Lily Diego, Gensler Detroit
A woman with long black hair.

Gensler Voices: Lily Diego, Gensler Detroit

This Q&A is part of a series of interviews with Gensler architects, designers, and others in the firm about their career journey, and the impact that design and architecture can have on our communities and enhancing the human experience. Here, we sit down with Lily Diego, design director, Gensler Detroit:

What was your first introduction to the field of architecture and design?

To be honest, I do not recall a moment in my early years in which architecture or design specifically became a concept or desire. I do, however, recall always engaging in the space around me, visualizing the placement of pieces and objects in different ways, then actually moving things around.

My family and then roommates would always come home to a brand new experience. One time, in our college apartment, I took a curvilinear chaise, unscrewed its legs, and placed it on its side as a wall partition to differentiate seating clusters. I was 17. I should have known then I was going to shift from medicine to architecture.

It took me another three years until I finally left medicine, and another four years after to get my master’s in architecture. Then, traveling took on a whole new meaning. I would book multiple visits a year to spaces and places that I studied or read about to enjoy first-hand the experiential quality of that space and what drove the design. I suddenly wanted to immerse myself in the history and legacy of structure, enclosure, volume, void, and all the senses that activate in an environment.

What was an early experience that influenced your career path?

I was a late bloomer in my current field. I didn’t hear my inner calling clearly until way later, believing instead that I was to follow in the family business. I come from a long line of doctors and assumed that’s what I was supposed to do. And, I truly did want to become a neurosurgeon. The sciences came naturally to me, and I was (still am) extremely intrigued by how the mind and body work to process the world around us.

What I didn’t quite understand at the time was that I was intrigued about it from a different perspective — a visceral and sensory approach to our surroundings. So, as I stood there dissecting brains and about to expand to bodies, I literally put the scalpel down and walked away. And that was it. Now, I had no choice but to pay attention to the desire to influence space and the physical parameters that define our environment.

How has your career shaped your understanding of the world?

I feel I have had a wonderful opportunity to experience three career trajectories, all traversing the same path. In the effort and desire to understand how we, as a human collective, experience our world, I have been able to understand it from the aspects of medicine, interiors, and architecture.

I see it as viewing the world through a prism, with each face providing a different perspective of the same construct. It has given me a rich viewpoint of approaching the built environment — from the tangible to the abstract, and how integrated and intertwined it all is. The world we walk through is directly influenced by how we perceive, engage, and need or want it. We build and manicure our surroundings based on the life we desire or need to create at that moment in time.

What I have realized and continue to learn about is the sense of responsibility we have that’s deeply connected to, and associated with, the work we do as designers. Our designs influence lives, creating commentary and inevitably shifts in culture. We need to be cognizant of that and conscious of how we take it on.

How can architecture and design advance wellness, equity, and inclusion?

The environment we live in is symbiotic to the way we live. How we thoughtfully and creatively solve for today’s concerns and questions in our built environment is how we will respond and adapt to life’s commentary of the times. As designers of human-centered spaces, we have an immense responsibility to be acutely cognizant of how our designs impact spaces and places. We can influence how resilient space is in creating climate-conscious spaces that not only reduce strain on our resources, but synergistically provide wellness to the users of that space; space that provides equitable access for all.

What role does architecture and design play in shaping the minds of the future generations?

Making space for what does not yet exist today, allowing the future to expand and evolve, needs to be inherent in our practice. Currently, our industry is not as diverse and available as we would like and expect it to be. Efforts in expanding the conversation and the voices in it can be found in the work many in the profession engage in through organizations that provide pipelines of opportunities. This is vital, not only within our industry through mentorship and stewardship, but externally, introducing architecture and design to those who would not otherwise have considered our profession an option and breaking down stigmas and restrictive structures that limit pathways. NOMA’s Project Pipeline is a great example of expanding the conversation and opening opportunities.

What type of projects are you currently working on right now, and what do you like best about your recent projects?

I feel extremely lucky to be able to work with incredible clients to bring projects to life. I am currently working with large global organizations in understanding the shifting user experience as our world continues to evolve. We’re thinking through the future of human-centered design as it integrates and coalesces with our digital world, while also being responsible for and responsive to immediate surroundings, especially when reimagining historic adaptive reuse buildings.

The clients I am working with are taking on that responsibility and challenge. It’s an immensely intriguing, innovative, and rewarding process. We are seeing projects with more blended overlap in our sections and practice areas as we begin to redefine space and place. Workplace and lab, adaptive reuse and corporate campus, developer repositioning and community-focused amenitized buildings — all are blurring lines for new typologies as we begin to redefine our experience in today’s evolving landscape.

The most important thing I've learned as an architect/designer is...

It is always about people.

If you could choose anyone, who would you like to design a project for?

It is always easier to design for others, and hardest to design for yourself. Being objective for others comes easily, as does clarity around the design purpose and intent; therefore, the overall application can be unbiased and based on the focused understanding of what is needed and desired.

Being objective for ourselves is inherently challenging. To design for ourselves, we need to be open to self-reflection and making hard decisions. I have always dreamed of creating a personal place of my own, but have yet to make the hard decisions, as the options are endless, and life evolves way too quickly to commit. For this reason alone, I empathize with our clients who stir in the variety of what their space and place can be.

Name a building or space that every designer should see in person.

There is not one building or place. It is an amalgamation of spaces and places that color our perspective and give life to our surroundings. To see the natural wonders of rice patties in the Philippines to bubbling volcanoes in Nicaragua cannot be compared to or diminish seeing the ornate architecture of the Alhambra or the structural and engineering feat of the Shanghai Tower. Each space and place — no matter size and scale, engineered, manicured, or natural — should be embraced and taken in as part of the symphony of our surroundings.

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