Personalities of Pittsburgh: Carolyn Sponza, Gensler

An architect and principal at Gensler, Carolyn Sponza is working on some of the firm's major projects.

Personalities of Pittsburgh: Carolyn Sponza, Gensler

Carolyn Sponza arrived in Pittsburgh five years ago, after having lived in Washington, D.C., New York, London, and Chicago. She came to Pittsburgh as a principal, co-director of Gensler's Pittsburgh office and worked on a $1.4 billion terminal modernization project at Pittsburgh International Airport. Since then, she has led Gensler to expand its Pittsburgh office to 16 employees and is also engaged in Gensler’s work with the Pittsburgh Penguins on the Lower Hill Redevelopment. Sponza, who has nearly 20 years experience in design and planning, shares her thoughts on her experiences. She also compares Pittsburgh to other cities she's lived.

Tell me what you have done so far in the town and what you are looking forward to.

Since 2005, the airport has been our main project. We did the Lower Hill master plan with The Buccini/Pollin Group before the airport. We've since updated the PLDP. We are [also] the architects for the G-1 [FNB Financial Center] building.

You have written a guide about temporary urbanism. What is temporary cityism? Is all urbanism temporary or not?

If you look at things from a longer perspective, I would say yes. My master's thesis from 2010 and 2011 was the inspiration for temporary urbanism. When I say this, I sound like an old dinosaur. I mention the recession in 2008, when retail vacancies began to become more dramatic. At the time, I was living in London. They had a program that dealt with "meanwhile" spaces. These are things that could happen on a short-term basis while other things were developing. Pop-ups are a similar thing, but they're outside buildings. Pop-ups were considered avant-garde ten years ago. City planners did not have the vocabulary to suggest a parklet, or to convert a traffic lane into a restaurant. Today, you see this everywhere... I think because it became popularized after the 2008 recession and also due to Covid.

I don't really know, but it makes me happy to see that we predicted in the guide that cities would start to change their policies as soon as this toolkit was introduced. It was exciting to see this happen. I felt that everyone was going in the same general direction. I don't think I predicted the future but I did have some kernels that came true.

This seems to have happened in Pittsburgh quite a bit.

The Penn Avenue area with its restaurants, and the attention paid to the integration of bike lanes into public spaces and the various options for the bike lane is the best example of temporary pop-up urbanism.

How has the airport been so far?

It's exciting to see something take shape after so much work. At the point where the airport is right now, the "tree columns" are being installed, which is, in my opinion, one of the most distinguishing architectural features of this building. You'll soon start to notice the rolling roof, something we've been talking about since conception. Many times, when you begin a project, the final product looks completely different. We have a project where we compare renderings of the first month with what has been built. It's an authentic process, from beginning to end. It's thrilling to watch it rise.

What is the importance of this project to you in relation to your career?

It is always important to see the project you have invested many years into come to fruition. If you think of your entire career, that's just 40 or 45. If you consider a seven-year project, it's an eighth of your career. It is therefore a significant milestone.

What impression did you have of Pittsburgh when you first arrived, and how do you see the city now?

Before I moved here, I probably thought the same things as people who live outside Pittsburgh: it will be fun going to a baseball game or to the museum. You know that the institutions of the city have historically made good investments, which have made the city a desirable place to live. What has become clearer to me in the past four or five years that I have lived here is the history and personal connections that people have made with the various institutions. Pittsburgh has a strong social fabric that is not found in many other transient cities.

Why did you move to Pittsburgh?

Winning the project of an airport. You can't just helicopter in when you win a project worth a billion dollars. This is a project for which you will need to relocate.

Initially, the main driver was the opportunity to advance professionally.

It's true, but it was a good thing that my son was still in middle school at the time we moved. Schooling in D.C. is not easy. You take buses. You drive across the city. Charter schools are a competition. We have loved our school experience. It is a wonderful school district. It is easy to have a successful family here.

How much do you think Gensler will continue to grow in this area?

Everything depends on the market, I believe. Who knows what will happen next? Pittsburgh's prospects are strong, I believe.


Age: 47

Residence: Mt. Lebanon

Education: B.S. in architecture from the Catholic University of America, master's degree in city design and social sciences at London School of Economics and Political Science

Family: Tyler Osbaugh is also the principal of Gensler, Pittsburgh. Aiden Osbaugh is 14 years old.

Hobbies: floral design, sketching and travel