About The AIAAbout The AIA
Alissa is passionate about helping people, places, and buildings reach their full potential. As a principal in a small architecture firm, she has designed dozens of projects throughout Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and California. Over the past few years, she has also been a skilled educator. In her role as an adjunct faculty member, she has taught and inspired hundreds of students in the design field. She is currently president of ADL Pier Design in Minneapolis.
I have lived in numerous Midwest places: Elgin, IL; Fairmont, MN; Pella, IA; Ankeny, IA; Lincoln, NE; Minneapolis, MN. I have to say, though, that I have always considered my hometown to be Fairmont, MN.
How did you make the decision to pursue a career in architecture?
It was an odd path. Ever since I was a small child, I loved playing with Legos and would constantly be sketching floor plans and even cross-sections. Nonetheless, up until I was a freshman in high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. I had never met an architect but at some point in 9th grade I decided I wanted to become one, and the rest is history . . . so all that building and doodling and daydreaming prepared me for what I am today after all.
Where did you go to architecture school?
The University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska
Did you have a specialization?
Residential, Small Commercial, and Land Use Applications
What do you like best about being an architect?
The creative problem-solving aspect of it all. Everything is a puzzle. You figure out the rules for each project, the restrictions and limitations, and then you let your mind loose on it and see what you can come up with.
How do you define creativity and apply it to your career?
Creativity is the ability to find unique solutions to problems. It is a necessity in my career. People pay me to look at their existing environment, listen to their hopes and dreams, and then come up with something that knocks their socks off and hits it out of the park. If it wasn’t something unique and thoughtful in response to their needs, they wouldn’t value the design process that we went through. Creativity is the cornerstone of successful design.
Do you approach architecture from an artistic or functional starting point? Are the two concepts exclusive?
Both. To be frank, I don’t think that quality design can exist as an “either/or.” It has to be a cohesive union of the two. I like to look at every project as a problem or game. There are certain rules that have to be followed. That is the functional component. At the same time, how do I work either within or around the confines of those rules to create something beautiful? That is the artistic. Now, that isn’t to say that one must always follow the rules, but if you don’t have a good grasp of the rules, you won’t know how to break them. The result then is often a cloddish, flippant design and lacks the kind of depth that comes from truly understanding the various facets of a project. I want my projects to be such an elegant solution to the problem that even the function is artistic.
What’s your favorite building and why?
I would have to say it would be Detroit’s Michigan Theater (parking garage.) There is just a hauntingly beautiful collision of time and use and beauty and function. In all of my travels, I have seen beautiful buildings, well-proportioned in their massing, texture, and tone. I have wandered, mouth-agape, at the glorious perfection of architecture and attention to detail. Yet for some reason, I find myself drawn to this deconstructed space. I don’t know whether to consider it abused or preserved. I only know that it speaks to me.
If any, who are your role models?
Mentors, teachers, nurses –people who do what is right, even when it is not in their best interest to do so. Regardless of the size and scale of their situation, they are heroes to me. I know that isn’t a very archi-centric answer but I see role models all around me. There is something you can learn from everyone.
What project you’ve worked on are you the proudest of the result?
The “project” I am most proud of is co-founding Rebuilding It Right. Within a day of a tornado devastating the most highly-impacted area of our city, we had formed this group, which provided pro-bono design-related relief to the tornado zone. We had three scales of involvement, from a large, urban-planning scale (what will happen to these neighborhoods going forward?); a medium, block-scale (what might in-fill development look like on the vacant lots?); and small, individual building-scale (what do individual homeowners need from us as design professionals?) I am most proud of coordinating the relief efforts to over 40 families who called our hotline and received more than $50,000 worth of pro bono design services to help them keep and restore the equity in their homes, and restore them to a level appropriate for the historic quality of their homes.
Aside from this, we were often told that we were the only group who wasn’t asking for anything in return. We just asked them what they needed us to help with and matched them up with one of 10 design response teams who volunteered to tackle these projects. To quote one of our clients, "Rebuilding It Right allowed me to see past all the destruction and see the potential. They spoke to my heart. What they did was give me HOPE." Now, how many times will a client give you a hug, shed a tear, and tell you that? That is how I know that every one of our 80+ volunteers made a difference. And I am so proud that I could be a part of making that happen.
If you had to choose one of your projects to represent your work, what project would you choose?
That is a very tough question, second only to picking a favorite child. Hmmmm, I would choose a single-family home I designed in Calaveras County, CA. The program was fun; the massing and scale were wonderful; the site was phenomenal; and although it was state-of-the-art, it had a nostalgic appeal that was a deliberate nod to architect-designed homes from the last century. There you go: function and beauty in one amazing package.
What projects, other than your own work, do you find inspiring?
Oddly enough, I find the architecture of Disney inspiring. I know that many consider it merely cartoony but there is something so intriguing about an architecture that isn’t quite replication or mimicry of the past, but a distorted re-imagining specifically programmed to invisibly manipulate a user’s psychology in the space. I find that intriguing and things that intrigue me inspire me to think differently about design—whatever the perspective or intention.
What are your guiding principles for your design work?
I try to treat every project as though it was the most important one I am working on. I like to present my clients with a few options –usually one of which is the one they are expecting and then a few which look at the space in a way that is entirely unfamiliar to them. I know I am successful in my creativity if they get excited about the “new” options. I guess I like to challenge myself. Every project is like a puzzle and I try and put it together the right way.
What do you want to be your legacy?
Aside from hopefully leaving behind a legacy of quality design in the built environment (in theory, if what I’ve designed lasts a lifetime, that means someone valued it enough not to change it), as a larger legacy I hope that I leave my little corner of the world in better shape than I found it in. If anyone deigns to look back on the role I played in this, I hope they say, “She approached all problems (whether architectural or not) with a sense of fairness, inquisitiveness, and an open mind. And what we got out of it was a solution that was fair, well-reasoned, beautiful, creative, and the best solution for all.”