Adi Cohen -

the nomadic architect

ELLY EARLS
LAST UPDATED FEBRUARY 19, 2021

Adi has managed to integrate her architecture career with a life

of travel and adventure

When Adi Cohen’s Zoom video stutters to life, I can’t help but yelp in envy at her outfit. She’s wearing a black – and here comes the operative word – sleeveless top and I can see the sun streaming in through the balcony window. She laughs: “Don’t worry, I’m jealous of me too!”

She’s currently based in Haifa in the north of Israel but has taken herself for a five-day workation to the seaside resort of Eilat to replenish her Vitamin D supplies. A global pandemic won’t stop this nomad from nomading, even if it is within her home country and only for a few days at a time.

Cohen first hit the road four years ago, a decision she didn’t take lightly. At the time, she thought it would spell the end of her architecture career, a profession she loved and had worked hard at for six years. But she didn’t feel she had any other choice.

“I kept feeling like I was living on 10% of my potential and while everyone around me was really satisfied with the 10% I had this gut feeling that there must be more to life,” she says. She calls it the Disney syndrome. “You know this feeling of wanting to go and do something extraordinary but you don’t know exactly how? I just knew I couldn’t be trapped in an office under the fluorescent lights for my entire life. It felt wrong.”

It took a few years – and the city she was living in physically kicking her out – for her to make the leap. “I’d change to one apartment and there was a 24-hour construction site next door; then the next one had an underground club so during the night everything was shaking,” she remembers. All the time, she was getting more and more frustrated with all the stuff that made up her life. “I don’t need any of it,” she kept telling herself. “I just need my laptop. I just need the basics.”

Everything Adi owns

When one of her closest friends, her mentor from university, passed away from cancer, she decided she wasn’t going to wait until later to figure things out. She sold all her things and booked a one-way ticket “to places”. First stop: Japan. “I wanted to walk along the street and have everything around me in Japanese and hear nothing but Japanese and be a complete stranger,” she grins.

 

Since then, she’s lived in and worked from Portugal, Morocco and Guatemala, among many other destinations. And although she thought she would have to go down a completely new career path to sustain her new lifestyle, she’s found a way to integrate architecture with nomadism too.

Guatemala is one of Adi’s top three destinations

It started when she met a Kiwi couple in Japan who had just bought a hotel. “They asked me to help them with the design and I was absolutely amazed they wanted some random Israeli architect without a website to help them,” Cohen recalls. She took on the project, creating the conceptual design for the hotel, which would later be executed by a local architect. “That got us around the location issue!” she smiles. Then she landed another project, and another, at which point she began to notice a theme.

 

“All my clients are global citizens; they’re very well-travelled,” she explains. “They’ve either fallen in love with a place or decided to start a business there and they want to find an architect who understands that feeling of being a stranger, being a foreigner. I’m the mediator between their own personal ideas and background and whatever inspires them about the local culture and heritage. I think well-designed architecture manages to combine both.”

Japan was the first stop on Adi's nomadic journey

She’s even come up with a name for her approach – The New Movement – and she believes it’s never been more relevant. “Millions of people are experiencing the freedom of remote work for the first time and when work is no longer attached to cities, you can live anywhere you want. The question is how do you tell that story through architecture, bringing out both the identity of the place and the client? How do you tell this mixed story that has the sense of freedom but is also very connected to the place?”

Another challenge new remote workers will face – if they do move out of cities – is one longtime nomads like Cohen have been familiar with for years: loneliness. “I’m a slowmad; I like to stay in places and really feel like a local,” she says. “But it was quite a challenge because I kept meeting tourists who would come for a few days, explore and then head onto their next destination.”

She says she owes a lot to Facebook groups and puts the effort into taking part in activities like yoga. But she also has a fun – if slightly terrifying – game she plays whenever she first arrives somewhere: ‘The Introduction Game’. She’ll go to a meet-up where she doesn’t know anyone and instead of falling into the self-doubt rabbit hole – “Why did I come here? Social anxiety, argh!” – she looks around the room, chooses someone that looks interesting, goes up to them and introduces herself.

“People are so glad that you came up and started a conversation with them,” she says. “Sometimes it turns into a really amazing friendship and sometimes it’s just a casual chat for a few minutes.” The person she’s been talking to then selects the next person to approach and so on. “It’s so awkward and so outside your comfort zone, but what’s the worst that can happen?” she says. 

What started out as a way to make a few friends has now grown into a podcast, aptly entitled Go Out & Talk To Strangers. After meeting a guy in Lisbon whose insights she felt she simply couldn’t keep to herself, she asked him if they could have a do-over of their conversation on air. And the rest is history.

“At the time I was full of resistance,” she remembers. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t have time to do a podcast; my English isn’t good enough’. All these voices we have in our head! Then I realised I had to do it anyway.” She’s now two seasons in and the episodes are wide-ranging chats with global citizens who are trying to reinvent the way we live together, work and connect. Cohen says it brightens up her day without fail.

You might be able to guess what her best piece of advice is for people thinking about embarking on the nomad lifestyle. “Go out and talk to strangers!” she laughs. “Being a nomad is more than a lifestyle; it’s more than being able to work remotely. I’ve learnt so much from exposing myself to new ideas and new people. It’s influenced the way I structure my business, the way I travel, the way I connect. Get outside your comfort zone, connect with the people around you. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

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