Welcome to Part 10 of the Firm of Her Own Series, which highlights the career of AMI SIX member Paula Echeverri Montes. This series is dedicated to all of the women in architecture who commit to providing superior services and work diligently to make their mark. You can visit our profiles of Maya Lin, Angela Brady, Zaha Hadid, Beverly Loraine Greene, Anna Puigjaner, Takbir Fatima, AMI Mastermind members Aparna Patil and Cinda Lester, AMI Mastermind Alumni Giusi Mastro and Co Govers — wonderful examples of marketing for female architects.
What's special about the time and place where you grew up?
50 years ago, Colombia was a very interesting place. The economy and politics challenged our nation and its development thereafter. Our nation had been under a regimen called the Frente Nacional where the two major parties had switched power every other four years, for 20 years or so, after a military totalitarian regime of some eight years. So in a way, society was aiming for a big change, a change longing for freedom, for equality and for economic growth. Women were starting to play important roles in government, in business and as social leaders.
My grandmother immigrated to the U.S. around 1945 at the end of the second world war. She came along with my grandfather, a physician, who was traveling from Colombia to the U.S. for his postgraduate studies. She began working there as a researcher and graduated from Tufts as a chemist. My mother was born the third of seven children in their family. When she graduated from school, my grandmother insisted she had to enter the university and she decided to study law. I was born in 1970. I remember my mom was an especially hard worker, a tough lawyer to be up against I imagine. I come from a tradition of working and participating women, in a country where the opportunities had been fought for through the last half-century. It is a very complex country — with a lot of potential.
What was your path in college & architecture school and what led you there?
My mother believed it was very important to raise international-minded people who could fluently speak English, so in 1987, she enrolled me at Anglo Colombian School in Bogotá. She was right. This was the beginning of my extended passion for education and exploration. In 1993, I began studying electrical engineering at Los Andes University Bogotá where the community challenged the capacity for critical thinking, creativity and research. Feeling my creativity needed to be developed as a designer, I switched in my third semester to architecture. I wanted to deepen my knowledge of architectural theory and history. By my fifth semester, I developed a niche interest in historic preservation. I finished my program working from the perspective of contemporary interventions, design, challenging my creativity, and in 2000, I chose to study historic preservation specifically at Columbia University.
In 2013, I went for my MBA in Architectural Management and Design at IE Business School. As a business woman, I found the strength in integrating architecture, construction, finance and contemporary design. Desiring to transcend the traditional practice into the new realm of the digital, I went on to study computational design and digital fabrication at ParisTech.
Tell me about starting your professional journey and starting your firm — why, to what purpose?
I’ve owned my practice since I graduated from architecture school, I started with small projects that friends and family asked for. I struggled a lot while learning some management skills at the beginning, but I was lucky enough to have my brother who is an industrial engineer and he taught me a lot. I’ve always loved to work under my own name, along with many many other professionals in joint ventures along with my professional career.
Today I insist on a non-traditional practice involving much of my knowledge and experience in what I’ve come to call a “business digital transformation.” During this pandemic, I’ve managed to work along with two companies as a consultant in that respect. Inspired and grateful for my experiences in education, I am continuing on my own unique flowing path. I am always improving my programming skills, learning several programming languages that allow me to be working today with various projects as a leading professional. Now I work as a leading designer who is able to put together a project, evaluate it as a business and resolve technical issues along with the professionals who specialize in related areas.
What have been some of the obstacles or challenges?
Many. I have a free spirit and it’s been difficult, as a woman, to enter a world of business and leaders lead by men. I have my own mind and have devoted my life to continuous learning (architecture, preservation, MBA, computational design and programming) around the world, building my own professional profile. I have worked in many environments and always have found it is challenging to push forward ideas that are different; in my projects I’ve found challenging to transmit a holistic manner in which I conceive projects.
What are the highlights of your/your firm’s accomplishments?
My most wonderful working years were 2018 and 2019. The projects I had the opportunity to develop were the type of projects I always envisioned. It was challenging also because they were very controversial and in fact, we haven’t been able to complete them yet. But what is most important is I had the opportunity to work with amazing professionals in all areas. I feel very proud of having been able to join them as a team.
Is there a ‘feel’ that is common to all your built designs?
A holistic vision!
How has being a female architect impacted your professional relationships and your life as a whole?
It’s been very challenging. In Colombia being a female architect is not that easy in terms of finding opportunities because it is still a male world. However, it’s also been interesting because the way a woman manages relationships both with clients and workers is different and that has given me certain advantages from time to time. But I don’t complain about my experience because I feel I’ve been able to fulfill my expectations. Today it is a challenging time for all!
If we fast forward to age 100, what do you want to be known for in your work?
That I was able to communicate my ideas and to transmit the way I think, feel and conceive.
What is your personal mission?
To lead a fulfilling life full of love, family, continuously learning, discovering, researching, and inventing.
Check out Paula's firm here.