by Raffi Arzoumanian
“Each project is like a puzzle piece that builds out an increasingly vibrant and complex picture of the human experience.”
Working across cultures is one of the most rewarding and interesting aspects of being an architect. When I reflect on what defines a+c architects, the fact that we’ve designed projects for clients representing more than 33 cultures and nationalities since our inception immediately springs to mind. This has both diversified our studio’s portfolio and strengthened our capacity to tell meaningful stories about the work we do. For me personally, it has greatly expanded my world view.
From our most recent completed project, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Christian Center, to older projects like the Canaan Community Center or Kehilat Chovevei Tzion Synagogue, through architectural commissions, we have had opportunities to understand unique customs, religious practices, and philosophies about life. Even better, we’ve been honored with the responsibility to translate those histories into built forms that share the culture with a broader audience and create space for community and preservation.
Every new client enhances and enriches our process. Each project is like a puzzle piece that builds out an increasingly vibrant and complex picture of the human experience.
Successfully and authentically bringing our clients’ stories to life requires a thoughtful approach.
Reaching across cultural differences can be intimidating if you’re new to it. If you are outside someone’s culture and engaging with them for the first time on a project, you may encounter some initial skepticism – almost like a process of initiation. I have found that doing everything you can to make the client feel comfortable from the start goes a long way.
This primarily involves approaching the project with sincerity – showing that you offer expertise but are there to listen and learn. When you demonstrate commitment and authentic interest, it helps to build the client’s confidence that they have selected the right partner. It helps to fuel their enthusiasm for working with you, and it will alleviate some of those initial barriers to engagement.
Be Ready to Learn from Mistakes
Learning curve is a part of working interculturally on any new project. Years ago, I was engaged for a project with an Orthodox Jewish community. I attended a meeting at a stakeholder’s home and was greeted by his wife at the door. As is my usual habit, I extended my hand in greeting. The woman didn’t return my greeting, instead explaining that in the Orthodox community, it is not common practice for women to shake hands with men they don’t know.
Naturally, I felt embarrassed and I apologized. I’ve learned that while moments like these can be briefly awkward, they remind me that I will not always get it right the first time, and that’s okay. Most people will empathize with innocent mistakes and be forgiving. It’s a chance to learn and carry those lessons forward.
Research and preparation are vital when walking into an unfamiliar cultural situation. But there’s a delicate balance to achieve here. You want to do the work of familiarizing yourself with common etiquette, general history, and things like holidays, so you’re not walking in blind. Thankfully, the internet puts a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips.
The risk is in becoming overconfident. Google is no substitute for learning from someone in person. Furthermore, nuances between similar cultures exist, and a lesson from one does not necessarily apply to the other. If you approach a new situation with arrogance or condescension, that is guaranteed to kill any possibility of rapport or trust. Remembering that you are a student and staying humble is the foundation of a productive relationship.
So do your homework ahead of time… but check your pre-conceptions and ego at the door.
Active listening is a key skill that enables success in engaging cross-culturally. It’s crucial in designing any new space, but especially one that is meant to a represent a background that is new to you.
In addition to listening, asking appropriate questions and exercising emotional intelligence in general are skills that will reinforce the dialogue. Clients will feel heard and respected and, again, appreciate your earnestness in working to translate their experience.
Put it All Together
An added layer of working interculturally is present against the backdrop of American life. Continuous cycles of immigration and assimilation throughout the decades have made the U.S. an incredibly multi-dimensional place to live. When cultures are transplanted here, they often shift and change. At the intersection of old and new, there are constantly evolving stories waiting to be told. My goal for my firm’s work is to serve as an architectural bridge between a culture’s origin and its new American context.
Bringing a heightened sensitivity to these projects has great significance for me, personally. As an immigrant myself, I understand the common sentiment of wanting to retain certain traditional values or unique customs but also integrate with American society and feel a strong sense of connectivity to your current surroundings. Using architecture to synthesize old and new is one way of achieving that endeavor. Forming solid cross-cultural relationships with clients, based on trust and a humble willingness to learn, is the essential first step.