Designer Spotlight

Hiba Bhatty

Chicago, IL

September 22, 2022

Let’s start with your story.

So I’ve always been around the Chicagoland area. I grew up in the northern suburbs in Glenview.  I didn’t really grow up knowing I was going to be an architect, which is kind of crazy.   But actually, now that I think now that I’m older and I look back it  makes sense.

My parents were born in Pakistan, and the brown community always produces Engineers and Doctors - those are the two things.  There was never an Architect I could look up to.

Even outside of my community, except for the man who designed the Sears tower, Fazlur Rahman, he is Bangladeshi but he is an Engineer.

I think that when so many immigrants come here and they give up and sacrifice so much, they kind of expect you to have a “successful career” because they’re worried about your well-being and all of that.  I don’t normally meet Pakistani female Architects.  I think it’s maybe getting a little better.  I meet a few here or there, but it’s not very common.  I was lucky enough to have an Architecture class in my high school.

That kind of opened my eyes.  

Probably just because of imposter syndrome or just how difficult it was pursuing Architecture - studio hours were so long and it’s a grueling field to be in – I relied a lot on the external validation from my teachers who kept pushing me forward and who could recognize my talent when I couldn’t really see it.   Especially In high school and undergrad.  I went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for undergrad.   My teachers really pushed me to apply to really big schools, which I never would have thought of unless they encouraged me to.   I ended up going to the Yale School of Architecture for grad school and then I moved back here to work.

Did you go to your teachers a lot, asking them questions, or did they just kind of naturally recognize your talent and give you encouragement?  Or did you seek it out?

I got really lucky with my teachers. They were very invested in their students. When I was there, we had phenomenal teachers.  I think you need to somewhat be encouraging in Architecture school because it is so tough, so I think a lot of it was them telling me.   But I think because I always respected them that I did think so highly of what they told me, no matter if it was praise or if it was, “You should do this, or you should do this project.”   I think a part of it was because I would go to them and I’d be like, “Ok, here are the schools I’m thinking of applying to,” and they’d be like, “Actually, wait, you can do better.” So that was really helpful.

What was your Yale experience?

Studio is super, super, super tough and you don’t get a lot of sleep and all of that, but I love the people I was around.  Being around that many classmates who are all so driven,  all so excited about what they were doing, have phenomenal ideas and really ready to change things up…. being in a place like that with them night and day for an extended period of time, you will never experience that ever again in your life.   It’s so amazing. And everywhere you would go people would have different creative ideas and different ways to represent their work,  it was just so awesome.  And it is different, obviously. You do a lot of teamwork, but you do take ownership of your projects in the studio, too. You’re in charge of producing everything, which has its pros and cons. It’s a lot of work, but it’s nice because it’s YOUR project.

What happened after school?

I started working at Valerio Dewalt Train. I took a few months off, but pretty much after that I ended up making the decision to move back to Chicago.  That was a little difficult because all my friends gravitated towards LA and New York, which are obviously really excellent places to work if you’re doing Architecture.  But I think I had been away from my family for quite a bit, and I was like, “If I don’t go back to Chicago now I feel like I’ll never go back.”  Since I was in the burbs, I never really got to experience working in the city.  

So I wanted to really give Chicago its due diligence, I guess. I love the city. I’ve always loved the city, but I love it in a different way, a more intimate way now. I’m still living at home!  It gives me a lot of comedy material. My parents go around the house, like “Watch out! Whatever you say will end up on Hiba’s comedy set.”   There’s no privacy anymore.  Anything for a laugh.

What’s a favorite project you’ve worked on?

I liked a lot of projects that I’ve worked on.  One of my favorites has been Convene, which is at Citadel Tower here in the Loop.  That was a really fun project to work on and collaborate on with Convene’s design team.  We worked with some of the New York team, and now that they’re opening more places in Chicago.  Convene has always been about making very unique hosting spaces for their events and for their co-working spaces.  Because of that they were ok with pushing the boundaries and pushing the box,  which we did that kind of literally. We have a whole wall that‘s full of these boxes that change shape as you walk along the wall.  There’s more than 80 or something of these huge, giant three-by-three boxes,  it’s really cool.  And then in a conference room we have a giant inverted pyramid shape that has a lightsource at the top that. Surrounding that gigantic mess, there’s a billowing curtain.  It’s a really nice juxtaposition of something soft with something really massive floating within it.  It was just a really fun project to work on, and a lot of cool ideas ended up making it all the way to the end which is really exciting.  I definitely got to have a design handprint on that project.

To me you’re famous, because you were selected for the “20 in their 20s,” for Crain’s Chicago.  What was that process like?

I got nominated, and then we have to send an application after you got nominated.  They need to learn a little bit more about you,  so my firm helped write that up and they ended up talking to my Principal and learning more about me.  They were interested, and I ended up getting chosen.  They started with my boss, and I don’t really know what happened with other people who were chosen, but that’s what ended up happening for me.  I think maybe I was niche in a way because of my story.   They talked about a lot of aspects of my life – not just my design background, but also my family background and my little brother who uses a wheelchair, who also affected very much how I view architecture.  

Architecture is more than just designing a building. It can empower people’s voices that are underrepresented in the community.  I see a very physical and immediate way this affects my brother because he has a wheelchair and he can’t get into so many buildings. But also that has gone further to underrepresented people of color in the community too.    

That’s something that I kind of strive to think about when I’m designing, and another really important reason it’s good to have very diverse people in the field.  You want the architecture to reflect the diverse world we live in, and one of those ways is the diverse designers that are doing it.

What type of mentoring do you do? Can you elaborate on that?

I’ve mentored throughout my life, but one of the most recent things that I’ve done is ACE Mentorship Chicago.  It’s a national organization and there’s a chapter in Chicago. You have mentors for each of these fields  (Architecture, Construction, Engineering). They mentor high school students, primarily youth of color and females, but there’s still a mix of everyone.  And we teach them about our fields in high school which is so helpful because they come to the office, they get to see what it’s like, they work on a project with you, which is so cool.  You get to learn more about design and construction and how things work for your project.  You submit to a national competition every year, and our team has placed two of the three years that I’ve been a leader, which is really fun.  I was nominated as the representative for Chicago as Mentor of the Year for Chicago. The students ideas are so fun!   People usually discredit them due to age, like, “Oh, are their ideas really relevant?”  But they’re just so smart and they’re definitely going to be future leaders in whatever they end up pursuing.  They end up having very phenomenal ideas and so I feel as much as I teach them,  I also learn from them in the process.

Are those programs in underserved communities, or is it all over?

It used to start in those areas, primarily in Chicago, now it’s spread out more.  I think some students come from the suburbs but I think they primarily take from Chicago schools.  I think, and many people have talked about this before, but arts is the first to go if there are budget cuts.  I feel like there are so many communities that aren’t given the opportunity to creatively express themselves. And that’s such an important part about discovering who you are and learning about yourself, and just being able to express yourself. I personally think it’s so important for people to have that opportunity.

Do you have any ideas for the future, where you want to go with your career?

That’s a really hard question because I feel like I have 500 different passions and I’m pursuing all of them right now.  So it’s hard to see where it’ll go.

I think in terms of design, I’ve actually started getting a little bit more in touch with my roots.  Growing up as a brown girl in America,  it’s sometimes hard to accept the fact that you’re brown and sometimes you’re maybe ashamed of it when you’re younger.  I’m so happy with how far I’ve come, how proud I am of my heritage, and how confident I am now.

I think one thing that I’ve been consistently fond of and excited about is Pakistani design and craftsmanship. I would love to have some sort of design project that takes very traditional Pakistani motifs and art, like repetitive designs and stuff like that do something modern with it.  I don’t know if that would be in the form of a building or in the form of something else artistic, but I really want to have some sort of physical relic that I create that pays homage to that.

Would you ever consider designing in Pakistan?

So, I’ve only been to Pakistan three times in my life. Both of my parents have five plus siblings.  Most of my family is in Pakistan.  I think it was never the plan to never go back, but since my younger brother was born, it’s been difficult.   When I did get to go back, it was awesome.  I was an architect at that point and I could view things a different way than I had when I was younger.  And my cousins were so great, they took me to all these fantastic places.  One thing that’s there is historic preservation,  and they’re also pushing for more modern buildings too. So part of me is like, it would be really cool to go back there and get in the arts scene and design…..Will I ever have the guts to do it? Probably not.  But if there was any way to collaborate with designers it would be such a cool opportunity.  And if it’s something graphic, then it doesn’t really matter where I do it if it can be accessed around the world.  Currently I think it would be somewhere in America, but that’s such a good point.  I’ve fantasized about it. I don’t know if it seems like it could be a reality in five years, but that would be so cool.

You do improv. Was that something that you randomly did this year, as a hobby or have you always been into it?

Yeah, so, I do stand-up and improv more recently, but me and my sister had been doing sketch comedy for quite a while.  She’s super funny. We’ve always done stuff together, and we have a YouTube channel called Unsibilized - because we’re uncivilized siblings. So we’ve always done sketch comedy and stuff, and we’ve been jokesters for as long as we can remember. I think ever since I started Architecture, I’m now used to producing tangible things. After the creative process, I want something to show for it. Because of that with comedy, we started making videos and I started doing stand-up - having things that I can show for the jokes that I’ve written, etc.  Improv has started more recently, I guess it’s been a year now, and we’ve both done it.  It’s so amazing. I love it because it’s a different type of teamwork, and I will say right now the comedy scene, although there are people of color, it still feels like we’re maybe somewhat outsiders.  But I do love bringing my narrative forward. People are so willing to listen. It’s not that it’s a place people don’t want you to be, it’s just that it isn’t that common that people like us are there. And so I really appreciate it, it’s a lot about teamwork. It’s totally affected my life in amazing ways, and just being able to relinquish.  Being able to relax and just be, and then you’ll be able to create from that. Just knowing that you’re enough, and it will happen with the support of your teammates.

It’s about creative representation, right? It takes many forms, and comedy is one of those things. And much like sharing a building with a diverse group of people and having them relate to a concept, I find that that’s a direct link that I also tie with comedy too. Just that idea of creating a joke, making it accessible for everyone, and then bringing a room of people together to relate to something similar.

So what’s something you want to share with the Next Gen Nation?

I will say Network Next Gen is catered towards 20-30 year olds, right? And I think that that can be kind of a scary time in your career, because you start working, and you’re like, “Oh my god, is this what it’s going to be forever?” And I think that something that I found that was super exciting is when I made the mental shift, like, “I’m almost 30, but I’m actually living the best years of my life right now,” was so freeing.  Because for some reason when I thought I was younger and I thought I was, I was like, “Oh my god, 30 is so old,”  you know what I mean? I don’t know why I thought that. You know what, you can strive to achieve greatness at any decade, and I think 20s to 30s is a super fun decade to be in because you’re fresh, you’re ready to like, you know, whatever, like mess things up, go chase after dreams.   I would just highly suggest dreaming big. I would suggest pushing the envelope. Dreaming big, going after something that you are truly passionate about.  And don’t be afraid to try something that makes you scared because I think it ends up working out well for you in the end.  It’s a learning process.