Women in Architecture Series
Interview with Ai Kurokawa, LEED AP – Senior Associate
Ai is a project manager at Steffian Bradley Architects (SBA) based in our Boston office. She sat down with us to talk about her experiences as a woman in architecture.
For Ai Kurokawa, the design process starts with relationships. “My first aim is to build a rapport with either the end-users or the clients and to establish a level of comfort with our communication. Building openness and trust takes a little bit of time,” she explains, “so I make that a first priority.” As Ai has learned over the years, it’s always possible to begin a project by discussing elements of the space or program, but what really matters is that the client feels they can depend on you. “For me, building that trust and comfort is the most important thing.”
Leading the client through the processes of planning, designing, and executing a project has been part of Ai’s work since she began at SBA. Her previous career in education has made her well-suited for this task. By developing mutual respect early on, Ai believes that she can create a space where the client representatives feel free to convey what they need and what does and does not work for their organization. “This level of openness ensures that we can discover the real underlying needs of the project,” she notes.
Ai began her work at SBA 17 years ago as an administration assistant. She hoped to start drafting on the computers as soon as she could. At the same time, she was enrolled at the Boston Architectural College, pursuing her Master’s in Architecture.
But before coming to SBA, Ai taught preschool at Boston Children’s Hospital. Today, she provides design work for Children’s. “It feels a lot like coming full circle,” she says.
Even when Ai was a teacher, she was always interested in the physical spaces and their effects on people. When her teaching career didn’t provide her enough creative stimulation, she thought about using her classroom to experiment with how different spatial environments would benefit her students. “I was always manipulating the classroom furniture, the toys, the open play areas, and the quiet areas,” she recalls. “I wanted to see if the kids could enjoy these spaces a little bit better.
For instance, I knew that there were kids who needed some quiet time alone right after they were dropped off in the morning, because they would initially be sad. I created a quiet corner for them. I took a huge empty refrigerator cardboard box, cut it out, and put pillows inside. I put a sign out front that said ‘In Use, Quiet Area.’
This became a comfortable area for kids to sit and read a book or just snuggle up with a friend at the start of the day.” Ai never realized back then that this experimentation would lead to a career in healthcare design, but she realizes now that her dedication to the comfort and care of her students was a logical first step.
Thinking about the end-user is central to Ai’s work in designing healthcare environments. “In healthcare,” Ai says, “there's a satisfaction of knowing that you're making an environment to help someone who has to heal or who has to endure some kind of process that might be stressful.” Ai tries to minimize the stressfulness of that experience, and, as a project manager, she tries to minimize the stress of her design team as well.
Ai’s favorite projects at SBA have been those where she manages a complex team with people who bring in different perspectives and different agendas. “The design is a relatively easy puzzle to figure out if you have the right communication in place,” she says. One example of this management involved a new cardiac catheterization laboratory at Norwood Hospital, where the team struggled to see eye to eye.
With Ai’s careful leadership, the team was eventually able to come together and, in the end, the project came out beautifully. “It’s still used by the hospital as a prototype for what they want to do in the long run,” she says, proudly. What is Ai’s leadership strategy?
“Treating people the way you want to be treated. I’ve often felt what it’s like to be the only woman or the only Asian-American in the room. I’m sensitive to those kinds of characteristics, but at the end of the day, I believe people should communicate clearly and be respectful of one another such that it doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re here to help the greater good of the project, then you’ll be treated with respect and trust.”
Ai has never left behind her love of teaching, though. “What excites me most about the career in architecture is that you can make your unique path as a designer, or a specialist, or a manager—you can choose to be very detailed or very broad in your focus. These are all skills that I brought from my teaching career as well. And I’m definitely still a teacher at heart.”
Does that love of teaching affect her project management in any visible ways? “Well, I always write on the whiteboard still. And I like to joke with my teammates: ‘I’ll put you in a time-out! And I’ll give you homework!’ Because I can and because I know how.”