Adrian Emanuel

Adrian Emanuel built his career as an architect from the ground up. From assembling legos when he was younger, this University of Pennsylvania graduate — with a master’s degree in architecture and certificate in real estate development — worked on big-name projects such as World Trade Center 2, Shell headquarter, and Facebook headquarter.

We met for an interview at WeWork, where Adrian is the architecture lead. The eclectic space reflects his creative side: calm and relaxed with that unmistakable buzz of dedication and hard work. Adrian’s attention to detail peeks through the way he speaks. He answers questions with thoughtful pauses in between so as not to miss any information, no matter how small.

Behind complex designs and elaborate buildings, Adrian reveals the plain truth of pursuing architecture. The long years of schooling is one challenge while late-night projects is another. Ultimately, his vision of becoming an architect who balances beautiful design and social impact drives him through the process.

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Question and answer has been edited for clarity and length.

What first sparked your interest towards architecture?

I was actually interested in tech before, but I became more interested in the power of building narratives. I found out that architecture enables me to build narratives of how people live and how people work.

So you did your undergrad in Indonesia, how would you compare the education you received there and the education you received here in the States?

I did my undergrad at Universitas Katolik Parahyangan (UNPAR) in Bandung. In Indonesia, I noticed they are more focused on the technical side, as in what’s the best material to use for the walls and other construction details. Whereas in the States, it’s more conceptual. We’re encouraged to consider: to what extent can a building impact its surroundings?

Architecture has different areas such as sustainability, social impact, integration with technology, complexity through geometry, and others. In grad school, you’re free to choose which topic you’re most interested in and focus on that. I’m glad to have both experience, in Indonesia and the States, because I learned how to best construct buildings from my undergrad and how to design on a conceptual level from grad school.

How about the differences in architectural planning and design in Indonesia and the States?

I realized that the property developers in Indonesia have not yet completely embraced the idea of communal space unlike here in the US. In Indo, residential and work areas are separated, so the commute between these two places is inefficient because people are all going in the same stream of traffic.

History also accounts for the architectural differences in Indonesia and United States. The design in Indonesian buildings is very “rural,” like the traditional Minang-style houses in rural villages in Indonesia. I would say villages in Indo embrace communal living to a certain degree, but we have no reference for urban living. Whereas US’s architecture takes reference from Europe, where they have a long history of living in cities. So I think [big cities in] Indonesia should embrace the exchange of ideas possible in a communal space, especially with the rise of young people.

Tell us more about your White Cube Project in Congo, Africa!

So there’s this one art village in Congo that was really poor. So the challenge we encountered  [before the project] was how to best help these villagers climb out of poverty? It’s essentially a real estate development project as in how should we develop the village to host art conferences and renovate the villagers’ houses so they can Airbnb their homes. When people come for these art conferences, the villagers can earn money from renting out rooms to visitors. During the conference, guests need food, so the villagers will also prepare them food. These guests come from all over the world and they’re enticed by the local dishes. Real estate developers are often seen as “evil,’ but in this project we’re using capitalism to bring good to the local society.

So is this village now a tourist spot then?

Not tourism in the regards of the industry because we don’t want tourism to destroy [the village]. We want to help preserve and embrace the local culture.

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Photographed by Thomas Nolf

So this is one of the areas where we built a museum for them. We would import art from the Western world to be shown here, so the local artists can also see and learn from Western art. These artists don’t have money to travel and visit museums so we brought Western art to them. The irony with museums is that if we go to The Met and visit the African art area, we’re actually paying the museum money. The museums are using these kinds of art to attract visitors, but there’s no direct benefit to the artists. So our project inverts this notion of people visiting museums. We want people to come to the village and experience the art.

Is helping local communities something you want to focus on in the future?

I think it falls into two ways: in order to help society we need to also understand the financial elements to it. The White Cube project really enticed me because this real estate development project helps villagers make money, so there’s a feasible financial model to it. Being involved in social work just for the sake of being “social” won’t work; it’s not sustainable.

What impact are you hoping to make through architecture?

I hope to better people’s lives in terms of health, quality of life, and also finances. These villagers also get to interact from people around the world. Some of them started to learn English. I think working on big-name projects like the World Trade Center and the Shell headquarter is really about the prestige, but I find the most satisfaction working in projects that directly improve people’s lives. The final output [of architecture] is buildings, but the impact to it is even more.

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How did you bring your skills to the table?

For the White Cube project, I worked with the Dutch government, Dutch artists, and a plantation workers’ union [in Congo]. So as an Indonesian, I’m used to working at a low-technology place. They brought me on board because I could choose low-maintenance technology that was best suited to Congo. I was doing all these sophisticated engineering stuff with double pane windows here [at WeWork], but at the end of the day what’s most useful [for the project] is the locality that I get from my experience of being an Indonesian.

I’ve also worked in many countries such as China and the Netherlands. I realized that each country has different architectural characteristic, so being exposed to these differences helps enrich the decision-making process.

What’s the biggest challenge in architecture?

I realized that most “star architects” build these grandiose buildings, but don’t really consider the user-friendliness aspect of it. So the biggest challenge is balancing your ego and what the people actually need.

Many students doubt their majors in college, especially when we don’t know if what we’re doing right now might make an impact in the future. What essentially got you through the late nights of your undergraduate years? 

It’s really driven by passion. To be honest, I would do finance if I’m thinking about a financial return in the future. If I’m thinking about architecture as an investment, then to me it’s not a liable investment because going through schools is not easy and it takes years before you really see an impact in what you’re doing.

Sometimes projects that took years in advance fall through. Some things are just out of our control, like political situations. Uncertainty exhausts people, so essentially, you really need to stay motivated and passionate.

What attracted you to pursue graduate school in the States? Are you planning to stay?

I chose my program at University of Pennsylvania because Penn has this joint program with Wharton’s real estate development. As an architect, you need to have a vision, but you also need to have a financial understanding to get the project going.

In order to be licensed in the US as a practicing architect, you need to take the Architect Registration Exam (ARE). I graduated with a Master of Architecture degree, but if I want to go beyond the theoretical aspect of design and into the practical, I need to be licensed [in the States]. Whatever you draw here becomes a legal document and have legal implications, so I’m taking the ARE soon so we’ll see how that goes.

Any advice for students who are interested in pursuing architecture?

It’s not the easy path to making money, so I would suggest not to touch architecture if that’s the only thing you’re looking for. The satisfaction you get from architecture is beyond money, and it’s a really long journey of career. You need to really be motivated because going through [architecture] school is really hard. It’s funny because I remember during the beginning of my undergraduate architecture class, the dean predicted that out of 280 students, only 2-4% would become architects. By graduation, there were only 40 of us. Only a handful of those 40 people are still architects until now. Architecture attracts people with its promise to be visionary, but what really got me through the late nights was all about my passion.

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This story is part of our Home Away From Home series, where we interview Indonesians who started their career abroad. Click here for the first installment.

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