Monica Ponce de León made history in 2007, when she became the first Hispanic architect to win the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture. It’s far from the only barrier the Venezuelan American architect has broken in her decades-long career. A leader in using digital fabrication and robotics to enhance her work, Ponce de León was a founding partner of Office dA, then launched her firm MPdL Studio in 2011. She’s drawn to the intersection of public and private spaces, most recently with the Pompano Beach Public Library and Cultural Center. As the dean of Princeton University School of Architecture, Ponce de León has continued to advocate for changes in the architecture profession, including to the licensure process, which has too many obstacles for people of color.
During a conversation with Uruguayan American architect Amir Kripper, founding principal of Kripper Studio, Ponce de León discusses how identity and the cross-cultural influences of people’s distinctive heritages can flourish in America.
Amir Kripper: You grew up in Caracas in the ’70s and ’80s, which was a prosperous time for Venezuela. What was your relationship to the field of architecture?
Monica Ponce de León: For me, as a result of my upbringing, every building comes with a high level of responsibility. I was very fortunate that my childhood was in a city where architecture was very valued and was considered an integral part of the shaping of culture. I learned at a very early age that architecture is a public good.
The architects of that generation were focused on creating a language that responded to the climate, the customs, and the history of Venezuela. Architects were household names; we all knew who Carlos Raúl Villanueva was and, in particular, his design for the Universidad Central. When I was 12, I performed at the Aula Magna as part of my high school choral group. It was exhilarating to be under the Alexander Calder acoustical clouds. This had a profound influence on me.
Ultimately, I became an architect, thanks to a little building by José Miguel Galia: the Banco Metropolitano, in the Boulevard of Sabana Grande, one of the main avenues in Caracas. When I was 16, I saw a presentation about the Metropolitano as an example of how a building—any building—could give back to the public, even if that was not part of the mission of the client. The presenter described Galia’s desire to shape the bank’s ground floor, with the intention of creating a small public space in front of it, facing the boulevard. I had to see it for myself: Can a tiny, private building really create a public space? I hopped on a bus, and when I arrived, I was surprised to find a children’s flute ensemble playing music for passersby. A small crowd had gathered, and people were dropping money into a collection box to help the kids attend an international festival. The memory still startles me. It was then that I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
AK: In the ’80s, your family immigrated to Miami. What was the greatest challenge to being a Latinx immigrant, even in a city with a significant Latinx community, as you followed a path at school and launched your professional career?
MPdL: It’s hard to answer the question because in addition to being Latinx, I’m a woman in a profession that has historically been male dominated and has certainly been exclusionary of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Peoples. When I was first hired to teach at Harvard, my male counterpart was being paid 30% more than I was. We had a joint architectural practice; we had graduated in my same class, why should he get paid more? I called HR, and I politely said, Surely there must be a mistake. Soon after, they gave me the same paycheck as his.
Additionally, I have been fortunate to always be surrounded by formidable role models. At the University of Miami, we had extraordinary faculty, such as Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who was my first studio instructor. My first job was for Arquitectonica, working directly with Latinx architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia; and at Harvard, I studied under Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti. I could see myself in all of them. Many women students do not actually get to study under other women, and many Latinx do not get to work or study with Latinx architects. I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.
AK: On the flip side, what is the greatest advantage to being a Latinx immigrant influencing the cultural production of the United States, then and now?
MPdL: Being Latinx in the United States gives you a broad perspective. We are by no means a homogenous group of people; but instead, we are a large community made of diverse traditions, with radically different histories, where all races are represented. As a result, I believe we are well poised to understand, include, project, and synthesize multiple points of view.
AK: I would like to discuss two of your very early projects in Boston: Mantra and Upper Crust Pizza. These are relatively small and primarily interiors. However, they display the ambition, playfulness, creativity, and innovation of your later work. How much impact did these projects have on your ability to address the difficulties of working within the construction industry?
MPdL: I am so excited that you bring up these projects. When I started my career, I accepted any project and made it into architecture. You are correct that these projects were early experiments, which in parallel with academic research, allowed me to explore how to use digital fabrication to create a new language of architecture that would embody multiple references. This ability to create variation in an economical way has also allowed me to create forms that are seemingly changing and evoke multiple associations.
AK: The Pompano Beach Library and Cultural Center serves a traditionally underserved community in Florida. The design process involved a lengthy community-engagement process. What did you learn?
MPdL: For me, design is the result of multiple forces, and I learn what matters by listening to many voices. In the case of the Pompano Beach project, this was all the more important because we had two clients with different agendas and a community with a great deal of diversity. We set up different ways to engage children, teenagers, parents, and older generations. I like to organize workshops to get feedback in ways that are not the typical town hall meetings. For example, workshops for parents and children, which is a way of bringing in adults that would not be able to join otherwise for lack of childcare, and we get to engage the kids.
What was interesting in this project is that we were dealing with a very diverse community that, on the surface, seemed very divided. Retirees wanted peace and quiet. Teens wanted loud, fun spaces where they could make music, film, and videos. Working parents needed safe spaces to drop off their kids; others needed classroom-like facilities to receive training. Ultimately, these were issues that design had the power to address. It has been wonderful to see how the community continues to love the building and use it widely.
AK: Historically, academia and practice have been separate worlds creating a gap between higher education and the profession. You advocate for realigning both. Can you expand on that?
MPdL: For me, academia and practice inform each other. The experimentation we do at Princeton School of Architecture directly influences what I do in practice. Conversely, the issues I confront in practice inform what I think we should be experimenting with in the classroom or in the fabrication lab.
I continue to be outspoken on what I perceive to be barriers to inclusivity and diversity. The system has been in place for a long time. For instance, I believe that practical training is an impediment to entrepreneurism. Practical training is an archaic notion. But those who have succeeded in this rite of passage insist that the next generation endure the same without recognizing how these rituals are barriers to a more diverse group of people succeeding. Another flashpoint debate is that the history of architecture licensing parallels the establishment of other restrictive measures in the U.S. meant to prevent minorities from entering certain professional careers. I do believe that there is a place for accreditation, and there is a place for examinations. Architecture schools have different approaches, but this is where accreditation ensures consistency, continuity, and standards.
AK: What advice would you give to your younger self?
MPdL: The only real advice I would have for my younger self would be to sleep a lot more and produce just a little less. At Princeton, we are restructuring architectural education so that quantity is no longer important. We are focusing on quality, and we are asking students to get good nights of sleep, eat well, and exercise.