Democratizer of Design
Mónica Ponce de León believes that everyone deserves good architecture. She’s pioneered the use of technology to make high-end design more accessible and climate friendly.
Mónica Ponce de León is a preeminent architect and educator. Her accolades include numerous prizes from the American Institute of Architects and Architectural Record’s 2020 Women in Architecture Award. In 2007, she became the first Hispanic architect to receive the prestigious National Design Award for architecture from Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Ponce de León was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and moved to the United States with her family after high school. She studied architecture at the University of Miami and Harvard University and taught at Harvard from 1996 to 2008. From 2008 to 2015 she was dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan; since 2015 she has served as dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture.
Ponce de León established architecture practice Office dA with Nader Tehrani while completing her master’s at Harvard. The company’s work included the innovative green gas station Helios House in Los Angeles and the RISD Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design. She founded her own firm, MPdL Studio, in 2010.
Drive down West Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles and you will encounter a strange and beautiful structure shimmering like a mirage. This is not some fantastical vision of the future. No. Helios House is a one-of-a-kind, environmentally sustainable gas station. And it was constructed from some of today’s most advanced materials and technologies, and from the values of its creator.
Mónica Ponce de León: If you want to produce an architecture that is culturally relevant, then I think you need to figure out how the building can then partake in the construction of culture.
As an architect and academic, Mónica Ponce de León has been uniquely partaking in the construction of culture for more than three decades, striving to democratize good design to create harmony between technology and people. Buildings are one of the most important technologies in our lives. In Western society, we spend about 90% of our time inside. Yet so many of our spaces are just boxes with windows. Buildings, Ponce de León believes, should be an extension of the people in and around them. It’s a belief she developed growing up in Venezuela.
Ponce de León: In Caracas, we all knew who the architects were. We knew the history of architecture in the city. Buildings were part of our identity and we thought of them as representing community.
Today, Ponce de León has designed structures across the United States and around the world. In 2016, she co-curated the US pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. But for her, eye-catching design shouldn’t just be a luxury for one slice of society.
Ponce de León: And I, of course, deeply believe that architecture is a public good, and that buildings represent the communities that they serve and that they can change the life of a community. Everyone deserves design. Beauty, to me, is a human right. In the architectural community, we have the preconceived notion that you should give certain communities buildings that look, honestly, boring, and that somehow those communities don’t deserve architecture with a capital “A” and my experience has been the opposite, that those very communities, they want a building, as you say, that represents them.
This was evident when Ponce de León and her team set about designing a library and cultural arts and media center in Pompano Beach, a low-income city 40 miles north of Miami. They wanted the people who would use the building to see themselves in its design. So they started by listening.
Ponce de León: We had many community meetings where we discussed the project directly with those who were going to be using it. How do we produce an aesthetic that is unique, that is exciting, that tells the community that this is a public building? They said to me, “We do not want a Mediterranean style building and we do not want an international style building.” Which means they didn’t want to look like Coral Gables and they did not want to look like Miami.
Ponce de León: When people look at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center and Library, they’re like, “Wait, that’s too fancy.” I hate that term, “too fancy for a community like Pompano.” I think that we need to move away from this divide that design is for certain groups and not for others.
For much of architectural history, cost has been one of the key factors in constructing so-called fancy buildings. Now, new technology is changing that and supercharging Ponce de León’s goal to democratize design. Digital fabrication is one such technology, where parts of buildings are prefabricated by computer-controlled machines, to produce stronger, more sustainable and often less expensive components.
Ponce de León: When I started working in digital fabrication, I felt it was important for us as architects and for us as educators, to make sure that we understand the tools and what the tools can offer through the architectural imagination. Before the advent of digital fabrication technology, in order to have something custom made, you really had to have a lot of resources. But by using digital technology, you then make a custom-made available to many, as opposed to the few.
Mónica Ponce de León has used digital fabrication to create a range of structures. From a New York City hotel to that Los Angeles gas station. When designing the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design, she used software to make every cubicle a different size to accommodate different body types. But now Ponce de León strives for more than just harmony with her buildings. Design, she believes can bring balance to our relationship with the planet. Buildings generate almost 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions as we tear down, construct and use them. Sustainable design will allow us to continue building our world without simultaneously destroying it.
Ponce de León: Architecture is more sustainable when it’s permanent but life changes. So how do you reconcile the tendency of architecture to be fixed and to be permanent? And actually, the fact that that’s a good thing because then you’re not constantly tearing down buildings. And what I have been doing in recent time is actually thinking about not the present moment for a building, but how do I expect that building to develop over a long period of time? And we just developed a model for a single-family house that allows the family to stay in the house after the kids grow up and move out, by providing multiple points of access but also by providing walls that are movable and doors that are moveable at the outset, so that you can actually sever certain portions of the house and rent those units out when your kids move out. And then in the future when the parents might actually be gone, the kids might not get stuck selling the house but actually might subdivide it into two units, three units, and actually rent it out as a source of income. So again, thinking about the possibility of a building not just functioning for the very, very present.
But even Mónica Ponce de León admits that architecture could only take us so far. Environmentally conscious design, she believes, needs to be bolstered by official oversight.
Ponce de León: People want to do the right thing. Legislation makes it more affordable for many more to do the right thing. Once you legislate wearing a seatbelt, then all car manufacturers have to do it. Imagine if there was no legislation for a seatbelt. Those who could afford that as a feature in their car, I’m sure will wear it. And those who could not afford that as a feature in their car will be stuck without it. It’s the same way in terms of codes for buildings. If we were able to legislate energy consumption of buildings in a more stringent fashion, I believe that all of those materials and features that we need in buildings would then be more commonplace and therefore more affordable.
None of this work can happen alone. As dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture, Mónica Ponce de León is helping the next generation of architects to imagine and to create better built environments.
Ponce de León: That’s what’s so unique about architecture as a discipline. You’re always doing something that was not there, every architect. And as such, we are actually materializing alternatives to the status quo. So by building something new to show, oh, things don’t have to be the same, things can be different.