The Journey to Strada: Diving Deep with Founding Partner Alan Cuteri

Al Cuteri and the Strada team for 5th & Halkett

In 1998 and 1999, Alan Cuteri was busy with three young children, working nights and weekends to grow his practice, Cuteri Architectural Group. For Alan and his eight team members, and his professional wife who traveled a couple weeks a month, it was an overwhelming time.  In his desire to have more time with his children and to continue to grow the practice in design and project types, he began to realize he needed colleagues who could help with those aspirations.  Taking on new partners became the solution.

Alan was president of AIA Pittsburgh in 1999, and his first vice president, Ed Shriver, had just left his VP position at a large retail firm.  Alan reached out to Ed, who was already concocting a new idea for a design firm.  Within 9 months, Alan, Ed, John Martine, and Michael Stern combined their robust business and design talents to create Strada Architecture LLC.

In his 25th year as a principal of Strada, Alan is the last of the founding partners. He reflects on his life journey as an architect and leader of a unique and amazing design firm.

Was there a moment when architecture came into your life? Did you consider any other career paths?

I was in sixth grade at St. Malachy Elementary School.  A new contemporary church was being constructed next to the playground that became the focus of my attention. I watched the progress over an entire year, every day at recess.  I was completely fascinated and wanted to be part of the building.  Fortune intervened and the design architect for the church was invited to speak at my scouting meeting held at the school.  I had never heard of an Architect prior to this, but soon learned that the Architect was the one who designed and ensured the construction of new buildings. When I heard this, I decided at that time I would become an Architect.

I was often discouraged by school councilors that Carnegie Mellon University would be difficult to get accepted and I might not have what it takes to be an Architect.  The constant critiques and discouragement fueled my passion to succeed and prove them wrong.

I also had a passion for the ocean and scuba, so I also applied to Miami University.  I hoped that if I did not get into an architecture program I could move into marine biology. I guess I was listening to the nay-sayers.  I was fortunate to be accepted at both CMU and Miami.  Staying close to home was more financially feasible and CMU was a top design school, so the decision was made, and my path to becoming an Architect looked possible.

Al and some of the early Strada team
Al and some of the early Strada team

What motivates you in your work?

I have always been a problem solver. I like to figure things out on my own, with my own wits and knowledge.  Strada though has taught me to engage and collaborate with others and seek the advice of those who know more.  One of the true successes of Strada is our goal in bringing new talent to the firm.  We always look for individuals we believe are smarter and more talented than leadership, that is an amazing recipe for success if you allow it to work.  I like to find the truth in design, does it work the way we talk about our designs, is the solution the best we can deliver. That is not easy but is challenging and fun.  Whether I am solving a design issue, a detail, a legal matter or trying to win a commission, the challenge of solving the problem, or creating viable and successful solutions, has always driven me.

I am also motivated by being on site and seeing the construction of details and systems that are part of the art of construction. There’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing buildings be put together. I was always inspired by Howard Rourke in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead.  The power of building a monument is unsettling and moving. I can’t imagine the experience of building the Great Pyramid at Giza or the Pantheon in Rome.

Al on his travels- this time in Jordan!

How has the experience of building Strada been?

It is important to understand that Strada was the result of an evolution of ideas. We were ignoring what other firms did and how other businesses were run. We followed our instincts and ideas of what a cross-disciplinary practice could be.  Good design, better than average pay, and having fun were our unofficial mottos.  These ideas are built into our business plan in ways that are not self-evident.  Team members at Strada become life-long friends and colleagues who pursue their passions and, sometimes, grow their wings and take flight.  I believe that, once you work at Strada, you find something you will not find anywhere else.

I can’t say I ever imagined the success Strada would become.  It has affected every facet of my life. The challenges along the way forged a strong commitment and desire to make sure Strada remains true to its origins as a unique firm dedicated not only with people in mind, but dedicated to the people who design for Strada.  I feel blessed with the amazing number of talented individuals here at Strada, and those who have come and gone, leaving their indelible mark on the firm. The lessons I learned have been formidable, the challenges I have been faced with have been extreme, and I have been able to succeed because of the support of amazing partners and team members at Strada.

Al’s team signing the last beam to be installed at the new University of Pittsburgh Fifth and Halket Tower

What Strada projects and relationships excite you today?

For the past 20 years, I have focused on Higher Education Clients. University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and West Virginia University have kept me incredibly challenged and helped me grow. The individuals I have met and worked with at these institutions are wonderful professionals with amazing experience. I love that so many have become friends and colleagues.

There are many other clients in higher education and in private industry who have been integral to my career.  The recent projects that I have great pride in are the Fifth and Halket Tower for the University of Pittsburgh, The Cloud Lab at Carnegie Mellon University and the new business school, Reynolds Hall, at West Virginia University.  These projects are unique, significant, and a testament to Strada.

In addition to the client relationships, my relationships with the construction community are vitally important as well. Firms like PJ Dick, Rycon, Dick Building Co, Allegheny, Volpatt, Tedco, Turner and others have fostered wonderful relationships over the years.  These professionals have been helpful in crafting my growth and knowledge of building buildings.

Strada’s other design markets like multifamily, hospitality, science & technology, and retail have grown thanks to the efforts of my partners. We’ve grown consistently over twenty-five years, allowing us to create two additional studios, Philadelphia in 2014 and our newest location in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in August 2021.  With over 70 team members, we are confident we can handle almost any project of any complexity.

These three studios that make up Strada are about collaboration and our one firm mindset. We integrate design teams from multiple studios so that we have the right skills and talents for each project.  Our business model allows us to encourage more in-person collaboration across our studios without impacting individual project fees. We are constantly evolving our design process while simultaneously helping our Stradistas so they can plot their individual careers towards personal and professional fulfillment.

Strada’s collaboration not only crosses disciplines, but generations as well. What advice do you have for the latest generation of designers?

Absorb as much information as you can. See buildings under construction. Creativity is most important, and it can be supported by understanding the construction process and what is possible.  The best designers know how to build as well.  Our design philosophy centers on creating environments that foster comfort and growth, enabling people to thrive as their authentic selves and enjoy life. 

It’s been wonderful to hear about your career so far. How do you unwind outside of work? 

 I don’t do it as much as I would like to, but I love to read anything from history to politics to eastern philosophy or a good spy novel. I’m reading a few books right now, including The Witness to Roswell 75th Edition, and The Power of One by  Bryce Courtenay.

I love movies, especially older movies with more intentional acting like ‘To Have or Have Not’, but I also really enjoyed ‘Knives Out’ and ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, wildly different and interesting films.

I also love to travel. My time in Egypt with my two sons was an amazing trip. We traveled Israel, Jerusalem, Jordan, Egypt, and the Nile River Valley. Seeing the Wailing Wall and the city of Petra carved into the mountainside were stunning experiences.  I recently completed one of my major desires and was able to take my entire family to Italy.  This was an amazing two-week trip that was full of wonderful food, fantastic architecture and art, and wine, lots of wine!

Of course….a good cigar, a wonderful single malt, a round of golf or a sporting clays competition are favorite pastimes.

Thanks for sitting down with us! Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Over the years, I’ve had the fortune to meet many interesting people and have learned a great deal from them.

I have also discovered that there is no end point, I truly believe life is about The Journey, and as such, retirement seems strange to consider or to even understand.  We are all on a Journey and that is where the fulfillment is, not in the completion.

The people who founded Strada with me and the partners I have now are all amazing, passionate, and talented individuals who are immersed in the culture and joy of design. That’s what it takes to have a firm like this and make it work.

Thank you to all that make my journey so fulfilling!