The complexity of the Arab-American experience in architecture
For Arab-American Heritage Month AIA’s Senior Director of Career Advancement Jenine Kotob, AIA, interviewed Elaine Asal, AIA, Senior Associate and Strategy Director at Gensler, about the duality of her identity, her mentors growing up, and some of the crucial work she’s done in her adopted hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. Both architects with familial roots in Palestine, Kotob and Asal dive deep into the Arab-American experience in the world of architecture.
Asal was born and raised in Oklahoma City after her parents moved to the United States from Nazareth in the late 1970’s. She has worked at Gensler in Baltimore since graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a five-year Bachelor of Architecture in 2004.
Jenine Kotob: What inspired you to become an architect?
Elaine Asal: I actually wanted to be a lawyer growing up! I liked arguing! I took five years of Latin in high school and was really planning on that path. A love for reading and writing drove an interest in being a journalist, and I had an inspiring history teacher, so I thought maybe a political science path could get me into politics or law. From my Latin classes, I also became obsessed with Roman columns and classical architecture and I thought that could be interesting too.
So, as a good Arab daughter, my mother was involved in all of this decision making. She immediately vetoed journalism, deciding it was a dying profession. She vetoed political science, because she knew someone with a political science degree that could never find a job and was a chimney sweep, so that was out as well.
In Nazareth, architecture is a combination of architecture and engineering. Engineering is an Arab-approved profession, like medicine and law. So, I took a few classes, and I was hooked. I fell in love with the project driven nature of the work, the studio environment and how collaborative and productively chaotic it was. I love that story because if I circle back to where my work is today, its rooted in writing, storytelling, social justice, and civic engagement. The medium or vehicle for those things is in the design space.
Jenine Kotob: It’s so funny hearing your story and what other Arab parents conceive to be the best jobs. My traditional Palestinian grandmother said “architect? No, no, no,” you can either be an accountant or a teacher. In the end, I chose architecture.
Elaine Asal: To be fair, I think they’ve added a few approved jobs to the roster since late-70’s Nazareth so that’s good news!
Jenine Kotob: So, who has been a significant role model or mentor in your life?
Elaine Asal: I probably have to start with my parents. They instilled very strong values in both me and my sister that have very much influenced my practice and point of view. My mother was very much an introvert, loved reading and constantly encouraged us to be learning, and doing creative and imaginative things. She was always telling us to go play outside, invent games, or to make things. Reflecting in later years, I really appreciated that love of us playing and exploring and being imaginative. It built a lot of skills I use in my engagement work today.
On the other hand, my dad was an extreme extrovert who loved being around people and loved his work. My parents opened Mediterranean Imports and Deli in Oklahoma City in 1981. The store was the center of our collective family life for forty years. He loved when any “hyphen American” would come to the store and ask about ingredients. If they were Italian, he wanted to find all the Italian ingredients. Whether Persian, Greek, Lebanese, he always took such delight in talking about the recipes people were making. He wanted to connect them to others in town from that community. He really enjoyed helping people connect with their own identity and finding community. The store was this amazing platform that created a space for people from different cultures to connect to each other and discover new things.
That platform for community building was an incredibly influential experience to grow up with. Being Palestinian in Oklahoma, the store surrounded us with a very well-traveled and international community. I was consistently in a very international bubble relative to what might be considered a more typical Oklahoma experience.
As far as mentors, I also have to give a lot of credit to Gensler as well. I’ve had an incredible number of mentors across the firm. It’s a big part of why I’ve stayed as long as I have. I’ve been fortunate to have so many people be supportive and create space to explore ideas - it’s something Gensler does really well as a firm. They hire brilliant people and create lots of different spaces and opportunities to explore ideas, share, connect, and collaborate in both very organic and more structured ways.
Jenine Kotob: I love how your story starts with the foundations of your parents. My mother’s family moved to Ohio also in the 60’s and started a market called Abed Market, after our family name, and similarly it became the anchor where people come and you develop that community.
But tell me a little bit about your life in Baltimore, what it means for you be embedded in Baltimore and to be a community architect there serving that community.
Elaine Asal: If you told me in 2004 when I moved here that I’d still be here 18 years later I never would have believed you. It goes back to this appreciation for networks and community you’ve built in a place the longer you’re there. It hasn’t been until more recently that I’ve connected the dots between what I experienced growing up, and the value I place on social capital and community networks.
If my dad needed something done he would have a person, usually a customer he knew that would be able to help with whatever we needed. I tell people today, that you can go further faster when you have a strong network of relationships in a place. There’s a foundation of trust and history, of crossing paths on projects and extra curriculars such that you’re one or two degrees of separation from who you might need to get something done efficiently, and creatively. It’s something I’ve loved about living here – the size of the city really helps make it easy to navigate from a social network standpoint, while also being very dynamic by nature of the incredible institutions and adjacency to DC and Philly constantly bringing new, interesting people here.
When I think about a community architect, I think it’s someone who can make that investment in a place and knows how to build trust with the community they engage with. They’re invested in their city and understand long-term community relationships are essential to being an effective community architect.
Jenine Kotob: Can you talk to me about the duality of being a “hyphenated person?” How do you navigate the world around you, and how do you navigate architecture being a “hyphenated person?”
Elaine Asal: When I would go to Nazareth in the summers I was always “the American” there. In the U.S., I was always “the Arab.” I was rarely the majority in any context. I think that creates an interesting mindset. it made me a very listen-first type of person. My parents’ generation was very much about assimilation and not necessarily about being as identity forward as culture is moving today. There was a lot of listening and learning to figure out what I need to present in different situations while thinking about how to maintain a strong sense of self and values. You’re basically in a constant state of adapting and code-switching to make sense of your context.
What I find interesting, in my current role people often comment “how are you able to change gears so quickly? How are you able to multi-task so much?” I attribute it to a lot of time spent adapting, listening, and trying to figure out creative ways to engage my audience.
I do want to say, while my experience is complex, everyones is complex in their own ways, hyphen or not. How do we create spaces that recognize that complexity and celebrate it? My experience made me more aware that though I felt different, everyone has their own thing they feel different about. I often think about how we can create processes and spaces that allow for those difference to emerge and better recognize and harness it.
Jenine Kotob: It’s such an important framing. A lot of people aren’t good at that. You have a negotiation and communication skill that you’ve developed because you’re so attuned to yourself and your identity. I think that’s a great pivot to our last question. What do you think are some of the most pressing equity, diversity, and inclusion issues, perhaps as they tie back to your identity or not?
Elaine Asal: There’s a space for a greater appreciation and patience for process as a means of discovery and creating space for nuance. I think we have an opportunity as an industry and a profession to be more expansive in how we engage different perspectives in our work. I think the profession is getting a little better, but there’s an opportunity to invest in, and value engagement and process as it’s own outcome. With that deeper, more intentional process of how we bring different perspectives in, I think it will inherently create space for cultural exchange and it will invite stories that make for a more meaningful built experience.
I spend a lot of time talking about the process because there’s a huge opportunity there that we can better recognize and leave it less to the lone genius and give more trust to the collective. How do we draw from the collective to create the genius we’re after?
Relative to the Arab-American experience, I mean that’s such a broad category. I can only be an expert on my own experience. I do think there is an incredible amount of things to learn from the Arab world. Their approach to generosity, the importance of family, community, and tradition, the incredible art, music, and culture - modern or historical. The relationship of land, plants, food and identity. Too often in architectural representation, Arab influences gets a little oversimplified to geometric patterns, arches and shade structures - I think there’s an opportunity to dig deeper and really celebrate all the rich texture and diversity of the culture.