Grace Aaraj | Studies in Architecture: The Big Living Room and Creating A Discussion Among Friends

Grace Aaraj


My goal for the future is to develop my existing skills and to improve immature talents. I know that only a new experience, an outstanding one is able to push me to the limits in terms of achievement and commitment.  –Grace Aaraj, UO current graduate student in architecture, Fulbright scholar; M. Arch candidate 2014, University of Oregon, Portland; B. Arch 2011, Institut des Beaux Arts II, Beirut


In 2011, when Grace Aaraj, a 21 year old student from Beirut, Lebanon, wrote those words as part of her autobiographical essay included in both her Fulbright scholarship application and her application for graduate studies with the Department of Architecture at the UO, she had little idea just how many new and richly diverse experiences would unfold for her in the United States.  Like many international exchange students, she came to the United States with an empathic idealism enthusiastic to meet new friends, and connect across cultural lines challenging any divides and stereotypes by sharing stories, tastes, conversation and advocating cooperation and collaboration.  Her gregarious nature and generous spirit were met with varying degrees of acceptance—here was a young female of Middle Eastern in descent in an environment traditionally dominated by masculine presence and Western expectations.  Not daunted by possible perceptions of her background and culture, Aaraj’s experience at the University of Oregon has illuminated and enhanced an outlook where she was able to expand her frame of reference and gain invaluable academic and professional-related experience.   As she is quick to point out, coming to the United States to study and immerse herself in graduate studies, she had divergent paths to chose from:  adopt and adapt to the new and unusual or withdraw into a secluded course of study and academia.  One path would give her experience in-the-field of architecture and design and invaluable networking opportunities; the other, a quiet yet dedicated focus on study and research.  In the nurturing and experience-driven environment of the University, she says, she was encouraged her to explore possibility in both the classroom and the community—the paths of solitary academic study brilliantly enhanced by internships with architectural firms and presentations to professional conferences.  Into this atmosphere of connection and opportunity, Aaraj has been able to blend a background rooted in Middle Eastern tradition and embrace the professional opportunity she has been afforded while a student at the UO.  As she so proudly asserts, her parents raised her to respect all people, not only those just like her, and to appreciate and create opportunity. And, Aaraj points out, it has been her egalitarian outlook that has blossomed at the University of Oregon.


Her enthusiasm and desire to seek connections with people while in Portland at the UO White Stag location led her to opportunities where she could explore her cultural background, gain a sense of learning from the experiences of others, and network with established professionals in her field of academic study.  To meet and talk with this young woman is to connect with a truly vibrant and enthusiastic individual eager to interact with opportunity, her community, and to find possibility in a great variety of pursuits.  Perhaps her openness to listen, to learn from and to recognize the potential in cross-cultural interaction has led to a pattern of academic learning blended with an interest in humanitarian objectives. The influence most felt and positively effected her time here has been the academic environment she has immersed herself in with studio courses offered within Portland UO’s urban architecture focus –studios ranging from Professor Hajo Neis’ regenerative architecture to Philip Speranza’s Bridging project. The projects she became engaged in echoed her desire for “human interactions and pride….and [celebrated] common humanities and respected commonalities.”

Grace Aaraj, with the Bridging Project. Photo by Tim Niou

Having received her undergraduate degree in architecture from Institut des Beaux-Arts, Beirut, Aaraj was a volunteer for two years for a campaign to enhance urban public spaces in Beirut with the focus on the health and well-being of children.  Based on her accomplishments in Beirut, she subsequently received the Fulbright fellowship in architecture, funded by the United States Department of State.  Coming to the United States for studies at the UO Department of Architecture—she comments that in addition to the globally-immersed and urban architecture-focused faculty of the UO in Portland Department of Architecture, she selected the UO for her graduate studies because of the “sustainability focus and the community oriented projects.”


Since being a UO student, her work has been represented as part of the University of Oregon Department of Architecture at the Construction Specifications Institute Forum 2013. She has obtained the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) scholarship and participated in an international urban design workshop; as well as presented at the Architecture for Humanity national conference in San Francisco. Working with fellow students, Annie Ledbury, Jackie Davis, and Beth Lavelle, Aaraj and her team won a student-organized charrette to design a clinic in Haiti, (REvive Jacmel), and then developed construction drawings with Waterleaf Architecture, along with other student partners. In December, 2013 she was part of a design-build project in Haiti, with Sergio Palleroni and students from the Center for Public Interest Design at Portland State University.  She is currently working on a model of housing and work opportunities for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with the focus of repurposing the campus to an ecotourism hub, after the end of the crisis.  Her active involvement in the field and her intent to stay focused on humanitarian objectives mirrors her opinion that her “world is a world where global change starts from a local action.”  As the repertoire of experience in the field for Aaraj expanded these past two years, so seemed to be a consistent interest in empathic design and architecture built with a humanitarian focus in mind.

With Grace Aaraj, Winter 2014

Due to her work in humanitarian design and her interest in language viewed not as a barrier but as an opportunity, in the winter of 2014, Aaraj was approached by the Portland Public School system and asked to be a guest presenter at the International Youth Leadership Conference.

[IYLC provides highly engaging, culturally competent workshops appropriate for Emergent Bilinguals (students of English as a Second Language) and addresses leadership and communication, college and career choices, and culture and community issues promoting intercultural communication, community activism, teamwork and self-esteem.  The conference, organized by the English as a Second Language Department of Portland Public Schools, is an opportunity for EB’s to learn and network with fellow students, educators and language minority leaders in the Portland area.]

The UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts had partnered with IYLC program by hosting the IYLC students’ Mercy Corps-led workshops at the UO White Stag location during the winter months.

High School Students With Grace Aaraj's workshop--discovering geographic location

Aaraj comments

“The event [was] tailored to empower high school students who have English as their second language. I was excited and knew immediately this [was] an educational aspect I want[ed] to be part of. [When asked to be a part of the conference], I remember thinking ‘I hope I still qualify to be part of the English as Second Language workshops.’ You see, English is my third language.”


Grace Aaraj with high school students

Aaraj is fluent in Arabic as well as French. She is currently learning Spanish.  Aaraj was pleased to be offered to interact with high school and middle school age students and quickly formulated an idea to work with them focusing on the topic of language.


Aaraj’s IYLC workshops, titled “Languages and Traditions: Bringing Us Closer Together” involved inviting the high school students to approach a large map of the world mounted on the classroom wall—students placed a colored pin on the country of their birth and then had an opportunity to discuss and share stories from their homeland about cultural traditions, language challenges they faced upon coming to the United States and ways of communicating in their new environment.

High School Students With Grace Aaraj's workshop--discovering geographic location and proximity

Aaraj comments that she “wanted everyone to understand that geographical boundaries should not limit what [they] know or what [they] understand.”


More importantly, Aaraj’s participation in the conference was, as she describes,

“an enriching experience, as I get to discover a topic I am interested in outside my comfort zone. As a student in architecture, I am not trained to teach.  Being at the workshop with high school students from different backgrounds and having different languages spoken was beautiful.”


She continues,


“The workshop was like a big living room, a discussion among friends. It started with exchanging names in native languages, writing them and ended with stories and personal participation from everyone.


A lot of good moments followed by laughing were the highlight of the workshop. I never believed you can teach diversity from a book; it just takes few minutes and talking among strangers. It is also important to visualize information, like calligraphy in a certain language or location of different countries on a map. This is how lessons are learnt. The look on these students’ faces when I wrote my name in Arabic from right to left, their surprise, were precious. I myself, like everyone else, learned a lot about them.”


Grace Aaraj is continuing her exploration of language, limits and communication with her submission of an essay for the Many Languages One World United Nations competition where she will present her research and personal reflections on the requirements for the One World essay, “the ideas of global citizenship and understanding and the role that multilingual ability can play in fostering these.”


Aaraj’s openness and acceptance of all those around her, her willingness to listen to and empathize with the personal stories of the people she encounters speaks volumes to what she asks for from all, “tell me your own history, share your personal story and ask for mine.  I keep asking, I keep listening:  you can do the same….for that brief fulfilling moment, we are ‘citizens of the world’.”


If Grace Aaraj continues with her generosity of character and her willingness to try and “understand the world as a way to understand a region’s history and its people’s traditions,” she will certainly surround herself with her goal of establishing (as she describes it) a “a big living room of discussion among friends.”  Aaraj’s story is only one of many of the diverse student body at the UO in Portland Department of Architecture urban architecture studies program.  But, like the rest of her cohorts, she reflects a key aspect of the program:  that of bottom up design, creating for people, and perhaps, most of all, a testimony to the influence of Portland director of the architecture program and professor, Hajo Neis and his research regarding the Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth , recently presented publicly in his collaborative book of the same title.


It is Professor Neis’ contention, along with collaborator and co-author Christopher Alexander, that:


“The purpose of all architecture… is to encourage and support life-giving activity, dreams, and playfulness. But in recent decades, while our buildings are technically better–more sturdy, more waterproof, more energy efficient– they have also became progressively more sterile, rarely providing the kind of environment in which people are emotionally nourished, genuinely happy, and deeply contented.”


Resourceful, observant, up-and-coming students in the UO architecture program, like Aaraj seem to be part of this philosophy encouraged and fostered by the expertise and guidance of professors like Neis:


Namely the creation of environments that “genuinely support the emotional, whole-making side of human life” and architects and designers who have the capability “to build places of human energy and beauty.”


With, as Neis points out, wholeness and in humane ways.


The future of architecture and the built environment in the hands of these sensitive and mindful individuals would appear to offer empathy, understanding and unprecedented levels of responsibility to all people.  And, as Aaraj vividly states, “it is not related to redrawing boundaries, forcing languages into places, nor erasing history or fitting into one category.”  The important part, she says, is the willingness to “communicate, understand and assimilate.”


While the world might be a vast and complicated place tangled in technology and bursting forth with unbridled innovation, those who have the courage to see it as a tightknit collaboration of real people (as opposed to merely pixels) open to cooperation and kind regard, both in relating to one another and in creating for the built environment could prove to be the “big living room” approach that might benefit us all.

See more work by Grace Aaraj on her website, Grace Aaraj.

Grace Aaraj (middle) with UO fellow graduate students, Jackie Davis (left) and Annie Ledbury (right) share a picnic on the Bridging Project in the North Park Blocks. All are in the M. Arch Portland Department of Architecture UO.

(Note:  Socrates said, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world. There is no difference between learning and living.”)



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