Architecture professional master’s student awarded for capstone experience

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – As a newly practicing junior architect in her home city of Mumbai, India, in 2019, Anjali Gopalakrishnan was working in a design firm that focused on using local materials to construct its buildings and ways to replace existing commonly used construction materials with materials that have a lower impact on the environment.

A year later, the COVID pandemic hit and the people of Mumbai experienced one of the most restrictive lockdowns around the world. Gopalakrishnan, like many people, suddenly spent a lot more time confined to her home, and she began to think about how the pandemic was affecting people of all social statuses and generations. She realized that where someone lives has a significant impact on their physical, mental and emotional health.

“The pandemic made me understand that as architects and planners, we need to really evaluate our built environment and figure out how we can integrate equity and wellbeing of people and the environment through our designs,” said Gopalakrishnan.

That thinking, combined with her work on sustainability both in professional practice and during her undergraduate architecture studies at the Kamla Raheja Institute of Architecture and Environmental Design (Mumbai), motivated Gopalakrishnan to pursue a professional master of architecture degree. Soon after that, she decided Penn State was the best place for her and she is now wrapping up the second year of her master’s degree studies in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Stuckeman School where she has taken a deep interest in how the built environment directly affects the users of that space.

Gopalakrishnan was recently named the recipient of the Graduate School’s Professional Master’s Excellence Award, which recognizes the quality and impact of a student’s culminating experience, including creative works, performance and projects conducted in a professional setting.

“Anjali is exactly the remarkable student we dreamed of for the master of architecture program in the Stuckeman School,” said Darla Lindberg, professor of architecture and a studio instructor for the professional master’s program. “Her work has been consistently insightful, inventive, thorough and thoughtful, and she has set the bar for the program. She is a most deserving student, already a remarkable professional, highly motivated, talented and brilliant.”

Gopalakrishnan says she started on her culminating experience after she spent the summer of 2022 participating in the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS): Copenhagen study abroad program through Penn State. The program, she said, brought together students from the social sciences, public policy, architecture, urban planning and engineering to examine the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, as a case study to determine how designers use the built environment itself to create opportunities for residents to pursue active living environments within the city and to give people access to safe and clean public places.

“[Having those spaces for recreation and active living in Copenhagen] had a significant impact on the users within the city across different generations in terms of their health and happiness,” said Gopalakrishnan.

When she returned from the DIS: Copenhagen program, Gopalakrishnan said she realized that many American cities are not the most conducive to pursue active living environments because they are segregated. She also noted that access to space to pursue physical activities or leisure within the city is disproportionate between the different communities living there. Comparing cities and exploring the reasons why U.S. cities are structured the way they are, and how that structure eventually has certain impacts on how people are currently living and pursuing life in those cities, led Gopalkrishnan to her capstone thesis focus.

“For my capstone, I’m looking at the case of Austin (Texas) and specifically the downtown area, which is being rezoned to create these vertical, mixed-use buildings,” said Gopalakrishnan. “The problem is, these buildings are not socially equitable because they cater to a specific economic class, which basically removes a lot of the people who cannot afford to live there from the center of the city.”

In addition to her study abroad experience, Gopalakrishnan completed an internship in the Perkins Eastman (PE) Pittsburgh office, where, she says, her experience as an architect in Dubai helped her contribute directly to the senior living facility discipline at PE.

“I feel that since I came in [to PE] with some experience in professional practice already, I was able to have a lot of say during the schematic process of a vigorous program set that involved taking an existing building and repurposing it to cater to the very specific needs of senior living communities,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges of the project, she says, was making the space accessible.

“A large part of my work during my time with Perkins Eastman was just studying the existing conditions of the building and trying to understand and identify the specific requirements of senior living groups to see how we can translate that into a design for this specific community group,” said Gopalakrishnan. “We had to determine how to create spaces within the building that would allow for wellbeing and recreation areas, as well as places to run programs that are focused specifically for people who are facing cognitive decline over the years.”

She was able to further explore the unique challenges of designing spaces for specific community groups, and particularly the aging U.S. population, when she received permission to take on a graduate research assistantship after her first year of master’s degrees studies at Penn State. Gopalakrishnan began working with Lindberg, who is also a Hamer Center for Community Design faculty researcher, on a new initiative called Advancing Generational Environments – Markers of Excellence (AGE-ME).

“AGE-ME is a new Hamer Center lab that addresses the fact that the U.S. population of those who are 65 years of age and older is larger than it has ever been and will continue to grow as advances in health care continue to be made. However, a lot of our urban infrastructure does not cater to this population’s specific needs; cities are not the most suitable living environments for aging generations, and this drives them to move out of the city to smaller senior living facilities,” said Gopalakrishnan.

She continued, “People are essentially forced to leave a place – a life – that has been their everyday existence for years and are now in a new place that they have to learn and adapt to when they are dealing with issues that are specific to aging Americans – such as cognitive decline, medical issues, mobility issues and more.”

Lindberg explained that that the AGE-ME lab is currently addressing public health reports that state that “any, and all, exposure to pollutants can contribute to cognitive decline in every age group.”

“Therefore, developing parametric tools that integrate optimized air quality parameters and filtration standards from the city block to the building envelope to user lifestyle choices can give us feedback for design benefiting health and well-being,” she said. “Anjali’s work is contributing to the systems design to prepare the data for these parametric tools.”

In terms of her experience at Penn State, Gopalakrishnan says the small cohort of master of architecture students drew her to the program and has allowed her to have a close bond with both peers and faculty members alike. She gives a lot of credit to Ute Poerschke, professor of architecture and the architecture graduate program director, for helping her explore opportunities outside of the program curriculum and for mentoring her in her duties as a teaching assistant.

“Ute has been a big support throughout my graduate student journey from day one,” said Gopalakrishnan. “She has supported my interests and has helped me pursue experiences within Penn State and beyond. She has had a huge impact on me.”

She is also grateful to have been exposed to the research that is going on within the Stuckeman School and the new technologies that are being explored.

“One of the biggest things I have learned from my experience at Penn State and my interactions with students and faculty at all levels is that the profession of architecture itself is evolving,” she said. “Through all the research and the curriculum and the technology that we have here, I have realized that learning does not stop when you leave college; there’s always an opportunity to continuously reinvent and learn something new, especially in a field that is changing so much.”

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