Citizen Architect - Monica Gresser, AIA
“I was supposed to do this. I’m uncomfortable with things.” For Monica Gresser, advocacy is a calling. To improve the lives of her fellow Las Vegas residents, she uses every tool at her disposal. Her hands have framed houses with the National Association of Women in Construction and with Habitat for Humanity. With AIA and citizen architects from around the country, she has used her voice to educate policymakers and stakeholders about the different approaches cities are taking to address homelessness and to alleviate the affordable housing shortage plaguing the country. At home in Las Vegas, Gresser connects nonprofits, residents, and government officials through community outreach events, canvassing projects, workshops, and personal guidance. In particular, she uses her knowledge and energy to spur action to make improvements in neighborhoods where residents face housing instability and systemic injustice.
Monica Gresser, AIA, is the founder of BRAZENarchitecture, a Las Vegas firm that helps clients transform their ideas into bold, sustainable places and spaces for nonprofit, public, education, and commercial projects. She currently is a member of the AIA Las Vegas Justice Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and co-chair of AIA’s Women in Architecture Committee and AIA’s Affordable Housing Committee. Since 2019, Gresser has been a member of the Clark County Community Development Advisory Committee. She also is former chair of Las Vegas’
Joint Housing Working Group and board member of the Southern Nevada Continuum of Care Board. A graduate of the University of Houston and Le Centre d ‘Étude d ‘Architecture et d'Urbanisme in Saintes, France. Gresser is the recipient of multiple industry and community service awards, including AIA Nevada’s first-ever Citizen Architect Award and a U.S. Green Building Council Leadership Award. She is a registered architect in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and North Carolina.
When Monica Gresser launched BRAZENarchitecture in 2011, she was eager “to do her own thing” but also wanted to create a firm whose mission was to contribute to the well-being of the residents in her adopted hometown of Las Vegas.
Gresser established BRAZEN first by doing pro bono work, including making enhancements to a community-based daycare center. She also got to know nonprofit leaders in Las Vegas’ Naked City neighborhood, a community just off the Strip that has struggled for decades with crime and poverty. Gresser soon was helping organizations like Caridad Charity and the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, which helps local youth address their housing needs.
One of the most important traits of a citizen architect is a willingness to ask questions. “Someone told me there were a lot of homeless youth in Las Vegas,” Gresser said. “I wanted to know more about that. Be curious. When you hear about a problem or see an injustice, try to figure out what your place is in that, and if there is a way you can help.”
The desire to know more about her community led Gresser to start BRAZENconversations in 2015. The series brought together community members and leaders to discuss many of the toughest challenges facing the city: substance abuse, mental health, seniors in poverty, human trafficking, and homelessness. “There were societal problems that I just didn’t know anything about,” Gresser admitted. “But I needed to know about them.”
If Gresser’s advocacy begins with curiosity and learning, the second step is to connect the people who understand the problem with those who have the power to address it.
In 2019, for example, Gresser learned that parents in Naked City were increasingly worried about their children’s safety on neighborhood streets and sidewalks. Casa de Luz, a faith-based community resource center, asked BRAZENarchitecture to help slow traffic. “I knew someone in public works, so we started there,” said Gresser. Soon city traffic engineers were investigating potential solutions, and Gresser and a team of volunteers, and the ward’s councilwoman were knocking on doors to educate residents about the traffic-calming measures the city was considering. Eventually, officials agreed to a plan to add traffic-calming devices.
“We have a certain skill set as architects, and we know people,” Gresser said. “We need to answer the calls that the community puts out there, and connect people from there.”
In 2020, Casa de Luz asked Gresser if she and her colleagues would be willing to teach classes to neighborhood kids. The BRAZEN team developed an eight-week program on neighborhoods and urbanism for 7- to 14-year-olds. Gresser reached out to city planners, who donated materials the children used to create models of the neighborhood they wanted.
“One child wanted a museum, another wanted a burial ground,” explained Gresser. “These conversations are very telling about the challenges these children are facing.”
“Casa de Luz wanted us to create a class because children in marginalized neighborhoods often are not exposed to professionals,” said Gresser. “They see cops, social workers, pimps, and drug dealers, but don’t see a lot more than that, except teachers. And we can be teachers.”
Gresser explained that the class was a success because it grew from a direct need her nonprofit partners identified.
“We need to be better about asking what people need, and listening, instead of telling people what they should be doing,” said Gresser.
Architects bring a unique skill set to advocacy. They are trained problem-solvers, Gresser said, and are excellent conduits, since their work involves communicating with a range of stakeholders—including government officials, real estate developers, small business owners, suppliers, and residents.
Mostly, Gresser wants her fellow architects to be as uncomfortable as she is—and to use that discontent to solve problems and address injustice.
“Don’t do this to try to save your soul. It’s not about you,” Gresser said. “We need to ask what other people need. Being brazen is about bold movements in all we do.”
- As told to Kerrie Rushton