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Safia Qureshi

Founder and Creative Director, Studio [D] Tale

Talk us through your career since graduating from the RCA in 2010:

After my MA programme I completed my Part 3 Professional Qualification to become an architect from the Architectural Association, which also offered a great professional networking space to meet other architects. After becoming a chartered member of the RIBA, I set up Studio [D] Tale and got to work on my first London commission, Peponi House

My primary focus was to develop a Studio that offered something different from traditional architecture practices, encompassing an ideology and methodology that I was really passionate about. For me that had to be something that was driven by social and environmental impact. To address this I set up the Studio to have a core focus on Social Innovation, enabling us to look at design in a broad context as a multidisciplinary studio and to create impact through our work. 

The Studio works cross-borders between architecture, product innovation, interiors, urban design, communications etc. One of the products we are developing up called Tectyle is a clean tech low carbon lighting product offering an off-grid solution through renewable energy. Another is a series of low-cost material elements that come together as part of an architectural study called Crossroads which is to be exhibited at MoMA Copenhagen in June. Immersive technology also plays a key role in the work we do in the form of apps and data mining to enable our cities to work and adapt better.

What does architecture mean to you?

To me architecture has always been an expression. Whether this is about life, work or play, the interesting aspect of architecture is problem solving. As architects we are consumed by ways of creating better cities, to improve the ways that things functions, to improve the way our society works. Architecture to me is really a dialogue, whether this is through the physical built volumes or spaces you create or whether it’s an experience that you create. Ultimately, the outcome is an expression driven by a need or a desire.

Tell us about the works of Studio [D] Tale and name the one you are most proud of:

The work the Studio is currently doing is tailored around aspects of Social Innovation. Ultimately good design will always have an interesting story behind it. This can be conceptual, it can be historical, it can be completely rooted in culture and context or completely rooted in projecting into the future. There are many ways in creating these stories, but ultimately its what drives the design. We combine these narratives with detailed research before arriving at a design proposal. Our design creates impact in numerous ways. For example our Urban Mining project looks at creating a micro-recycling and micro-manufacturing hub for an informal recycling community living in Accra, Ghana. The space allows new products to be made out of the recycled material, which generates new learning and skills development as well as creating new revenue and economic independence for locals living in the area. The impact is not only physical, but brings economic empowerment to a community as well as providing awareness. 

The projects we are developing up contain a broad range of skill sets. For Peponi House, we made a film to capture the experiential qualities behind the designed spaces to complement the actual built work. The film captured personal stories and memories of the client, that went beyond the scope of architecture. Another example is Crossroads which looks at stalls and markets set up to answer everyday needs from a road side 7eleven, conceived organically using found objects. Another project we are currently developing called Dollar Vans is an app that tracks informal transport networks through crowd sourcing allowing commuters to better gauge their transport options via a live feed. 

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

How we have set up the Studio is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects. There are ways in which traditional practices and studios are run and a certain business model that is applied. As a Studio we are redefining how to get work and make work. We are building projects that challenge our existing built environment and ask questions about how conditions can be improved. Rather than waiting for commissions to come to us, we develop design proposals and solutions that work to improve our cities and people and present it to various organisations. This approach enables us to work faster towards achieving impact, but comes with its own obvious challenges. We approach different bodies and organisations to get them to champion the projects with us and to offer funding and support.

What do you most love about it?

The most rewarding aspect of the work is that eureka moment, when all the strands of design align and you can finally see how each one can be sewn to form the fabric of a brilliant proposal. Developing up briefs that resonate a deep rooted message and carry a great legacy through impact is the best part.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

The highlight of my career so far has been the Studio's selection for The Chicago Architecture Biennial. Having our methodology and design approach appreciated and recognised by some of the world’s best curators and key influential architects such as Frank Gehry is a true honour. 

What will your involvement in the Biennial be? 

Through its constellation of exhibitions, full-scale installations, and program of events, the Chicago Architecture Biennial will invite the public to engage with and think about architecture in new and unexpected ways, and to take part in a global discussion about the future of the field. Our emphasis on Social Innovation through design sees us being one of three British practices represented at the Biennial out of a list of 64 initial participants from over 30 countries and five continents. Our work has been selected by Biennial Co-Artistic Directors Joseph Grima and Sarah Herda, who are supported by an advisory committee comprising of David Adjaye, Elizabeth Diller, Jeanne Gang, Frank Gehry, Sylvia Lavin, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Lord Peter Palumbo, and Stanley Tigerman. The Biennial allows the Studio to showcase current projects, sharing it with a wide audience. The work will include a combination of drawings, film, installation and visualisations. 

What are your goals for the future?

Our goal is to be the change makers for design culture and to challenge the way in which design is approached. We want to be seen as creating one of the best cultures in design and architecture for Social Innovation. The main goal is to have our methodology spread, talked about and discussed. We see this arriving in the form of a TED talk, a publication and fantastic buildings across the world. 

What are your memories of being a RCA student?

Being an architectural student involved a lot of time and dedication, often making the experience completely isolating and immersive. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by some of the best players in the industry, including academics and lecturers. Learning about architecture was perhaps one of the most amazing journeys because I had the opportunity to not only read about architecture and design, but at the same time I had the opportunity to bump into that architect or designer of that book in my school. It was really about living and immersing yourself in a form of education which I guess I was very fortunate to be a part of. 

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received, and what advice would you pass on to students or recent graduates?

The best piece of advice I ever received was from a really good friend last summer. I was at the cross roads of starting up and going full steam ahead or going part time. I was getting cold feet and didn't want to take any risks. He was the one who really made me believe in what I was doing and to take the plunge. I think that is always one of the scariest aspects of starting up and putting yourself out there, because you only have yourself to blame if anything goes wrong. Ultimately thats a lot of pressure. 

The best piece of advice I would give to recent graduates and students is always make your mistakes when you are working for someone else. There is nothing worse than starting something and not knowing what you are doing. Even worse when you don't have the required skill set needed to do the work. You can run the risk of not only damaging your reputation but also damaging professional relationships. To mitigate this, the best way is to work and train yourself within an organisation where you can afford to make mistakes and develop the necessary skill set before going out and starting up independently. This may mean a few years of hard graft, but its all worth it in the end.

Enjoyed this story? Discover more alumni stories here.

Find out more about MA Architecture at the RCA and how to apply.

"At the RCA I was very fortunate to be surrounded by some of the best players in the industry, including academics and lecturers." Safia Qureshi (MA Architecture, 2010)
Safia Qureshi (MA Architecture, 2010)
Safia Qureshi (MA Architecture, 2010)