2021 AIA Award for Excellence in Public Architecture Recipient
Great public architecture embodies the identity and values of a society. This award, known as the Thomas Jefferson Award, was established in 1992 to recognize the importance of public officials or individuals who by their role and advocacy have furthered the public’s awareness and appreciation of design excellence in public architecture.
An incredibly effective advocate and champion for equitable design and development, Katie Swenson works tirelessly to humanize design and propel the profession forward. Whether its directing the distinguished Rose Fellowship program or guiding MASS Design Group as a senior principal, Swenson’s preternatural abilities to navigate complex social entanglements and forge strong alliances allow her to address our most pressing conditions with aplomb.
“What makes Katie the ideal candidate ... is her profound passion for service by design,” wrote Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA, in a letter supporting Swenson’s nomination for the award. “She is hyper-focused on the impact that people have on other people in the design and development of the built environment. Katie is a gifted relationship builder and talent cultivator.”
In the waning days of architecture school, Swenson uncovered the notion of a community architect when Enterprise Community Partners put out the call for applications for the first Frederick P. Rose Architectural Fellowship. The idea resonated with Swenson, who spent periods of her youth volunteering with housing and homeless organizations and witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of housing insecurity. Those early experiences were what guided her to architecture school with a focus on affordable housing. Swenson, with two toddlers at home, applied to become a fellow with Charlottesville’s Piedmont Housing Alliance and was accepted into the class of 2001–2004.
At Piedmont Housing, a regional nonprofit that serves low- and moderate-income families and individuals, Swenson tackled one of the organization’s most ambitious projects. She played a central role in the design and construction of the 10th and Page Street Neighborhood Revitalization Project, which added 30 new and restored affordable homes to a rapidly changing neighborhood surrounded by the University of Virginia and downtown Charlottesville. Swenson’s experiences in Charlottesville, where she chose to remain, reinforced her core values and energized her pursuit of community design that overcomes years of systemic racism, disinvestment, and neglect.
At the conclusion of her fellowship, Swenson opened the Charlottesville Community Design Center with a team of collaborators. Together, they applied a community-first approach to neighborhoods across the city. In 2006, Swenson returned to Enterprise Community Partners to direct the Rose Fellowship program, a position she would hold for nearly 14 years. In that role, Swenson traveled the country in search of new fellows and new communities to support. Now in its third decade, the fellowship has produced 86 Rose Fellows who have designed and developed nearly 40,000 homes in 40 states and Puerto Rico. In addition, Swenson founded Enterprise’s Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute program with Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, and Maurice Cox, FAIA. Functioning much like the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, the program gathers architects and developers for charrettes where leaders in the field can exchange ideas and uncover new solutions for their communities.
“Katie is still the engaging, hard-working, optimistic person driven to change the world that I knew a decade ago. What is different is that she has actually changed it for the betterment of humankind and continues to do so,” Scarpa wrote of Swenson. “Her professional, public policy, and not-for-profit service accomplishments have focused on creating a more environmentally, socially, and economically responsible world.”
Last year, following her 2019 Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Swenson moved into a full-time role at MASS after serving on its board of directors for several years. In her role at the nonprofit, Swenson guides its focus on projects that address social equity, environmental sustainability, and healthy communities. She was instrumental in MASS’ response to COVID-19 and led its effort to share design strategies for infection control. Her expertise in affordable housing was critical in crafting MASS’ recommendations for safe interactions in senior housing settings during the early days of the pandemic.
“I am extremely grateful for the insight and passion she brings to our shared mission, one that aims to create a socially and environmentally just, healthy, and equitable built world,” wrote Michael Murphy, MASS’ founding principal and executive director, in a letter supporting Swenson’s nomination. “There are no equals to Katie Swenson, and she has done this not from a position of privilege, but as a single mother raising three young daughters alone, with a nonprofit salary, and the do-whatever-it-takes-for-the-people-I-love selflessness that truly holds no bounds.”