i am pleased to bring you an interview with the architect, Veronica J. Anderson. She shares with us a journey of seeking answers to Life’s basic meanings and purposes: a quest involving the confrontation of pain and disappointment, the will to stay the course of knowing herself intimately through her experiences and the joy of making Biomimicry Design a life-sustaining reality for 21st century cities.
It’s clear from a visit to your wordpress site that you have a strong spiritual centre from which you live. Could you share the basic evolution of your beliefs/creed? As a child, I was raised Episcopalian and church every Sunday was an obligation. I grew up thoroughly enjoying the parts of that experience that revolved around making connections with other people: singing in the choir, meeting friends during Sunday School and growing up with older role models which my small family didn’t provide me with.
When I was ten or eleven the act of being forced to go to church every Sunday began to seem perfunctory and hypocritical. I don’t exactly recall where the questions came from but I had a lot of them and my father especially was not pleased by my desire to vocalize certain doubts. Around the age of thirteen I realized that forcing someone to go to church and reprimanding a child for thinking for herself were both very un-Christian acts and so, disillusioned, I started to distance myself from the whole church community. I remained engaged in the church until sixteen at which point I found I just couldn’t fake it anymore. By then I had stopped living with my father and my mother was essentially powerless to force me into attending services. I was finally free to be my own spirit.
A year later I felt compelled to find out what more there was to this whole “religion” thing. I marched down to the public library and came home with twenty books on every religion I could find: Judiasm, Islam, Buddhism, even Rastafarianism. I had tried out the atheist thing for a few days but found that it was impossible to totally deny the existence of the spirit and thus, spirituality. At that point in my life, I was agnostic about the whole situation and this stage in my evolution continued until I found my first book on Buddhism which at the age of seventeen changed my life forever.
I found my yoga practice at nineteen as rehabilitation after a reconstructive surgery on my ankle that did not heal as expected. As a teenager I was suddenly unable to climb stairs and woke up every morning in pain which naturally gave way to a whole host of anger issues that were the gateway to the holistic spiritual healing I’m working with today. I would say that this is the time when I first realized the benefits of naming and identifying the energies moving in the body. Without the ability to name and identify places of stuck-ness and fluidity, one cannot embark on a healing mission; mine began with my ankle and expanded very quickly to my entire being.
When I was twenty I realized that I was an HSP and began to finally admit to myself how sensitive I really am. After two years of yoga the word “chakra” started to mean something to me and I started to notice a purple light between my eyes when I was relaxing in corpse pose; sometime around the age of twenty one I realized that this was my third eye. Once I had accepted the presence of this non-physical energy as a part of my being, I began to move even deeper into my practice of naming and learning to control the spiritual life force that moves through us all. I’m still evolving into completion and I am conscious of the work I have left to do in this maturation process. We should always bear in mind the fact that spiritual evolution is a never-ending process.
Was there a significant person or persons that influenced your evolution? This narrative has very clear stages of evolution which I’ve only discovered and named this year thanks to Caroline Myss’ book, Anatomy of the Spirit, which walks through the archetypical process of learning to manage our innate human power. When I read that book it shocked me silent to be able to literally draw a timeline of my spiritual awakening. I could see the progression of my life experiences which taught me what it meant to live in the present moment, seek truth, surrender to divine will, live love, manifest my will, relate to others, and feel total oneness with all creation. I could pinpoint specific years in which each of these lessons came to me through the seemingly random events of growing up and saw the time between the lessons exponentially decreasing as I neared spiritual maturity. That visual made the importance of spiritual work so much more real. This is a truly groundbreaking book.
The first book I read from that stack I took from the public library at sixteen that really gave me pause was by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has changed my life and continues to influence my evolution. His writing style is elegant, simple and focused around the idea of Engaged Buddhism in an incredibly profound, non-dogmatic way. I highly recommend Being Peace or any of his books for literally everyone even remotely interested in the subject of peace.
Was there a significant event or series of events that influenced your evolution? No, that would have been much easier, but truthfully it was just a long 17 years of abusive parents and not fitting in with the world around me which forced me onto this path of spiritual evolution. One moment of catastrophe is often easier to heal than a slow, painful one. I did have a traumatic surgery that five years later I am still recovering from. This has been a big catalyst for the advancement of my spiritual evolution which began a long time ago.
How would you describe or name your belief system/religion: I honestly believe that religions only serve as a means to separate people who could otherwise be united. All of the nuanced differences between the various paths to enlightenment seem distracting and I prefer to respect all religions equally, as long as they don’t justify harming sentient beings in any way. I believe what the Buddha taught: don’t believe anything I tell you until you have witnessed it to be true in your own life. I believe what Jesus taught: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I believe what the Hindus teach: there is an invisible life force that flows through our chakras and affects our minds and bodies as much as the physical world does. I create my own religion based on a deep spirituality and reverence for all life in every single moment.
Integration of Passion and Career:
You have mentioned both art and mathematics as early interests and I am thinking that you find it easy to shift from left to right brain thinking. Would this be correct or is it more appropriate to say that it’s more of a merging of the two for you? As a product of American society, it would be something of a miracle if my Left Brain wasn’t stronger than my Right. I do possess the uncommon ability to easily switch back and forth between both in a parallel processing manner versus the more common serial processing. I am constantly switching from abstract, artistic perspectives and structured, mathematical ones. I feel much better when I am able to exercise both types of thinking in a balanced sort of way. Balance is more important than anything in this world.
Art can be rather abstract and subjective while mathematics and architecture suggest firm laws and boundaries – though when the products of all three elicit the word ‘beautiful’, there is a universal understanding that they are coming from the ‘same kind of place’. How have these two interests blended for you and found their synergy in application? The union of physics and art is exactly why I love architecture and exactly what makes well-designed spaces so jaw-dropping. Take for example, a building like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; in this cathedral one can see a perfectly metaphorical synergy of math and art. The objective laws of physics plus the boundaries of necessary building functions coexist harmoniously with the importance of artistic beauty, inspiration, plus the movement of the human spirit. The stunning nature of this building’s spaces comes from the way the art is supported by the math and vice versa. Total perfection comes from a balance of the physical and ephemeral, something we can take heed of in our own lives.
To place more emphasis on the physical world leaves us feeling stressed, empty, and unfulfilled and leads to a life which I equate to the environment of the cheapest and ugliest office building you can find: a place no one wants to be. One needs to bring meaningful interactions into the space of life by means of spiritual endeavors whether it’s through religion or simply intrapersonal connections — anything that activates the spirit will do.
Did your interest translate to natural ability or did you struggle with mastering some facets of these disciplines? The hardest part of the architectural training was the dogmatic and rigid format under which my professors operated. I wasn’t allowed to open into my natural abilities like a flower; I was forced into rectangular cubbies and holes like cement. I think the field of architecture has recently struggled to stay relevant as society becomes less conscious of the beauty of their living environments (art) and more dependent on technology (math). Architects have compensated with equal parts fear and self-importance which takes much inspiration out of the professional world. I’d say navigating that energy has been the hardest thing to master.
Do you continue to practice a medium of art (apart from your career work) for the pure enjoyment of it? I started my blog to document my 365 Day Creativity Challenge which is the perfect answer to this question. I started to feel a bit dried up after finishing architecture school and needed to push myself to keep creating.
The act of creating arts and crafts is a beautiful metaphor for our intrinsic ability as conscious beings to create our lives. Art is everywhere and in everything in my life because I believe beauty is one of the things that gives life meaning. I try to do everything with artistic flare but in terms of the visual arts, my creativity is presently finding its way out through drawing, crochet and graphic design (a mix of sketching, photography, Photoshop, and collage).
Are there basic criteria that must be met for you to consider a project? Everything man creates should strive to be as beautiful as the natural resources it uses and replaces. I would never consider a project that is damaging or disrespectful to Mother Earth. I am constantly aware of the impact that the chosen site, construction processes and building materials will have on the present ecosystem and the entire planet as a whole. I see myself and all humans, present and future, as part of one giant living being and would never do anything to cause harm.
My projects are an extension of myself, they are the way I am able to make this world a better place and I take great care to make sure that they are 100% sustainable meaning their execution in no way is detrimental to the ability of current and future generations to survive. This is a highly complex thing to achieve that operates almost entirely outside of the capitalistic system in place now but I have always been one to do things unconventionally.
My projects work in tandem with the local resources of the site to strengthen the local ecosystem by making it more complex. Building materials and energy sources are obvious resources but a less obvious one is the human community. It is essential to involve the users of buildings and public spaces in the design of what they will eventually give life to. I am especially interested in urban planning because of my desire to create healthy and resilient networks of people, spaces, and places in the face of an undeniably changing climate which few cities are prepared for.
When you take on a new architectural project, what is your process? I am an architect because I am in love with Mother Earth; designing healthy cities and buildings in which humans can thrive is the most satisfying way I know to serve and protect Earth and her children, my work is how I give thanks for the gift of life.
So, Nature is always my model for any design. This planet and its processes have evolved over billions of years of scientific self-testing and modification and all of the answers to our questions have already been discovered. It is merely our job to interpret them from the world around us. Biomimicry is an emerging field dedicated to exactly this purpose and has given way to some real game changers. It has been said that if the 20th was the century of technology, the 21st is the century of biology.
When Nature designs, she takes into consideration the location of the site and what resources are locally available; she finds the most efficient use of space and materials to achieve the desired function and does so with grace and style while avoiding waste that cannot be reused. I don’t believe in waste of materials, energy, or space and so the design process happens through a flow of iterations which repeatedly seek to find and eliminate inefficiencies.
Every project is different but it always starts with the same thing: site analysis. It is essential to identify the local patterns into which the project must be integrated and the local resources which can be exploited in order to achieve that. This foundation is applicable at every scale, whether it’s a design for an entire urban plan, or one small bench.
As an example, take my Urban Climate Catalyst designed for Lima, Peru in 2013. Knowing that the urban population on Planet Earth is the most rapidly growing demographic and that the two billion new inhabitants Earth will see are predicted to all reside in developing cities of the third world, I decided that increasing the resilience and health of the human race had to begin in developing cities. I looked to Latin America, the continent with the next highest rate of urbanization after North America and found a study that deemed Lima the “Least Sustainable City in Latin America.” My goal was to design architecture that increased the social, economic, and ecological resiliency of the people living in Lima as a precedent for future urbanization happening in this agglomeration of developing countries.
When I arrived in Lima I already knew that the city could not survive more than one year of drought due to polluted rivers and melting glaciers and appreciated the danger the world’s second largest desert city was facing, therefore the issue of water came to the fore. Since water is one of the most basic necessities for human life, I chose to address the issue of the four million inhabitants living in Lima’s slums without connection to the city’s water grid.
I designed four buildings, three of which allowed the members of a 300-person shanty town in Lima’s oldest informal settlement to recycle the water they bought from private suppliers to wash dishes, take showers, and do laundry. The fourth building exploited the communal nature of these activities and provided space for adult education, after-school activities, and other emergent economic enterprises.
Based on an analysis of the site at the very beginning I was able to utilize resources like knowledge of local building techniques which cut costs considerably, gravity to power the water filtration, solar power, and community networks to ensure usage of the facilities. The center of the architectural intervention is the communal resource of water which is filtrated through constructed wetlands, a collection of plants and soil that naturally eliminates toxins from water, making it reusable in a biomimetic way for non-potable uses. If you want to learn more about this innovative low-tech architecture, you can find tons of info on my website at cargocollective.com/veronicaanderson.
Must there be a meeting of the minds between your employer and yourself as to the use of the space or are you happy to adapt to requirements? The idea of prioritizing natural, efficient design is pretty much non-negotiable for me. I also hold the resources of the community in the highest regard and would never work with a client that sought to marginalize or weaken a population. Humanitarian work is my priority and I also feel strongly that architects should work with the people, not just for them.
That said, one of the things I thrive on is adapting to specific regulations and requirements. I have always thrived on problem solving and appreciate the challenge of designing with and for a client because exercises in flexibility are always an opportunity to grow. I am attracted to the idea of private residential commissions because of the appeal of working to satisfy the particular needs of one or two people. This is the same reason I am attracted to urban planning; this scale offers the chance to affect more lives in one design gesture but at a lesser degree.
It is considered the ultimate good fortune to be able to make a living doing something you are passionate about. The majority of people would say that this just isn’t possible. While this can be valid and not an excuse in these days and times, it is equally important that people understand that 99% of those who work their passion would say that it is not simply as though they walk a golden path, and that there have been/are huge sacrifices and adjustments made. Visitors to a happy, upbeat, positive site such as yours might come away with the impression that they could never arrive in a similar place, personally. What would you say to them?Fake it ’til you make it! Some days I don’t feel positive until I force myself to feel grateful for who and where I am and trust me, that gratitude has not always come easily. I think the only thing that I possess which is extraordinary is I am not afraid of hard work. I’ve struggled to survive in one sense or another for my entire life and, quite frankly, I would say I don’t know where the happiness and positivity come from but I actually consciously manufacture them to some degree every day. I am still young. I know one day the manifestation of those things will become effortless but today, they’re not, and that’s okay because the effect is the same. “Joy is what happens when we allow ourselves to recognize how good thing really are.” Marianne Williamson said that and it speaks directly to the power of our own minds.
I spent enough years feeling like a victim of my circumstances in an abusive home and eventually I got to the point where I knew so much about what I didn’t want that all I had left to do was to create what I did want. So that’s what I’m doing. I’ve never been given any breaks in my life and perhaps that’s what taught me not to be afraid to work hard. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have to work for my dreams and so, I just always have.
If you’ve been blessed with a life full of support and opportunity, the first thing to do is feel gratitude and if you haven’t, be grateful for the other blessings, lessons and strength you’ve been given. Gratitude moves you from the passive into the active. From the place of the active, you begin to see that your attitude defines literally everything about your life and circumstances and that is the place from which magic happens. When a person realizes her innate ability to manifest positivity in her mind, the universe can’t help but respond to that with equally positive circumstances and interactions, that’s the Universal Law of Attraction in action. I welcome doubters to try it before they deny it. They say it takes thirty days to form a habit. Try forming a habit of gratitude and if your path doesn’t look more golden at the end of those thirty days, you can call me fortunate.
Remember that Aristotle said, “Excellence is a golden mean: A habit of good deeds and an art of balance. Between cowardice and rashness lies courage. Between sloth and greed lies ambition. Create your destiny by becoming what you repeatedly do. The path to happiness is already within you.”
Thank you, Veronica, for sharing so much and so freely – and for the encouragement!
Readers, please let us know what ‘works’ for you, what gives you purpose and drive; and what are you grateful for? – weaver
*all photo credits: Veronica J. Anderson