By delivering a high level of personal and professional commitment, this young architect built a solid bond with the community.

Continued from Four Philosophical Cornerstones of the Architecture of Trust

I was first attracted to architecture through a sixth-grade history project. I had to construct an Aztec city on a four-foot-by-eight-foot piece of plywood. Rebuilding the ruins of a great, long-lost civilization caught my imagination. Here was a world I could bring to life in miniature, re-creating all the buildings within which an ancient civilization conducted the activities of daily life. The streets and canals of their great cities connected them to each other and connected me to thoughts about where and how they created the world in which they lived.

Building is in my blood. As the son of a civil engineer who, at the time, built municipal solid and waste water treatment plants in the northeast, I was cognizant of the basic requirements served by the Aztec civilization’s system of canals. My first architectural effort was rewarded when my model was displayed in the storefront window of the town barbershop.

However, it wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I was exposed to the profession in a more intimate way when I served as a student representative on the local building committee overseeing the design and construction of a new high school for our New Hampshire town.

For months I attended evening meetings where I observed the give and take of the townsfolk with the project’s architect. Because the town had never built a new high school, the committee wrestled with a multitude of ideas about how to plan it. This building was to be the largest public expenditure in the history of the town–a defining moment for the community.

Its construction gave the community a tangible opportunity to express a common dream. Those of us on the building committee were burdened with the task of somehow conveying that abstract concept to the architect so that he could physically interpret it into an integrated architectural design.

At that young age I don’t recall ever opening my mouth to comment or express an opinion. Instead I listened and observed with great interest, becoming aware of the competing interests within the community over seemingly simple matters such as location and budget. These discussions were quickly subsumed by the more complicated discussions that struggled to define the school’s curriculum. Long hours of debate and discussion had to be endured between the faction that desired an open concept school and those who favored a traditional curriculum. It was a marvelous process to watch, a living tutorial in civic management for a young citizen to witness firsthand the elements of leadership, community participation, and architectural planning intersecting in a meaningful and positive way.

Although I was part of it, I am not sure that I fully appreciated what was taking place. But as I think back on that time I am struck by how, along with getting the school built, the relationships that were forged helped make the effort a success. Just like the building itself, the townsfolk and the architects needed a strong foundation of trust on which to realize their common dream. This was my first experience with what I now call the architecture of trust. The second and cinching experience that led me to commit to architecture was a class I took as a junior at Yale University, taught by Professor Alec Purves, which examined the role of the architect in the community.

For the course’s required research project, I shadowed a young architect who was designing a senior center for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). This project was controversial because it was a mixed-use program, with the senior center located above ground-level retail space and offices.

In 1978 this was not at all common. It was located in the Italian community of Boston’s North End. Many concerned voices expressed doubts about what was perceived as an unholy alliance between senior citizens’ residential care and commercial architecture.

The project’s architect and I spent many long evenings listening to and documenting the concerns of various neighborhood groups. I continually marveled at his patience and willingness to attend every meeting, no matter how often, how late into the night they lasted, or how few the number of attendees. Although I was not yet at the stage where I understood the economics of running an architecture practice, I often wondered if he was getting paid for all the time he was investing. As it goes, the BRA’s architect was not being paid for all the hours he devoted to the project, although he certainly should have been. But those sessions were materially important to the project’s successful development.

By delivering a high level of personal and professional commitment, this young architect built a solid bond with the community. This dedicated outreach enabled him to address, directly and specifically, the neighborhood’s concerns. And through his efforts to ensure that every voice was heard, the entire community eventually lent its support to the building of an innovative, mixed-use community development project.

In both of these cases, success was achieved by laying a foundation of trust among all the key participants. I have come to realize that the community, its leaders, and their architects were able to accomplish this by putting the skills of diplomacy to good use. When the architecture profession uses these skills, I choose to call it design diplomacy. (continued on next page)

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About the Book

This article is excerpted from chapter 1 of the book Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust by Ambassador Richard Swett, FAIA.
Buy it online at the DI Bookstore