Our own Allison Méndez, AIA, a recipient of this year’s AIA Young Architects Award, was recently honored as the keynote commencement speaker at Washington University in St. Louis’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts’s College of Architecture/Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design. Méndez, who earned a Masters in Architecture from the school in 2012, is a lecturer there. Her inspirational speech offers a number of key takeaways from her education and professional experience.
“Most of our lives, including major moments, occur in buildings. That should serve as a reminder that architecture matters, but also as a challenge to design with empathy,” says Allison of her speech’s themes. “Architecture is both essential and existential. But perhaps most importantly: Architecture is inherently optimistic.”
Here is Allison’s complete speech:
Today, we are here to celebrate the achievements of the class of 2019. But first, to the parents, to the family, to the friends who act like family, and to the faculty next to me, I want to acknowledge you, for the hard work you’ve done to help this class get here today. (Grads, you can clap for that.)
Ten years ago, I had my first college graduation. I sat on the field of a very hot, very crowded stadium for about four hours, awaiting my commencement speaker, President Barack Obama. A decade later, I only really recall one piece of advice he gave. And perhaps, for a graduation speech, that’s quite good. So if you remember just one thing I say today – then perhaps I’ll be as successful as President Obama. In this one, minor regard.
So I’m going to start with that bit of wisdom he imparted and move on to the things I’ve personally learned in the intervening ten years.
To my 2009 graduating class, President Obama said the following: “No matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve.”
This piece of wisdom was especially relevant to us as we were in the throes of the Great Recession. Our hard work was just beginning, and we were not guaranteed anything. But there’s more to the quote than just that.
My first alma mater (not Wash U) traditionally gave honorary degrees to all of its commencement speakers, but did not confer one on the President Obama. He wasn’t just telling us we could achieve more, he was telling us that, apparently, so could he. And so, I share his challenge with you, the next time you don’t get what you think you deserve, let it motivate you to learn and achieve more.
Maybe it was the President’s artful speech, maybe it was the naivety of youth, or maybe it was Alice Cooper, who was performing, really leaning in to “School’s out… forever” but on that day, not even the recession could stop us from feeling like giants.
And that’s where I’ll pick up on a few key things that I’ve personally learned since my first college graduation.
There are moments in your life where you will feel large, and there are moments when you will infinitesimally small. And often those moments will occur only days apart.
Some will try to diminish the moments in which you feel large. They’ll want to make sure you stay grounded. That you don’t develop an ego. Here’s a helpful hint: it’s not the confident ones with ego problems. It’s the people who are insecure.
Confident people are content with others’ successes. So feel big today – learn how to take a compliment, and find your own special mix of humility and pride. Yes, many factors contributed to you getting to this point, but it’s OK to say: I worked really hard to get here, and I’m really proud of myself. If you feel on top of the world today: Good. You should!
And when you do come down from this feeling, all the way down, you will return to your rightful size relative to the universe. You can re-watch the Eames’ Powers of Ten for a reminder as just how small that is.
Major challenges, tragedy, but also the expansiveness of traveling the globe and being in nature can all make you feel small. Use those moments to discover essential truths, meaning of life kind-of-stuff. And if it’s spurred by a challenge or tragedy, you may feel at first quite unlucky. But I urge you to put that in context. To revel in the luck you’ve had so far, and the luck you’ll have again. The luck to exist in this amazing world. The luck to bear witness to places and ideas both vast and permanent, when you are both small and ephemeral. The luck you have to be overwhelmed with awe and love. In this, you will learn about empathy and the sublime. And remember, it wouldn’t be sublime if it wasn’t also terrifying.
Of all the degrees, of all the professions, you picked Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Design. Remind yourself why.
For me, and I suspect for many of you, the sublime is part of that story. So is empathy. So is the ephemeral. Those big concepts I just described that are so foundational to existence are also foundational to the pursuit of architecture. They explain why we seek to create things bigger than ourselves and more permanent than our own lives.
Over the last few years, you have studied the very best examples of this, and the architects and designers deemed responsible for these magnificent buildings and spaces. As you start your career, you may wonder how you can be like them. How you can emulate their careers. But I’m here to tell you that that’s not necessarily your path. It’s unlikely that each building you help create is going to be the next big thing, or that you will be.
But I suspect that if you remember what fundamentally drew you to the practice, you won’t be disappointed by that fact. You will be reminded that architecture and design provide constant opportunity. That architecture is inherently optimistic. Some of your buildings and projects may be quite ordinary in nature, but that won’t prevent them from housing – and enhancing – extraordinary experiences.
Almost all of you spent your first day of life in a building. The first light you ever saw was choreographed by the design of a fixture or a window. Many important days in your life, like today, will happen in a building. You’ll call several buildings, over the course of your life, “home”. And at the end of your life, rather than return to nature, you may very end up in a highly designed place of serenity, a place that doesn’t just house you, but the memory of you, for the loved ones who will miss you.
All this is to say: so much of our lives are contained in buildings.
And that’s really why I wanted to be an architect. I wanted the opportunity to approach architecture with empathy, to imbue it with meaning, and to create spaces that could adequately contain or evoke the memories of someone’s home, of someone’s city, of someone’s life.
And I went into architecture to discover the spaces that could achieve this, not to author them with a supposed stroke of genius, or heavy-handed interpretation of the world.
At significant points in my education and now career, it has served me well to revisit that question: why Architecture. And know that these answers can and will evolve; they have to, because as you grow as architects, and as people, your understanding of the world and the profession will expand. Still, I find that the more I stay true to my core motivations – motivations about how to create and not about how to get ahead — the more I find success in practice, and the more I find happiness in life.
You’ll be tempted to take shortcuts to success.
Resist that urge. If your competitive spirit drives you to diminish the work of others, you aren’t becoming your best self or the best designer you can be. Look around you, your classmates will be your colleagues, some of your faculty will be your first bosses, and you will work collaboratively in some form from here on out.
So If there is one opportunity and you are one of ten people vying for it, first, figure out if you can make ten opportunities. Be generous. Architecture, success, and life, are not zero-sum games.
And while still on the subject of success: Only you can define what success, and happiness, mean for you. It’s not up to your parents (sorry parents), not your instructors (sorry faculty), and, certainly not me.
In the very near future, you will be confronted with many opportunities. You will have the agonizing task of picking a direction. If you know what success and happiness mean for you, you’ll know what decision to make.
If you don’t, then just pick one and figure it out later. Lucky you, to have so many good options in life!
When you are well on your way, you can post-rationalize it as the road less traveled. Or acknowledge there’s just the one you happened to take, and it was as good as any other.
And though you can never really make the big decisions over again, you will learn that there are millions of tiny decisions that will matter just as much, if not more, over time, and with those, you can continue to right your course, to head to your version of success.
So, what I’m ultimately trying to say is: Don’t worry so much.
The last couple decades of your life have been preparing you for this, and now, the next step is to go out there, establish your career, and make your mark on the world. There’s a lot of pressure in that next step.
But, please know, that I believe wholeheartedly that things are going to fall into place for you. Because you know what? You went to Wash University in St. Louis. You are some of the brightest people on earth, you learned from some of the best faculty in the world, and you are lucky, you are privileged, you are hard-working, and you are talented. And besides, as President Obama said, there is always more to learn, always more to achieve.
Finally, today I stand here, as an alum, as someone establishing myself in the field, and as someone doing what I love every single day, and I’m reporting from the future, to let you know, the best is yet to come.
To the class of 2019: Congratulations. This next part is really fun.