by AIA New York
Raya Ani’s departure from war-torn Iraq to pursue higher education at MIT marked the beginning of her professional journey. Over the span of her career beginning in Baghdad and followed by Frankfurt, Boston, New York, and Dubai, her relentless efforts for self empowerment have transcended beyond the individual level, bringing forth her unique design approach that empowers communities. Ani has been instrumental in advancing the sphere of education, expressing her philosophy in designing learning environments. Her winning vision for Liberland Competition embodies what she is most passionate about which is creating self-sufficient communities through innovation and technology while embracing sustainability. Ani’s experiences with renowned international firms have cemented her position as a hands-on innovative leader in the design world, culminating her role as the Founder and Design Director of RAW-NYC Architects, an award-winning interdisciplinary architectural studio based in New York and Dubai.
The Jury of Fellows of the AIA elevated Ani to the College of Fellows in the first category of Fellowship, which recognizes architects who have “Promoted the aesthetic, scientific, and practical efficiency of the profession,” according to the organization’s definition. Ani was recognized at the New Fellows Reception hosted by AIA New York and will be further celebrated at an investiture ceremony at the AIA Conference on Architecture.
Q: How/why did you decide to pursue architecture?
A: As a kid growing up in Baghdad, I loved imagining alternative lives, alternative characters, especially imagining alternative realities that didn’t exist in my immediate environment. I was drawn to this secretive world of fantasy and imagination that felt very real to me. I loved movies and saw myself assuming different roles and living in different environments other than the one I was in. I would design my own clothes and challenge the experienced tailor in how they should be made. Graduating from Baghdad high school with top grades gave me the freedom to choose whatever major and university that interested me the most. I chose architecture because I thought it would give me the space to continue to dream and the tools to turn my ideas into reality.
Q: What are some of your favorite recent projects that you’ve worked on?
A: I have two favorites. First is the Women’s Building competition in New York and the second is the Liberland Design Competition. I felt in sync with my core beliefs and passions—empowering people through creation and transformation—while designing these two projects. Women’s Building was about transforming a correctional facility for women into a hub for women’s empowerment. On the other hand, the Liberland Competition was about using innovation to achieve not only environmental sustainability but also economic sustainability for a newly created micro-nation founded on the principles of libertarianism for its 400,000 citizens. It had no zoning, no regulations—we had to create them. I assembled and directed a multi-disciplinary team ranging from environmentalists to political strategists, architects to urban designers, each assuming a role based on the book Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley.
Q: Do you have a favorite building? Why?
A: I have many. The one I remember visiting is Phaeno Science Center in Germany by Zaha Hadid. I just love how her vision redefined architecture! The visit to the center was like a wanderlust experience. I remember the very angled door that nearly looked impossible to swing open. I loved Seattle Central Library by OMA. It did something to my perception of space and form. I loved visiting Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. His world dances on the edge of fantasy.
Q: What do you see as an architect’s role—and responsibility—within our culture?
A: Our role as architects has gone beyond the traditional framework of providing architectural services. We need to understand the multiple forces that influence decision making and our environments so as to create a lasting impact on the world. Being an architect forces you to be willing to venture into unfamiliar territories from politics to economics to technologies to neuroscience. It is exciting! I continuously have to learn and stretch my horizons and imaginations. It is quite demanding yet empowering at the same time.
Q: What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
A: For me, the ultimate source of inspiration is nature. Nature always fascinates and surprises me both in its form and in the intelligence of its natural systems. When traveling to new places, I become more aware of the beauty that surrounds us and the uniqueness of the different natural and built environments. I am also continuously inspired by all creative minds such as artists, futurists, and technologists. When working on projects, I often draw inspiration from the context which not only includes the physical environment but also the people, the program, and the energy created from the interaction of all the different elements.
Editors’ Note: This feature is part of a series celebrating the members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter who are elevated each year to the AIA College of Fellows, an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to both the profession and society. Learn more about Fellowship here.