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Friday Feature: Alex Sandoval

Dec 03, 2011

Since we last posted a Friday Feature, VIA has welcomed a wave of new talent to the firm. We start our series again by introducing one of our gifted urban planners, Alex Sandoval. Check back soon for more first-hand perspectives on what it takes to become an architect!   

Who are you and what do you do? 

I’m Alex and I’m an Urban Designer and Planner at VIA in Seattle. I went to architecture school back in Mexico City where I grew up. After working as an architecture designer for some time, I realized that I was most excited and interested about those large regional projects that influence the way cities are experienced. That interest brought me to Seattle where I did grad school in Urban Planning. It’s been 6 years already and I still have a lot to do in this amazing region.

What made you decide to go into your field?
I was born and raised in one of the largest cities in the world: the great Mexico City with a population reaching over 20 million people. I suppose growing up in such a dense and chaotic urban environment made me quite conscious of the issues and benefits of living in a city. This is why I decided that I was not going to have a career designing sprawling single-family communities but rather to be a proponent of dense and compact living. Just like we recently heard all over the news, the World’s population has reached the 7 billion mark and it is projected that by 2050 we’ll reach over 10 billion! According to 7 Billion & Me, the day I was born there were 4,331,448,959 people in the world and since then 4,363,658,538 more people have been born. With all these alarming figures all I can think is that we need to make the decisions now that will accommodate such growth where it actually makes sense; re-densifying our urban centers while still making them livable. Big challenge!

What did your family think of your chosen field?
They were very supportive however I was supposed to go into a career in medicine following my father’s footsteps.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
I had a lot of great professors and mentors, however, definitely the best professor I had was a close group of friends from architecture school. With these 7 guys we opened a little studio where we would get together after school to help each other out with our school projects, do some critique sessions and just overall talk and exchange ideas. We kept this little studio running for over 3 years and evolved it to a point where we were actually running a business submitting proposals and entering design competitions. At some point we were actually making money out of this so I’ll have to say that this true hands-on experience was definitely the best learning I had.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
Definitely financial; It’s hard to live on a student budget especially while pursuing a design degree. There are so many expenses, materials, software, books… not to mention all that coffee intake.

What inspires you?
I don’t believe there’s one true source of inspiration. I’d rather believe that through cumulative work we come up with the best design solutions. To me the actual wow moment comes at the end of the process when you look back and realize the amount of work you had to put on just to arrive at a particular design. That is truly inspiring.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
Urban planning is such a broad field that people from almost any career can be a part of the process; in fact, I would highly encourage anyone interested to include as many points of view as possible. It is important, however, that people that want to be an active participant have some technical skills. It took me 5 years of architecture school and 2 of planning to develop some sort of technical and design skills and I still have a lot to learn.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
Good communicators.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
No la forces (Don’t force it). Sometimes we as designers can be stubborn and get stuck in one design solution trying to figure it out right at the beginning without even exploring other solutions; however, I have learned that design is actually an iterative process and it is through this process of trial and error that we can come up with the best design solutions. It is through this back and forth process that design teams learn a lot and develop ideas that at the time may not be applicable to the project but can be recycled in the future for different projects.

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
Big YES! I believe urban design and planning is something that is going to keep growing just as cities and municipalities are requiring more and better planning to accommodate population growth. Remember, 10 billion people by 2050, that’s a lot of planning!

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
Get involved. Urban planning typically requires a public process so it is very easy to become part of it by just attending public meetings, design reviews and public charrettes. Participating in these types of meetings can give students an idea of what this planning thing is all about.