Citizen Architect - Tim Kearney, AIA
Pennsylvania state Sen. Tim Kearney, AIA, Principal, views his work in elected office as an extension of his work as an architect. “You’re trying to achieve an end result, and you have to have a lot of conversations to do that, often working alongside people you might not agree with,” Kearney said. Kearney previously served as mayor of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he helped the community become a leader in environmental protection and sustainability practices, fair and equitable policing practices, and LGBTQ equality. In the Pennsylvania Senate, he serves on the following committees: Communications & Technology, Local Government, Labor & Industry, Transportation, and Urban Affairs & Housing. Kearney, who epitomizes the ethos of a citizen architect, would like to see other architects run for public office. “We owe it to ourselves to get involved,” he says.
There are a lot of parallels between my work in government and my work as an architect. On a basic level, architecture and politics are both all about people – the way they move, the way they think, the way they act, the way they interact. Architecture also teaches you how interconnected things are. If you’re going to knock down a building, you have to think about how that will impact everything around it. You have to keep the big picture in mind while also focusing on every little detail. Nothing exists by itself. Everything is interrelated.
I had no interaction with architecture growing up. I wanted to do something that combined art and science. Architecture seemed like the way to go. I spent 15 years at Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. Disney was one of my biggest clients and I traveled to Burbank a lot. My wife, Claudia Cueto, was also at Venturi. We decided to set up our own mom-and-pop shop in Swarthmore, outside Philadelphia. The office is 10 minutes from our house. Swarthmore gave us a real sense of community. My involvement began through the kids’ school. The second time I met their principal, she remembered my name. The third time, she had a job for me – designing an outdoor classroom.
I was on the community planning commission for 11 years and served as its president for seven. People encouraged me to run for mayor because architects are agents of change and our community was undergoing a lot it, largely revolving around Swarthmore College. In a small town, politics is intimate. You really get to know your neighbors. Going to our little food co-op could take 45 minutes because I would have conversations with six different neighbors about something going on in the community. Like an architect, you have to observe a lot about how people interact with each other and how they interact with their surroundings.
My training as an architect taught me a lot about civic engagement, especially in the Senate. One of the things I learned at Venturi is that you have to learn every day. You have to learn at everything you do. My work in the Senate is a lot like my work in an architecture studio. There are a lot of smart people who have different ideas and don’t always agree on how to get things done. That kind of work prepared me for my job in the Senate, although it was not quite as adversarial. You’re working with people you don’t necessarily agree, so empathy is a big part of being successful in both architecture and politics.
It is imperative for architects to get more involved. There is very little culture within the profession for engaging with the political process. Architects can and should have a much bigger impact. We’re leaders. It’s the nature of the profession. We lead an office. We lead a project. Most architects got into the profession to make the world a better place. For me, government is another tool to do that.