Blog Post – Shabnam Noor

Director, Stories by Shabnam Noor Architects

Growing up in the Himalayas, the seed for the appreciation of the environment, both natural and man-made, was inevitably planted in my deep conscious. Long before I formalised my interests under the term ‘Architecture’, I had always had an interest in the built environment around me, even in my childhood. My mum and I loved visiting new houses, buildings and spaces, and we’d always comment on what was great about them or how they could’ve been better, how we could improve a space and its experience by designing it differently. As a schoolchild I spent all my pocket money on architecture and interiors books and journals and had stacks of them at home. I’d go hunt out the projects and product showrooms and see what I could get for our own home. Visiting these places gave me delight and was my idea of a ‘day out’.

However, like all ‘good kids’ in India, I was going to study medicine. I invested a lot of time and energy preparing for entry into medical school. But life had other plans. 

One morning, I was sitting in the library at The British Council which was close to our home in Delhi, and quite lazily reading the posters on the notice board above the table. One of them was by The University of Dundee in Scotland announcing that their International Officer was in town holding interviews. With the med entrance exams done and behind me, I had all the time in the world to read the entire list of subjects. I still have this photographic image of the poster in my head where right at the bottom of the list was this word – Architecture. And suddenly I felt this sense of relief, and a weight being lifted off my shoulders. There was this thought that this thing called Architecture ​is something I could so do…. A force within me made me get up from the table, walk to the reception, and all without thinking I asked for an appointment. The interview went really well and I was offered a spot there and then. I accepted. I had never even heard of Dundee. But by the sense of elation I knew that I was making the right choice. It felt right. And within a month I was in Dundee, beginning University and studying Architecture. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made and I have never looked back.

I then moved to London and worked for some great architecture practices like Dixon Jones, Eric Parry and Simpson Haugh. One of the key projects in my career from past practice that I worked on was at Dixon Jones – This was the Quadrant 3 mixed use development in Piccadilly Circus where the client was The Crown Estate. My primary involvement was in the complexities of the highly technical façade that also juxtaposed with Grade II listed existing historic fabric. I worked with one of the greatest teams ever and it was an amazing experience. The building went on to be widely published and won an RIBA Award among 19 other awards. 

At past practices I worked on other fantastic projects and competitions and while I admired some of the people I was working with for their great leadership qualities, I always had this frustration that I would be doing things differently – whether in design, or more importantly, in the approach to a client’s brief. Because some of the practices although so well known, were definitely ‘design- led’, rather than prioritising solving a client’s issues and problems. What I felt was missing was the true emotional connection with a client’s brief, and the narrative of the place it belonged to. During a particularly frustrating incident where our submission for a competition entry was a regular office building that could be placed anywhere in the world, be it New York or London – you couldn’t tell because it had no identity of place despite the client’s spectacular brief, the restlessness in me caused me to step out during a lunch break and call a friend, during which the seeds of going out on our own were sown. 

At around the same time my personal house hunt had involved visiting 33 properties of various sizes and types and locations up to that point, and to no avail. Even with a healthy budget the housing stock seemed quite appalling as most if not all of the properties were not meeting the minimum or standard metric space standards. The properties gave no consideration to the environment they were in. Again, in a moment of frustration and feeling like I was on a mission to bring about change, I wrote to a local authority asking to be on their Design Review Panel. I was determined to make a difference and was looking for opportunities to make living conditions and not to mention the emotional experience of being in the built environment of the city, better. 

Being on the panel and with the passionate desire to change environments and enable comfortable, desirable and beautiful homes and spaces accessible to all, thus led to the evolution of Stories by Shabnam Noor.

All Photos: Jason Ellis

​In this interview, Shabnam talked more about her journey into architecture with Melissa Woolford, Founder and Director of MoA.