As a child in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Colin Montoute loved taking his toys apart to rebuild them in different ways.
“I was constantly recombining objects,” he recalled. “I kept asking why things are the way they are — and why can’t they be changed?”
Years later, after coming to the U.S. at age 8, Montoute would apply that same curiosity to his career as an architect. He devotes himself not only to optimizing form and function, but also to helping build a more environmentally sustainable future through the structures he designs.
During his more than 25 years as an architectural innovator, Montoute has led projects ranging from his home city of New York to China, Africa and throughout the Middle East.
Underlying his work is a passion for diversity, equity and inclusion. These ideals drive his commitment to creating public spaces that enable civic relationships and economic opportunities to thrive. With residential and commercial experience, his specialties include designing and improving mixed-use facilities for clients across the public and private sectors.
“Whatever the project, I’m always asking how to best create the kind of rich, dynamic places that make for a vibrant society,” he told USC Online.
To bolster his ability to answer such questions, the award-winning architect decided to pursue an Executive Master of Urban Planning (EMUP) degree, offered online through USC Price School of Public Policy.
Designed for experienced professionals who are passionate about improving their communities and committed to making cities dynamic, sustainable and just, the program closely aligned with Montoute’s personal and professional goals.
Moving On and Up With the Online EMUP Program
Montoute, who graduated from the EMUP program in 2021, is especially drawn to challenges related to making transportation more equitable — from scooters to mass transit. His clients in this realm have ranged from Amtrak to MTA New York City Transit. Still, after finishing a complex series of projects in New York’s Penn Station district, Montoute was ready to move on to the next phase of his career.
“It’s important to me that the work I do impacts and influences as many people as possible,” he said. “So, I got the bug to pursue work in the public realm.”
He decided that USC Price’s EMUP online degree provided the platform he wanted. Coupled with the overarching frame of urban planning, the program covers issues such as governance and legal concerns like zoning, he said.
The program’s biggest revelations, according to Montoute, related to real estate development: “It really opened my mind to how development works, what the mechanisms for valuing property are, the way deals are created and how buildings are financed,” he explained.
This knowledge has both informed his creative philosophy about architecture and also made it easier to discuss such matters with clients.
“It’s up to us as urban planners and designers to make sure that rapid changes in how space is used are done in an equitable way and that we don’t leave people behind,” he said.
Shortly after completing his USC degree, Montoute was appointed director of architecture at WXY in New York City. In his leadership role at WXY, he oversees a wide range of projects, while continuing to focus on public infrastructure and transportation.
Finding Inspiration With Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat
For someone so committed to architecture’s possibilities for improving lives and communities, it took Montoute a while to settle on his career.
He originally studied at the New York Institute of Technology School of Architecture & Design. But at that point in his life, Montoute admitted, “I didn’t have the raw material or perspective to make sense out of everything that was happening in class.”
So, he took time off from academia to build some life experience, bouncing around a few art galleries in SoHo. He also dabbled in acting and worked as a party promoter for the Limelight and Palladium nightclubs.
This was in the 1980s, when New York’s artistic scene offered plenty of inspiration for young creators figuring out their next steps in life.
“I got to know some quite famous artists and entertainers, including Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat,” he recalled of the modern graffiti icons who created public art in the city’s subways and streets.
Of course, architecture is a public art form as well, and Montoute realized he had gathered enough experience to return to his calling.
“I recaptured my passion for architecture and now had the life data to ask the questions that were important to me,” he said.
Making Lasting Connections in the Virtual Classroom
As Montoute’s passion expanded to urban planning, he said the USC Price EMUP online program came along at just the right time. He was ready to leave his then-employer, the multinational architectural and engineering firm AECOM, and take the next step in his career.
“I had developed this writing and research bug, and USC allowed me to take a step back and build the tools I needed for my next phase,” he said.
While the EMUP curriculum is delivered remotely, Montoute said the connections he felt with his classmates and instructors were very real. The 16-month program attracts professionals logging in from across the nation and who represent such fields as engineering, politics, design, affordable housing, technology and the media.
“We had all these diverse points of view and different approaches to problem solving,” he noted, adding that many of the issues addressed in class mirrored challenges he and his classmates were seeing unfold in the real world.
And since the program features a group project, “it was exciting to ask questions that forced us all to step out of our own contexts in finding solutions,” he said. “The degree was transformative. I’m just so lucky I found it at the time I did.”
Montoute has high praise for all of the faculty in the program, but highlighted that he felt especially close to Marlon Boarnet, professor and chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis, and Elizabeth Graddy, professor of public policy and USC executive vice provost.
So far, Montoute has only connected with his USC professors and classmates remotely, but he plans to rectify that the next time he visits Los Angeles.
“My daughter lives out there, and the next time I go to see her, I hope to visit some of them,” he said. “I felt such a generosity in their teaching and sharing.”
Learn more about the Executive Master of Urban Planning online program today.