In our Alumni Spotlights, we profile distinguished graduates of the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP). We sat down with Harsh Parikh (M.Arch 1995), whose story begins in India where he was drawn to Colorado through the TV show Dynasty. Harsh has spent the last 25 years building his life and career in Denver, where he is principal of Santulan Architecture. In Sanskrit, santulan means balance, which the firm tries to emulate throughout its workplace culture.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in India. My general aptitude for analytics and graphics drew me towards an education in architecture and my college days were some of the most intellectually rewarding times of my life. Upon graduating with a B.Arch degree, I had a deep desire to continue my education and broaden my horizons, which led me to pursue further education in the United States. In the early 90s, there was no internet in India, so I dusted off old American college books in the library and applied to colleges in the U.S. As luck would have it, I was accepted to the M.Arch program at CAP and I moved to Colorado with almost no knowledge of the place!
Where have you lived and what previous degrees do you have?
I received my B.Arch from MS University in Vadodara, India. I moved to Denver to attend CAP, fell in love with the city and never left. Now, after having traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad, I realize how lucky I was to have landed in Denver and call it home. My 25 years in Denver have coincided with some of the most consequential years in Denver’s history as it sees continuing in-migration and growth, and is consecutively recognized as one of the most livable cities in the country.
Tell us about Santulan Architecture.
While attending CAP, I joined a Denver firm, Murphy Stevens Architects, as a student intern. I still work there! Over time, I grew into a leadership position and it became Parikh Stevens Architects. As you can imagine, a thirty-year-old firm goes through an evolutionary process. Professionally speaking, our evolution has been from being a generalist firm to being a firm that specializes in housing & mixed-use. But we also went through a cultural evolution. As a firm, we have a lot of conversations about what we stand for, who we serve, and how we hope to play a positive role in the shaping of our communities. We found that as design professionals, we are constantly having to walk a fine line and to strike a delicate balance between often competing imperatives. We have carved a niche in the market and earned the well-deserved reputation of being the firm that skillfully strikes the right balance. We wanted our firm name to reflect this essential quality of our practice. In 2020, we renamed Parikh Stevens Architects to Santulan Architecture. Santulan is Sanskrit for ‘balance’.
What are you working on today?
We are very busy with our housing work. We have a portfolio of almost 12,000 dwelling units that serve the whole market spectrum from permanent supportive housing, to workforce housing, to senior housing, to high-end market rate housing. One of our recent affordable housing projects – Vida at Sloan’s Lake – has won Statewide and National awards. But even as we pursue some very large and high-profile housing projects, we are very excited about a small mixed-use project we are working on in the Santa Fe Arts District. That project is special because our office will move into the ground floor in about a year from now. We are very excited to be investing in the Santa Fe Arts District and are eager to participate in this phase of its evolution.
Tell us about the Harsh Parikh Scholarship for Diversity in Design program and what influenced you to begin this initiative.
America’s allure is the notion that it’s a land of opportunity. That anyone, irrespective of their skin color, religion, or economic circumstance can succeed here if they only play by the rules and try hard enough. That narrative of America is precisely what enticed us to immigrate from India. But the data belies this narrative and tells a more complicated story. Opportunity in America has not always been equally accessible. The structural inequities of our society have led to gaping achievement disparities in various communities. The architectural profession is no exception, and it does not represent the diversity of our county. Progress is certainly being made, but clearly a lot more needs to be done. To make matters worse, there are regressive forces of nativism rising in the country that urgently need to be countered.
We are proud of our Alma Mater being one of the leaders in trying to address these structural inequities through the JEDI program. We wanted to support that mission of CAP and focus our charitable giving towards this cause. We started the Harsh Parikh Scholarship for Diversity in Design to encourage and assist young professionals of color so that they may someday find the same success that we did. Quite simply, we’re paying it forward!
What drew you to the CAP?
In early ‘90s in India, we lived in a still unconnected world. As I evaluated colleges oceans away, I had very little information to help me distinguish between colleges in places as disparate as Denver, Newark, Austin, & Norman. One of the few American shows on Indian TV at that time was ‘Dynasty’, which depicted a glitzy Denver in the middle of its early ‘80s oil boom. That sold it for me, and I chose CAP because of my cursory and outdated knowledge of Denver! Of course, I had no knowledge of the fact that the mid ‘80s oil crash had completely decimated Denver’s real estate market and that getting a job after college would be such an uphill task! But I did get a job, and Denver did recover spectacularly, and now represents a diverse economy less prone to damage from single industry shocks!
What is the most significant thing you learned while at the CAP?
Back in the ‘90s, we still did a lot of hand-drawing. This meant that before deadlines, you’d be pulling all-nighters in the studio drafting all the way till dawn with a few fellow students as music blared loud on boom boxes. Those nights are probably my favorite memories of CAP. The payoff came when the first rays of the rising sun hit the peaks and the studio would be flooded with light from the big west facing windows. The alpenglow was so bright you’d almost think the sun was rising in the west.
What are some of the biggest challenges in the field today? How might this change in the future?
As of now, we are not a very inclusive profession. For any profession to be credible, it needs to be populated with professionals that reflect the diversity of society at large. Only a diverse and representative group of professionals will be trusted by the society to do well by it. If we all acknowledge this deficiency and work diligently towards rectifying it, over time we will create a more diverse profession that makes better decisions.
Where do you go to feel inspired?
My office! Although we made do with remote working during the peak of the pandemic, I really missed being in the office. I think architects thrive in an office environment. The impromptu conversations, the open exchange of ideas, the creative energy of a busy office is the life blood of the profession.
What would surprise us about you?
That I am a Classic Rock & Hard Rock fan. People are often surprised to learn that someone like me who grew up in India would have a passion for classic rock. But classic rock is the soundtrack of an Indian college campus. I will bet you those college campuses in India are still playing Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix.