Why a Renowned Architect Chose USC’s Executive Master of Urban Planning
Colin Montoute has more than 25 years of architectural experience and leadership spanning award-winning projects in the public and private sector. Those include residential, commercial and transportation works in the Penn Station district of New York City, as well as various high-profile international examples — a prototype school campus for a rural community in Haiti, an extension to the Opera House Metro Line in Dubai and major environmental improvements to the Al Faisaliah Mosque in Saudi Arabia.
In 2021, Montoute was named the director of architecture at WXY architecture + urban design in New York. Earlier that year, he completed the Executive Master of Urban Planning (EMUP) online degree from USC.
Why did he choose to advance his education with this program? After all, given such an illustrious career, it’s easy to make an argument that he didn’t necessarily need it.
“Actually, I Did Need [The Degree]”
“Actually, I did need it,” Montoute, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, NOMA, said. “I kind of reached a point in my career that there were sort of disparate kind of ideas and notions about public space, public realm — what I, as an architect, an urban designer or a planner can do — and I needed a means to build a conversation that tied it all together.”
He added how he’s always written and drawn and made things, but he was searching for the “connective tissue between these various ideas.”
“This degree was really the means to tie together the economic, the physical, the political, the social,” Montoute said. “All those threads I was sort of lacking in a way. A basis by which I could make sense of these various ideas. I didn’t really have the tools or was still building the tools that could take me toward the next phase of my professional life.”
Dealing with those sorts of complex topics and issues on a daily basis, in a data-rich environment, pointed Montoute toward a degree that combines multiple professional areas.
“No single discipline can say that it holds the answer or the key to solving so many of the problems we’re dealing with,” he said. “I think a cross-disciplinary approach that highlights what each discipline does at a high level — but also this idea that communicating across professional boundaries allows you to see the world in different ways and access expertise — that elevates the work that you do.”
Clients have similar obstacles. Montoute works at a practice that integrates architecture with urban design and planning, and often things start out with clients thinking that they need planning help, but later down the line, the practice learns what they really need is architectural assistance. So that ability to pivot and truly see where needs are is crucial.
“Sort of that way of working, that way of thinking is where practice is going generally,” Montoute said. “And I feel that my practice is at the forefront of that.”
“Certainly the tools I got at USC and this degree allowed me to think in this sort of way where I’m accessing information based on problems that where the problem lives, not where I want them to exist.”
Developing More Comprehensive Understanding and Knowledge
What stuck out most to Montoute in his degree was how it developed his comfort and knowledge of certain skills and disciplines. One example is understanding the use of data.
“Being able to think about data as a tool that can be either used for good or evil and being able to have a better sense of the power of communicating data in a way that is resonant and speaks to people, that reveals rather than hides, let’s say,” Montoute said. “I thought that was really important and one of the key things that the program certainly did for me.”
Another example relates to the earlier discussion of interrelated but traditionally separate disciplines. He singled out real estate as particularly relevant for his work.
“Understanding zoning as it relates to law and the genesis of current and various types of zoning,” Montoute said. “I did that [before the degree] at a very high level, but to really dig into the legal implications of some of that history made me more nimble.”
When he speaks to real estate clients, Montoute reported how he’s able to better “speak their language” and understand certain nuances.
“In many of the urban situations that a lot of our projects are based in, so much of it has to do with understanding the kind of land, the kind of the cost of land and how land is sort of priced,” he said. “Plus, how it’s valued and understanding those kind of valuations and the mechanisms for those types of valuations.”
The mention of urban work is especially significant because it underscores one of his biggest passions for his career.
Connecting His Passions
Montoute is most proud of the work he’s done in urban environments. In particular, public rail transportation and infrastructure projects.
“I always say to this to people that know me: ‘The people that need access to architecture and design often have the least access to it,’” he said. “So that’s why I’ve sort of found my way into trying to do work that has a kind of a public nature, a public focus. Transportation and urban conditions have the power to do that and make cities better and urban conditions better. And when it works well and it succeeds, it’s a thrilling and exciting thing.”
The degree allowed Montoute to better serve the people who need it most. It also represents another major desire and passion in life.
Montoute would always make the cross-country trip to visit his brother in California, who was in the entertainment industry. Both always wanted to go to USC. Unfortunately, his brother passed away and didn’t get the opportunity to attend.
“It was just something that I always wanted to do,” Montoute said. “I was able to find this program that ticks so many boxes for me.”
“I just think that USC is at the forefront of so many of what I think are the key issues that we’re thinking about as a society, as cities, as places dealing with those issues and setting up its students to be leaders in that context. So I was just thrilled to be a part of the program and to be in this program. I can’t say enough about it to be quite honest.”
The Executive Master of Urban Development online program page has more information about the degree. Or please feel free to connect with us.