A Q+A with the AIA’s new executive director

Julie Carpenter is the new executive director at the Cincinnati chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). She replaces Patricia Daugherty, who left the organization earlier this year after more than two decades.

In her letter introducing Carpenter to members, chapter president Allison McKenzie (an architect and director of sustainability at downtown’s SHP Leading Design) says the new executive director will spearhead Cincinnati AIA’s efforts “to build on the momentum of our strategic plan to grow our membership and programs.”

A past Soapbox contributor, Carpenter described herself as “being a bit obsessed with the built environment” in the bio that accompanied her articles. In the Q+A below, Carpenter details how that passion led her to seek the AIA post, what she plans to tackle first in the new job, and which are her favorite buildings around town (and why).

Soapbox: Please tell us a bit about your background.

Carpenter: I grew up in northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, then attended college at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, studying history. I moved to Washington, D.C., right after graduation and lived there off and on for 13 years working in museums and cultural heritage tourism. While in D.C., I attended George Mason University for an MA in history, focusing on museum studies, and worked at the Center for History and New Media there.

Soapbox: What brought you to Cincinnati?

Carpenter: I moved to Cincinnati in 2008 when I took the job as executive director with the Betts House in the West End. I had been planning a move back to Ohio to be closer to my family. The opportunity in Cincinnati was perfect — the job and work would be extremely interesting, my sister and her husband lived here, and the city felt like a good fit for me. Leaving D.C., I thought I’d have to give up a lot of the big-city amenities, but Cincinnati has an astonishing cultural community, not to mention the restaurants, parks, architecture, and neighborhoods! It was a great move for me on all fronts. Now I have two nieces and a nephew, and my parents have moved here to be closer to their grandkids, so I expect to be in Cincinnati for a long time.

Soapbox: What attracted you to the AIA post?

Carpenter: I’ve been interested in architecture since I was a kid, although if you’d asked me then I probably didn’t know that word and would’ve said that I liked buildings. Professionally, I’ve worked with historic properties which are interdisciplinary in nature: the architecture of the structure, the design and contents of the space within, the lives of the inhabitants, the place itself, and the history that provides context for everything. I’ve ended up becoming a Jill-of-all-trades over the course of my career.

The AIA Cincinnati job is a great fit for my interests and experience, and it combines all the types of work I enjoy — constituent engagement, strategic planning, organizational management, and programming. I was also really drawn to the role for the opportunity to continue to learn and grow as a professional while helping the organization expand.

I am excited about the Cincinnati Center for Architecture + Design (CCAD), which we share with the Cincinnati chapters of American Society of Interior Designers, American Society of Landscape Architects, International Interior Design Association, and Society for Experiential Graphic Design. I am looking forward to working with the design community to bring the CCAD to life.

Soapbox: What are your immediate goals for the AIA chapter? Your long-term ones?

First off, I’m working to get my bearings and meet our committee chairs, members, CCAD partners, and chapter supporters. We have a lot of events coming up in the next eight weeks, from hosting the AIA Ohio Valley Region convention, to SAIDWorks with UC, a fundraiser at Sycamore Creek, and the Cincinnati Design Awards. Luckily, most of the hard work for those programs has been done by amazing committees, so I want to help those events succeed and learn the ropes.

Longer-term goals will come from the strategic planning work that the board and I are doing this fall. AIA Cincinnati has about 450 members presently. I would, of course, like grow our membership, but I think more importantly, I want to increase engagement with our current members. Next year is the 150th anniversary of AIA Cincinnati, so recognizing and celebrating that milestone will be important. In addition to AIA Cincinnati’s work on behalf of its membership, I am also hoping to collaborate closely with our CCAD partners to bring more attention to the design fields in Cincinnati through programs at the center and beyond.

Hughes STEM High School is one of Carpenter's favorite buildings.
Soapbox: Your Soapbox bio mentions that you “a bit obsessed with the built environment.” That said, what are your favorite buildings in Cincinnati, and why?

Carpenter: This is the question I dread! I love ornate Queen Annes, old movie theaters, cast-iron Italianate storefronts, and there are even some examples of Brutalism I admire. Here in Cincinnati, the icons are of course amazing, but my favorites change daily based on what I’ve recently driven or walked by. At this very moment, my favorites are:

• The Paramount in Walnut Hills — the lines are simple and elegant, and I love that cylinder shape on the corner of Gilbert and McMillan

• Hughes High School in Clifton — the fantastic decorative elements on it are delightful, and I’m really partial to brick

• Speaking of decorations, the phones along the Cincinnati Bell building on Seventh Street make me smile every time I walk by and the tilework on the old Gidding-Jenny building on Fourth Street is awesome

• Westwood Town Hall — I love the materials, shapes, and its solidity

I have a terrible problem gawking and walking, I’ve run into more parking meters, street signs, and planters than I care to admit. I will say my favorite place to nerd out on Cincinnati architecture is the Carew Tower Observation Deck. I take all my out of town visitors and sometimes I go on my own to admire this city. Cincinnati constantly surprises me. Every day it feels like I notice a detail on a building I’ve seen a million times but never seen. I love getting lost or taking a new Google Maps route and wandering through a new-to-me neighborhood or navigating a familiar neighborhood in a new way. The built environment here is unbelievably rich in variety and quality. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of exploring it.
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Read more articles by Matthew Hall.

Matthew Hall is a Mount Lookout-based freelance writer/editor specializing in covering architectural and design trends. His career includes stints with the Cincinnati Business Courier, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Fatbrain.com (an online bookseller) and Boutique Design magazine. He's also happy to be a later-in-life dad who adopted two children from Guatemala with his wife.