2020 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture Recipient

By applying her unique background and affinity for justice, Rona Rothenberg, FAIA, has distinguished herself as a tireless servant who advances public architecture, as she puts it, “from the inside out.” By leading with an unwavering drive to instill design excellence and best practices, Rothenberg has been a guiding force in shaping California’s public realm through her work as the senior program manager for the state’s daunting courthouse building program. Her leadership has influenced countless institutional campuses and buildings across the country, demonstrating that public architecture can vastly improve the lives of citizens who rely on it.

“She has set an exemplary example as an architect in nontraditional practice and has demonstrated considerable leadership as an architect in government service by passionately advocating for the value of design, historical preservation, and sustainability,” wrote Benjamin Kasdan, AIA, 2019 AIA California president, in a letter supporting Rothenberg’s nomination for the Thomas Jefferson Award. “Her work has greatly enhanced the user experience concerning justice and related institutional facilities for the benefit of the public.”

Rothenberg’s early career was focused on legal research and teaching, after which she earned her master of architecture degree from the University of California at Berkeley. She spent time in private practice focused on significant educational, office, and military projects before the chief justice of California called on her to spearhead the development of a 57-courthouse capital outlay plan. Since stepping into the role of lead senior capital program manager for the Judicial Council of California, Rothenberg has overseen two major capital campaigns that total more than $10 billion and has worked with prominent architectural firms to deliver compelling work for the nation’s largest judiciary. As the program’s lead staff architect in its flagship San Francisco office, Rothenberg chartered the program’s funding, structure, and staffing to create the resulting court architecture program.

“The enormity of this endeavor cannot be overstated,” Craig W. Hartman, FAIA, wrote in a letter supporting Rothenberg’s nomination. “It involved building an organization from scratch, analyzing the condition of literally hundreds of facilities and sites, and determining how to allocate resources to ensure the citizens of California, across the entire state, would have equal access to justice.”

For more than a decade, Rothenberg levied her keen understanding of design excellence in securing a wide range of firms to serve the court building program. Conceived of and initiated in 10 phases from 2002 to 2012, nearly 75 firms were retained and 50 were selected to work on the 57 major capital projects detailed in the plan.

Rothenberg’s ideals have resulted in award-winning projects, such as the 11-story San Bernardino Justice Center, the first landmark-quality project produced by the Judicial Council’s widely recognized Trial Court Design Standards. The center, with 34 courtrooms and two hearing rooms, replaced an aged, non-secure facility for one of California’s largest jurisdictions, providing nearly 2.5 million residents access to safe and beautiful facilities. Situated near a fault line, the courthouse is resilient both structurally and environmentally and achieved LEED Gold certification.

“Her passion for design in public buildings is not only an inspiration to the users of these public buildings, but also makes a statement of quality and sustainability with the people’s resources,” wrote Robert Ooley, FAIA, county architect for Santa Barbara, in a letter supporting Rothenberg’s nomination. “As a public sector architect, I am fully aware of the myriad challenges facing the delivery of projects that serve the public and, at the same time, communicate collective community strength. It takes determination, passion, and a person of strong spirit to see it through.”

Having fully embraced the role of citizen architect, Rothenberg is a member of her local city planning board and has previously held leadership roles on the board and building committee for her neighborhood’s local schools and community centers. Her service to the community extends beyond architecture, and she regularly volunteers to prepare meals for food programs for the homeless in the Bay Area and supports environmental causes including dog training and wild bird rescues.


Timothy C. Hawk, FAIA (Chair), WSA Studio, Columbus, Ohio

Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, Brooks Scarpa, Hawthorne, California

Peter MacKeith, Assoc. AIA, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Oswaldo Ortega, AIA, Gensler, Chicago, Illinois

Julia Laue, AIA, Bureau of Architecture, San Francisco Public Works,  San Francisco, California

Image credits


Rona Rothenberg


Nick Merrick-Hedrich Blessing Photography

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Bruce Damonte

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Michael O'Callahan


Tim Griffith