Tony Luong

A senior principal at MASS Design Group, Katie Swenson launched her ground-breaking career in community-based design as the director of Enterprise Community Partners’ Rose Fellowship program, an experience she documented in the book Design with Love.

What is the most memorable moment of your career?
In my final year of architecture school, I saw an announcement from Enterprise Community Partners looking for “community architects.” I had never heard those two words together, but something in me immediately lit up: Whatever a community architect was, that’s what I wanted to be. I have been exploring how to live that calling ever since.

That first job out of school—being a Rose Fellow with Piedmont Housing Alliance in Charlottesville, Va.—shaped me in so many ways. It was my introduction to the then-developing practice of community design, it gave me my first chance to work with community members as the main drivers of design, and it introduced me to designers who shared the same values and interests. Everything I have done since has in some way been an exploration of what it means to put community voices and priorities first in a system that deprioritizes them, and how to build a larger culture of design that has social impact.

What was your most rewarding collaboration?
I first became acquainted with MASS Design Group in 2010. Michael Murphy was speaking at a Structures for Inclusion conference at Howard University, when the Butaro District Hospital was under construction. As I listened to his story, I felt like I was witnessing a seismic shift in the work of what we then called “public interest design.” During that decade, the Rose Fellows and I were trying to understand how design could be better leveraged in the development of affordable housing, while many of my design peers were working with community design centers, on pro-bono design, or alternative design practices. For me, MASS represented the first effort to create a full-scale architecture and design firm that was 100% committed to public architecture. Structured as a nonprofit, MASS is dedicated to bringing dignity through design to partners who might not otherwise have access.

Over the next decade, I became a friend and cheerleader for the team there. Enterprise and MASS moved our offices together on Boylston Street in Boston and started collaborating on projects, and I joined the board of directors, introducing MASS to philanthropic partners and supporting the firm’s growth from a staff of 22 in 2014 to 250 today, with an incredible slate of projects both in design and construction. It’s been thrilling to help MASS grow and deliver on its promise to revolutionize design practice.

What inspired your interest in public design?
In high school, I volunteered at Rosie’s Place, a shelter for women in Boston. I witnessed the devastating effects of homelessness, which was reaching epidemic proportions in the mid-1980s. It was shocking. Without a home, it seemed, everything else fell apart. I certainly did not then foresee a career in affordable housing or public interest design, but I think that the essential disconnect between the life I had—its security, its structure, its architecture—and the experience of the women I met shaped my perception of the world, and later my efforts to invest in dignified and affordable housing. Inequality in this country is complex, but one part of the solution should be easier. Everyone is vulnerable without a home, no matter where they came from, and so housing becomes the ultimate solution to so many social ills. What will it take for us to create a national housing policy that commits to the fundamental right of every person to have a good-quality home? Until that happens, I’ll keep working.

What role should architects play in the planning and design of our public buildings and spaces?
Architects do best when they don’t just get involved in projects, but are invested in places and committed to people. For me, "public architecture" is not just about creating public places, but community members bringing their own creativity and cultural perspective to designing the spaces that work for them. Architects can help create inclusive spaces with their design skills, but in a whole host of other ways as well—by lifting up local voices, giving form to vision, and helping people navigate pathways to making projects happen.

Harry Connolly; Enterprise Community Partners

What was the importance of your work with the Enterprise Community Partners, both to your career and to communities around the country?
Writing Design with Love: At Home in America gave me a chance to revisit communities across the U.S. and reflect on how many incredible people I met, and how much I learned from them. First as a Rose Fellow, and later as director of the program, I had the opportunity to work in my community while also traveling to over 40 states, meeting local leaders who were advocating for a better quality of life for their neighbors. It was so inspiring! I came to understand the systems that perpetuate poverty, and the fight to overcome them. I learned what home means to people—that in different places, urban and rural, and different cultures and geographies, everyone wants high-quality housing. My work at Enterprise came to focus on how to integrate design—and designers—into those local efforts, and then share lessons and examples nationally. I hope we have demonstrated that we can—and must—build sustainable, affordable housing, and that when we do, it transforms people’s lives.

What design work did you and your colleagues at MASS develop in response to COVID-19?
The morning of March 15, 2020, MASS architect Chris Scovel answered a call from a longtime partner at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, asking if he would take a look at the plans for makeshift tents that were to be put up the following day. From that point forward, MASS started responding to the urgent needs of diverse partners, learning from medical and scientific partners about theories of transmission and how to keep people safe from infection. Building on 10 years of experience in designing spaces to prevent the spread of infectious disease in medical and non-medical environments, we formed a COVID-19 response team, working on a series of spatial strategies for medical environments, housing, restaurants, schools, cultural institutions, and carceral environments. We won the AIA Collaborative Achievement Award for that work, because of the robust and diverse partnerships in that effort. Those guidelines are free and available on our website, and they have been downloaded more than 30,000 times.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope that I’ll be remembered as someone who centered the concept of love in design. In my book In Bohemia: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Kindness, it's impossible to look away from the love in the story: between a man and woman, between two families, between two women, but also in the delight of living in a house and the process of making it yours—what a house gives you, what you give it back. Design with Love elevates love as an essential form of commitment to a public good. For me, the concept of home—both on a personal level and on a political level—is inextricable from the concept of love. Safe, well-designed spaces create environments where we thrive emotionally, physically, and culturally. We want that for ourselves and our families, but we need to demand that for the larger public.

What does it mean to win the Award for Excellence in Public Architecture?
All of my work has been done in partnership with so many people, so, in some ways, it's disingenuous to win an individual award for what has been, by definition, a collaborative endeavor. Looking back over my career, however, I appreciate seeing the clear commitments that run through it, whether it was design work and community design, speaking out, lifting up best practices, writing, teaching, or mentoring. I am grateful to model a career that has consistently focused on leveraging the power of design toward greater equity. I hope that this award will embolden designers to insist on architecture as a public right.