By Shani Rodan
Kaja Kühl is an urban designer with a diploma in Architecture from the University in Karlsruhe, Germany and a Master of Science in Urban Planning from Columbia University in New York. Prior to founding Youarethecity in 2008, she worked for the New York City Department of City Planning as an urban designer. Kaja is an adjunct associate professor in the Master of Science in Architecture and Urban Design Program at Columbia University, where she works with the Hudson Valley Initiative.
We spoke with Kühl about the pivotal milestones in her career journey and how design has shaped her career trajectory.
Shani Rodan: When did you realize you were interested in design?
Kaja Kühl: Probably in high school or something. I was interested in sort of the three-dimensional aspects of design. I was always interested in interiors, furniture, and architecture, and so I kind of began moving up the scale, if you will. One thing that I can point out is that I moved to Berlin in 1997. And I think that really sparked my interest in the urban scale of design and also the social aspect of design.
SR: What was your first design job or design-related job?
KK: I was an intern in an architecture office in the ’90s in Berlin. It was a very fascinating period to be in Berlin working in an architecture office and seeing the city transform partly after the reunification of Berlin and of Germany.
SR: How did you get to where you are now?
KK: I came to New York to study urban planning. After I graduated, I worked for the Department of City Planning for a number of years. Part of what shaped my experience working there is going to a lot of community board meetings where I always experienced a real disconnect between our good intentions to listen, and to design with and for the community, and the community’s perception of us as city planners. That led me to start my own practice where I felt it was important to facilitate the agency that people have in shaping their own city. That has shaped the way I practice design in the past 10 years. I work primarily with non-profit groups. I want to give a different kind of voice to the processes of how urban design happens either through drawings, workshops, or other forms of engagement,
Design can help the conversation by offering either just a visualization of the existing condition or of a kind of statistic. The surveys and maps that no one’s done before, that’s where design plays the greatest role in being able to envision different alternatives.
SR: When did you realize you could make a difference through design?
KK: There is a need to visualize challenges and opportunities in cities among those who really care about them, and about their neighborhood, and those people may not necessarily have the design skills to express their voice other than verbally. Design can help the conversation by offering either just a visualization of the existing condition or of a kind of statistic. The surveys and maps that no one’s done before, that’s where design plays the greatest role in being able to envision different alternatives. This is a long process of having worked in the field of urban design and experiencing moments where you feel that visualization can make a difference.