Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



Memo to: The Next Generation of Architects. Re: What would I have done differently if I had known then what I know now?

Leaders with the skills and sensibilities of an architect are needed now more than ever. I call it Leadership by Design.

By Richard N. Swett, FAIA
October 5, 2017


Memo to:        The Next Generation of Architects

From:              Ambassador (ret.) Richard N. Swett, FAIA

Date:               Today

Re:                  What would I have done differently if I had known then what I know now?



I was recently asked to write for young graduating architects what I would have done differently if I knew when I graduated college what I know now. But, as I thought about it, I think the lesson has a much broader application. What would I have done differently if I had known then what I know now?


Well, apart from finding a way to buy that charming, rundown house on a beautiful double lot near San Francisco 35 years ago – it was selling for the princely sum of $200,000 – not much. Before you accuse me, dear reader, of excessive hubris, let me be clear. I have made plenty of “mistakes” in my life. But, most of them have been good, valuable, and even noble mistakes, and so hopefully I would choose them again. But, there is something I wish I had done better, and I would like to share that with you.


I have always loved architecture. It requires its practitioners to be masters of both mechanics and magic. It is the only art form that people get to live and work in. It embodies humanity’s most basic need for shelter and protection, and equally, it represents the most exquisite and even sublime marker of our presence upon the Earth. But, what I have come to believe (recognize) is that architecture is something more. It is a process and a perspective that could and should be harnessed to address the world’s most challenging problems, from poverty to climate change to conflict resolution.


This realization led me nearly a quarter of a century ago to run for public office and, at the age of 33, I became the only architect elected to the United States Congress in the 20th century. In that legislative body, composed overwhelmingly of lawyers and professional politicians, I became even more convinced that the skills of my profession had an important contribution to make to the larger society. I was not the first to come to this realization. Many of the notable architects of the past were much more than just great designers. They possessed an integrated understanding of art, politics, science, finance, and society. Individuals like Thomas Jefferson were deeply engaged in the biggest and most consequential questions of their world, and in the case of Jefferson, he quite literally helped design a new world order that, for all its flaws, has stood the test of time. I remain convinced that leaders with the skills and sensibilities of an architect are needed now more than ever.


I call it Leadership by Design. Such leadership can help us understand the delicate balance between the environment and our stewardship over its use. Through our practical application of the collaborative design process, architects could bring far greater cooperation and, yes, bi-partisanship, to the bitter debates that have so roiled our nation in recent years. Our experience in designing structures that must be more than just a “pretty façade,” but rather something of enduring service and functionality, would inject a long term perspective into our politics that looks beyond the next election to future generations.


Cultivating a new generation of architect-leaders has become one of my great passions, and I wish I could have recruited more “converts” to this cause over the years. But, of course, for optimists like me, it is never too late, and I hope that the rising generation of architects will include many such leaders who can further the work of building our more perfect union. After all, every house needs a good architect, especially that one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.



Richard N. Swett, FAIA, an architect developing new markets in emerging economies, is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress from New Hampshire’s 2nd District, and author of Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Kristen Richards

“Every good house needs a good architect” – Ambassador (ret.) Richard N. Swett, FAIA