Profile: Rona G. Rothenberg, FAIA

By Marilyn Wong-Wittmer AIA posted 12-16-2020 05:06 PM


I have the distinct pleasure to write an article about a friend and fellow public architect, the 2013 Chair of the AIA Public Architect’s Advisory Group, Rona Rothenberg, FAIA.  Rona is the recipient of the 2020 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture recognizing architects in the public and private sectors, public officials, or other individuals who design distinguished public facilities and/or who advocate for design excellence.  The award description describes Rona perfectly!


Rona has dedicated her career to service within institutions, as an architect in government and industry, improving citizens’ lives through planning, design and construction of significant, safe, accessible, sustainable, resilient, affordable, functional and lasting public works.  By leading with an unwavering drive to instill design excellence and best practices, Rona has been a guiding force in contributing to access to justice in California’s through her work as a founding team member and long-term senior program manager for the state’s courthouse building program in its development and implementation. Her contributions in corporate work also influenced sound planning for institutional campuses and buildings across the country, demonstrating that architecture, serving the public at every level, can vastly improve the lives of citizens who rely on it.


She has been described by colleagues as an “RBG” of Architecture, and exemplifies the Jeffersonian principles of public service. Rona has persevered within the framework of the agencies she has worked with to effectively get things done for the public – always with excellence in mind.


Her philosophy of providing excellence in Public Architecture “from the inside out” is exemplified by her 30+ years as a leader in Government and Corporate work.  As a Capital Program Leader in Government, Rona served as design leader in California State and local government, having delivered major public works in two major capital programs totaling over $10 Billion. As the lead Senior Capital Program Manager for the Judicial Council of California, she worked with judicial branch leadership, judicial officers and exceptional consultants to realize improved access to justice through design excellence in court architecture appropriate to each diverse community. Rona was one of the program leaders from inception working with a skilled judicial branch and consulting experts to supervise one of the most significant Court Facilities Master Plan for its 58 superior courts, and then synthesizing the results into a unique, self-funded capital program.  As a champion and voice for design excellence, Rona led a major procurement effort resulting in the retention of excellent architecture firms to design the landmark courthouse buildings. She supervised production of the branch Seismic Assessment Program, the California Trial Court Facility Standards (2006) as well as development of policies and procedures for program management.  Her contributions to the special teams and partnership, which led this unique program to produce quality, lasting, landmark courthouses, is a legacy to many Californians in the varied urban, suburban, rural and mountain communities serviced by the program.


Early career Rona earned a Master of Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley following six formative years in legal research and teaching. Her early years in private practice served public clients in educational, office and military projects, which advanced her opportunities to contribute to excellent buildings serving the public. In 1987, Rona joined the professional staff at Stanford University Medical beginning her distinguished career in delivery of architecture in project and construction management for the owner, which has resulted in legacy programs in government and industry.  


As a Senior Program and Project Management Professional in Health Care Industry and Higher Education, Rona was instrumental in developing best practices applicable to “excellence in architecture” today.  Rona’s shift, early in her career, from private to institutional practice provided her the opportunity to develop and apply planning design excellence standards for health care, research and education.  In her work for Stanford University-School of Medicine, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and in the corporate sector for Allianz AG North America prior to joining the public sector. Rona participated in the development of lasting campus master plans, renovation, and new building projects.


Her accomplishments, publications and speaking engagements are numerous. I asked Rona to describe a program or a few projects from her impressive portfolio that she could identify as impactful to her career development and mindset of sound project delivery and a broad definition of excellence in design and delivery resulting in legacy built projects in government and industry. She identified a Capital Improvement Program for Industry, Health Care and Higher Education consisting of two Medical Facilities and a Campus development: Rona described an opportunity, early in her career, to build a lab for a future Nobel laureate, although they didn’t know it at the time.  As a young project manager at Stanford Medical Center in about 1990-91 she was assigned to manage the design and construction of a small lab in an aging research building for Dr. Roger Kornberg, a faculty scientist.  She said that Dr. Kornberg inspired loyalty and partnership, which produced a great project.  The lesson from this early assignment resonated in her career: “every project is important to the client, regardless of size and cost, and no one really knows the result, so you have to treat every client with respect and every assignment with gravitas, no exceptions.”


The second project that she identified was the Santa Clara Family Justice Center, San Jose, a special collaboration of the State and the Court.   This was one of the 57 projects in the State program under the design and construction program for which Rona and her team worked integrally with the court and branch leadership on planning, funding, transactional and code requirements, design and construction excellence implementation. She described an unforgettable association and bond among the judges, architects of record and the contractor, forming relationships which continue today and a completed building designed specifically for and serving families and children through a visionary restorative justice model.  The project realized the culmination of a clear, long-term vision of court leadership of a special, one-of-a-kind facility for a unique, highly successful justice delivery program.


Rona’s long commitment through the AIA Knowledge Communities, through community volunteer activities, as a Citizen Architect in local government and now in AIA California leadership reflect her commitment to the public through our collective work as a profession.  As a member and leader in the Public Architects Knowledge Community Advisory Group, a contributor and juror to the Academy of Architecture for Justice and for the past six years as a member of the AIA California Board of Directors and its current VP for Government Relations, she has worked to share knowledge and support the work of fellow architects for the benefit of the profession and the public. As a candidate for AIA California’s next 1st Vice President/President Elect for 2021-22 and as a member of her local city planning board, she hopes to focus on building and supporting a future for the profession which is socially, environmentally and economically resilient and deepening the opportunities for a pipeline of future architects, who will contribute to a vibrant and lasting society.


Rona’s career validates one of the AIA’s highest objectives—to effectively advance the human condition through architecture and promote the value of design.  Rona’s professional ethics and high standards of professional conduct characterize who she is.  She is an advocate for change, diversity and inclusion in the profession and in AIA.  Rona is the exemplary public and citizen architect. Her energy and passion for design excellence in architecture and in acts of social benefit exemplifies the principles of Jefferson’s life and work and is worthy of recognition with the 2020 AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.  Rona recruited many of us to get involved and join the AIA’s Public Architect’s Knowledge Community and Advisory Group.  She is a highly respected colleague and genuine friend to all who have the opportunity to know her…and in her spare time she is learning to play the banjo! Congratulations and thank you, Rona!!


From the 2020 Public Architects Committee Chair:

When I think of Rona Rothenberg certain words or phrases come to mind:  Endless supply of energy, Citizen Architect, Dedication to Public Service, Inspiring, and Funny!  I first met Rona when I made the transition to the Public sector in 2013 after 28 years working in the private sector in San Francisco.  She immediately looked me up and we hit it off instantly.  She spoke so highly of the AIA National Public Architects Knowledge Community, the comradery and good work they were doing in celebration of civic architecture.  She almost immediately recruited me as an Ad Hoc member.  It was through Rona and a few others in the AIA locally and nationally that I have come to know more architects in the field outside of my workplace than any other time in my career.  She is a delight to know as a friend and colleague and I only hope I can keep up with her inspiring energy and dedication.  I am very proud to know Rona and congratulate her on the very well deserved AIA National Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture 2020! - Julia Laue, AIA

1 comment


01-06-2021 11:21 AM

Rona's story is one that needs to be told more broadly, especially to students in architecture programs, as well to those studying public administration and political science. It is entirely appropriate that she receives the Jefferson Award, named for our only President (so far) who was also an architect. Her award also reinforces Churchill's assertion that, "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us." That was certainly Jefferson's intent in creating the University of Virginia, although of course his intended audience for that lesson was, um, narrower than is just or fair - so it adds meaning that this recipient is a public architect who is also a woman. Her leadership toward excellence in the creation of the buildings that house our civic and governmental institutions has never been more valuable than it is right now, as those institutions have endured attacks and their criticality to our society needs to be re-asserted. We need more Rona's coming up through the ranks. She is an outstanding example of an under-recognized but essential role for architects in our society. Congratulations!