Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With CBT Principal And Director Of Urban Design Kishore Varanasi
This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.
CBT principal Kishore Varanasi’s designs can be found near or far. His work includes the master plan for Masdar City’s second phase neighborhood in Abu Dhabi, the Bulfinch Crossing mixed-use project in Boston and the Durham Innovation District in Durham, North Carolina.
His work often involves downtown and waterfront revitalization, urban master planning and the design of mixed-use projects.
A graduate of the School of Architecture and Planning in Hyderabad, India, Varanasi also has a master’s in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s in urbanism from MIT. His is a visiting critic at MIT, Roger Williams University and Yale.
Bisnow: What is your favorite part of your job?
Varanasi: Each project that my team and I take on presents its own unique proposition. It is incredibly fulfilling and exciting to have such distinct opportunity, each time, to bring together a new set of ideas, the right set of collaborators and new ways to learn and create a positive impact. We consider each project authentic in its own right, requiring us to investigate the unidentified and deliver new methods that unlock credible solutions and undiscovered shared value. That keeps my job fresh and enjoyable.
Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?
Varanasi: Fortunately, every job that I’ve held so far has provided me with a new set of experiences and skills. Therefore, I wouldn’t characterize any position as particularly negative.
Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do?
Varanasi: Global cultures and social, economic and political constructs fascinate me. I love reading about how numerous forces influence each other and perhaps that is the reason why I have been eager to expand CBT’s practice globally. It’s provided an opportunity to learn about and embrace new cultures, meet and interact with new people and do things differently. There are many different ways to pursue work like this and design is, for sure, just one of them.
Bisnow: What deal are you proudest of?
Varanasi: Cambridge Crossing is one of my proudest projects, partly because it was one of my earliest and one that I’m still working on as it has evolved over time. It’s a pioneering master plan, ahead of its time and a significant departure from the way that urban design is typically conceived. From the outset, we paid particular attention to designing an environmentally sustainable mixed-use environment that would not only establish an expansive public realm, but would create a livable community that is agile responding to changes in community need. I’m proud of its organized complexity and how it has evolved through spatial flexibility.
I’m also gratified by CBT’s work abroad and our master plan and architectural design for Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Our strategy was to transform Masdar into a low-carbon, sustainable city of the future, and we’re well on our way to seeing that come to fruition.
Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?
Varanasi: We were once invited to design a building for a client and wanted to push the envelope and create a different proposition than the original brief required. Our proposal would have improved the end user and city’s experience and environmental sustainability. However, a desire to return to the original project scope hampered our ability to execute this vision. We didn’t end up moving forward with the project, and that was disappointing. But that being said, it ultimately reinforced our firm’s commitment to partnering with clients who share our sense of ambition.
Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?
Varanasi: When a design is not rooted in its social, political, environmental and physical context. What annoys me even more is when people pitch a design as authentic in this way, without genuinely meaning it. It can be very off-putting when others don’t take the topics that define and impact our industry seriously, particularly now when the challenges the industry needs to address are grave.
Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?
Varanasi: Sitting in a nice café to write down my thoughts about cities, transportation, technology, equity, the environment — you name it. This goes hand-in-hand with any opportunity to walk around a city and appreciate the finer details of life, space, texture and form. Collecting my thoughts about the factors that define how people move throughout and experience the spaces around them helps to inform my design perspective.
Bisnow: What motivates you?
Varanasi: As an urban designer, I often work on complex and large sites that have implications beyond their immediate boundaries. The practice of looking beyond the confines of each site and solving for larger contextual issues to create shared, timeless value motivates me a lot.
Bisnow: What advice do you wish you got when you started in CRE?
Varanasi: I have the privilege of teaching at various institutions. I tell my students that we are at a unique crossroads in the history of human society. We are inundated with information and choices, and so much is changing so quickly every day with regard to technology, business and the environment. I wish someone had told me, as I now tell them: Clear your head, and think about and focus on the larger forces that are shaping our society, rather than short-term “trends.” Learn the rules before breaking them.
Bisnow: What is the biggest risk you have ever taken?
Varanasi: I came to the United States with very little money, which was a deeply personal risk and very difficult.
Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?
Varanasi: I’m concerned about what’s happening with the climate. I’m also worried about the rate at which technology is transforming our society and that we don’t fully understand the consequences of its impact.
Bisnow: What is your favorite place to visit?
Varanasi: I love traveling and am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel the world extensively both for work and with family. I always enjoy going home to India.
Bisnow: Outside of work, what are you most passionate about?
Varanasi: I’m passionate about spending time with my family, wife and two kids, who are 7 and 9 years old. They’re truly delightful and it’s been so exciting to watch them grow up. I also learn so many new things from them every day.
Bisnow: What CRE trend do you think will have the most impact over the next few years?
Varanasi: Just as we’re celebrating the return to cities and thriving, densifying urban centers, we’re challenged by the displacement of residents who can’t afford to stay. I think housing affordability in U.S. cities has reached a critical breaking point. We have to build densely and also ensure that we can house all economic classes.
Bisnow: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Varanasi: I grew up in a remote coastal town in India and moved to a city when I was 18. That’s when I was introduced to both the power of cities and English speaking for the first time!
Bisnow: What do you want your legacy to be?
Varanasi: I want to leave behind a definition of design that focuses not only on beauty, but on improving society through human connection, equity and climate resilience at this pivotal juncture. I’d like to be known as someone who inspired stakeholders and collaborators to find new methods of advancing this agenda and improving cities and quality of life; someone who was not swayed by short-term trends, but focused on the forces that shape human society, found the signal out of the noise and discovered simplistic methods for creating lasting, timeless solutions.