Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Katie Swenson

Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Katie Swenson


Hi. So thrilled to be here. You can see from just the
original introductions how incredibly lucky
we are to be here and to be networked
with each other, to get this kind of time
and space to reflect. I am just personally
delighted, so glad to see also lots of familiar faces here. I’m from Boston. Enterprise shares office
space with MASS Design Group. So it’s been a
thrilling way to get to meet so many young
designers, many from the GSD, but from all over. And we’re just over
on Boylston Street. So that’s been really fun. I am going to not
use slides today. It seemed like kind of a
awkward move, potentially. I’ve done thousands
of presentations, right, as we all have. And I started
realizing that I wanted to talk about something today
that I didn’t necessarily need to be based in sort
of a spatial or physical representation. So, for many of
you, I’d love you to come to Jim Stockard’s
class on October 31 where I will invariably give
a PowerPoint about our work in affordable housing. And there will be lots
of chances, I hope, to continue the conversation. But I want to talk to you
about sort of a little bit more what’s on my mind than
maybe where I’ve been. But I’ll tell you
just a little bit. You know, tomorrow
is September 11. So that means it’s been
17 years and about a week since I was first a
young architect partnered through the Enterprise
Rose Fellowship program to work in a neighborhood
in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. And having graduated
with my MArch, I had volunteered for a
local community development and affordable
housing group assuming that I would have
to balance life as an architect and a volunteer
on weekends and nights. And when the Rose
Fellowship came my way, I kind of couldn’t believe this
thing existed, this opportunity to make what was
my personal passion into a professional path. So the Fellowship, essentially,
recruits young architects to work in partnership
on the ground with community-based
organizations, bringing the skills and
language of design in-house. And it’s been a
remarkable program and now a part of my life
for many years. There have been 75 Rose fellows
total, 40 states, I believe, and Puerto Rico. Together, somehow, we’ve had
a hand in about 30,000 units of housing– quite a lot of production
through the groups that they work with, for sure. The fellows will be
presenting on Thursday night at the Ben Franklin
Institute in Boston. Three of the outgoing
fellows, including a GSD grad who worked with
David [inaudible],, has been partnered in Boston
for the last three years. So you’re welcome to come and
sort of see what they’re up to. So over these last
years, I will say that I’ve been incredibly
excited to really watch the profession of architecture
change before my eyes. I think back in
2000, John Peterson was starting public
architecture. And there was a real
wave around architects trying to get involved
in social practice. But there was still
sort of a divide. There was a moment in time
where you had to kind of choose to do work that was socially
meaningful or aesthetically avant garde. And luckily, I think
we’re here to say with the emergence
of, especially, a group like MASS Design,
which was born out of the GSD, that that’s just
no longer the case. And it’s just
thrilling that really, in fact, the idea that justice
and dignity and resilience are actually non-negotiable
outcomes of design excellence. So it’s been wonderful
to be part of this. But I have to say
that at the same time we’re just not doing enough. Enterprise as an
organization is really– sort of gets up in
the morning to try to understand how to address
the housing instability crisis in this country– 40 million people who
are housing insecure, at least a million homeless
on the street every night. And this kind of idea that this
is acceptable in our society and has become a
part of our world is essentially what, I would
say, gets me up in the morning. Jim in his class the other
day let us know that only 5% of all housing stock
in the US is subsidized in some form or another. So there’s core commitment. So my question here
is, what will it take for us to make
high-quality, affordable, beautiful housing
a core human right? Now, I wrote my Loeb
application about how we needed to make
a fundamental shift in our perspective, Jeana. I love that quote. And I said in that
application that I thought that the answer had
something to do with love. So in my interview, I
got asked the question, if you’re interested
in loving kindness, why are you coming to the GSD? And in fact, of course,
this has not only been an incredibly warm
and welcoming place, but I’d like to
suggest that we do a kind of deeper analysis
on actually what love is, how it operates,
and how potentially it’s part of a systematic
change in our perception. So I’m going to just start
with a little bit of a story. I was at the Kennedy
School last week. And a student said, in my house,
when your emotions got too big for your body, you wrote. I didn’t grow up
with that strategy. But luckily for me,
that kind of came to me in a moment of
crisis and trauma. So a little over a year ago,
on May 31, I got into my bed. It was about 11
o’clock at night. And I had my iPhone. And I’d had these words just
rattling around in my head– we get to keep the
gifts he gave us. And I couldn’t get them out. They were like bouncing
off of my cranium. We get to keep the
gifts he gave us. Within this kind
of chaos in my mind as I was experiencing a
deep and intense grief, I was trying to understand how
to make sense of my new world. I started writing. I’m, like, typing madly
on my iPhone in my bed. First, one daughter
and then another– I have three– climb
in bed with me. And tears are
streaming down my face. And the girls are
like, Mommy, Mommy. Like, it’s OK. It’s OK. And I’m like, no, get away. I had to kind of write all
the way through to the finish. So about 10 days before that,
my beloved partner, Tommy Niles, had a sudden heart attack. He died in my arms. I watched the whole
thing happen– you know, the lungs
stop, the heart stop. It was just one of
those moments that will shift your perspective forever. So writing somehow became
like my survival technique. I would get up in the morning. I’d go to early morning yoga
practice, 5:45 this morning, kind of almost write
on my mat, take one piece of chaos
out of my brain, and try to bring it down
and kind of resolve it. I made myself into a habit
where I would write to the end. I wouldn’t stop. I wouldn’t edit. I wouldn’t question myself,
just get my thoughts all the way out on the page. So about a year later
and 98,000 words, I’m here to tell you
that I have optimism. Right? I have, kind of, I
can look forward. I can pull my way sort
of out of the grief. I even have a book
contract, believe it or not. So we’ll see. That’s another story. But the writing was both
personal and professional. It turned into this
kind of meditation, I would say, on kindness,
on grief, and on a sort of exploration of love. So obviously, Tommy and I
experienced romantic love. He was an incredible
man, wonderful man. He was going to be
my second husband. For those of you who’ve been
through the trials of life, a second marriage, I wouldn’t
recommend not having the first. I mean, you know, make your
first work is the first thing. But there’s something
also incredibly special about a second
romance like that. It gives you a lot
of opportunity. But not only was
he beloved to me, he was a very special person. And I started trying
to understand what was it that made him so special. So he was a developer
and a builder. He probably built 45
buildings, I would think– the renovation of Post
Office Square here in Boston. The project that he was
working on when he died, [inaudible] knows, was a
building in Providence, Rhode Island, this majestic
Narragansett electric power plant which has now opened for
Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Nursing, a
gorgeous, incredible project– a YMCA in Quincy, Mass, that
was kind of his labor of love that was really a
volunteer project, practically, the largest
YMCA though in the Northeast. And time and time
again what people said to me were
phrases like, he may have been the kindest
person I had ever met. When you spoke with him,
you were the only person in the room. So this is not just
my own experience. But this was the way
that hundreds of people came to me to speak with him. The director of the YMCA
in Quincy, Paul Gorman, said, you know,
our project was– like, Tommy’s role
in our project essentially was always to
keep the vision of the Y from the biggest picture down
to the most minute details. When I went down to Providence
and met with so many of the people who
loved him there, one of the project managers,
I said, well, you know, it takes so many people
to make a project happen. And she said, no, it took Tom. He was at the center
always making sure that the vision of the
project, and the building, and the architecture, and
the program were first. Everybody has, all
these people have, their games to play– you know,
the mayor, and the governor, and Brown, and Rhode
Island School of Nursing, and Historic Commission. But he was at the center
kind of moving projects. So I want to position
this idea around love as a kind of activating agent. That in fact, what is
it that makes projects happen in the long run? And what are the
qualities that it takes in addition to the
physical design of places to kind of drive architecture
into communities? So as you know, there
are many types of love. The Greeks spoke of eight–
erotic love, affectionate love, familiar love, playful love,
obsessive love, enduring love, and then self-love,
and then agape, selfless love, the kind of
highest and most radical form. So this is what
Dr. Martin Luther King suggested, basically,
in the Beloved Community. So, “In the Beloved
Community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not
be tolerated,” King said, “because international
standards of human decency will not allow it.” So in Atlanta now through
this Atlanta City Design, Ryan Gravel, who designed
the BeltLine you all know in Atlanta, he
had been a Rose fellow in 2004. In their planning
book they say, “Love is important in city
design because with love comes empathy and
respect for the people and places around us. Love leads us to
make better decisions about how the city is put
together– who is included, who benefits, and
what we want to be part of our day-to-day lives. We also know that only
with love can our most ambitious aspirations be
realized because only love can commit us to the difficult
negotiations, compromises, hard decisions,
work, and investment required to follow our dreams.” So I’ve seen this in
action time and time again. I’ve seen these, the roles
that many of our Rose fellows play to be the activating
agent on the ground between the architecture and the
community development outcomes. But last Thursday at
Memorial Hall, Atul Gawande, medical doctor and surgeon,
came and spoke about his book, Being Mortal. And he was in conversation
with the dean of the Harvard Divinity School, David Hempton. And he said, “One of the things
that medicine and religion have in common is the ethos that
anyone who walks in the door deserves our attention. We know there is a gap
between our commitment to that goal and the reality. We are embarrassed
by that, and we must endeavor to close the gap.” So in architecture, what is
the core foundational mission that drives us? Is it to serve every person? Is it to take hold of
the built environment and make it the sustainable,
beautiful, functional place that we need it to
be for all people? No, not necessarily. But if it were, would we
be embarrassed, actually? Would we be able to
admit that, in fact, that disconnect in the
gap between our built environment and our strategies
and our commitment to resolve them is, in fact, missing? So my argument is that we
architects are potentially leaving the messy work of
connecting the architecture to the community outcomes
to local communities who do that job very
well, as you will learn from some of my peers. But that, in fact, the
job of architecture is to leverage that
kind of activating agent which commits us not
to just the project but to the final outcome. And Sally’s going
to give me the hook. So do I have another minute? Or am I done? OK. So I want to use one
very quick example. When I was a fellow
in Charlottesville, I had a co-fellow,
David Flores, who was working in San Ysidro
at the border of Tijuana. He, David, had come to this
country as a nine-year-old. And when he was 19, his father
was arrested, incarcerated, and deported. His family splintered. Somehow, miraculously,
with the help of some incredible
architecture professors, he made it to the University of
Arizona, became a Rose fellow, and moved to San Ysidro. So I’ve been there
many times before– well, not many. I’ve been there three
times before this year. And when I went back
this year, a lot has happened in San Ysidro. The border control station
is under construction, $750 million project. By the way, in case you
didn’t know about the wall, there are many walls. And now there’s the largest
infrastructure project in the country is being
built there with no Community Benefits Agreement. So David is there
working every day trying to navigate,
help people navigate, life at the border, people
crossing both sides. 30,000 pedestrians cross each
way every day, 60,000 cars. One of his outcomes has
been a second bridge for the pedestrians. It took him 10 years to
get that in the plan. But he has done it. Many of you know the incredible,
talented, wonderful architect Teddy Cruz. He’s a friend of mine. I adore him. He has two wonderful
projects in San Ysidro. One was at the
Museum of Modern Art. It’s called “Living
Rooms at the Border.” Those projects were
designed in the early 2000s. One of them may,
fingers crossed, start construction in
the next year or two. . Where’s the disconnect here? You know, we cannot display
work at the Museum of Modern Art necessarily that is not going
to get built in our communities. We have to bridge this gap
between our architectural aspirations and our
commitment to fueling the work on the ground
in a meaningful way. So this is, I guess,
this is my goal. And what I think is so
interesting about David is– Casa Familiar is
the organization. I had a long discussion
with him about, of course, McLennan, Texas,
and family separation, a clinical term that
doesn’t reflect at all what’s actually happening. So Casa Familiar is changing
its mission statement from something like, improve the
lives of all low-income people, something general, to
“Casa Familiar will fight community abandonment.” That’s their new
mission statement. I would say that abandonment
is the opposite of love and that abandoning
our communities in many parts of our
country is actually what we are doing right now. And we need to reverse
this abandonment. And we need to
lean in with love. Love is advocating
relentlessly on the behalf of one’s community. So I’m going to wrap. And I want to make
sure that I really make an invitation to all
of you, all the students. I’m going to be at the Women
in Design event tonight. I can’t wait. I want to meet you all. I want to get involved. With Steven Gray, we’re going
to work on some curriculum. I’m going to be teaching at
the BAC, a class on Undesign the Redline with April De
Simone from the Bronx– love to kind of
get involved here. Last year I met
Meghan Venable-Thomas, a PhD student in public
health who had found the GSD– met her in Toni Griffin’s class. She is now a Culture
and Climate Resilience fellow at Enterprise. She did her PhD work based
on our community-based work. And I asked Meghan. She works on issues of
trauma and community health. And I said, you know– through her work, she’s
been in five communities throughout the country. And I said, you know,
Meghan, what do you think? Like, does love matter? And she said, “You bet. You can’t even start to
build anything without it– love for place, love for people,
ultimately, love for one’s self and for each other.” So Tommy taught me that even
in death, love is an activating agent, a catalyst. The gift you gave me was, of
course, for me to see myself fully and understand what was
the work that I needed to do. Work is love in action. So he was able
with me to unleash sort of the confidence, the
calm, and the creativity and the ambition in my own life. I think that for love
to be the activating agent in architecture, we can
bring both depth and scale to our commitment. Thank you. [applause]

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