As one of the smallest academic programs at UNM, the School of Architecture and Planning always finds a way to make its limited resources go far in the community. Through projects such as CityLab, Innovate ABQ and the Design and Planning Assistance Center, SAAP’s faculty and students are able to work directly with the city to improve the built environment.

SAAP has maintained a relationship with communities throughout New Mexico for 45 years, and Geraldine Forbes Isais, dean of the institution, said she is working to strengthen that relationship. Isais is responsible for setting a course for the school’s academics as well as overseeing projects such as CityLab.

“We do a lot of work with the city, so I am out a great deal,” she said. “There’s a lot of fundraising and ‘friend-raising’ as they call it. But it’s really just connecting the school to the community.”

Isais said that while architecture is her passion, she didn’t always plan to pursue it as a career. In fact, she said she had never even heard the word until she finished high school.

“I went to high school in a place and time where female students did not take classes that had to do with drafting, or anything related to that,” she said.

She said that she became seriously interested in the field when she met an architect while living in San Francisco.

“He was kind enough to show me some of his sketchbooks, we talked about architecture, and I got interested,” Isais said. “I decided to see if I could do it, and I could, so it worked out well.”

After architecture school, she worked in several firms before establishing her own professional office. In addition to her work there, she began teaching architecture classes at night.

“I started teaching more and more, and being in the office less and less, so I went and got a full-time job teaching in Los Angeles,” Isais said. She became director of the architecture program at Woodbury University before she was appointed founding dean of the San Diego campus.

She alternated between her professional and academic work for several years, until she became full-time director of the architecture program at UNM. She wanted to continue SAAP’s hands-on, community-based approach to design and planning, which she said sets it apart from other schools.

“When I was in architecture school, we never went out or left campus, so our projects were always very theoretical,” Isais said. “Theoretical work is important if we are looking at something specific, like a structure or building type, but thinking about how it would work in the city is what distinguishes us from many other schools of architecture.”

For example, CityLab — located in downtown Albuquerque — is a collaborative venue between the city and UNM that allows students to work on revitalization projects. CityLab incorporates all three of SAAP’s focuses: architecture, landscape architecture and community and regional planning.

“I am really proud of the CityLab,” Isais said. “It is a way of connecting the university leadership to the city leadership and it is making everyone take note of how important it is to work collaboratively to ignite and promote the downtown of our city.”

Plans are also currently underway for Innovate ABQ, a partnership between UNM and the city government to help local businesses spur economic growth. The project aims to create “an integrated community that is multi-dimensional” which will include commercial businesses, research labs, science and technology companies, and educational programs.

“Innovate ABQ brings together the research power of the state’s flagship university with Albuquerque’s entrepreneurial and established business community to create new companies, grow existing ones and attract more out-of-state business,” according to STC.UNM, a non-profit organization owned by the Board of Regents.

In addition to these larger initiatives, SAAP’s faculty and students are working on a variety of smaller projects. For example, the Fabrications Laboratory is being used to create designs for the “little free libraries” popping up around the state. Meanwhile, the landscape architecture program did much of the planning and design work for Valle del Oro Park in the South Valley.

“Another thing we do that I don’t think people notice at all — but it’s really important — is our planning faculty work on a lot of culturally significant, historic waterways,” Isais said.

Several members of SAAP’s faculty have visited Spain to give presentations about New Mexico’s acequias.

For the current legislative session, SAAP is on the priority list to receive funding for the Design and Planning Assistance Center, which provides design and planning services to low-income communities in the state.

Isais said sufficient funding for DPAC is important because it gives SAAP more flexibility on which projects it works on, allowing them to revitalize areas that would otherwise not receive attention from organizations like Main Street. She said that through efforts like DPAC, SAAP is dedicated to improving the economic development portfolio throughout the state.

“I’m really proud of all the faculty, students, and staff,” she said. “We really feel like we are collaborating with the state in its renaissance.”

Lena Guidi is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at, or on Twitter @DailyLobo.