Alumni Q+A: Allyson Mendenhall AB ’90, MLA ’99
As the Chair of the GSD Alumni Council, Allyson Mendenhall AB ’90, MLA ’99, is passionate about the Council’s role as ambassadors to the greater alumni body and for current students who are “alumni-in-training.” She also serves as a GSD Appointed Director to the Harvard Alumni Association working to raise the School’s profile. In support of her aspiration for alumni to connect with each other and learn about the GSD’s impacts, Mendenhall shares valuable resources and insights in this Q&A to facilitate these links.
A Principal in the Denver office of Design Workshop, Mendenhall is the Director of Legacy Design. The firm-wide initiative emphasizes practice-based research and setting comprehensive sustainable agendas for design projects to understand how they will deliver measurable economic, environmental, community and aesthetic benefits. Additionally, she serves on the boards of the Landscape Architecture Foundation and the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Read about Mendenhall’s path to building a non-traditional role at her firm, her most memorable moment at the GSD, and about the many opportunities for alumni to become engaged with the School.
Tell us about your background.
Where were your born?
Indianapolis, IN, but we moved to Aspen, CO when I was three. This was in 1971, a year after Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff.
Where were you raised?
I was raised in Aspen, Colorado, a place most people visit as tourists. While I wasn’t thinking about it growing up, I now realize that resort towns are microcosms of larger urban design situations. There are so many complex design problems to solve: How does the base area meet the mountain? How does the town, and lodging and retail, integrate with the ski area? Where is workforce housing provided? How is the circulation of skiers, buses, and cars handled? How do skiers park or get dropped off with their gear? What do non-skiers do while waiting for their families? How are adjacent public lands and associated environmental regulations addressed? How are the ski runs themselves designed and connected to other parts of the mountain? What happens when there is no snow in a given year and occupancy rates plummet? As a kid growing up in such an unusual setting and having entrepreneur parents whose businesses depended on tourism, I was keenly aware of these complex considerations of mountain resort towns. Only now do I realize they are central to many design and planning projects.
What previous degrees do you have?
I graduated from Harvard College with a degree in English literature. This launched me toward my first job in New York City working at Random House. I worked in marketing and publicity to secure media coverage for the books and authors. My English major roots and publishing experience helped to build skills that I put to use daily in the design world—the ability to write, to analyze a text, to do research, and to articulate stories. When I arrived for the first year of my MLA I program, I was really concerned about my lack of prior design experience and worried about drawing and drafting. But I had classmates with more visual backgrounds who were equally fearful of the theory classes and the requisite research papers—assignments that were familiar to me. Of course, by the end of the three years, our deep dive into the GSD evened out everyone’s skills despite varied incoming backgrounds.
When did you realize you wanted to be a landscape architect?
After a year of sitting in Midtown Manhattan pocket parks and bonus plazas on my lunch breaks during my first year out of college, I wondered who designed these urban spaces. Why were some, like Paley Park and Greenacre Park, so vibrant and thronging with people, and why others were uncomfortable and devoid of activity? This was 1991 when plans were underway for a major redesign of Bryant Park. I read a New York Times article and learned about the need to address this needle park’s social issues through design, and the challenge of transforming the space for new generations in the context of a historic landmark. I became enchanted with the idea of designing urban public open spaces and decided to change careers.
While researching a landscape architecture career and taking art classes at night to build a portfolio, I worked in research and communications at Regional Plan Association— a think tank focused on solutions to the tri-state economic, environmental and social challenges. I then shifted to Thomas Balsley Associates (TBA), a landscape architecture firm in NYC. I started as a temp, figuring that I could offer administrative and marketing skills while peeking over the shoulders of the designers to make sure this was a career I wanted to pursue. Within a few weeks, I was made the Office Manager and Director of Marketing, serving in these leadership positions at age 25. I did this for two years, working on my portfolio by taking art classes at night, and eventually applying to schools. By the time I arrived at the GSD to pursue an MLA degree, I had full exposure to a spectrum of design office operations, including invoicing, contracts, utilization, cash flow, overhead rates, RFPs, proposals, etc. I’m pretty sure I was the only student in my class with this knowledge!
Why did you choose the GSD?
I chose the GSD for three reasons: One was personal in that my boyfriend (now husband) was planning to stay in NYC for the three years of my MLA program and the GSD was the closest school of those where I’d been accepted. The second was the feeling I had when I walked into Gund Hall and had a palpable sense of the compelling design conversations happening throughout the building—in the lobby exhibit, on the trays, at pinups. The third was the comment from a friend enrolled in the MArch program that the GSD was like a big buffet with so many offerings to either sample or partake in large portions. I didn’t get a sense the buffet was as rich or deep at the other schools I was considering.
We need to be more demonstrative as a school and alumni body in engaging in Harvard-wide events and inviting them to ours. We need to get involved in the Harvard Clubs and Shared Interest Groups (SIGs). We may even find a few clients in the process!
You serve as a GSD’s Appointed Director to the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) raising the School’s profile with the HAA, sharing its mission broadly to fellow alumni leaders across the University, and demonstrating the work of GSD alumni in the world. What value do you see for GSD alumni in engaging with the broader Harvard community?
So many Harvard alumni are only dimly aware of the GSD. Designers are a mystery to them, and they haven’t been exposed to the unique methods of a design education, namely the studio model. I have joined Ron Ostberg MArch ’68 and Jennifer Luce MDesS ’94 in representing the GSD at the HAA. We view ourselves as ambassadors to represent the School at the University level and to infiltrate the alumni leaders from the other schools. We are learning to articulate stories about the research, creation, and innovation that goes on in the GSD’s trays and labs. How can we communicate the impact of GSD alumni solving complex design problems across scales around the world? We need to be more demonstrative as a school and alumni body in engaging in Harvard-wide events and inviting them to ours. We need to get involved in the Harvard Clubs and Shared Interest Groups (SIGs). We may even find a few clients in the process! Several years ago, the GSD served as the venue for one of the HAA meetings, and I still hear stories of the sense of wonder the non-GSD alums felt upon walking into Gund Hall, viewing the exhibition and exploring the trays. We need to host this broad group of alumni leaders again. We also need to get more GSD alums on the ballot for the Harvard Overseers election to diversify this cohort.
Congratulations on becoming Chair of the GSD Alumni Council as of July 1! A focus area you defined for Alumni Council members is their role as ambassadors for the GSD. How can the larger alumni community support this important work? What resources are available to them?
Over the past few years, members of the Alumni Council have convened alumni at a variety of events in cities around the world. These gatherings typically combine content (lectures, hard hat tours, site visits, gallery openings, art exhibits, etc.) with time to socialize and network. Our intent is to create a groundswell of gatherings that are of intellectual and social interest. We have found that alumni are genuinely interested in connecting with each other and learning about the GSD’s current programs, impacts, and aspirations. In some cities, we have extended the invitations to alumni across all Harvard schools, and we are learning how interested they are in projects transforming the built environment in their cities and understanding the value designers bring to solving complex social and environmental problems. The Alumni Council operates by the slogan, “We are all ambassadors,” which extends to the greater alumni body. So I encourage alumni to attend these events to reconnect. If you are interested in hosting a gathering in your locale, the GSD Alumni Relations office can assist you in contacting fellow alumni in your area. Don’t be deterred by the word “event.” A coffee date for two, or a drinks gathering for a group—these count too!
Another focus of ambassadorship is the current students. We invite student groups to each of our meetings in Cambridge to learn about what they are trying to accomplish and the challenges they face. When we are in town, we host portfolio reviews that are fully subscribed, and students can sign up to join Alumni Council members for breakfast at local cafes. At the fall 2016 reunions, students will be invited to a breakfast to network with the alumni who have returned to campus to celebrate their reunions. We are looking for ways to take these programs “on the road” to tap into the larger alumni network as a resource for the students and fellow alumni.
The Alumni Council is very excited about the newly launched Harvard Alumni Directory and its ability to serve as a resource to connect our alums to each other and for students to connect with alumni. Don’t ignore the emails you have received from Harvard about claiming your HarvardKey! This is your access to the alumni directory where you can develop your own profile and view those of other alumni. Profiles can be personal, or business-oriented. You can describe your passions or your projects—or both. You can include a URL to your business website. You can also indicate that you are available to be contacted by students seeking career advice, or alumni from all schools looking to hire a design consultant. For privacy purposes, your email isn’t listed. But if you opt in to being contacted, a fellow alum or student can send you a message similar to LinkedIn.
Tell us about your professional career.
After graduating from the GSD in 1999, I returned to the NYC office of Thomas Balsley Associates where I had served as the Office Manager and Marketing Director prior to pursuing my MLA. Joining TBA again meant that I was a known entity and placed in a leadership role on projects from day one. I worked on 10,000-square-foot bonus plaza projects (that inspired my passion for landscape architecture in the first place) and two of the six phases of the Riverside South Park on the Hudson River between 59th and 72nd Streets. After several years back in NYC, my husband and I were ready for a change and decided to move to Denver where I was hired by Design Workshop in 2003. I’ve been at DW ever since, starting as a Project Landscape Architect and a now Principal in a firm-wide role. I lead initiatives focused on firm culture, thought leadership and knowledge sharing across eight offices. I develop and teach standards related to project management, quality management, project-based research, and performance measurement. Several of these best practices have been captured as internal manuals, and I am in the process of transforming one of them into an externally published guide with APA Planners Press. I create the curriculum for internal learning and host several firm-wide learning sessions and symposia each year that are salient to the projects “on the boards.” I have had to learn a lot about the optimal way to engage staff in different time zones for collaborative learning. This is a design problem in and of itself!
Has your longtime engagement with the GSD shaped your career?
When I first joined the GSD Alumni Council, I hadn’t ever served on a board. Now I serve on the Landscape Architecture Foundation and Denver Botanic Gardens boards, but the Alumni Council was my introduction to guiding and advising an organization, to finding clarity of purpose within a volunteer group, to developing a voice in the context of 50 other experienced design professionals, and ultimately to being recognized as a leader of volunteer initiatives who can get things done. Also, the GSD is the alma mater of many of my colleagues at Design Workshop, so I serve with the support and pride of my firm.
Tell us about your work/life balance? What occupies you when you are not working?
I became a parent five years after graduating from the GSD so I wasn’t very far into my career before the challenges of unexpected client demands, crunch deadlines, and late nights became untenable for me. I realized that stepping into a project manager role enabled me to be in more control of the project schedule, and therefore my own schedule. Clients and bosses have always commented on my ability to manage complicated projects and see all the components that must be synthesized in anticipation of a deliverable. I do think some of this is a natural proclivity, but I laugh because I do it selfishly as a way to exercise control over my schedule, to eliminate surprise, and to be able to leave to pick up my kids on time. When you’re a working parent, every single day is a deadline day. My husband also works in design consulting so we both understand that work/life balance is a constant dance, requiring updated calendars and clear communications to make sure things are operating smoothly for our family which includes my son (14) and my daughter (11).
When not working, I drive my children. Their afternoon and evening sports and school activities consume most of my non-work time! But, we also ski, camp, hike, and explore Denver’s burgeoning neighborhoods that are rapidly transforming the city.
What is the most significant thing you learned while at the GSD?
I learned the value of perseverance and working at something over and over to make it better. I learned that it was necessary to open myself up to critique through pin-ups, desk crits, and final reviews. Before matriculating to the GSD and embarking on a design career, I thought that artists and designers just got brilliant ideas as if struck by lightning and then they just executed them. My time at the GSD taught me that design solutions are cycled over time with feedback from others.
How present was the GSD in your activities or awareness as a Harvard College student? As a GSD student, did you find value in utilizing the resources of the larger Harvard community?
I took lots of classes in the anthropology department as a Harvard College undergrad which required me to walk past the GSD almost daily on my way to the Peabody Museum on Divinity Avenue. To me, the GSD was the building with all the bicycles out front since they were locked to a metal rack that stretched along Quincy Avenue. As is frequently observed, Gund Hall turns its back on the street and from the front, one doesn’t have a sense of the building’s most identifying feature—the cascade of the trays in the back. The building and its design focus wasn’t on my radar at all.
Returning to Harvard to pursue my MLA at the GSD, I think I had a much greater awareness of the broader campus than most of my classmates. I spent most of my time at Gund Hall due to the time required to succeed in studio. However in my last year, I joined the Rem Koolhaas Project on the City focused on Roman Cities. Knowing I would spend time in Italy over spring break, I decided to take Beginning Italian where I joined a group of Harvard College freshman to learn some basics. It was a little distracting and certainly unnecessary, but it was fun to be a bit whimsical and to have a reason to leave Gund Hall.
What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
I was at the GSD when a group of MArch ’99 students, including Ray Chung MArch ’99 and Joshua Comaroff MArch ’99, MLA ’01, created Blowfish. For those who don’t know of it, Blowfish is list of actions one can take, standing in front of a design jury, when a review is going downhill. The title comes from Action #1 which is to puff up your cheeks imitating a blowfish. I remember a hard copy being passed around our landscape architecture studio and my buttmate and I hovering over it. We were laughing so hard we had tears streaming down our faces. I think we were overcome by a bit of hysteria since the list cut to the quick for any design student with intimate experience enduring critical comments at a final review. It’s so great that this is still going strong 17 years after I graduated. Bravo to its creators!
A design education teaches us to be problem solvers, to analyze complexity and find clarity, to depict (through graphics and words) and to implement (through building things and through policy). There are so many scales and venues in which planners and designers provide leadership and value.
What advice do you have for GSD students and/or alumni?
A design education can lead to many career options, not all of them in design consulting. My own role at a design firm is unusual, and I developed it entrepreneurially over many years. A design education teaches us to be problem solvers, to analyze complexity and find clarity, to depict (through graphics and words) and to implement (through building things and through policy). There are so many scales and venues in which planners and designers provide leadership and value. We all need to find our place on the spectrum (private firms, public service, academic institutions, and non-profits) and celebrate the diversity of our impact.
What would surprise us about you?
Growing up in Aspen, I was a serious ski racer with the Aspen Valley Ski Club and sponsored at a young age by Solomon (boots and bindings), K2 (skis), Cébé (goggles), and Kerma (poles). I won the events in my age group at the Junior Olympics in Winter Park, Colorado, circa 1982. My ski coach said I was fearless. How I wish I could recover that trait! Somehow I’ve lost it over the years?