By Shani Rodan
Quilian Riano is a designer founder of DSGN AGNC, a studio focused on architectural and urban design for underserved communities. Quilian uses an expanded and strategic research approach to engage and design new spaces and policies for communities and their public institutions.
We spoke with Riano about the pivotal milestones in his career journey and how design has shaped his career trajectory.
Shani Rodan: When did you realize you were interested in design?
Quilian Riano: Right after high school I left Miami to join the U.S. Air Force. Toward the end of my four-year enlistment I was tasked with supporting an Air Force engineering and construction Red Horse team as they did work in the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. That experience got me interested in both how urban systems are designed and built as well as how to engage underserved populations in that process.
SR: What was your first design job?
QR: My first job in design was with Edward Mazria’s Santa Fe, New Mexico architecture firm. I continued working with him as a design researcher and strategist as he retired from the architecture firm and founded the Architecture 2030 environmental nonprofit.
We learned through robust engagement processes that before we even finished the design of the housing complex we needed to help people access services and economic opportunity– we did so by helping set up a locally-owned construction company.
SR: How you did get to where you are now?
QR: Throughout my career I’ve been interested in the role design plays in developing civic aspirations into public processes. An important moment in my career was working on a housing project in Granada, Nicaragua: through it, I experienced the expanded role design and architecture can play in designing services. We learned through robust engagement processes that before we even finished the design of the housing complex we needed to help people access services and economic opportunity– we did so by helping set up a locally-owned construction company.
SR: What role model influenced you most and how?
QR: As I was still in the U.S. Air Force and deciding what design field to go into, I heard about architect Marjetica Potrc’s work on public radio. Her transdisciplinary and deeply engaged work inspired me then and now.
When did you realize you could make a difference through design?
QR: On a trip to Medellin, Colombia with a group of graduate students from the Design and Urban Ecologies studio at Parsons where I teach. I worked with an arts and theater group called Nuestra Gente. Their performance processes, based on Theater of the Oppressed tenets, not only engaged people, but created collective tools to make change and shape their urban environments. This experience showed me how deeply grounded processes can make real change.