Elevated Conversations, Alicia Ponce, AIA
AIA's Elevated Conversations series features architects from diverse backgrounds and highlights their perspectives on their career paths, changes they've seen in the profession, the importance of diversity and inclusion, and more. To celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke with Alicia Ponce, AIA, founder and principal of AP Monarch. Ponce is also a founding mentor at Arquitina, a professional leadership and licensure initiative for Latinas in the field of Architecture. Ponce will speak at AIA's Women's Leadership Summit, Sept. 28- Oct.1 in San Jose, California.
What inspired you to become an architect?
I knew I wanted to be an architect at the tender age of six. Even though I didn’t know what the profession was called, I feel like I was drawn to it by the experiences that architecture gave me as a kid.
I was with my father while he was having a conversation outdoors with a friend and it happened to be near a construction site. I remember being curious about what the site was and thinking about how buildings came together. I was just in awe of what was happening at the site, I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to put stuff together. Later I found out about architecture, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do, to create spaces for people. It's such a vivid memory for me, I remember seeing the machines at work and I remember the smell of freshly poured concrete and that’s what really did it for me.
Who were some of your role models or mentors when you were starting your career?
I didn’t have an architectural mentor for a long time. I did my own research and came across the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, which later become my first internship. Being from Chicago and having that studio in Oak Park made architecture very accessible to me. It was my introduction to the profession, and taught me about somebody who was very well-known, admired, and respected, who also had a reputation of connecting architecture to nature.
What advice do you have for young people looking to become architects?
People who choose architecture are innately curious. We’re curious about who makes things, how things are made, and why. My advice is to ask a lot of questions. Take advantage of being at university and get to know your instructors. Use the internet to dive deeper into questions you may have. Be curious.
Ask questions about design, but also ask about your career. What do I need to do to get my license? What job should I take after school? What do I do if I’m interested in structural engineering. Ask many questions.
Why is diversity especially important in the field of architecture?
With diversity you get a much richer design solution. The approach is based on not only architectural expertise but through the lens of various lived experiences such as age, race, and gender. A diverse lens provides solutions not only for great design but also deciding diverse and equitable investment in communities across the country.
Currently there are less than 1% of licensed Latina architects in the U.S. As I was taking the licensing exams, this is the number I came across and I wondered well how many Latina architects are there? How many black architects are there? How many Native American architects? It was frustrating to not know that number. I felt like something was missing. I realized later that architecture needs to be diverse. It needs to be able to come from different opinions and lived experiences to provide the best solution for a project.
That is why in 2020 I founded Arquitina. Arquitina is a combination of words. In Spanish architect is “arquitecta,” and then “Latina,” which is how the name came to be. It was created because I was feeling lonely in the field and not seeing representation of people like me when I started working at firms. It was hard to get that proper sponsor or mentor, and when I was going through the licensure process I looked up statistics that said women of color are less than one percent of architects.
What is APMonarch’s relationship to nature?
AP is from my initials, or as it has been pointed out to me, architecture and planning, but the word monarch is for the monarch butterfly. The monarch butterfly represents a healthy environment. You don’t see monarch butterflies in places with poor air or water quality, they pollinate in gardens. At APMonarch, we call ourselves the pollinators of the built environment. We look specifically at how architecture can reduce energy use, we look at passive strategies. If we know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west every single day, then why don’t we use that that to our advantage for proper building orientation and optimum energy use.
"If we know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west every single day, then why don’t we use that that to our advantage for proper building orientation and optimum energy use?"
We try to understand policy that is set in place and what are the changes that need to be made. Our first steps include looking at passive design and materiality and understanding the impacts of carbon in buildings. As architects we have to design buildings that impact the environment in a positive way. Architects across the country are really good at designing glass buildings. That’s great! Now, let’s step up to the challenge and innovate. Make buildings highly energy efficient and reduce carbon emissions in a big way.
What are some of the biggest changes in the architecture world since you started as an architect?
Pay equity and opportunities of leadership for women of color. I’ve very slowly started to see more doors open for the younger generation of women and women of color in architecture. In my first week of work about 20 years ago, a female architect kindly encouraged me to leave the field and go into medicine or law because I wouldn’t get anywhere or get promoted. I will never forget that.
I do see women in higher positions now, but there’s still such a long way to go, and even longer for women of color. Why aren’t we at more tables yet? I don’t know what the pay disparity is now, but I’m certain there’s a big wage gap. The last time I checked Latina women were making 54 cents to the dollar, it takes about 22 months for us to earn as much as our white male counterparts. There are doors being opened, but the numbers show that we still have a long way to go.
We need to be more supportive of having families, of being caretakers, and focusing on our mental health, but still ensure people are open to different ideas. The profession needs to adapt to having more women in the field and adapt to the different ways we get things done. We love our work just as much as we love spending quality time with our kids for example. Our approach is not wrong and it’s not less. It’s merely different than what we’re used to seeing.
If you had a magic wand what would you change about the architecture field?
We’d have equitable pay as women and as women of color and you’d see more women making decisions in leadership. That would be my call to action to firm leaders. I think there is a lot of listening happening, but we want to see action. At the end of the day, you’ll have a much more beautiful solution to problems we need to solve as architects. Let’s not see this as a checklist item to meet DEI goals, let's do this every single day because it’s the right thing to do.