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Q&A with Tamarah Begay, AIA: Navajo Nation Architect, Barbie Ambassador

Mattel’s Architect Barbie reaches out to tell girls there’s a place in architecture for them; Navajo Nation member Begay is taking it one step further.

By Yvette Morris, Manager, AIA Diversity & Inclusion

Tamarah Begay, AIA, is principal-in-charge at Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, LLC (IDS+A) in Albuquerque, N.M., and a member of the Navajo Nation. But as a child she designed and built houses for her Barbie dolls. Certainly, she wasn’t the only young girl to try her hand at domestic design with the iconic toy, but, holding onto these memories, Begay eventually did find herself alone: She was the first female member of the Native American Navajo tribe to become an architect and an AIA member, according to Begay.  (The AIA does not monitor the tribal affiliation of Native American members).

So when Begay came across the Architect Barbie workshops held during the 2011 AIA National Convention in New Orleans, she was inspired. She wanted to use Architect Barbie to connect with Navajo Nation kids, to teach them about architecture and design so that they wouldn’t be such rare exceptions in a male-dominated profession. On July 30, Begay and volunteers held three workshop sessions as part of the Navajo Nation Youth Conference in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation. The sessions, “Role Model Workshop: Learn, Design, Create Architecture,” drew 40 elementary, middle, and high school students.

Yvette Morris: When did you decide that you wanted to be an architect? Who or what influenced you?

Tamarah Begay: Since I was a little girl, architecture has been a passion of mine. I started out designing backpacks out of recycled plastic bags and then [went] on to houses for dolls—which included Barbie dolls—out of shoeboxes and leftover cardboard boxes that once held the cases of sodas together. I would stay up very late trying to complete my projects. While my parents [insisted I] go to bed, I still continued to work late in the night, past my bedtime. I did not know the late hours I spent as a child would prepare me for the late nights that I would embark on during my college years at the University of New Mexico.

As I grew up, I became increasingly interested in architecture. I helped my father draft, design, and construct his home, and it was then that I began to understand the process of design and construction. At the age of 14, I began to speak with my family about pursuing architecture in college. My family has always been, and still is, supportive of my goals. Supportive as they were, they were also protective and outspoken, as they brought to my attention that architecture was a male-dominated profession, and that I should reconsider going into a profession such as sociology, because women face great challenges in male-dominated professions and sociology was not inherently dominated the same way. Despite the concerns of my family and their well-directed advice, I was not swayed in my resolve to pursue architecture.

As part of a Navajo Nation youth conference this summer, you hosted career workshops and used Architect Barbie to introduce youth to architecture. Can you share more about this effort?

Today, less than 0.5 percent of AIA members are Native American, and less than a handful are Native American women architects. The goal in hosting the “Role Model Workshop: Learn, Design, Create Architecture” was about educating the Dine [Navajo] youth about what an architect is and what you can do with an architecture degree. I think it is important to begin educating the [Navajo] youth at an early age about the role of architects and architecture, to grow the number of Native American architects.

What was your experience with Barbie growing up?

I did grow up with Barbie as a little girl, but my main focus was on play, and my play happened to also involve designing homes for the Barbie dolls and the mix of other dolls I had. I never focused on the image or the lack of diversity around the doll when I was a little girl.

What is your perspective now on Barbie dolls and the architectural profession? Historically, both were heavily associated with images of white “mainstream” or “default” culture and didn’t recognize diversity as well as they could have. But you had to work against these stereotypes to make it to where you are today.

I know the Barbie doll has been getting somewhat of a negative feedback in the architectural world about its image. Growing up I never had a Native American Barbie doll to play with, or culturally appropriate building blocks. I was too young to notice the skin color of the Barbies, and socio-culture or socio-gender issues were foreign to me. I merely played and experienced the joys and imagination of childhood. I just so happened to enjoy designing and building with what I had in my environment. At the time, I easily could look beyond the image and use only my imagination and improvise with what I had. In most cases, this is what many minorities have to do in order to look beyond the cultural spheres.

You are newly licensed and have your own firm, Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, in Albuquerque. Tell us about your first endeavors as an architect.

My first two projects were planning projects. Both projects were located [in] the Navajo Nation, and focused on economic development within the local communities and chapters. There is a lack of infrastructure development within many Native American communities, so economic development strategies were encouraged to explore sustainable development projects, including algae biofuel farming, solar farms, and tourism.

What unique type of infrastructure needs facing Native American communities do you address in your work?

Native American communities really look beyond the typical community center, school, multipurpose center, housing development, and hospital building. The majority of Native American communities are located in rural communities many miles from schools, business centers, hospitals, recreation, gas stations, laundromats, Internet service, and grocery stores. This means, as architects and planners, we should start rethinking how we plan and design within these types of communities. For me [this] means that it is important for the architect to understand the local community, particularly the culture, government, and environment. Most importantly, the architect should be passionate about looking beyond the general type of typical facility and program we normally see, and push that envelope containing the community perspective and voices. It would be remarkable to see a building type transform into one prototype, where a school could provide laundromat services to infuse an aspect of business development for the community.

What cultural or regional design influences are reflected in your work?

One of the regional influences that IDS+A incorporated into [one project] was a traditional mud hogan for the Monument Valley Port of Entry Master Development Plan. The concept was not to be a literal interpretation of a traditional mud hogan, [a vernacular Native American dwelling], but the idea was to use earth mounds that would first and foremost block the prevailing winds from the outdoor amphitheater space, while emulating the regional influences of the traditional mud hogan from the roadside.

What would you say to an AIA member interested in using Barbie to teach youth about architecture?

When using Architect Barbie as a teaching tool, you need to be aware of your audience. After you understand your audience, you need to include aspects of your teaching model for improvising. For example, during the workshop for the [Navajo] youth, we included the Navajo hogan as a teaching tool to bring awareness to the culture and heritage of the [Navajo]. The Architect Barbie interjected modernity into the exercise.


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Tamarah Begay, AIA. All images courtesy of Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture.

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Rendering of Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture’s Monument Valley Port of Entry Welcome Center Master Plan in Utah.

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Rendering of Cedar Bluff Travel Center outdoor performance area in New Mexico.


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