Mar 21st 2022

Young College of Architecture Alumni Honored for Projects Focused on ‘Community Impact’

Alzira Maldonado Protsishin (M.ARCH. ’14) learned at an early age how architecture can deeply change a community. It’s a lesson that led her to her current public project work at Chicago-based architecture and engineering firm EXP and to her selection as the American Institute of Architects Chicago’s Dubin Family Young Architect Award for 2021. The Dubin Family Young Architect Award, first established in 1983, recognizes Chicago architects who are between the ages of 29 and 39 or who have been licensed for fewer than 10 years.

Maldonado Protsishin received the award because “she epitomizes what the future of the architecture profession is: that being a creative, well-educated, eloquent, committed, multilingual architect whose body of work includes complex community-impacting projects and a level of dedication to giving back to the next generation of architects,” says former AIA Chicago Foundation President Fred Brandstrader.

The daughter of structural engineers who operated their own firm in the dense, bustling city of Bogotá, Colombia, Maldonado Protsishin remembers observing how her parents’ ideas transferred from plans plastered on office walls to fully constructed, multistory buildings.

But as big as those buildings were, she was struck by how even the smallest, seemingly mundane details could have significant effects on everyday life. She absorbed not only the process of how buildings were planned and built, but also their marked emotional impact on those who would eventually use them. As an eight-year-old girl, she would closely watch people’s reactions when they entered the newly built structures—couples walking into a new apartment complex, envisioning themselves living there, reacting to amenities as small as a laundry nook.

“Families getting to see their spaces, getting to see their new home, that’s what I remember. Seeing the emotional impact on people. Even a space for a washer and dryer—it’s a big deal,” Maldonado Protsishin says. “It was really inspiring. You would see how they would compare the spaces to what they had, and see positive things that were going to change their lives.”

She also witnessed larger impacts: how her parents’ work could actually affect entire communities. In particular, she remembers them designing a walking bridge that stretched over a busy highway. In Bogotá, commuters often dashed across multilane highways, dodging fast-moving traffic, “which was not ideal,” Maldonado Protsishin says, laughing at the understatement. After the bridge opened, she saw a marked difference in commuter safety—and appreciation. “Seeing those things, how that changes an entire neighborhood—I wanted to do that!” she says. “To make lives just a little bit easier.”

She brought both those lessons—attention to tiny details, and the satisfaction found in making grand “community impacts”—to the United States. Following the completion of her bachelor’s program in Colombia, Maldonado Protsishin came to Chicago to pursue her master’s degree at Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture.

As a new immigrant and first-year graduate student, she felt challenged by one of the first projects she worked on: a border-crossing station between Canada and the U.S. Would it be presumptuous, she wondered, for someone like her to capture the culture and essence of two countries she barely knew?

“You had to think about that excitement of coming to a new country, seeing new things, and at the same time how you as a country wanted to welcome people, to show what you stand for. You also needed to have security and show boundaries,” Maldonado Protsishin says.

But the project she speaks about with the greatest amount of pride is located in Chicago: a rebuild of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) stop at West 95th Street, where it intersects with the busy Dan Ryan Expressway.

Like the old pedestrian bridge her parents built in Bogotá, she wanted to ease the life of everyday commuters in simple ways. The existing structure was a dark, hulking, concrete building where commuters passed through turnstiles and descended into a cracked and dilapidated interior.

Much of that was torn down. In its place, she helped design a bright, airy terminal space with numerous windows and skylights; aluminum curtain walls; and a colorful ribbon design on its glass and metal-paneled exterior. A second building was built on the south side of the busy 95th Street, connected by a skyway, effectively doubling the size of the 62,250-square-foot project. Additional terminal space transformed the site into a hub for both city buses and far-reaching Greyhound lines.

“When you change the architecture of the building to have more natural light, make it more secure, and with materials that are more dignified, it changes your day. It’s about making your life easier,” Maldonado Protsishin says.

The transit center is one of many she has contributed to as a design architect at EXP, where she has been an employee since interning there as a graduate student. Other projects include the renovation and Americans with Disabilities Act adaptation of the historic CTA “L” train Quincy Elevated Station and the striking design of the new Washington/Wabash “L” station.

In the future, Maldonado Protsishin hopes to continue working on “big community impact projects,” in transportation and elsewhere. She’s currently working on an even larger project for the CTA: the renovation of a large swath of the Red and Purple “L” train line on Chicago’s North Side, including four stations that are in desperate need of modernization.

But perhaps more importantly, she has dedicated herself to mentoring those wanting to explore a career in architecture. She volunteers for Arquitina, a nonprofit that helps Latinas pursuing their licensure in architecture, as well as for the “WING” student mentorship program,coordinated by the American Institute of Architecture Students chapter at the College of Architecture.

“I didn’t know anybody when I came here [to the U.S.]. Getting to know people that have knowledge and experience is nice, but not always easy to do,” Maldonado Protsishin says. “I had mentors [at Illinois Tech], and I want to give back, so other generations can pursue the things they want.”