Having worked as project architect on a series of notable projects for DMAC Architecture over the past decade, Kavitha Marudadu, AIA, LEED will now bring her expertise and tenacity to a new role as associate principal. Here, Kavitha explores her fascination with spaces that impact upon daily life – shaped by her childhood in Chennai, India – gives us insight into the design process behind the Midtown Athletic Club and Hotel in Chicago, and shares her dreams of creating an off-the-grid eco resort ...

What do you feel is the single most important thing that people should know about you, or your work?

I’m a design-oriented person with acute attention to detail. It’s a trait that has developed and heightened over the years, and now it’s become second nature. My 18 years of experience has taught me to grasp the big picture while prioritising details to take projects to completion.

I’m exacting in my approach to solving problems without losing sight of the broader perspective. What drives and challenges me is the ability to bring together my creativity with technical skills, and I enjoy that immensely. 

When did you first become interested in architecture? 

I grew up in Chennai – a very dense urban city in southern India, where there was scarcity of space, and conscious design was a luxury few could afford. I was fascinated by the idea of making spaces that impact everyday life. This fascination and my general interest in art directed me to choose architecture as a medium to explore the art of designing spaces.

“I grew up in Chennai – a very dense urban city in southern India, where there was scarcity of space, and conscious design was a luxury few could afford. I was fascinated by the idea of making spaces that impact everyday life”

I graduated from the School of Architecture and Planning at Anna University in Chennai, which is one of the premier architecture schools in the country. The pedagogy focused on context-appropriate design. However, at that time, it lacked the global exposure I was looking for, and for that reason, I sought to pursue my post-graduate studies in Chicago. 

It was an intense year of immersing myself in experimental architecture, which was most fascinating. This was in the late ‘90s when parametric design was becoming prevalent and pioneers like the late Doug Garofalo and Massimiliano Fuksas were guiding my studio sessions. The idea of parametric design was fantastic, where rules and algorithms influence the relationship between design intent and response.

It is very different from how I approach design now, which is more simplistic and experiential than algorithmic. Nevertheless, it gave me a good grasp of possibilities in design. This, in combination with the education from India that was rooted in cultural and environmentally-appropriate design principles, set the stage for an exciting journey into architecture and design.

How would you characterise your own individual style?

My design approach is based on sensitivity to context and human dimension. I am not sure I would characterise my design into any particular style, it is really something that just happens and evolves. For me, design is an evolutionary process, where each piece is a shared experience between the studio and client. 

At DMAC, we tend to delve more into the process of design and making rather than the end result. At the end of the day, I think it is important to move past the modernist status quo and push boundaries to come up with the right solution to a particular programme or challenge.

What do you hope to bring to your new role within DMAC Architecture?

My 10 years at DMAC has allowed me to evolve as an architect and embrace the values of meaningful and responsible design. I hope to continue working on projects that challenge the norm and push the boundaries of design. That is what sets DMAC apart. 

Dwayne MacEwen, (Principal and Creative Director of DMAC Architecture) has been an amazing mentor and advocate of my professional growth. In my new role, I hope to give back by mentoring young architects and leading by example. At DMAC, I hope to continue providing the quality design services we are well known for, while seeking new project opportunities to exercise and expand our creativity.

What has been your proudest professional moment or most memorable project thus far?

Every project at DMAC is unique with fresh ideas and concepts. I’m always excited about the work we do here, however small or large it may be. We have been incredibly fortunate to have fantastic clients, who have been collaborative and supportive of our design ideas, and every project has been different and challenging in its own way.

That said, the one project closest to my heart is the recently completed Midtown Athletic Club and Hotel in Chicago. This 55-room urban boutique hotel and its 250,000ft2 wellness club is a perfect example of a truly integrated design, wherein the core design idea is carried through from the building exterior to the interior spaces all the way to furniture design and even way-finding. 

“We marvelled at the raw beauty of discarded granite blocks when split from the mountains. The blemished face of the block with deep drill marks is usually discarded, but we wanted to preserve its story in a visual statement – an ‘unprocessed’ aesthetic”

Having nurtured it through its various stages from conceptualisation to design, construction and successful execution, it is truly rewarding to see how hotel guests and club members engage with each space designed with so much care and thought. 

I truly believe architecture can tell a story. Midtown is a collection of many stories, one of which strikes a chord very personal to me. This story took me back to my roots, my hometown of Chennai. We were deep into the design of the hotel lobby; Dwayne, the mastermind behind Midtown, had a vision to use natural, honest materials as much as possible.

We marvelled at the raw beauty of discarded granite blocks when split from the mountains. The blemished face of the block with deep drill marks is usually discarded, but we wanted to preserve its story in a visual statement – an ‘unprocessed’ aesthetic.

We decided to clad a 30ft-wide wall behind the reception desk with these granite panels. An installation of this magnitude was an ambitious undertaking. We faced a challenge in sourcing the granite from quarries in the US. We were able to locate a granite quarry in southern India, close to my hometown. We identified the quarry and a week later, I was there selecting blocks of stone that were split away from the mountains and having them cut to size and shipped to Chicago. 

It was an experience interacting with local craftsmen at the UNESCO heritage site Mahabalipuram, famous for 7th and 8th century art and architecture. These are the craftsmen, generational stone carvers, who shaped a 10-foot block of stone now happily situated at the Midtown lobby as the reception desk. 

We are fortunate to have won a few awards for Midtown and be recognised by our peers.

What, for you, is the most enjoyable aspect of designing hospitality spaces?

Hospitality spaces are exciting spaces to design, especially due to the magnitude of user interaction within the spaces. To know and realise that design could have such an impact on the user experience is immensely gratifying. 

Process is incredibly important in design. It is more so important in hospitality spaces. Spatial narratives and material relationships become more challenging – to be able to cater to the various needs of the users. Design, it is very clear in my mind, is a key driver to bring change and enhance the experience by creating engaging and evocative spaces.

When Midtown just opened, I joined the club and had the remarkable experience of being a member instead of the architect or designer. To experience the interior spaces as a user allowed me to complete the full circle – from process to experience – which is really a testament to the success of a design.

What do you feel will be the key issues affecting the hospitality design industry in the coming years?

The hospitality design industry is at the verge of exploding with new trends and fast-paced technological advancements. The demand for customised experiences is ever growing. The convenience of travel will keep the hospitality industry thriving. 

Technology is all around us and is promising to make life easier. It is inevitable that technology will creep into more aspects of the hospitality experience such as facial recognition, apps for check-in, apps for controlling temperature and light, apps for food service, apps for just about everything. The challenge will be to design spaces that will mould and adapt to personalised needs. I only hope the humanising power of architecture will be embraced and preserved.

What are you working on at the moment, and have you got any upcoming projects that you’re able to tell us about?

Following the incredible success of Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago, DMAC is fortunate to have earned the client’s trust and is now designing four other clubs for Midtown in Rochester (NY), Montreal, Bannockburn (IL) and Palatine(IL). These are mostly rehabs of existing clubs, each with unique challenges but great opportunities for design interventions. 

I’m also working on a 6,000ft2 lake house in Union Pier, Michigan. It is a modern structure with clean pure volumes, and a glass exterior facing the lake. While small compared to the 250,000ft2 hotel and club, this project has been incredibly fun. It is like watch-making or designing a piece of jewellery – there is a lot of thoughtful detail in the design and when it all comes together; it is a piece of art. 

What would be your ultimate hospitality project? 

As architects and designers, we bear a responsibility toward environmental sustainability. While I am generally a conscientious designer, sustainable choices in real practice is still limited.

My dream hospitality project is to design an off-the-grid eco resort. Many years ago, a friend and I participated in a competition to design an artist community in an abandoned railway trestle. Although not specifically a hospitality project, it was idealised and theoretical, and, in the end, we realised it was not far-fetched. So, if or when the opportunity comes, an off-the-grid eco resort would be just perfect – with a treehouse in it for my seven-year-old son.

What are your passions outside of the design world?

I have been immersed in a planned rehab of our house we recently purchased. The structure is over 100 years old and modernised a few times over. It has been a fun and frustrating experience, especially designing something on my own and grappling with the constraints, but it has been a fun challenge. 

A dear friend recently gifted us a beautiful Steinway grand piano, so my latest passion has been stealing my son’s sheet music and relentlessly practicing at night so I can someday soon play a perfect rendition of Fur Elise.