Kelly Rodriguez of ARCADE: Full STEAM Ahead

ARCADE’s new website, fall 2012 (photo by Scott Thiessen)

Between her responsibilities running a thriving nonprofit and being the single mom of an 11-year-old daughter, Kelly Rodriguez (Architecture 1997) is always working: to support her family, enrich her community, and improve the world at large. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

Rodriguez is the executive director of ARCADE, a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes multidisciplinary dialogues centering on the integration of architecture, design, culture, science, the arts, and everything in between. It publishes a quarterly magazine, coordinates cultural events for the community, and maintains an increasingly robust web and social media presence.

A glance at ARCADE's calendar reveals a bevy of options offered weekly for anyone interested in design, architecture, and the arts, from lectures by visiting scholars to documentary film screenings and info nights featuring free tutorials on design software.

About the Magazine

The magazine includes articles from contributors around the globe. The March 2013 issue was a special partnership effort with the Rhode Island School of Design covering topics such as the role of design in research science, biotechnology, and engineering. It is part of a larger, ongoing initiative at RISD that involves lectures and roundtable discussions about the importance of integrating art and design into the applied sciences.

Its name, STEAM (Science Technology Arts Engineering Math), is a play on the federal government's STEM initiative, which omits "arts" from the equation. (CCA recently got on board with STEAM, as documented in this Huffington Post article by President Stephen Beal.)

ARCADE's June 2013 issue, titled "Science, Art and Inquiry," also addressed the importance of engaging science and art. (Find both at

Rodriguez credits that March 2013 issue as a key turning point in broadening awareness of ARCADE at the national level. "We are creatively and programmatically flying high! People are really responding to what we're doing. Which is why it's confounding that our financial outlook remains tenuous. Unfortunately there are many arts organizations vying for the same resources."

ARCADE is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. It relies primarily on donors to sustain the business, and on volunteers and partnerships with like-minded community organizations to actualize projects. Rodriguez admits that fundraising "can be exhausting, and it's never-ending. But planning for the future can't be anything other than challenging."

Her Evolving Role at ARCADE

ARCADE was founded in 1981, and its expansion into the world of event hosting is one of several new programs initiated in 2010-11. "When I started 13 years ago I was the first paid employee," she remembers. "Before that, the staff was all-volunteer. I began as the business manager, and then assumed the additional role of magazine editor.

"Then I had a baby, which changed everything! When I returned from maternity leave we decided to split the positions and I remained the editor. Then, in 2011, I assumed the new role of executive director."

Although she admits that her responsibilities at ARCADE and as a mom leave precious little room for personal projects, she has always kept up a practice of her first love: ballet dancing. "I took classes right up until a few days before giving birth." she remembers. "After 36 years I'm still dancing, and it remains an integral part of my life. My first passion, to be sure."

Dancing About Architecture

Rodriguez, who is originally from Los Angeles, didn't begin her architecture studies until she was 29. "I actually moved to San Francisco to pursue my dream of being a ballet dancer. In addition to dancing, I was taking courses in art history, philosophy, religion, and more at a San Francisco community college.

"That coursework, combined with my dance background, pointed me in the direction of architecture, which I feel is so rich with influences from the history of the world. For instance while taking a class with the choreographer Alonzo King, I was constantly aware of my body as a building, a structure. When I move through space, I am shaping space with my architecture. It's a beautiful metaphor."

At that time, not many colleges in the Bay Area offered a professional degree in architecture. "I was friends with the daughter of CCA's then-president, Neil Hoffman, and she encouraged me to meet with him to discuss my academic aspirations. When I told him what my interests were, he convinced me that CCA would be an ideal fit.

"I took a very alternative approach to my studies," she continues. "I pursued the degree solely for the education. I was never really interested in becoming a practicing architect." CCA's BArch program, a five-year degree, allowed her to follow her muse. "They didn't try to force me into a mold."

Writing About Architecture

She cites as a big influence on her future pursuits a course on writing about architecture taught by visiting professor Pilar Viladas, design editor of the New York Times Magazine.

"I realized then that my future engagement with architecture was going to be in written form. I also had the great fortune of working with Bill Stout as he started his publishing company, which will forever remain a highlight of my education in design."

After receiving her degree from CCA, Rodriguez moved to Seattle and continued her architectural education at the University of Washington. Since she had completed a five-year undergraduate degree program, they required only one additional year for the master of architecture, or MArch.

"It was fun! I spent the bulk of that year in the geography department, studying social and cultural geography -- how people live together in urban centers, why we come together and migrate in certain patterns. The myriad forces that collectively shape our world."

The Design Scene in Seattle

The Pacific Northwest, she reports, has since become a hotbed of architectural innovation, with plenty of opportunities for emerging and established designers. "Seattle is experiencing a wealth of urban development, and there's a lot of innovation here."

She cites Libraries for All as one example of the city putting design at the forefront of community enrichment. The most comprehensive libraries initiative in United States history, it involved commissioning the redesign and expansion of 22 different library branches. The contracts have been spread out to a variety of firms to create as much aesthetic variety as possible. "I haven’t seen a bad one yet!"

Another city initiative, the Denny Substation Project, involves the early involvement of Seattle artists Lead Pencil Studio and the California artist Ned Kahn as part of the design team. The highly visible site will come alive with site-specific and rotating artwork.

The imperative that is placed on the integration of art in this city infrastructure project is a prime example of the kind of synthesis between science, technology, art, and design that ARCADE seeks to encourage and promote.

"Seattle is also in the process of reimagining its waterfront, again putting a premium on design. There is a wealth of young talent here that is getting an opportunity to shine."

Looking Ahead, at Home and at Work

Looking to the future of design and architecture, Rodriguez predicts one major arena of concern -- but one that she feels lucky to be able to do something about, both in her personal life and in her work with ARCADE.

"Every project, no matter what it is, must create less waste, at every stage. There has to be more long-term thinking about when and how we use our resources. We all need to use and make less stuff. Neither our culture nor our planet can support the waste."

Luckily for all of us, "Designers have the ingenuity to figure out how to make this happen."

Read more and see photos taken at a roundtable at RISD earlier in 2013, where Representative Nancy Pelosi met with RISD President John Maeda to discuss STEAM »