Matt Kile

Allison Méndez, AIA, strives toward a design philosophy she calls “the apparently undesigned.” Inspiration first struck her while examining infrastructure projects and discovering aesthetic solutions that address multiple constraints and produce a deeply interconnected result. As one of the 22 recipients of the AIA’s 2019 Young Architects Award, it’s clear her ideas are already making waves.

I knew from a young age I wanted to be an architect. Until I started architecture school, I had no idea what that meant. I initially struggled with defining good design; I was unfamiliar with canonical architects whose work was alien to my suburban upbringing. I knew I would have to look elsewhere— anywhere—for inspiration.

In graduate school, I stumbled on infrastructure design. At a pivotal moment, an architect described it to me as “the architecture of urban design.” I was hooked on this direct, complex, and yet ordinary typology. My studio projects followed suit: a pump station in New Orleans, a barrier island along the Gulf Coast, and a horizontal grain storage facility on the bank of the Mississippi River. Their urban scale required me to consider people in the broadest and most inclusive way. Their functions required interconnectedness; their complexity required constant iteration. I loved that these typologies seemed undesigned, and appeared to be discoveries borne of innate pragmatism that reveal an understated elegance. But they are carefully and deliberately designed to look that way. This was different than the egocentric architecture I previously studied.

I don’t often work on infrastructure projects, but I do carry those lessons with me. My aesthetic vision for a project is directly tied to an earnest attempt to make discoveries about each project’s unique constraints. This is especially helpful in the complex building typologies I now often work on, including healthcare, scientific research, and municipal facilities.

When considering my role in the profession, I consider myself an architect first; that’s what I’ve worked very hard to be. I’m often asked if I see myself as a female architect. I don’t hear a similar question asked of my male colleagues. Does this assume “male” as the default? What if someone doesn’t identify as male or female? Is this really helping to create a culture of inclusiveness? At the same time, I am a woman of Hispanic descent, and I am aware that neither group is adequately represented. If highlighting my identity helps others from underrepresented groups to find their voice and path in architecture, then I am proud to wear that mantle. —As told to Steve Cimino