The Next Generation: Amy Rosen, President of AIAS

Editor’s Note: This is the introductory article in our new series, The Next Generation. In this interview series, we will speak with younger professionals in the industry, in order to provide insight into the future of the architecture and design world. It is our hope for these interviews to be an information hub for those who are interested in going into this field. We’re hoping to spark interest and motivation in the next generation.

What better way to start this series and our new partnership with the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) than to interview the organization’s current President, Amy Rosen? Amy is a proud alumna of Carnegie Mellon University, where she obtained her bachelor and master degrees. We’d like to thank Amy for her time and chatting with us.

Masonry Design Magazine: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Amy Rosen: I’m originally from Los Angeles, California, where I was born and raised. Then I moved to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, to go to Carnegie Mellon University for my Bachelor of Architecture. I actually stayed there to pursue my Masters in Sustainable Design.

I joined AIAS in my first year, our chapter was pretty small at the time. I was encouraged to join by my grand mentor, who was the current Vice President of the chapter. I saw the potential of the AIAS nationally but saw our chapter was lacking a lot of necessary infrastructure, groundwork, and really the passion in general. I saw I could really fill that void.

So, over the course of my time at Carnegie Mellon University, I got really involved in my local chapter. I started out being secretary of our chapter during the spring of my second year in college and continued in that position the next year. Then, I became our chapter President the following year. We were actually on a calendar year schedule, so our terms were off from National AIAS, and I saw this was something that was putting our chapter at a disadvantage. So, I served as President for a year and a half when we transitioned from the calendar year to the academic year.  That brings us to 2016. At this point, I was entering into the fifth year of my Bachelors of Architecture Program. I ran for Northeast Quad Director at Forum-Boston in the winter of 2016.

To give you an idea of the AIAS Government, we have four-quadrant directors that represent each of the quadrants of our primary domain in the US and Canada. They are made up of the West, South, Midwest, and Northeast.

I ran and won the Northeast Quad Director position that winter, and I started serving in July of 2017, until this past July. This past New Years, I ran to be National President because I wasn’t done serving the organization and I really want to do more for the students. I want to use my voice for more. I’m a very outspoken individual and I have a lot of opinions. Sometimes I feel that people are a little shy and they don’t step up when they need to. I’m using this position to do that.

M.D.M.: What made you interested in architecture and design?

A.R.: I really enjoyed playing The Sims and with LEGO’s as a kid. Really anything that was out of the box. Ever since I was little, my parents noticed I asked a lot of questions, and I’ve wanted to challenge things around me. I think that’s the root of the interest I have in design and architecture. It’s really rooted in problem-solving, educating, and communicating ideas to people.

But I also found myself staying in hotel rooms when on vacations with my family, sketching rather than doing touristy activities.  I think I’ve always had an eye for it, and it really took some of my family members and friends to push me in the right direction. Back in high school, I was doing graphic design for our literary magazine.

So, my expertise in regard to architecture really stemmed from my passion for graphic design and doing mainly typographic-type studies. Then going into Carnegie Mellon was my main exposure to all the other facets of architecture.

M.D.M.: You mentioned being involved in the association. Tell me about your experience with AIAS.

A.R.: AIAS is really a unique organization because it helps to bring and complete a well-rounded education for architecture students. In school, you really learn the technical and more tangible aspects of what it means to be an architect. But AIAS comes in with a lot of the soft skills. We really are proud of the fact students learn how to be a leader, how to be a professional and to network. Which is sometimes overlooked in education. I think some of my favorite aspects to this day, are our national conferences. We have a host of them, our primary conference, I mentioned before is called Forum. We have national elections at Forum, and it is the largest gathering of architecture students around the world.

It’s incredible to get to know a cohort and individuals who are just as passionate and driven as you and are interested in all the same topics as you. That’s what got me invested, and being able to engage with students outside of my campus ground is something you don’t always have the opportunity to do. Being able to get those external opinions and perspectives, while gaining a new and better understanding of what being an architecture student is.  We also really push the fact that architecture education is something that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to become a “Capital A” architect.

But it’s something that teaches you a skill set that is like none other because architectural education is multi-faceted. It incorporates anthropology, engineering, art, and different sciences. It really presents you with an outlook on the world that is so unique and gets students ready to pursue anything they want.  I love that AIAS doesn’t necessarily judge you on what you choose to do, but teaches you to embrace it. We are determined to empower others. Back when I was a member, I was inspired by the leaders that were on the stage at my first few conferences. It made me want to do the same.

M.D.M.: Since you mentioned being a member, tell me more about your current role in the organization.

A.R.: I am the National President, which means I have a full-time paid position in the national office. Our office is in Washington D.C. We are in the same building as the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Even though we are a completely separate organization, we collaborate with AIA on a lot of initiatives. We are two of the five collaterals of architecture in the US.

I’m here with Brigid Callaghan, the Vice President, both of us are considered the officers of AIAS. We work side-by-side with the Executive Director Nick Serfass, and three full-time staff members, Ashley Ash, Kimberly Tuttle, and Tim Matthews. The six of us are in this office year-round, and we really dedicate our time to members all year. As President, I am the outward facing officer and Brigid as Vice President is the inward facing officer.

Brigid does a lot of membership outreach and communication of facilitation. Whereas I am more geared towards the collaterals and professionals in general. I represent the entire organization, sort of the face of our membership, and I speak on behalf of everyone. So, it’s really important I have a full understanding of what our members are valuing, and what they want to see from us and the profession in general, so I can communicate that.

I’m here with Brigid Callaghan, the Vice President, both of us are considered the officers of AIAS. We work side-by-side with the Executive Director Nick Serfass, and three full-time staff members, Ashley Ash, Kimberly Tuttle, and Tim Matthews. The six of us are in this office year-round, and we really dedicate our time to members all year. As President, I am the outward facing officer and Brigid as Vice President is the inward facing officer.

Brigid does a lot of membership outreach and communication of facilitation. Whereas I am more geared towards the collaterals and professionals in general. I represent the entire organization, sort of the face of our membership, and I speak on behalf of everyone. So, it’s really important I have a full understanding of what our members are valuing, and what they want to see from us and the profession in general, so I can communicate that.

M.D.M.: Wow.

A.R.: It can really be intimidating. It’s a lot of pressure when you realize the importance of the role. It’s nothing short of amazing.

M.D.M.: Tell me about some of the classes you took while in school.

A.R.: I took a host of courses at Carnegie Mellon, obviously all of the primary curriculum for typical architecture students. I took everything ranging from materials and assembly to architectural history and theories, to issues of practice, as well as a range of studios. I personally pursued two different theses in my Bachelor of Architecture.  I did a thesis on exploring gender with regards to architectural space. I challenged architecture in a sense. I did a lot of research on clear space, I used ballistics gelatin as a medium for interactive spaces where humans can actually impact their immediate surroundings. Where they could almost embrace comfort and difference, and start to push what architecture is. I kind of accused architectural fundamentals and methodologies as being incredibly masculine and aggressive. I tried to dispel gender altogether and find something that was much more human.

Kind of going back to the animalistic aspects of humanity as well as a home in general. In my masters, I pursued a thesis in urban water management in Pittsburgh, PA. This was while I was pursuing a Master’s Degree in Sustainable

Design. I’m especially passionate about water management. Given how people should cherish, not waste our environmental resources. Water management is incredibly important, given that it’s a depleting resource and Pittsburgh, PA. is in a unique location because it’s actually predicted to not have a drought or water shortage in the next 40 years.

I liked the idea of being able to take advantage of the intense topography of the area. As well as the green infrastructure and making it more of a cyclical urban environment, that really is a network of productive entities. Those are my two passions, they’re very disparate but I’m very committed to creating spaces that are resilient with regards to both social and environmental aspects.

M.D.M.: Where do you see yourself in five years?

A.R.: Great question. I’ve sort of set a game plan for myself and try and stick with it. So far, I’ve done that pretty successfully. After this position, I plan to move to New York City, I never like to stay in one place for too long. I’m sort of a nomad in that regard. I intend to challenge that urban space in particular because it has such a unique relationship to water. As well as having a dense and unique urban environment compared to anything else in the country.

I really want to design public places, I want to blow the boundary between the public and private realm in whatever way that I can. While still making everything as sustainable as possible. Eventually, I’d like to have my own practice or start a collective along with my fellow classmates from Carnegie Mellon. We had an optimistic goal to start a collective and I’m determined to make that happen. We all just have to be licensed first. I’m trying to get my architecture license by 2020 and I’ve committed to doing so, by the deadline.  In five years, I’m hoping to have the groundwork for that collective started, and I’m also playing around with the idea of moving to the Netherlands one day. The architects and designers in the Netherlands inspire me mainly because of their exceptional urban water management, and the ability for those urban areas to be scaled so appropriately to human lifestyles.

I find that the US is often scaled for vehicular transportation. They don’t feel appropriate for humans to traverse and I think we can do a better job. So, whether or not I move there I would simply look at them continuously as a precedent. I definitely look up to the architects in the Netherlands. They have a way of creating a harmony between radical and productive, finding that careful balance is incredible.

M.D.M.: Have you faced any challenges being a woman in this industry?

A.R.: Of course, I think in today’s society especially in Western culture, there’s a lot of adversity being a woman in general. Especially outside of the “feminine fields.” Even when I was applying to go into architecture, I was encouraged to go into something like engineering or math, because architecture wasn’t that productive or revered highly. That was more of the skills I was going into. In regards to being a woman, I think there’s an inherent and unfortunately accepted stereotype that we aren’t as strong, diligent, and can’t get things done.  I think that’s honestly been a driving force for me, to prove that stereotype wrong. I want to prove culture and anybody who challenges me wrong, and that has made me an incredibly strong and determined individual. Everything I do, I work incredibly strongly and I always try to push myself beyond what I believe I can do. 

To be honest, I’m grateful for that handicap because I think without that, I wouldn’t have pushed myself as much. I actually was recognized for my dedication to advancing women with regards to architecture, by just encouraging my fellow women to push themselves. I was one of the scholars of the Carnegie Mellon Women’s Association my senior year.

M.D.M.: It’s always nice when you can find a group or association for women.

A.R.: Yeah, but because of my research in gender and architecture, I’ve learned that it’s not productive to single out women. In my alternate reality [that I tend to think about,] I don’t think it’s productive to try to only highlight women now, because if we solely seek out women, and try and show that everything previous to today has been incorrect. Then one day we may have the inverse situation we have today.

Where obviously today, the stereotypical individual is an old white man, and I don’t want there to be any stereotypical individuals. So, I don’t like to segregate, or judge, or look at anything based on gender, race, religion, etc. I like to look at people with their own interests and goals and whatever they make. I’m a maker, so I like to see what other people make and produce, and that’s really more of what I judge.

Nevertheless, you can’t overlook the obstacles people overcome. I am a woman, but I am a white woman, so I recognize I don’t have as many obstacles as many of my fellow peers. But really recognizing that, and seeing where you receive the privilege, and using it to help those who are underprivileged is something I am dedicated to doing. I encourage others around me to do that as well.

M.D.M.: Have you had any internships in your field?

A.R.: Yes, I’ve had a few. My first internship was at Torti Gallas & Partners in downtown Los Angeles. I worked with a few individuals on urban planning and development. My second internship was with Koning Eizenburg Architects in Santa Monica, Ca. That was a much smaller firm, they focused more on multi-use buildings, as well as multi-income housing. Between those two I was able to see a dramatic difference in a more medium-sized firm. Torti Gallas had about 30 people in the office, although that was a subsidiary office. Their main office on the East Coast had around 100-150 people, I believe. At Koning Eizenburg, there were about 13-15 people in the office when I was working, and that’s what really got me into sustainable design. They showed me there was room for it in the design community.

I learned that I really prefer smaller, more intimate environments where you get to learn, put your hands on everything, and get to know everyone. You get to see a project through from beginning to end. I think a project should feel uniform with regards to stock and execution.

My third architectural internship was at Renaissance 3 Architects (R3A) in Pittsburgh, PA. I actually worked this internship throughout my fifth year. I started working the summer before the start of the school year, and enjoyed it so much that I stayed on throughout the term, and had a lot of difficulties because I was doing an accelerated master’s program at the same time. So, I was kind of leading three lives, where on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays I was an undergrad student as well as a part-time employee. While on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I was a graduate student. It was very interesting.

M.D.M.: Wow! [laughs] How did you keep everything straight?

A.R.: [laughs] To be honest, I don’t even know if I can tell you how. I found that I’m more productive when I’m stressed. When there’s a lot on my plate it motivates me to get it done. If I have one thing on my agenda, I like to put it off. I’m one of those individuals that like the burden of many different tasks because I feel like I’m using my knowledge, skill set, and voice to help those around me.

M.D.M.: Do you have any advice for anyone interested in going into this industry?

A.R.: Don’t listen to what others say. But also, definitely listen to what others say because there are a lot of stigmas out there about architectural education in particular. I know a lot of high school students are deterred from going into architecture because they’ve either heard it automatically implies, you’re never going to get sleep. Or that you need to be able to draw to go into architecture, or you won’t make any money. It’s not a very sought-after profession. I challenge students and I want to tell them not to let any of that hinder them. If architecture is your passion, if space is your passion, or if you have any sort of eye for design, just try. It doesn’t hurt to try it.

Architectural education is so unique and is so valuable. In my opinion, it’s the best kind of education you can get because you learn everything. You learn psychology, engineering, how to be a salesperson. Architecture teaches you how to market your project and public speaking. You learn how to curate a document and compile a set of drawings that are consistent. It’s truly a remarkable path to go on and I encourage anyone who is remotely thinking about it to simply go for it and if you don’t like it at least you tried.

M.D.M.: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

A.R.: When some people are thinking of going into architecture, they forget it goes beyond walls. To really realize the world around us is the network and architecture stems from the ground. It can be landscape, transit systems, to everything from your home, and the theater down the street. Basically, just realizing without architects, we would have nothing around us.

Words: Masonry Design Magazine 
Photos: Amy Rosen