Q&A with Coming Back Together Chancellor’s Citation Winner Colline Hernandez-Ayala
Colline Hernandez-Ayala is a partner at GTM Architects and leads the multifamily/mixed-use studio practice specializing in the planning and design of large urban redevelopment projects. She began her career as an architectural designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago, working on high-rise commercial structures. After several years working for other firms, she and two colleagues started JH Design Group. The firm’s work included the design of mixed-income replacement housing, retail and commercial projects. She is also a wife and mother of two boys, Nicolas and Noah ages 13 and 7. As a student at Syracuse, Ayala participated in Delta Sigma Theta sorority, the Student African American Society and C-STEP. She is a 1989 graduate of the School of Architecture and is a lead donor of an endowment benefiting black and Latino architecture students at Syracuse University.
01What led you to architecture as a profession?
I was a very creative kid who loved to draw and make things. I grew up surrounded by creative family members, including my grandmother, who was an artist and played the piano. My original plan was to go to art school to become a full time artist or art teacher. However, my dad strongly encouraged me to try architecture, which he felt was a more “practical” creative profession. So I did. You could say I stumbled into the profession, but looking back I think my father really did know best. I am thankful for his guidance early on.
02I see that you lead a multifamily/mixed-use practice specializing in large urban redevelopment projects. What interests you about this specialty?
I have always been intrigued by the relationship between architectural design and social equity in American cities. The design of adequate housing options in urban areas has always been central to that discussion. Working in this specialty allows me to contribute ideas toward addressing this important social issue. Our design team is challenged to not only develop sustainable design solutions that reflect the way people desire to live in cities today, but to also use design as a vehicle to foster social sustainability within diverse communities.
I also enjoy the collaborative nature of this type of work. Each project involves exchanging ideas and building consensus among a large team of people. We work closely with developers, neighborhood groups, community leaders, municipal agencies and other engineers. Each project is unique and brings its own set of challenges to solve.
03What inspires you about the design profession?
I am inspired by the transformative nature of design. Good design can change things in a positive way for people. I value the important role that architects and planners play in helping to shape the built environment. We conceptualize the spaces and places where people live, work and play, throughout their daily lives. Mixed-use residential projects are often catalysts for change in underserved urban neighborhoods that may not have seen any new investment in decades, bringing much needed housing retail and recreation space to a community.
04What has your experience been like as a woman of color in the architectural profession? What challenges have you faced?
When I graduated the School of Architecture in 1989, I was the only Black female student in my class. My first job was in a large architectural firm, where I was one of fewer than 10 employees of color in a firm of over 400 employees. I learned early in my education and career that being a Black female in this profession meant that I would stand out and be invisible all at the same time. It wasn’t until I was introduced to organizations like the National Organization of Minority Architects and the Rainbow Push Coalition during my years working in Chicago that I began to define a professional direction for myself. These organizations introduced me to a thriving community of Black architects, entrepreneurs and business leaders who were forging their own paths working together to create change in the community. These examples and relationships gave me the road map and confidence to venture into entrepreneurship and take on other leadership roles throughout my career.
05At SU, you were involved with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the Student African-American Society. How did these activities benefit you then and in your later life?
My involvement in these organizations connected me with other students with whom I shared similar cultural experiences and who were working together to support the interests of one another on campus. Being one of a few students of color in the architecture program at that time, I often felt out of place in the wider school community, and valued this type of support system. Since graduating, I have maintained many of these relationships and we have continued to support each other professionally and personally through the years. DST also introduced me to community service work and the value of giving of your time and talents to help others.
06You are a lead donor of an endowment benefiting Black and Latino architecture students at SU. Why is this important to you?
Any professional success I have experienced, I credit to the mentors who took time to teach and advise me along my journey, beginning with Professor Kermit Lee in the School of Architecture at SU. He was the first Black architect I had ever met, as well the first African American graduate of the School of Architecture at SU in 1957. He played a vital role in my education as a teacher and mentor, providing encouragement and guidance during some very challenging times for me in the program. In that spirit, I think it is my privilege and responsibility to give back and provide that same type of support to the next generation of emerging design professionals. The establishment of the endowment is a first step by myself and other alumni to collectively provide our support to students of color in the architecture program at SU.
07What message would you give young students, especially Black and Latino students entering college now?
I am a mom of two boys. My older son has just started high school and I always tell him to focus on figuring out what he loves to do, academically and socially. This is where you will discover your passion for the things you care about and begin to visualize a professional career path for yourself. Work hard, but realize that it is all a journey, so be thankful, even when things don’t work out as you might have planned. Use those moments to learn valuable lessons about yourself, realign you focus and continue to push forward.