Nandinee Phookan of Nandinee Phookan Architects: “It is also critical for an architect to learn business, project management, team building, marketing and business development in order to have a successful career as an architect”

In architecture school, the emphasis is on architectural design and related courses such as history of architecture, technology and other topics that are an essential part of an architect’s education. However, it is also critical for an architect to learn business, project management, team building, marketing and business development in order to have a successful […]

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In architecture school, the emphasis is on architectural design and related courses such as history of architecture, technology and other topics that are an essential part of an architect’s education. However, it is also critical for an architect to learn business, project management, team building, marketing and business development in order to have a successful career as an architect. I also think it is important to be curious about the world around us as we can learn lessons from things that may not be directly related to architecture. For example, I learned a lot from watching the US Open Tennis championship matches about the role of passion, focus, resilience, and strategy in performing at such a high level.


As a part of my series about the ‘Five Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful Career As An Architect’, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nandinee Phookan, founding Principal of Nandinee Phookan Architects.

Nandinee Phookan, founding Principal of Nandinee Phookan Architects, a leading New York City-based architecture and design firm working with government agencies, corporations, community organizations and individuals to create environments that are attractive, economical and sustainable. Nandinee launched the firm in 1998, and is today a certified Minority Business Enterprise and Women’s Business Enterprise. Nandinee is a Registered Architect in New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC and Virginia; she is NCARB certified and a LEED-accredited professional. As Principal, Nandinee is actively involved in all projects in the firm and oversees all aspects of the design process. Her broad interest in design is reflected in the firm’s portfolio of projects ranging from urban design, architecture and interior design to furniture, products and graphics. Nandinee earned her Master’s degree in Housing and Environmental Design from MIT and Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the University of Delhi in India. She taught Architectural Design studios as an Adjunct Professor at Pratt Institute and the City College of the City University of New York.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this particular career path?

Growing up, I loved drawing and painting. I also loved math and science. Architecture was the perfect combination of these skills, using creativity and logic. And over the years I have been increasingly fascinated with architecture as an art that synthesizes the utilitarian and functional with program and budget. Architecture defines our cities and societies, and our firm aspires to have a positive impact on the built environment and the communities in which we live and work.

Today, Nandinee Phookan Architects is a recognized New York City-based architecture and design firm that works with government agencies, corporations, community organizations and individuals to create environments that are sustainable, functional, beautiful and that meet and exceed our clients’ expectations. Our clients include Skanska Walsh JV at LaGuardia Airport, Empire State Development / WSP at Moynihan Station, Northwell Health, GSA, the Federal Trade Commission, Fashion Institute of Technology, American Express and private clients in New York and around the world.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I have been working in architecture for over three decades and have many interesting stories and lessons. One of my favorites is when we were selected to design a rural Baseball Park in Manipur, a state in northeast India. Unlike the rest of India where cricket is the dominant game, baseball is played in local neighborhoods in Manipur, which was part of the World War II Burma theater and American soldiers are believed to have introduced the game to the state. The story struck a chord with a group of Americans who formed a US Manipur collaboration called First Pitch, involving MLB coaching camps, the design of a ballpark and the filming of the 2013 documentary, “The Only Real Game”. As a border state, Manipur has had a history of separatist insurgency and the visiting team was escorted everywhere by armed guards. One of the more surreal experiences during our visit was floating down the middle of a peaceful lake on a canoe accompanied by the sound of insects and birds, and across the water on another boat were the guards with their guns! This project design was a wonderful example of a non-traditional client needing a creative and thoughtful solution for something that had never been done before: a baseball field, athletic facilities, hotels and accommodations for players and other modern amenities in a single property.

Do you have a favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share a story or example of how that was relevant to you in your life?

I am a big fan of Yogi Berra quotes! My favorite is “It ain’t over till it’s over”. When things are not going as well as they could be, I always remind myself to push forward and through challenges. It’s important to persevere and not give up, in work and in life. Another favorite is “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This speaks to the idea of making choices and doing the best you can with the information you have — whichever fork in the road you take is the right choice at the time.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on a number of exciting projects related to infrastructure and resiliency. I started my practice with high-end residential projects and over the course of the past two decades, we have grown to work on important public projects throughout the New York City area. We have worked on several aspects of the new terminal at LaGuardia Airport with the design team led by HOK, initially on the core and shell and ticketing and check-in canopies, and currently on the interior fit-out. We were also involved in the new Moynihan Station, assisting the program manager WSP with the quality control of interior finishes. Since Hurricane Sandy, we have also been involved in a number of resiliency projects. As part of the NYC Build it Back program with AECOM, we were the architects for the rehabilitation and elevation of approximately 80 homes, closing out on more than 30. Currently, we are part of the team for the Brooklyn Bridge Montgomery Coastal Resiliency project, working with AECOM and One Architecture as the architect for the Interceptor Gate Building. We are honored to be a part of these incredible projects and the movement toward greater sustainability in architecture and design.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As a small firm I think our firm stands out because of our team. Our team is highly trained, experienced and passionate about architecture and design. Another distinguishing factor is the the diversity of our projects. I have always believed that we can bring our skills as architects and designers to tackle any problem at any scale. Our portfolio of projects ranges from transportation projects like LaGuardia Airport, Moynihan Station, Pier 11, and Skyport 23rd Street, federal projects like Washington National Records Center, Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, The Kennedy Center Israeli Lounge and in addition to high-end residential and other commercial projects. We have also worked on a furniture line which we manufactured and sold to retail customers like Bloomingdales.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In my career as an architect, I have had many mentors. My first mentor was Charles Correa, a world-renowned Indian architect. Fresh out of architecture school, I responded to an ad for his company for an architect with 8–10 years of experience. Interestingly enough, I was offered a job. It was important for my development as an architect to work closely with a great architect and even after I left his office, I stayed in touch. Another mentor was Abba Tor, a structural engineer who worked with some of the great architects like Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn and was the project engineer for the TWA terminal. He introduced me to a number of people and helped me throughout my career.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I think the three most important character traits are passion, commitment and perseverance. As an immigrant and a woman, I can say that without those traits, I would not be here today.

Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. Can you share 3 things that most excite you about architecture and the real estate industry in general? If you can please share a story or example.

The most exciting thing about architecture is the opportunity to create spaces that are occupied and used by people and that can positively impact their lives, whether it is in providing basic shelter or in representing our values and aspirations as a society. As architects, we spend a lot of time visualizing the forms and spaces we design and the most exciting part of the job is to go to the site and see the ideas on paper come to life. Additionally, a work of architecture has to satisfy many stakeholders which is both challenging and gratifying. Architects coordinate and orchestrate the design team consisting of architects, structural, civil and mechanical, engineering and plumbing (MEP) engineers, landscape architects, lighting designers, signage, acoustical and audiovisual consultants, with the client and contractor as well as regulatory agencies and the community. Our work requires a high level of experience and responsibility, but we love what we do — bringing positive change to the communities in which we live and work.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest? Please share stories or examples if possible.

Buildings account for 40% of energy consumption. Working towards net zero is the most pressing need for our industry and something we are committed to addressing in all our projects.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share with our readers the “Five Things You Need to Know to Create A Highly Successful Career As An Architect?” If you can, please give a story or an example for each?

In architecture school, the emphasis is on architectural design and related courses such as history of architecture, technology and other topics that are an essential part of an architect’s education. However, it is also critical for an architect to learn business, project management, team building, marketing and business development in order to have a successful career as an architect. I also think it is important to be curious about the world around us as we can learn lessons from things that may not be directly related to architecture. For example, I learned a lot from watching the US Open Tennis championship matches about the role of passion, focus, resilience, and strategy in performing at such a high level.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. ☺

As we are still dealing with the pandemic that has affected so many of us worldwide, especially those who don’t have the luxury of working remotely, I believe we can all try to pay it forward and help those around us in any small way we can. Check in with the people in your network — friends, colleagues and clients — and see if there are ways you can help them, or collaborate.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please visit our website at https://www.nandineephookan.com. You may also connect with us on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/nandinee-phookan-architects-pc and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Nandinee-Phookan-Architects-PC-100739183342529/. We would love to hear from you!

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.

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