Citizen Architect - Robert Fiala, AIA

Citizen Architect Robert Fiala has been working in and around government since he started his career more than 40 years ago. After leading a firm responsible for designing educational facilities in Ohio, he is now leading the city of Willoughby, Ohio, through the COVID-19 pandemic while executing a “community-wide effort” for reinventing the town. Fiala’s experience as a planner and architect has benefited Willoughby in other ways, as well. While serving on the City Council, Fiala chaired the Budget and Finance Committee and the Economic Development Committee, and was a member of the Environmental Planning Committee.

Fiala is the founding partner and executive chairman of ThenDesign Architecture (tda), which specializes in educational-facility programming and design. The firm has received the prestigious Weatherhead 100 Award as well as the NEO Success Award, NorthCoast 99 Award, and was recognized as one of Crain's Cleveland Business 52 Fastest-Growing Companies. It is a 19-time Fast Track 50 award winner and an inductee in the Lakeland Business Hall of Fame. Fiala has been mayor and safety director for the city of Willoughby, Ohio, since January 2018. Before that, he was a City Council member for 20 years. He is a former president of the Cleveland chapter of AIA.

After founding and stewarding ThenDesign Architecture (tda), one of the Cleveland metropolitan area’s largest architectural and planning firms, for more than 30 years, Robert Fiala ran for mayor of his hometown, Willoughby, Ohio. The city is 20 minutes from Ohio’s second-largest city, Cleveland, and boasts a small but cherished historic district. It is home to more than 23,000 residents.

Fiala’s wife and children were uncertain about his decision, concerned that the pressures of managing a firm and running a municipality would be overwhelming. They also recognized the transition from a private-sector employee/client-focused professional firm to a “top-down” municipal government would be especially challenging.

The public service bug had bitten Fiala years earlier, however, as his firm worked with leaders in education throughout the state to plan new school projects. “I felt the excitement of engaging with the community,” Fiala said. “I also had an epiphany: I realized that, as architects, we are trained to problem-seek and -solve, then to communicate our solutions. However, with the unique tools that we, as designers, possess we are rarely at the table in public policy and planning discussions and decisions.”

Through its founding and early years, Fiala made sure tda was built on a different operating model. In fact, under his direction tda’s design philosophy—“Think, Design, Act”—had a community- and public policy–oriented feel. The firm is driven by an “insatiable desire to learn” and “to create tailormade design solutions.” In other words, to accomplish what public officials attempt to accomplish: identifying and executing a shared vision.

Not long after Fiala’s epiphany came the opportunity to serve Willoughby in a more official capacity. In 1993, the city’s then-mayor asked Fiala to become part of Willoughby’s planning commission. Fiala, who was president of his local AIA chapter at the time, jumped at the opportunity. “I believe all architects are public servants in some capacity,” he said. “You can read about issues, you can talk about them, or you can get involved. In local government,  results are quickly apparent once decisions are made, and legislation is enacted.”

After a few years on the planning commission, Fiala was appointed to fill an unexpired term on Willoughby City Council in 1997. He would serve on the city’s legislative body for more than 20 years, including as the council’s vice president. During his tenure, the city built a new courthouse, fire station, and swimming pool. Other projects included the renovation of another swimming pool, fire station, and city hall. His architectural expertise was integral to each project.

Fiala said his time as an architect working on K–12 education projects gave him a solid understanding of how to communicate with communities, and of the importance of being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. “Architects can help explain complex issues,” Fiala said, “and by the nature of our work we are inquisitive.”  

When he felt called to run for mayor, Fiala ran on a platform called Envision 4.0, or what he called a “community-wide effort at reinvention.” Fiala’s plan was designed to sustain the economic vitality of the city and maintain Willoughby’s historic character through three initiatives: rebranding the downtown as an Arts and Entertainment District; building on commercial property investment while helping homeowners develop strategies to increase residential land values; and providing improved access to the city’s natural assets, including the Chagrin River and Lake Erie.

During his mayoral campaign, Fiala told the local News-Herald, “As a planner and architect I am uniquely qualified to accomplish” these objectives.

Residents agreed. Fiala won his race overwhelmingly and has led the city since January 2, 2018.

Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Fiala has managed to make progress toward implementing his vision. Residential construction has flourished, including a recently approved $3.5 million investment in new housing in its Lakefront District and nearly $50 million in commercial investment.

Despite the progress, Fiala explained that the last months have been his most challenging as a public servant. “It’s been a year of unknowns and uncertainty,” he said, noting that maintaining community spirit during the pandemic has been particularly taxing.

Fiala realizes that most architects probably will not start their advocacy journey by running for public office. So how can designers and planners become citizen architects without putting themselves on the ballot?

Fiala said, “Pick up the phone and call your mayor. If you want to tackle affordable housing, resiliency, sustainability, or any other issue of personal interest, you’ve got to communicate your ideas.” He argued, “There are many ways to become active and involved,” and suggested an individual start by joining a city visioning committee, becoming part of a volunteer board such as a planning commission, or getting involved through a local professional organization such as the AIA.

“Those opportunities were my testing ground,” Fiala concluded. “They showed me that I loved public service and that there are many ways to be a voice and an advocate.”

-As told to Kerrie Rushton

Image credits

Photo of Robert Fiala

ThenDesign Architecture