Ian Ellis didn’t go to college to get the traditional “college experience” that includes going out and partying- he went to work hard, immerse himself in his studies and absorb as much as possible from the people around him. He has received many awards for his work including: Best of ATX 2018 (Alive + Well), Texas Society of Architects 2017 Studio Award and AIA Brooklyn + Queens 2017 Design Award of Excellence and Best in the Bronx.
This is his story:
I’ve been told it’s uncommon, but I knew what I realistically wanted to do very early on – my dream was to make places and things and solve problems through creativity, so architecture was a passion before I was even a teenager.
I was born and raised in the city of Sao Paulo in Brazil, which is densely filled with high rises, gardens, courtyards, beautiful architecture and thriving with activity – that environment, no doubt, influenced my love for design, cities, buildings and people. There were also some earlier conversations with a designer/builder, friend of the family, that in retrospect was highly influential on my life in terms of design, engineering, experiential quality and building.
I attended a specific high school that had an incredible architecture and design program for all four years taught by an influential and wonderful person, Marge Dunlap. This step was critical in knowing if design and architecture was truly a passion I wanted to pursue forever.
After high school, I tested that theory and took a break from architecture and put my time and energy into concept art and 3D environments, with a goal to work in the film industry instead. Two years later, I found myself contemplating architecture again and set my goal to move to Austin, TX and attend the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture.
I knew I was all-in when I started, and I wasn’t going to university to party, have a great time, and actively look to make friends – I saw it as an opportunity I’ll only have once, so I immersed myself in the work, and the work was rewarding and motivating in itself.
Architecture is a competitive industry, and that competition is made clear the first day of university schooling, if not sooner. The hardest obstacle, in my personal experience, was being resilient. Architecture school is extremely demanding, challenging, rigorous and at times requires an obsessive and sacrificial approach to the work in order to make the most of it.
This is a topic that is wildly debated lately due to the mental, physical, emotion, temporal and financial demands related to architecture school. Such a difficult program is refreshing at times, though, the workload doesn’t care how you’re feeling, the classes aren’t concerned about your background, your homework isn’t going to console you over a loss, and so on – school can be the best thing happening in your life and an outlet for creativity and safety from obstacles beyond your control.
In addition to this, architecture is an intuitive and creative art just as much as it is about technical precision and specificity – as a result, a lot of pressure is put on having ‘talent.’
I had classmates who were certainly more talented than myself and others, and this produced stress as an obstacle to overcome. It become apparent quickly that no matter how talented a person was, another student willing to out-work them could do so. Talent only goes so far, and not all obstacles can be overcome simply with talent. That realization, the notion of rigorous work being supplemental to or greater than talent, was powerful.
Whenever I had doubts, I always reminded myself that I don’t have all the answers, but I know how to create a process to develop and consider the answers, and so continuing on with work was fine. It helps to have a great team to work with, a team with differing perspectives and skills so that together anything can be accomplished or resolved.
While we don’t have 100 percent control over the things that happen to us, we do have 100 percent control over how we choose to react to those things. It doesn’t matter how hard an obstacle is if the only acceptable outcome is resolution and success – you’ll succeed simply because you must.
While I was a sophomore in university, I had the opportunity to work on-site with a commercial building contractor on the Pearl Brewery and Riverwalk adaptive reuse project in San Antonio, specifically for the Italian restaurant Il Sogno, designed by renowned architects Lake Flato. Construction experience is key, and reinforced my beliefs in what kind of architecture I wanted to study and practice. Learning construction methods, detailing, and problem solving on-site was a great experience that improved my understanding of design in terms of making things that are buildable, tactile, pragmatic and still delightful.
Throughout school, I made an active effort to spend time with other types of thinkers. I met incredible people who have become endlessly important to me, and through their music, films, production, poetry, art, comedy, hard work, entrepreneurship, dancing, photography, graphic design, writing and other natural abilities, I have learned so much about the world that directly impacts architecture.
Academically, there were some individuals that undoubtedly changed my life simply by existing and sharing their understanding of design and world with me (namely Mark Blizard, Craig Blount, Matt Fajkus, John Blood, Hope Hasbrouck, Nelly Fuentes, Frances Peterson, David Heymann, Larry Speck and Marge Dunlap). Finally, the ever-evolving team at MF architecture impacts me in this way every single day.
My first professional experience after graduating was with the firm I’m still a part of, MF Architecture (Matt Fajkus Architecture). Matt was a professor of mine at UT and we got along immediately. Our design sensibilities shared similar fundamentals and we worked well together. When he began building his own firm with some other UTSOA graduates, I began working with them while in my last year of school. I joined in full capacity right after finishing school and it’s been a great and varied experience from the very start. I was particularly intrigued by the opportunities related to a small office or start-up mentality. One of the best ways to describe it comes from another MF Architecture architect, who claimed “it’s a place with enough rope to roam and pull you out of trouble so long as you don’t hang yourself with it.”
Developing an office, a culture, a team, a business, and still making design and seeing projects through from vision to reality was an invaluable experience, and one a well-established or international firm would never consider giving to a recent graduate. The firm has improved and increased in every way since those early years, and the high risk / high reward context of the experience has been positive.
If anything, school and professional work was a savior for me in many respects due to wild and negative life experiences that were beyond my control. I’ve also known without a doubt that I adore design and architecture, and it gives me so much that I can’t get from other parts of life.
Success to me means being responsible, by having a duty to choose to be better, do better, and improve the quality of life for people beyond yourself. By doing so, you’ll live a free life, one of self-awareness and the power to choose. Being simultaneously content with your life while intentionally making improvements, by working on something you love with people you care about for good reasons, by sleeping well at night knowing you’ve done the right thing, by not succumbing to compromise or mediocrity and by doing whatever you want your way.
Don’t settle for less than what you want to be doing, don’t slow down, and don’t lose sight of what’s important to you. Let the dreams of others supplement yours, and build your dreams concurrently. Surround yourself with the best people you can, and remove negativity or toxic relationships or habits that will inhibit your productivity, clarity, or energy. Take the initiative to make yourself, don’t wait to find yourself. Disregard those that don’t believe in you, and listen intently to those who do. Most importantly, make sure your dream makes you happy.