Oriana Fenwick

Because of her invaluable work in helping to shape the design of California’s public buildings during her long career, Rona Rothenberg, FAIA, has earned the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture. Here she responds to our architect's version of the Proust questionnaire.

What is your greatest achievement?
Professionally I consider my role as a founder and leader in the development and delivery of California’s historic court building program, particularly my 13 years working for the state’s judicial branch and the outstanding buildings and planning resulting from that work, to be my greatest single contribution over my long career. When I reflect back, we had the tools for success that are the backbone that all great programs have in common: confident and strong leadership; sound and thorough planning; excellent resources.

What is the most memorable moment of your career?
The unexpected opportunity early in my career to build a lab for a future Nobel laureate, although we didn’t know it at the time. As a young project manager at Stanford Medical Center, I was assigned to manage design and construction of a small lab for a faculty scientist, Dr. Roger Kornberg, in about 1989–1990. I loved working with the scientists among whom Dr. Kornberg inspired a loyalty and partnership, and I realized the magic of what that could produce. The lesson from that early assignment has resonated throughout my career: every project is important to the client, no matter how large or small, and one never really knows the result, so you have to treat every client with respect and every assignment with gravitas, no exceptions.

What was your most rewarding collaboration?
Among the many unforgettable associations I have had in my work life with outstanding, inspiring people which produced exceptional work, the Santa Clara Family Justice Center project team and the completed building stand out. The project realized the culmination of a clear, long-term vision of Superior Court leadership to design and build a special, one-of-a-kind facility to serve families and children in a unique, highly successful restorative justice program.

What is the biggest challenge right now in public design?
Perhaps the unexpected and profound economic crises now posed to our profession by the pandemic might offer some of our fellow architects in practice a window of circumstances to change or evolve traditional thinking and training about design. Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” It is my vision that this is a time for many architects to consider and seize the moment for new and innovative ways to deliver value outside the existing paradigms.

What role should architects play in the planning and design of our public buildings?
I think we have the collective energy, talent, and resources as a profession to participate as executives, leaders, builders, project and construction managers, and planners as well as designers, and we should rise to the challenge of finding and optimizing all of the opportunities to apply our skills in new and unusual ways to add deep value.

When did you first realize you wanted to be an architect?
I have always wanted to be a lawyer! After college I spent six years working as a paralegal and loved the work and seriously considering applying to law school. My sister Susan Shay, AIA, suggested that I consider architecture. I vaguely recall her observation that architecture integrates art, technology, and the law, and that architecture school would be much more interesting than law school.

What jobs did your parents have?
My father was a professional engineer who finished his engineering training on the G.I. Bill after enlisting in the Air Force at age 17 in 1941. He committed his career to aerospace and infrastructure engineering in industry and spent the last 15 years of his long and distinguished work life as the deputy assistant secretary for technology and research and chief engineer at HUD in Washington, D.C. My mother was in professional fundraising and ran a nonprofit agency that built community centers and schools.

What keeps you up at night?
I am worried about future of the natural world. What type of world are we leaving to the generations following us? In 2006, at the AIA National Convention, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council was a keynote speaker. He talked with passion about borrowing the earth and its resources from our children. That is why the climate action initiatives led by AIA are so critical.

What does architectural happiness mean?
I am happy when design ends, when the terms of the general contract for construction are finalized, when the notice to proceed is issued and when the crews move in. Construction administration is my favorite phase of the work and the most gratifying. Happiness is being on the jobsite in my vest, hat, and goggles (and pearls), working with the men and women as a complete team. I am happy when the earth is moving, when the steel goes up, when the skin goes on, equipment comes in, infrastructure is commissioned, wires go in, technology is enabled, and then when the building is turned on and it works. I never get tired of it.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope my shared legacy will be with all the talented people with whom I have contributed to great buildings and planning that will serve the public. And I hope I will be remembered personally for inspiring others through a passion for lasting buildings achieved through dedication, hard work, and generous teamwork at every level.

What does winning the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture mean to you?
I am honored, humbled, and very pleased that my work and career are recognized by this special award. I am privileged to be in the august company of the others who have preceded me and their outstanding work. It is a credit to all of my colleagues, clients, and consultants who contributed to the work I facilitated and accomplished. I thank the Institute and my peers for this unforgettable honor. I hope to continue to contribute to the mission of our profession for many years to come through contributions to public works and AIA.