Designing woman: Katie Swenson's big ideas

Katie Swenson wanted to be a dancer. She spent six years auditioning (and waitressing) in the Big Apple, where she collaborated with the Blue Man Group and Twyla Tharp's dancers, eventually working with Tharp herself during a summer program.

But the dancing life took its toll, and nearing 30, she found herself wondering what she wanted to be. "I would be an architect," Swenson recalls. "But it didn't seem realistic to me– it was too late."

Soon enough, however, she found herself accepted to architecture programs at both Columbia and UVA. "I really wanted to stay in New York," she says, "but I also wanted to start a family." She and her husband moved to Charlottesville in 1996.

In 2001, Swenson won a prestigious Frederick P. Rose Fellowship, given to the "brightest stars in the constellation of American architects" for designing for low-income neighborhoods. The fellowship gave Swenson a $40,000 stipend for three years.

As a Rose Fellow, Swenson initiated the 10th and Page Street Neighborhood Revitalization Project with the Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA). The project will include 30 affordable homes and a much-anticipated community center.

"The Rose Fellowship changed everything," says Swenson. "It allowed me to become a 'community based' architect, one who brings big ideas to the local level and works with the city and community to make things happen."

Indeed, that would be the blueprint for Swenson's brainchild, the Charlottesville Community Design Center, which she founded when her Rose Fellowship ended.

Swenson's idea for the Center grew naturally out of her work with the PHA, but she's a bit surprised by how quickly it happened. "I sat down for coffee with architect Jim Kovach to discuss the idea," she says. "A few phone calls were made, and suddenly we've been offered the old bakery space on the Downtown Mall."

With $30,000 in Alliance seed money, the Design Center was born. "I would not say we have a particularly savvy long-term business plan," admits Swenson, "but we're making it work."

Recently, the Center partnered with Habitat for Humanity and the residents of Sunrise Trailer Court to turn the trailer park into a mixed-income neighborhood without displacing the current residents.

"It's important to understand not just the site," explains Swenson, "but the neighborhood and people who live there."

Although Swenson's dancing days are behind her, the dancer is still evident. The mother of three sports a teen-like bare midriff and wishes she had time to dance again.

Her job as director of the CCDC requires her to be a choreographer of sorts, working simultaneously with designers, builders, city officials, and the community to keep the Center's projects on track.

"I'm also good at 'scale jumping,'" she says, referring to her ability to move easily from focusing on a poor caulking job around a window frame to discussing the "social implications of architecture."

"You have to talk about things and do things at the same time," she says about how she balances intellectual interests with practical duties.

"I'm also a really good delegator," she adds with a smile.


Age: 37, but I still get carded ­ at Harris Teeter at least.

Why here? My husband I moved here in 1996. I started grad school, and he moved his young business here. Three years has become nearly 10.

What's worst about living here? It's too far from the ocean or other major body of water.

Favorite hangout? McGuffey Park

Most overrated virtue? Patience

People would be surprised to know: I was a modern dancer.

What would you change about yourself? I'd learn the virtue of patience.

Proudest accomplishment? Three beautiful babies becoming awesome young girls

People find most annoying about you: My over enthusiasm

Whom do you admire? The recently deceased Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee for giving great artistic vision to the practice of a socially responsible, spiritually uplifting, aesthetically inspired architecture­ and to all those out there working every day toward these goals

Favorite book? Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

Subject that causes you to rant? Lately, I'm ranting an awful lot about energy consumption. While making our existing buildings more efficient is so simple, and would save so much energy and money, it makes me especially crazy that all of our new construction is not built to at least Energy Star standards. There's an enormous amount of money and energy to harness by conserving energy and spending that money on much more important things, like affordable housing!

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Building technology

Biggest 21st-century creep-out? The state of the environment

What do you drive? Minivan

In your car CD player right now: Dan Zanes

Next journey? San Francisco in March for "Structures for Inclusion," an inspiring Community Design Conference

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Getting arrested for civic protest while a student at UC Berkeley. That part wasn't bad, but my grandmother happened to see it on CNN.

Regret: Not being able to keep dancing, but perhaps I'll get back to that one day

Favorite comfort food: Mint chocolate chip ice cream

Always in your refrigerator: Sadly, not much. Grocery shopping is one of my biggest working-mother failures.

Most-see TV: No time for TV

Favorite cartoon: Winnie-the-Pooh has been big in our house lately.

Describe a perfect day: Thanksgiving

Walter Mitty fantasy: My biggest fantasy right now is to have a few more hours in the day.

Who'd play you in the movie? Jody Foster

Most embarrassing moment? I'm beyond embarrassable.

Best advice you ever got? Half of life is showing up.

Favorite bumper sticker I love "Dude, where's my country?" Someday, we'll have a CCDC bumper sticker: "Design Matters: You can shape your world."

Katie Swenson