Anne Swager, Hon. AIA has been called many things – progressive, outspoken, ballsy, an ally, a foe, compassionate, cheerleader, easily distracted, thinker of big ideas. And for the past 25 years, she’s also been called Executive Director of AIA Pittsburgh. I have worked with AIA Pittsburgh and Anne in a handful of capacities over the past decade and one thing I have learned is, if she has a story to tell (and she will), you should sit down and listen. We touched base over a cup of coffee recently to look back over this quarter century of her leadership at AIA Pittsburgh and her career serving as a voice for the architecture community.
Columns: First things first, did you ever expect to be at the AIA this long, to make a career out of it?
Anne Swager: No, absolutely not! I never thought I would be around this long. You know, my mom used to say she thought I’d become an architect but my kindergarten teacher spent the better part of a year punishing me for using my left hand (as was common practice back then), and Mom thought that ruined my career chances. I am not sure that that’s true but I’ve always enjoyed learning about the profession and about architecture in general.
Columns: You came to Pittsburgh for a job with Mellon Bank. The financial world is a far cry from a small nonprofit membership organization. What led you to AIA Pittsburgh?
AS: A good story! Yes, I worked at Mellon Bank until Betsy, my oldest, was born. This gave me a good background in finance which included reading financial statements and understanding how the finances of both nonprofit organizations and for-profit corporations work. When Betsy was three, I volunteered for an offshoot of the Municipality of Mt. Lebanon, a task force formed to revitalize the Washington Road business district. This little group became a small nonprofit called Uptown Mt. Lebanon and I was hired as the first Executive Director. Uptown followed the Main Street revitalization philosophy created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, including the tenet that the unique design of a community’s main street was an asset in bringing back an area. We put together a “design review committee” to help distribute facade money for merchants who wanted new signage or even a new storefront. Two members on that committee were Jim Howell, AIA, of VEBH and Caroline Boyce, who at the time was with Pittsburgh City Planning (later to become Executive Director of AIA Pennsylvania).
Another issue brewing on Washington Road was the Mt. Lebanon Municipal Building – the Fire Department needed a bigger space to house bigger trucks to service the high-rise buildings in Mt. Lebanon. I pushed to have Uptown take on the charge of nominating the Municipal Building to the historic register, which failed as the Board was not willing to raise the money to do this due to funding we received from the Municipality of Mt. Lebanon and several of the commissioners were against such a move. We would have been “tying their hands.” Of course, that is exactly what we were trying to do! I did persuade the Board to keep the goal of “saving the Municipal Building “ in their strategic plan. This really angered a couple of commissioners and they went after me.
The Uptown Board subsequently, gave me a “vote of confidence” for my efforts but it was quite clear to me that it would only be a matter of time before one commissioner in particular would probably come after me again. Both Caroline and Jim approached me separately and told me I would be “perfect” for the job of Executive Director at AIA Pittsburgh. The rest is history…. I applied, was interviewed by Bill Bates, AIA (who is currently a Vice President of AIA National), and got the job.
Columns: What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned leading AIA Pittsburgh?
AS: I think it all comes down to lessons of human nature. To facilitate change, you have to appreciate and work with human nature. If you are going to be able to make any change at all, there has to be a lot of collaboration and a lot of give and take.
Columns: What are some of the biggest or best changes you’ve seen over the past 25 years?
AS: The biggest change is technology, hands down. The ever-increasing pace of technology, which has both its good and bad sides. The good side is that it can add metrics to what architects do, i.e. energy savings. The bad side is that in our rush as a society to metrically prove everything, it is easy to forget the specialness, the importance of beauty. We still need the wonderful, monumental pieces of architecture and the moments of good design, big or small.
Columns: And what about here in Pittsburgh? What are some of the major changes you’ve witnessed?
AS: Well, you have to remember that Pittsburgh was the 3rd largest headquarter city in the U.S. and I’ve been here for both the loss of that and the reinvention. The biggest change that I see is that there actually is development now. There’s a real desire to bring back the neighborhoods, seeing more and more people who really want to live in the city.
The other major change is how we view our rivers, as an asset and a natural beauty. They use to be so polluted no one would go near them.
Columns: What has surprised you due to a lack of change?
AS: The lack of women in leadership roles in the firms. With an anticipated shortage of architects on the horizon, smart firms will adapt and be more flexible so that women are able to better balance family and work life.
Columns: Do you have anything you wish you had accomplished? Any disappointments?
AS: If architects want to be influential they need to be willing to comment and take a stand on projects that affect the health and welfare of society. I still believe there is – or should be – a vehicle that would enable the AIA to help move the discussions forward regarding some of the big physical changes in the city and the region. But I have yet to figure out what that vehicle is, or how it would be implemented.
In becoming part of such a conversation, architects have to recognize that their own projects may be criticized.
Columns: There also seems to be a backlash when someone is willing to stand up and speak out…
AS: Absolutely. It’s a small town, and it’s easy to punish someone for being willing to speak their mind. But there ought to be a way to mitigate the blame while still letting there be a dialogue. I think the AIA should jump into that arena. All voices need to be heard and perhaps we should consider the role as convener?
Columns: And what do you count as your biggest accomplishments?
AS: I think we’ve really put AIA Pittsburgh on the map over the past 25 years. Design Pittsburgh and Build Pittsburgh are known assets in the community and beyond and have the potential to just keep growing. AIA Pittsburgh has also remained financially stable through some pretty rough years in our industry; it’s a well-run organization.
But I think my biggest accomplishment has been my commitment to giving staff opportunities…. I decided early on to try to hire people at the AIA who weren’t necessarily from Pittsburgh but had found the city on their own. I am proudest of my staff, what they’ve done, what they’ve gone on to do. Not one has left the city in over 15 years. These are people in Pittsburgh doing good things.
Columns: Any final take-aways from your career at AIA Pittsburgh?
AS: The difference good design makes in people’s lives. I had an inkling of this way back, but I have a much greater appreciation now. It is so nuanced, small things can make such a big difference. Design is just hugely important.
And I’d say my biggest frustration over the years is the uphill battle of trying to convince the public of just how important it is, and what a difference it can make. So much of life is how you feel, and so much of how you feel is impacted by your physical environment. Good design really does make a difference.