Finally, she sweetens her tea with jaggery (organic sugar substitute) holding it through the holes from her previous usage and starts breaking down the jaggery with a knife and places it into her tea. She heats up her garlic bread which she dips in her tea. A typical savory dish eaten along with tea.

As we sit down to eat and drink she tells me she built this habit while working as an Urban Designer in Mumbai. "There was a chai Tapri (stall) very close to my office. So we would visit it, to talk freely over some chai whenever we got frustrated with office work. Which was often. That's how I built the habit I guess." she says.

There was a chai Tapri (stall) very close to my office. So we would visit it, to talk freely over some chai whenever we got frustrated with office work. Which was often. That's how I built the habit I guess.

A typical tea stall (Tapri) in Mumbai, India

Picture Courtesy: Tanvi Joshi

Tea making process

11 am

Walking to the Studio

A good 15 mins walk from her home to the studio, Mai uses the time to talk to her family and catch up with her friends. Depending on the time of the day she either chooses to call her friends back in India or friends here. Occasionally, she walks with her friend and studio mate Bia when she has classes in Rowling's McCombs building.

Due to the sheer amount of things she carries, M often times forgets a few essentials like her phone and laptop, stopping at intervals on the walk to double check her belongings. There was a sense of anxiousness to tackle the day as she walks towards the studio. She tells me she is much more relaxed on her way back.

Mai, walking by west campus to her studio along with her packed lunch and bag right before she realized that she forgot her phone

11:20 am

Goldsmith Hall - Urban Design Studio

Studio in the Goldsmith hall which is where the students live and work

Mai is greeted by her teammates who were having a discussion about what to put forth to their faculty, who will examine their work progress in 3 hours. Mai immediately knows what they are talking about that tells they had been communicating with one another the night before. The studio was bustling with activity as it was the last day they could get their work critiqued by the professors before heading to thanksgiving break. The aim for the team today is to laser cut their boards for making the model, examine their presentations on the review room screens and assign tasks for thanksgiving break.

For a more focused researched, I viewed the studio for Movement, Design & Production time, Chaos & Order, and Permanence & Impermanence.


Due to the sheer volume of work load and a variety of deliverables that are presented to them, individual ownership is often times accepted by the team. One person took up the responsibility to laser cut the model while Mai was in charge of viewing the presentation on the review room screens. All the updates are then relayed back to their team mates when they huddle back together. These activities being in different parts of the school makes it a very physically exerting project.

Walking to places with their laptops and mouse with pencils still stuck in their ears is a common sight to see during motion.

M's activities as a part of her project. She walks to talk to her teammate who was busy in the laser cutting room, before reviewing her project on the screens in West Mall

Design & Production

Following her on two separate days, there was a stark difference in her interactions with her teammates. She calls it Design time (Downtime) and Production time (Uptime).

While designing, interactions are minimal. Everyone is hunched over their laptops to get to serious design work, occasionally lifting their head up to ask questions, sticking their earphones in and minding their own business. Talking about her music preference she says

"In India we had an official "class speaker" on which we listened to songs together as a class. "We all had similar music taste. But here it is more personal. Everyone listens to their own music because of varied tastes"

A busy downtime or design time when students are mostly focused on their work with necessary interaction

Production time is starkly different. This was evident when the team worked on making their model. There were more informal talks about each others culture, what courses they were taking next semester and even time for some school gossip. She calls it "Mindless work" as the brain space is relatively freed up to give space for conversations. She quips:

"We talk also to fill up the awkward silences"

Well, having community music sure does help in those situations.

A more candid and relaxed atmosphere during the uptime/ model making

Chaos and Order

At first, the studio looked like a chaos filled with an eclectic mix of broken cardboard sheets, butter papers, printed CAD drawings, thermacol, varied stationary etc. On careful examination there seemed to be some order in their madness. This was evident when I was moving objects to take pictures and got a worried look from her team mate. When probed further, M tells that they have a set mental modal about the placement of the papers in the pile and would be difficult if there is a minor change in their positions.

The unraveling of sheets on the table

Scales hung neatly on the wall between carelessly strewn papers and models

Little notes left everywhere by students inform either their teammates or others in the studio. Some relate to work, some not so much.

Permanence | Impermanence . Process | Perfection

Juxtaposition is seen everywhere in the studio. This is evident while keenly observing the papers on the walls. There were papers printed out to the T on quality papers which were hidden behind the quickly drawn high level sketches on butter sheets that are systematically layered showing impermanence and fluidity in the thought process.

Some thoughts are more formed in the mind leading to detailed ideation while others are vague to understand the flows. This is not just seen on papers but also in models

7:00 PM

RSC- Texercise f45

Even with all the physical exertion at the studio, Mai still makes it a point to get a daily dose of conventional exercise as she walks to Recreational Sports Centre (RSC) for an intense 45 minute work out called f45. She changes her studio clothes into more comfortable athletic wear that she carried all the while in her bag.

Exercising for M is more of a necessity than a luxury so she HAS to make time for it.

M walking from her studio to Recreational Sports Centre to do F45

"I put on weight because of stress so I make it a point to get at least an hours worth of physical exercise. If I am not in the mood, I go for a walk with friends."

8:30 PM

Unwind - Mai's house

Mai walks back to her house, makes herself another hot cup of tea to unwind, relaxing by the window as she scrolls through her phone on updates from friends. After which she gets back to her desk to finish the never ending pile of work for other classes. This is where I leave her before taking one last picture of her by the window.

In conclusion

Graduate students in the Urban Design field are constantly put to test with the amount of workload they get. The only way to have a balanced life is if you work around it efficiently and smartly. It is all a balancing game. Even if it is, the theory of Architecture, or a more broader design, eventually becomes a way of life whether you like it or not.

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