#MentorMonday: Gregory Dean Swinton
Welcome to #MentorMonday! Mondays are dedicated to celebrating Black LICENSED Architects, Designers, and individuals in the profession of Architecture! The questions asked to these individuals are to allow us into their lives and to be used as an inspiration. I hope you all enjoy this series. The opinions and views expressed do not reflect those of America’s Hidden Gem(TM). They are exclusively opinions of those by whom they’re shared.
Gregory Dean Swinton
Charleston, South Carolina
What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?
I truthfully always had an interest in architecture, but avoided it as an aspiration because I didn’t like math growing up. When I got into college I joined a black fraternity and it just so happened that several members from my college became architects and they reinvigorated my interest in it.
What does it mean to be a black architect/ designer to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?
It has changed as I’ve grown in my career and I suspect it will continue to change. A friend of mine described his appreciation for the onyx stone because you see one color from far away, but as you get closer you see a multitude more that make up the surface. I think the concept is also true for what it means to be a black designer. At first glance it may seem like you just design buildings, but there is so much more outside of that. I recall walking down the street with a set of drawings and having a black man pull his car up next to me and ask if I am an architect. When I replied yes he gave me a huge shout of encouragement and proceeded on his way. I had never met the guy before and haven’t seen him since, but I share that story because I think the biggest meaning for me right now is that it is not about me. It’s about my community.
Yes I do, even if I wasn’t necessarily aware of it when I began working. There is an added dimension of responsibility that I think many black professionals have to steward. Often we are underrepresented in our space, so along with building a career we are creating space for more black designers to come into the field. I think it is important to reach out to underrepresented youth, expose them to the field and build the pipeline.
What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/ designer?
This might not necessarily be a black challenge exclusively, but it is one more common in under represented communities. There is significant upfront cost to just getting an architecture degree and starting your career. The idea of becoming an architect doesn’t seem like a viable option for many minorities because of that and was a definite challenge for me. Many of my black friends who graduated with an architecture degree pursued other industries after graduating because of this.
Should we ignore race in this profession?
No, absolutely not. The profession is lacking diversity of thought, creativity and innovation because of its homogenous landscape.
If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?
Find mentors, make sure your portfolio is amazing and go visit firms. Mentors are important because having a relationship with someone where you want to be makes it much more obtainable in my opinion. They also teach you the things you that aren’t taught in school that can help you thrive in your career. Even professionally you will have mentors throughout your career so you should find some now if you haven’t.
Now onto the portfolio, this is probably most important for students coming out of school. Make it visually compelling and easy for you to speak to. Highlight the software you used or if you show a project with multiple team members, be able to speak to how you specifically contributed. You want to make it easy for them to see how you can fit into a team and contribute. I got advice to make my portfolio competitively impressive, so I spent a lot of time developing it. It was time well spent and it opened a lot of doors. Look online at portfolios, find graphics you like and get feedback. It’s an annoying process but it will pay off.
Lastly, I would encourage students to visit as many firms as possible, even if they aren’t hiring. Ask for an office tour and create relationships. I’ve had opportunities come up years later after some of these initial visits.
Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?
II am still in the process of that pursuit and haven’t had a real low. Early on I would get overwhelmed thinking about everything that needs to get done and become frustrated. The one thing I have learned is that just taking the next small step helps a lot. That step could be studying for a couple minutes even though you wanted more time or just signing up for a test. Just by doing something, even if it is small, has made the journey easier for me. The little things add up over time.
How important is representation?
Very important, especially for the next generation. As I mentioned earlier, being able to see someone who looks like you, doing the thing you want to do makes it all the more real for you. As an industry I think there is a whole side of the story of architecture that has yet to be told because of lack of representation. I also believe our best is yet to come as a profession, as naïve as that sounds. Brilliant designs and innovations that will come from diverse teams.