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Executive Voice: Feature on Alliance’s Vandana Dake

Triangle Business Journal
4/12/2018 | Ben Graham

 Vandana Dake has traveled far and wide since her days as an architecture student in Pune, India, where she was one of just three women to graduate in her class.

Today, Dake leads Alliance Architecture, a company with a global reach and deep roots in downtown Durham. Dake and her husband, John Warasila, have guided the firm through ambitious projects that are changing the way people work both in the Triangle and beyond. Notable developments include the American Tobacco Campus in Durham and the Citrix building in downtown Raleigh.

But work hasn’t stopped Dake from getting out and exploring the world. Last year she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. This year, she’s planning a trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal.

Here, Dake explains what drives her and how architecture is changing the way people work across the Triangle.

Why did you get into architecture? As a young person, I really wanted to be an artist, but my dad, who is an engineer, said, “Hey, artists don’t really make money but architecture is a new field. As a woman you could stay at home and start your own business.” That’s how I started getting intrigued by it. I went to summer class to check it out, and I just loved it.

What was it like as a young student in India? There were only five girls in a class of 45. Girls didn’t really go into architecture at that time. This was the mid-1980s, and it was culturally very different. As a woman, people would not take you seriously. … And then working in an architecture office where I was the only girl was another interesting challenge. My grandmother almost boycotted me and was very upset at my mom that I was allowed to study and be around boys. But I got through that. I’ve always been a very stubborn person. After I graduated I worked in India for a few years and then I went to work as an architect in Dubai for almost 15 years.

How did you arrive in Durham? I was in the U.S. on vacation in 1998. At that point, no one was getting visas easily. I got a 10-year multiple entry tourist visa. It was like a lottery I had won, which was amazing. I was in California when some of my friends in Dubai posted my resume on the American Institute of Architects website. So I started getting calls from all these different firms around the country.

What’s it like working with John? John started the company. I think he hired me because he was curious about this woman who was willing to travel by herself from Dubai. We started working together and we fell in love and we started life together. It’s been really good because we are both really curious people.

What was your initial impression of the Triangle? At first, I lived in Cary and worked in Chapel Hill. Both were the same, very homogenous, very white. The only place I felt at home was in Durham, which was very eclectic, very diverse, very intellectual. That’s what really attracts me.

What are the changes you’ve seen in Durham? The first five to 10 years I was here, the changes were to the existing warehouse buildings. … We started on the American Tobacco project in 2002, 2003. The Goodmons were renovating and we did 80 percent of the work inside. Once American Tobacco finished, most of the warehouses around town were already renovated. At that point, new buildings started coming up. It’s interesting because some of them fit in, but some of them don’t fit in. It’s easy to criticize, to say. “Hey, this tall building that’s coming up, One City Center, what happened there?” If we look at it very short-term, sure, it doesn’t fit in, but over the long-term, I’m sure it’s all going to work.

What’s a favorite project? There’s one called Family Health International 360, at the Diamond View Building (in Durham). The project captures the essence of what the organization does. Family Health International works in all parts of the world on health issues. For the project, we brought in influences from different countries that they have an impact on, bringing it very subtly into the space with colors or artwork.

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