Global Conversations With: Rebecca Johnson, Executive Director of AIA Philadelphia

Peak Johnson, for GPA -- AIA Philadelphia was founded in 1869 and is one of the oldest American Insitute of Architects chapters in the country. Its mission is to be the voice of the architectural profession in Greater Philadelphia and it serves as a resource for its members’ professional development and their service to society.

AIA Philadelphia accomplishes its goals by raising the public's awareness regarding the role of architecture in improving quality of life, making membership useful and meaningful to each member, advancing the success of members' firms, advocating to local and state governments on issues relevant to the profession, offering high-quality continuing education and supporting related organizations, including the Philadelphia Center for Architecture, the Community Design Collaborative, the Charter High School for Architecture and Design and others.

On July 7, Rebecca Johnson became the Executive Director of AIA Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Center for Architecture. In this role, she will lead the chapter and the center, advocating for the architectural profession and stressing the importance of architecture to the Greater Philadelphia community.

Could you tell me about your new role as Executive Director of AIA Philadelphia?

It is a very exciting position for me because it enables me to engage, educate and energize our AIA members and the public around how to improve our built environment in the Greater Philadelphia region. Architects are literally going to be designing the future of our skyline, our waterfronts and our neighborhoods and I'm proud to be their voice in the region and to help illuminate the value that architects bring to all of our lives on a daily basis.

What first interested you in the role?

It was a unique opportunity for me to be able to have a larger impact than on just a few neighborhoods in Philadelphia and to be able to contribute to the discussion about the future of our city and region in a broader capacity. Also I felt that I could bring a lot of value to AIA and the Center for Architecture, especially in engaging the public and articulating the value and relevance of architects to society. I have worked with many architects in my prior experience as a land use and real estate lawyer and as a community developer, so I understand firsthand that architects are creative, smart and usually civic-minded and that their contribution to society is really unique.

However, the language that architects use isn't always intuitive to people, so I am excited about showing people the value through a compelling marketing campaign. I'm also very aware of the challenges that emerging professionals are facing here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, but also across the country. Here at AIA we are committed to meeting our associate members’ needs and being a critical resource for them as they develop their professional paths.

Where have you worked previously?

I was the Executive Director of Fairmount Community Development Corporation (Fairmount CDC) for about five years and prior to that I was a land use and real estate development attorney for about four and a half years.

How would you say your career path led you to this new position with AIA?

I actually started at Lehigh University as an architecture major, however I joke that I couldn't make it past freshman year calculus. At Lehigh and later at Georgia State, I became passionate about cities and studied the factors that create inequality and how cities function in general. After law school, I took a job at a small firm where I started to work with real estate developers, architects, engineers and township staff, where I learned the process and a bit of the business side of how real estate is developed. I took this experience and was able to leverage it into becoming the Executive Director of Fairmount CDC.

I didn't have a ton of nonprofit experience when I got the job at Fairmount, but my real estate experience and my powers of persuasion convinced the board to hire me. That decision really was the catalyst in launching me into the world of organizational leadership, which was instrumental in my being appointed to this new position. I think that my passions for cities, architecture, communities, equity and leadership have all culminated for me in this role and I couldn't be happier.

Photo courtesy of AIA Philadelphia.