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RapidChat: Megan Feenstra Wall, Michigan's Young Architect of the Year

Not only was she recently named the Michigan Young Architect of the Year by the American Institute for Architecture (AIA), Megan Feenstra Wall is also a very passionate community member. With her involvement in the Children’s Healing Center, Design Week West Michigan, and KCAD's Master of Architecture program, she advises novices to "keep taking risks, especially in this time of your life when failure is less likely to affect anyone but yourself."
 Megan Feenstra Wall

Not only was she recently named the Michigan Young Architect of the Year by the American Institute for Architecture (AIA), Megan Feenstra Wall is also a very passionate community member. With her involvement in the Children’s Healing Center, Design Week West Michigan, and KCAD's Master of Architecture program, she advises novices to "keep taking risks, especially in this time of your life when failure is less likely to affect anyone but yourself."
Rapid Growth Media: When did you first start developing your love for architecture?
 
Megan Feenstra Wall: My family went to church growing up, and as a child, I would spend the sermon imagining what the place would look like upside down (when I wasn’t creating and drawing fictitious monetary systems or folding the bulletin into an origami crane or…). I’d picture the beams and the sloped or curved ceiling as giant slides or play structures, like a swimming pool with no water. Perhaps I should’ve known then that I’d love creating interesting spaces! Otherwise, it wasn’t until high school and college that I started to think about architecture as a career.
 
RG: You studied both engineering and art in college. How do you think that has influenced the scope of your work?
 
MF: Art and engineering are perfect fields of study for an architect. I was able to flex both the practical and creative parts of my brain, and my day-to-day job involves both, from an understanding of how to put things together to making sure they look good. Much of what I do is communicating ideas to clients and colleagues, and my art background is very helpful in that. I value my liberal-arts undergrad education. It provided me with a broad background and set of interests before I immersed myself solely in architecture in graduate school.
 
RG: You had been on a lot of world-wide adventures before you settled in Grand Rapids, MI. How have those experiences impacted your view on American architecture?
 
MF: I am strongly influenced by all the places I’ve been and lived! Those experiences help me keep an open mind to new ideas, products, and designs and remind me that there are a dozen “right” ways to do something. Especially in this area, I feel like we limit ourselves to what we know and what we think we can, or should, afford. Good design helps us all live better, and it is always worth spending the time and money on. Good design should save money, too, as well-thought through spaces can often be smaller and more efficient than those that are hurriedly put together.
 
RG: In your opinion, what are some of the most beautiful examples of design in the world?
 
MF: That is so difficult to answer! I was very impressed by some of the ancient places I’ve been, like the temples of Bagan, Myanmar, the caves of Ajanta, India or the cathedrals of Europe. The sense of place and beauty are so strong there. On the other hand, I loved working in modern Europe where it felt like design was a given for new buildings or renovations. Even something that we might build as cheaply and quickly as possible here, like a grocery store or a big box store, had the potential to be designed and made better for it, both for the inside user but also from the exterior and community experience of the building. If you’re going to spend the money to build something, you might as well make it beautiful.
 
RG: Have any of them influenced your personal work?
 
MF: I would hope that we are all influenced by the things we’ve seen and love. I tend to get frustrated when what I am working on gets too unnecessarily complicated. I like things to be more clean and simple, which I think may be influenced by some of my work in England and also my own personal bent. I also love an element of surprise or joy. I love some of the work coming from Germany and the Netherlands that include a splash of color and texture. I like it when architecture can be playful.
 
RG: Have you ever gotten any pushback on a project because of its overall aesthetic?
 
MF: Some but not much. I am very collaborative and owner-centric in my designing. If I feel strongly about something, I will let you know, but otherwise, I have a strong sense that what I am doing is for someone else, to help them live and work better, and with their money. I tend to be designing in the context of a team, as well. This may not be typical of most famous architects in the world, but I feel like many decisions are not mine to make, unless the owner has granted me the right to make it. Historically, it feels like architecture required a certain aggression and ego to it. I don’t know if that is or has to be the case anymore.
 
RG: You helped design the Master of Architecture program at Kendall College. How did that opportunity first present itself to you?
 
MF: I got involved in the Grand Rapids chapter of the American Institute of Architects soon after moving to the area, sitting on the board as Associate Director. I met a number of wonderful, highly-involved, community-minded architects through that group and got connected to the program through that. I also was an intern with Brian Craig, the current director of the program, many years ago in my first job at an architecture firm, and we’ve stayed in touch. I tend to say yes when an opportunity presents itself, and I’m glad I did on that one.
 
RG: What are your top 3 (if you can even reduce it to that!) pieces of advice for students that will be enrolling in that program?
 
MF: First, try new things! Push the edges of what you think you know and are capable of. This is one of the few times in life where you won’t have a client and budget to deal with, so use that to really experiment and reconsider what you know about architecture and its limitations. You can’t be too risk-averse if you chose this brand new program, so keep taking risks, especially in this time of your life when failure is less likely to affect anyone but yourself.

Keep your connections and stay involved. This is tough when you are in grad school because architecture school is such an all-consuming activity. Maybe this is one for after you graduate- as much as you can handle it, say yes when someone asks if you want to be part of a group or committee. But in the meantime, stay in touch with those who have helped you along the way. You never know what opportunities may present themselves through those people later on.

Do good work. Seriously! We are proud of our city, its history, and its future. We think Grand Rapids and this program have great potential, and instead of choosing something that has already become, you are part of something that is now in the process of becoming. That’s exciting, and you can contribute to making it great!

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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