Urban Planning

A Conversation with Katie Swenson On Rebuilding Trust Through the Design of Safe and Healthy Spaces | Features


Katie Swenson – “Architecture and urban design is an expression of our cultural values— if we don’t understand what cultural forces have determined the way things currently are and guide decisions about resources and human value, we cannot design a more equitable future.​”

The question of the architect’s role within the community has continued to grow and change in recent years thanks, in part, to the work of dedicated individuals like Katie Swenson. Her involvement and leadership within organizations like Enterprise Community Partners and MASS Design Group have enabled her to help redirect architecture’s creative and generative energies towards fulfilling social and community goals through projects that include the creation of affordable housing and healthful spaces.

Archinect was able to chat with Swenson and learn about her journey from comparative literature to architecture, housing, and community development. In addition, Swenson discusses what it means to be a community architect in the COVID-19 era and how two fellowship opportunities changed the course of her professional career.

“I went in with the question,” Swenson tells Archinect, “‘how can love and kindness be tools for community development?’ I came out appreciating the broader implications of how our cultural values shape our policies and their impact on the built environment.”

What led you to study architecture? I learned that you have a B.A in comparative literature from UC Berkeley. 

Comparative literature provides an incredible way to study the world. Any time you learn a new language, you are learning a culture. Its eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to social and political issues appealed to me. It also gave me a chance to spend my junior year in Paris, studying literary theory at the University of Paris. The academic work was amazing, as was meeting other members of my program from universities across the US, an incredible group of people in the film, media, literature, and journalism worlds. But in some ways, the very best part for me was simply walking the city. I grew up outside of Washington DC and Boston and moved to Berkeley for college. I loved getting to know San Francisco, but that year gave me incredible exposure to the cultural dynamics and urban texture of Paris and fueled my love for cities. I walked endlessly, soaking in the city – its architecture, parks, infrastructure, streets, people, food. 

…writing has been an incredibly important part of my life, and that training in reading and writing was a formative part of my education […]

Thoughts and ideas are sometimes amorphous until you write or draw them. Like designing and drawing, the details and clarity don’t resolve themselves until you really dig in. 

I hadn’t had exposure to architecture as a profession as a child, but one of my close friends in college was studying architecture at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. I was jealous at the time of the studio environment, but I thought that it was too late for me to study architecture. Now I realize that architects have long careers, and you don’t have to start at 18!

But I would also say that writing has been an incredibly important part of my life, and that training in reading and writing was a formative part of my education. I heard someone say recently, “I don’t know what I think until I write it.” And that may be true for me. Thoughts and ideas are sometimes amorphous until you write or draw them. Like designing and drawing, the details and clarity don’t resolve themselves until you really dig in. 

University of Virginia – Campbell Hall. Image courtesy of University of Virginia SoA

What happened after you graduated from Berkeley? 

After graduation, I moved to New York City to pursue my passion for dance. At Berkeley, I was part of the modern dance program, building on my early interest in gymnastics, dance, and all kinds of sports. My first sublet in the West Village was in Westbeth Artists Housing, where the Merce Cunningham Studio had a school and rehearsal space on the top floor, overlooking the Hudson River. I had a dream to be a modern dancer, and gave it my best for six years. A friend from Berkeley and I started our own dance company, called 3-D Dance, and made original work, performed some, and taught a lot at high schools in Brooklyn. 

In order to sustain myself, I did a number of jobs, most in the restaurant world, but over time, I got more and more involved in New York’s design community and started picking up jobs here and there. I was mostly a laborer – painting, drywall, learned some welding – but eventually I started working with architects and graphic designers on other projects, including loft and office renovations. 

Toward the end of that time, one of my dance teachers, Sara Rudner, sent me to audition for Twyla Tharp in DC. Twyla was developing new work at the rehearsal studios at the Kennedy Center. I got the job, a dream come true. We danced from 9-5 for two months over the summer. The pay was a parking pass for the Kennedy Center garage, but of course I didn’t own a car! When we got back to New York in the fall, Twyla took the material we developed on tour with the American Ballet Theater. I decided that it was probably time for me to think about my future. I knew I loved design and architecture, but at age 26 now, was it too late? I applied to graduate programs in architecture and chose to get a master of architecture from the University of Virginia School of Architecture.

Rosie’s Place in Boston, Massachusetts. Image © Peter Lewitt.

Did you have any architecture role models growing up?

This might seem cliche, but my mom was a big role model for me. Granted my mom isn’t an architect, she’s a realtor. But whenever I meet clients that have worked with my mom over the past 40+ years, regardless if she was representing them or the other party, they always spoke about how much my mom helped them think differently about the idea and importance of home. She is a “home-maker” in the fullest sense. She always understood that home has the power to be the central platform for a person’s life.

But when I was in high school, I volunteered at Rosie’s Place in Boston, the first women’s shelter in the US. In the mid-80s, Boston and other cities were experiencing the initial apex of what has become now a fact of our contemporary reality – large numbers of people without safe and secure housing. Working in the lunchroom, I witnessed up close the slippery slope of homelessness. People can go from housing stability to housing insecurity quickly, and without a home, everything else falls apart. Seeing this, while having the con-concurrent primacy of the importance of home from my mom, became an important part of my motivation and inspiration to see architecture as part of the solution. 

Post Katrina – Lafitte Project (2012) Photo by Harry Connolly

One of the words most often associated with affordable housing is “crisis” and it is […] I think we need to come together to reject the idea of homelessness, at least at the scale we see now.

 For a long time, affordable housing was seen as something we had to check off a list, but thanks to their work, and others like them, affordable housing has become “sexy” now, and thank goodness.

Construction during Hurricane Katrina Project in New Orleans, LA (2012) Image © Harry Connolly

The topic of affordable housing seems like an enigma to many. At a base level it seems pretty apparent what needs to be done, but there are many dimensions connecting to the success of a program and sustaining it.

One of the words most often associated with affordable housing is “crisis” and it is. Enterprise research says that there are over 11 million people who are housing insecure in the US. But it’s being discussed more in the community development field than within architecture. Why is that? If architects hold themselves accountable for the design of the built environment, then why are they not responsible for making sure that every person has a high quality home? 

I think we need to come together to reject the idea of homelessness, at least at the scale we see now. People can live in different ways, of course, but we need a national housing policy that commits to the core premise that there is available and affordable high quality housing for everyone. 

Early in my career, I was inspired by architects like Larry Scarpa and Angie Brooks, David Baker, and Julie Eizenberg, who have dedicated large parts of their practices to designing affordable housing. For a long time, affordable housing was seen as something we had to check off a list, but thanks to their work, and others like them, affordable housing has become “sexy” now, and thank goodness. Architecture that is driven by a social mission is incredibly gratifying and important work. What else are we here for?

Image © Harry Connolly.

You’re a big advocate of fellowships having yourself participated in two well known fellowships (The Rose Fellowship and Loeb Fellowship). Can you share your experiences during your time as a fellow?

Being a Rose Fellow was such a meaningful experience, it absolutely changed my life. When I was at UVA, a friend connected me with Piedmont Housing, a regional housing organization based in Charlottesville, Va. Piedmont Housing asked if I would apply with them for a program that was then called the Frederick P. Rose Architectural Fellowship. 

The application materials from Enterprise called for ‘community architects.’ “What’s a community architect?” I thought. I had never heard that term, but, whatever it was, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to be. I thought that after graduation, I would have a day job in architecture and volunteer with social causes on nights and weekends, like many architects do. Being a “community architect” meant that I could dedicate my career to the intersection of design and community development. It was like a dream. 

Katie at Community Design Center in Charlottesville opening (2005). Image © Harry Connolly.

During the fellowship, I worked with community groups on neighborhood level work. I was certainly naive going in and had a lot to learn. I became immersed in understanding community processes and engagement. I learned about the history of racial planning and its implications. I learned the policy and finance systems that govern development decisions. During my time as a fellow, a large part of my challenge was finding a way to make the argument that architecture matters and that required learning how to demonstrate its impact. I also got to build for the first time. This was an incredibly vibrant time.

One of the best parts of the fellowship was what we call ‘the fellowship of the fellowship.” Sometimes, fellowships are seen as being prizes or awards. The Rose Fellowship is, first and foremost, the opportunity to work in the critical path of community development – it’s a job  – just one that lands you in a very unique place. But so much of the growth I experienced came from being networked with the other fellows. I learned so much from them and their communities, and that vital support continues to this day.

Harvard GSD Loeb Fellowship Class 2018 – 2019. Photo courtesy of Katie Swenson

The Loeb Fellowship also gave me the chance to step back and take a breath on both a professional and personal level.

Did your experience as a Loeb Fellow differ or were elements of the program similar to that of the Rose Fellowship?

The Loeb Fellowship was equally transformative, but at a different time in my life and career, and so in a very different way.  The Loeb is designed for mid-career professionals who have had robust careers, but are looking to get to the next level. For 20 years, I had been focused on how to fuel community partners with the resources of design and architecture. During the Loeb Fellowship I was able to step back and see a larger perspective. I went in with the question, “how can love and kindness be tools for community development?” I came out appreciating the broader implications of how our cultural values shape our policies and their impact on the built environment.

The Loeb Fellowship also gave me the chance to step back and take a breath on both a professional and personal level. I realize now that that year allowed me to grow into the next phase of my life. I had suffered a personal loss that I needed to heal from, and was so lucky to have the chance to evolve my work life along with my personal development. In life you can’t go back, you can only go forward and the fellowship pushed me to knit myself back together. 

Marion West Building, Affordable Housing Design Leadership Inst. Participating Project (2012). Image © Harry Connolly. Courtesy of Enterprise Community Partners.

As a leader in the organization, I had the opportunity to respond to the needs we saw on the ground in communities, and develop new programs to support not only architectural excellence, but also community engagement, cultural and climate resilience, and public health.

You were the Vice President of Design and Sustainability at Enterprise Community Partners for a little over 13 years. Can you talk to me about your time there and the work done?

As a Rose fellow, I had been exposed to a network of community design centers, and when I finished, I partnered with local designers to open a Community Design Center in Charlottesville. We wanted to create a public place to ask the question, “how do we create an equitable, sustainable, affordable, city?” Over nearly two years, we worked with neighborhood groups, helped the City with the community process for the comprehensive plan, held design competitions, and produced monthly exhibitions and lectures on all sorts of topics about sustainability and the city. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I had been working with Jonathan Rose and his team to bring sustainability standards into the rebuilding planning efforts in Louisiana. Jonathan had been the founder of the Rose Fellowship, a board member of Enterprise, and himself a leader in green, affordable housing. 

Post Katrina Housing Project (2012) Photo by Harry Connolly

One day, Enterprise called to ask if I would consider coming on board to lead the Rose Fellowship. I didn’t imagine then that I would be at Enterprise for nearly fourteen years, but it was a wonderful experience. First, the Rose Fellowship has become a lifelong source of learning and inspiration. And, Enterprise is an amazing organization that encourages innovation. Every three years or so, it felt like I had a whole new job. We were growing the role of design within the company, and within the broader field. At the time, no other program in the country was doing the work of bringing design excellence into affordable housing. As a leader in the organization, I had the opportunity to respond to the needs we saw on the ground in communities, and develop new programs to support not only architectural excellence, but also community engagement, cultural and climate resilience, and public health.

View of Butaro Hospital pediatric ward. Image © Iwan Baan. Courtesy of MASS Design Group

Congratulations on your recent appointment as Senior Principal at MASS. How has your work at Enterprise Comm. Partners previous institutions helped you transition into your role at MASS?

I first encountered MASS in 2010 at a Structures for Inclusion conference at Howard University. Michael Murphy was there presenting on the Butaro Hospital, which was still under construction. Between 2000-2010, there was lots of energy and momentum around public interest design. And then MASS arrived on the scene! MASS embodied the ethos we were calling for, but they were doing it at a new and very exciting scale. 

Coming to MASS in 2020 as a Senior Principal has allowed me to part of the question facing the firm,“OK, what’s MASS 2.0?” 

I became a friend and ally to Michael and the team. Enterprise and MASS moved our offices in together in 2015, and we still co-locate in Boston, which has offered a lot of partnership opportunities. I joined the MASS board of directors in 2017. MASS has been a passion project for me for a long time. I have always thought that they were fundamentally offering a whole new conversation on how architecture serves society. Over time, I saw them putting theory into practice, again and again.

Coming to MASS in 2020 as a Senior Principal has allowed me to part of the question facing the firm,“OK, what’s MASS 2.0?” How do we look ahead over the next 10 years to not only design projects, but to design a firm that delivers on its mission to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.

“The Embrace” with Hank Willis Thomas – to celebrate, honor, and advance the work and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. One of their initiatives is a call for proposals to design a memorial in the Boston Common that honors the Kings’ legacy. Render image and text courtesy of MASS

“The Embrace” Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group’s memorial. Image courtesy of King Boston


Since Enterprise Community Partners and MASS Design Group both have offices Boston, how would you describe the city and its efforts to improve housing and social equity for communities?

Enterprise is a national organization with local offices in over a dozen cities, Boston being one of them, and MASS is a Boston-based firm with a global reach. Boston is known as an innovator in the community development field and also home to many of the leading design schools in the country. That said, it is also becoming one of the most expensive cities in the country, and the effects for people living in poverty are severe. MASS is working on a number of projects in Boston, including the redevelopment of a 142-unit senior affordable housing community in Brighton, a new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King on the Boston Common, the new Franklin Park Master Plan in partnership with two other local firms, and a master plan and affordable housing project in Mattapan, a historic neighborhood in Boston. We also partner with a number of community based groups like Boston Health Care for the Homeless, St. Francis House, and community development groups like Nuestra Comunidad and Preservation for Affordable Housing (POAH).

Boston Architecture College – “Undesign the Redlines” class (2019) Image courtesy of Katie Swenson.

As a leader in professional practice, you’re also an academic. Where do you think the future of academia is going?

I have a lot of faith in the generation in college and grad school now. They see the world in a way that is far more aware and clear eyed than my generation. Academic institutions need to respond to their activism and develop curriculums that address the realities of our times. When I was in school, I never saw a redlining map of a city we studied.  I recently co-taught a class at the Boston Architectural College with April De Simone (co-founder of designing the WE) called “Undesign the Redline: the Transformation of Race, Place and Class in America” where we worked with students to connect the intentional and systemic racial housing segregation of the 1930s to political and social issues of today.  Architecture must be taught with more rigorous grounding in the socio-spatial politics of our time. 

Architecture and urban design is an expression of our cultural values— if we don’t understand what cultural forces have determined the way things currently are and guide decisions about resources and human value, we cannot design a more equitable future.

MASS’s 2014 theme “Beyond the Building” Image courtesy of MASS

What is the transformation that the building seeks to accomplish, for whom and over what period of time? Starting by identifying those answers, you can then use design as a tool to achieve that mission and attach measurable outcomes to it.

Much of your work focuses on fostering community development, social impact, equity, and sustainability. These are always “hot topics” or “buzzwords” people like to use but often have very little understanding or follow through. How does your work and expertise help create stronger forms of discourse around these subjects? 

I think the first question is: “How do you understand the mission for a project?” Not the program – the design components – but the underlying goals that a project seeks to accomplish. Sometimes, in affordable housing, people will suggest that the mission of a project is to build a certain number of units. More housing is absolutely essential, that is undeniable, we need more housing. But the mission for a project should go beyond that. What is the transformation that the building seeks to accomplish, for whom and over what period of time? Starting by identifying those answers, you can then use design as a tool to achieve that mission and attach measurable outcomes to it. You can then determine a strategy to measure those outcomes. It’s true that architects have not always been held accountable for judging the success of a building. 

We tend to judge based on its appearance and functionality. We rely on green rating systems to measure the efficiency of a building. But buildings can do so much more. In MASS’s words, buildings can make people healthier. They can create new systems of production, create new kinds of jobs. They can restore dignity to their inhabitants. They can create a sense of community that reduces loneliness, and thereby literally saves lives. All these things can be measured

GHESKIO Tuberculosis Hospital in Haiti. Image © Iwan Baan. Courtesy of MASS

Your involvement with Enterprise and MASS has given you the experience to provide strategies during crisis or disaster relief situations. Right now, communities across the globe are heavily impacted by this global pandemic. The architecture community has become as involved as possible whether it’s by providing PPE supplies, constructing temporary hospital shelters, etc. From your perspective, what else needs to be done? Has the industry missed the mark? 

It’s been amazing to see so many firms coming together to leverage their skills and equipment to design and produce face guards, N95 Masks, and other Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Part of our involvement in providing pandemic solutions has been in providing temporary shelter and housing for some of the most at-risk and vulnerable populations, people who are without housing. At MASS, we packed up our offices and headed home on Thursday, March 12. On Monday morning, March 16, as most of us were about to join our first all team Zoom meeting, one of our Boston-based design directors, Chris Scovel, answered a call from Jessie Gaeta, Chief Medical Officer at Boston Health Care for the Homeless, with an urgent request for Chris’ help to design emergency tents to test and treat members of the community. Over the course of about six hours, our team worked with  BHCHP and others to make design recommendations based on what we then knew about spatial strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

GHESKIO Tuberculosis Hospital in Haiti. Image © Iwan Baan. Courtesy of MASS

There are no guidelines about how to design for infection control specific to Covid-19. Working with our medical and healthcare partners, we are distilling the latest knowledge, and turning those learnings into guidelines that are now available for homeowners, builders, designers, and industry leaders in agriculture, health, education, and housing sectors, on how to retrofit spaces for infection control. 

This experience has guided our Covid-19 response. Throughout MASS’s history, we have designed and built new spaces and retrofitted existing buildings to promote infection control, supporting our partners in providing the best patient care possible. We have tested these ideas in Rwanda, Haiti, Liberia, and the U.S., and now see the opportunity to bring these lessons learned in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

After those first tents were built, we took a step back to understand what we had learned. Existing design guidelines are insufficient in addressing the unique spatial needs of the novel coronavirus. In the last 10 years, MASS has spent time working in the middle of three different epidemics, and developed a practice in response to the consideration of how buildings might respond as well as protect against future epidemics. This is different. There are no guidelines about how to design for infection control specific to Covid-19. 

Working with our medical and healthcare partners, we are distilling the latest knowledge, and turning those learnings into guidelines that are now available for homeowners, builders, designers, and industry leaders in agriculture, health, education, and housing sectors, on how to retrofit spaces for infection control. It is through the real-time sharing lessons learned and best practices that we will advance design needs for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases or public health crises.

Image courtesy of MASS.

What would you say to firms (regardless of size) who are trying to find ways to help but also cope with this situation at hand?

We are all going to have to navigate the world in a new way when we leave our homes. Many of our fundamental understandings about public space will change as a result of COVID-19, in ways we can only begin to imagine. Some are thrilling: what if we kept the cars off the road? What would it mean to rethink our means of food production and distribution? Can we take on climate change with the same all-in vigor that we are demonstrating now across the world? Others will be less optimistic. There will be fear – fears for our future, fear of each other, fear for our livelihoods and economy, fear of gathering, fear of the ideas of community that have sustained us for so long. Architects and designers can play a large role in rebuilding systems of trust through the design of safe and healthy environments. It’s going to be tough, but we need all hands on deck.

Katie on a site visit in Kewa Pueblo (2020). Image © Harry Connolly.

Many of our fundamental understandings about public space will change as a result of COVID-19 […] 
Architects and designers can play a large role in rebuilding systems of trust through the design of safe and healthy environments. It’s going to be tough, but we need all hands on deck.

The idea of returning to “normalcy” is a bit of a loaded question, however, people are wondering what will happen. As you’ve mentioned before, building and sustaining a community is more than just having the right infrastructure in place. What do you hope city leaders, planners, and architects can do to help?  

Has there ever been a time that leadership was more necessary than now? How are we going to emerge from this experience? The world as we have known it is likely to be very different. Many of us will experience profound grief, and all of us will experience set-backs and disappointments. Will we be able to take greater care for each other, to be able to look around at the seemingly unsolvable epidemics of our past – like homelessness – and, knowing now more than ever, how intimately connected we are, commit to creating a society that holds the dignity of the individual and the collective at the fore? My hope is that we take the question I studied during my Loeb Fellowship and let love, kindness and our shared humanity guide our responses to the current and future situation. 

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