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Human-Centered Architecture

Ignited by a sense of purpose, a master’s student puts people at the center of the design process.

Portrait of Krystol Austin sitting at a table in an architecture studio

Master's student Krystol Austin G’22 is the winner of the Rising Black Designers Tuition Scholarship + Design Challenge, organized by the Gensler architecture and design firm.

Last fall, Krystol Austin G’22 had almost given up on graduating from Syracuse University. After spending two years pursuing a master’s degree in architecture (an experience largely overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic), she was nearly broke. Moreover, her mother—a single parent diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia—had relapsed and was struggling to make ends meet, some 1,700 miles away. “I figured that I’d have to drop out,” recalls Austin, speaking from her home in St. Catherine, near the Jamaican capital of Kingston. “It hurt, because I was so close to graduating.”

Faced with the prospect of losing Austin as a student, the academic advising staff in the School of Architecture (SOA) took her under their wing. They not only gave Austin time to weigh her options, but also steered her toward several financial aid opportunities. One of them was the Alfred L. Kastel Endowed Scholarship, which Austin eventually won, providing much needed support during her final year of study.

Meanwhile, a friend of Austin’s on Instagram messaged her about a new competition at Gensler, the world’s largest architecture and design firm. The program, titled the Rising Black Designers Tuition Scholarship + Design Challenge, helps underrepresented students like Austin with tuition grants, micro-scholarships for books and materials, and hands-on summer internships. “First prize was a $10,000 tuition scholarship, roughly the equivalent of what I needed to finish my degree,” she remembers. Austin found out about the contest on a Thursday. The deadline was the following day at midnight.

With less than 24 hours to spare, Austin locked herself in her bedroom and went into overdrive. She drew on her experiences in SOA’s visiting critic program and her master’s thesis, then a work in progress. The result was a conceptual design framework called “Quarantine in an Abandoned Quarry.”

I reimagined rural spaces exploited by mining. It is an opportunity to rethink social cohesion in an epidemiological crisis.

—Krystol Austin G’22

Austin’s submission reflected an interest in biophilia—humans’ innate connection with nature—and her past research into Tomkins Cove Quarry, a large, abandoned limestone engorgement along New York’s Hudson River. “I reimagined rural spaces exploited by mining,” says Austin, who combined Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s Modulor system of human proportions with social distancing guidelines provided by the CDC and World Health Organization. This led to a series of “underground” structures, partially dug into the ground or embedded in a hillside, called “Quarantinis.” “It is an opportunity to rethink social cohesion in an epidemiological crisis.”

No one was more surprised than Austin when her entry took first prize at Gensler. “I was in a state of shock,” she recalls, adding that Associate Professor and Graduate Chair Brian Lonsway provided a critical, 11th hour faculty recommendation. “Normally you’d have several weeks or months to put something like this together. I had a single day. I guess it was meant to be.”

From Zero to a Hundred

Krystol Austin standing with arms folded in front of architectural design drawings

“I’m passionate about people and spaces,” says Austin, whose work addresses issues like climate change, mental accessibility and social justice.

Part artist, part designer and part griot, Austin revels in human-centered architecture, which seeks to optimize the relationship between people and spaces. The process can elicit a range of emotions—hope, fear and awe, to name a few.

Such existentialist seeds were sown during Austin’s childhood in Jamaica, where she bounced from place to place with her mother. Living conditions were inevitably poor—small, squalid hovels masquerading as one-bedroom apartments. “I distinctly remember our last place, which was an old, converted garage. It was insufferable,” says Austin, referring to the lack of insulation, natural light and cross ventilation. “There was no view and not much natural air.”

The only thing worse than Austin’s itinerant lifestyle was the searing Caribbean heat. She vacillated between whining and escaping into drawing, sculpting and painting. Such grousing was not lost on her mother. “You’re always complaining,” she chided. “Why don’t you design a way to reduce the heat in this house?” Austin sat with the question for several days before vehemently announcing, “Challenge accepted.”

Ignited with a sense of purpose, Austin soon enrolled at the University of Technology in Kingston—home to the only architecture school in the English-speaking Caribbean. College stoked Austin’s twin interests in architecture and building interiors while giving her a strong foundation in graphic design, animation and 3D rendering. “I began to see the connection between art and architecture, how they embrace function, autonomy and personal expression,” Austin recalls. “It was an eye-opening experience.”

A short stint at a Jamaican design firm preceded Austin’s move to New York City, where she worked as an architect’s trainee in the Cultural Vistas exchange program. Austin also kept up a side hustle as a CGI specialist. “Mom eventually got too sick to work, so I had to pay for everything for us—rent, food, utilities, medical bills,” she says. “I freelanced a lot. But I also needed more structured training in architecture.”

A chance meeting with Architecture professor Lori Brown proved prophetic. Even though Syracuse’s graduate school application deadline had passed, Austin still asked for Brown’s business card. “Imagine my surprise when I found out that the application deadline had suddenly been extended. I went from zero to a hundred,” Austin says smiling. No sooner had Austin set foot in Slocum Hall than she knew SOA was where she needed to be. “It’s such an open, family-like environment.”

I see the connection between art and architecture, how they embrace function, autonomy and personal expression.

—Krystol Austin G’22

Tackling Problems, Challenging Assumptions

Winning the Gensler challenge has paid big dividends for Austin. In addition to helping cover the cost of school, the prize led to a transformative summer internship in the firm’s New York office, where she helped expand key research initiatives. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a while,” admits Austin, who developed key performance indicators for the integration of social justice and climate change in urban environments.

Gensler Co-CEO Diane Hoskins believes Austin embodies Gensler’s commitment to improving equity, climate change and the human experience. “Krystol displays leadership in her willingness to tackle tough problems, challenge assumptions and explore creative solutions through critical analysis and collaboration with her team members.”

Gensler also plays into Austin’s wide-ranging interests—climate change, mental accessibility, social justice and architecture at the nexus of biophilia and nature. “I’m passionate about people and spaces,” says Austin, adding that her now-finished master’s thesis, “Schizophrenic Architecture,” pays homage to her mother’s illness. The proposal also is considered one of the year’s top thesis projects, as evidenced by Austin taking top prize in the school's James Britton Memorial Awards.

Krystol displays leadership in her willingness to tackle tough problems, challenge assumptions and explore creative solutions through critical analysis and collaboration with her team members.

—Diane Hoskins, Gensler Co-CEO

Lauren Mintier ’14, Architecture's graduate program manager, praises Austin’s authentic demeanor. “Krystol is always her truest self,” she says, citing Austin’s ability to juggle a full course load, a teaching assistantship and participation in various Architecture organizations, like the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion student committee, the Orange Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students and the Graduate Ambassadors program. “Krystol is quick to wave hello and engage with anyone, whether she knows them or not. She puts all of herself out there.”

Ever humble, Austin takes the praise in stride. “I’ve cried three times in the past year—when I was able to register for graduate school, when I won the Rising Black Designers competition and when I completed my master’s thesis while taking care of my mom,” she admits. “It’s okay to cry because it helps you appreciate the happy moments even more. I don’t take anyone or anything—or any moment—for granted.”

Syracuse University champions a trailblazing, innovative spirit. When one of us rises, we all rise as Orange. 

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Rob Enslin

This story was published on .

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