What is your background? Describe your journey from first deciding you wanted to be an architect to now?

Marc Swackhamer headshot 04-01-19_small for webI grew up in Northern Ohio, on Lake Erie, in a small town called Huron. My mother was a teacher and my father was an engineering professor turned food scientist. Thinking back, it is striking to me how the intersection of their careers strangely impacted the direction of mine. The location of my town, on the watery horizon of a Great Lake, had a big impact on me, too. I’ve always gravitated to expansive bodies of water (so the mountains are a big change for me).

There is something both inspiring and grounding about the open-ended potential of water’s limitless horizon. I find this combination so present in architecture. As a third influence, I enrolled in art classes early in my life, where I mainly focused on pencil and charcoal drawing, as well as on water color painting. Art has remained a passion and has strongly impacted my approach to architecture. Fine art was my connection to architecture and my motivation for enrolling in architecture at the University of Cincinnati, where I earned a B. Arch in 1995. At Cincinnati, which is known as a cooperative education school, I worked at four different firms as an architect intern in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Cincinnati, intermittently throughout the six years of my education.

This professional experience provided me with a strong appreciation for the challenges that architects face and for the incredible contributions they make to our lives. Upon graduation, I relished a different experience than that of my practice-oriented undergraduate schooling, so I applied to attend graduate school at Rice University in Houston. Rice opened me to a number of unconventional ways of considering the potency of architecture, as not just a practice, but a way of thinking and being in the world.

Through my influential teachers like Michael Bell, Mark Wamble, Sanford Kwinter, Bruce Mau, Yung Ho Chang, and Lars Lerup, my mind was stretched and challenged in ways I never anticipated. My time at Rice also introduced me to my lifelong friend and collaborator, Blair Satterfield, with whom I started the practice I still maintain called HouMin (pronounced “human,” the name is a mash-up of Houston and Minneapolis). Blair is an now an academic, like me, teaching at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and so our practice serves as a kind of skunk works, or testing lab for new ideas around the misuse of tools and the manipulation of unlikely materials, assembled in unconventional ways.

After practicing in Houston for a number of years, I was asked to try my hand at teaching through a one-year visiting position at the University of Cincinnati by my former teacher, mentor, and, to this day, dear friend, Daniel Friedman. I took a leap, never previously thinking I would want to teach. I ended up enjoying the experience and thriving in the role. I was hired as a tenure-track professor at Cincinnati and stayed there for three years until I was hired to teach at the University of Minnesota. I taught at Minnesota for a total of fifteen years, from 2004 to 2019, where I navigated through the tenure process and earned the title of full professor. In the last five years of my time in Minneapolis, I served as the Head of the School of Architecture, taking over for my incredibly skilled predecessor and mentor, Renee Cheng. Minnesota was profoundly impactful on me. It is known nationally as a leading institution in the development of a progressive attitude towards equity, diversity and inclusion. This work has driven my own efforts and impacted all I do from a leadership perspective.

I served on the Board of Directors of AIA Minnesota for my last five years and made very close friendships with a number of the amazing architects practicing in the Twin Cities. Just this past August, I started as the Chair of the Architecture Department at the University of Colorado Denver. Here, I am continuing my work with HouMinn Practice and my partner Blair Satterfield. I am also starting a new cross-disciplinary research lab called LoDo Lab. I feel lucky to be at CU Denver and am privileged to work with such an amazing group of students and faculty.

What firm/organization are you currently with and how long have you been there?

I am currently the Chair of the Architecture Department in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. I just started in August 2019.

What have been some of your favorite/proudest projects or career accomplishments?

So far, I am most proud of the efforts I have made to connect the academic community at CU Denver to the practice community in the Denver area and beyond. I have met with one or two firm leaders per week since I started, with the help of our fantastic Director of Professional Development and Internships, Rachel Brown. With my new position on the Board of Directors of AIA Colorado, I hope to further deepen and broaden these relationships in the coming year.

What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career and how did you overcome them?

One of my biggest challenges has been expanding the limited awareness of the architecture program at CU Denver. Ours is an amazing school with talented faculty and a richly diverse, energetic, and hard-working student body. We produce incredible faculty research and student work. Yet, very few people outside the Denver region know about what a great architecture program we have. I am working to develop a more robust communication strategy and to share on a much broader scale, the qualities of what we do.

What advice do you have for an emerging professional in this profession?

Develop people skills, the soft skills of what it takes to be a good architect, not just the design or technical skills. Learn how to be a good listener, above all else. Build the capacity to collaborate with a broad constituency of people. Approach your work with lightness and a sense of humor. Learn how to communicate effectively. Look people in the eye when you speak, speak from the heart, and be yourself. Be authentic, even if, especially if, your voice contradicts “the way things are usually done.”  Let events change you and let go of the need to be “right.”

Why did you choose to get involved with AIA Colorado as a member, volunteer and now board member?

I think the AIA can have a big impact on connecting the practice community to the academic community and to the non-architecture community. Serving as a connector should be one of its biggest roles. I also am passionate about helping to diversify the profession of architecture. AIA can do a lot to facilitate awareness of equity, diversity and inclusion issues in the practice community, and it can help to position the practice community with the proper tools to grow its intercultural competency. I look forward to being a part of all of these important efforts.

What are you most excited to work on this year as a board member?

I will be sitting on the Equity, Diversity & Inclusiveness Committee. I look forward to working hand-in-hand to connect the efforts of CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning with those of the architecture practice community to heighten our collective awareness of intercultural competency. We need to do more to help our institutions and businesses develop the skills to understand the potency of diverse perspectives, and that to thrive interculturally, change starts with us, internally. It is not enough to grow more diverse. We must develop the skills and willingness to change, so that our differences can make a difference. So that we are not just tolerant of diversity, but actively seeking and embracing it. I very much look forward to the hard work this will require.

What do you think are the largest opportunities for architects in Colorado right now?

Really, the biggest opportunity is to grow the AIA’s voice and presence in the community, to change its perception. I have seen local AIA organizations migrate from being seen as stodgy, good ol’ boy clubs, to progressive, relevant, forward-thinking, and nimble organizations that bring real value to the profession. We need to provide vision and leadership, and we need to shed light on the most important issues facing the discipline, so that our membership understands the value of their investment in the AIA, for the profession and for them personally.

What are the largest challenges for architects in Colorado right now?

I would say the biggest issues are climate and diversity. Specifically, in terms of climate, water is a growing issue in the State of Colorado. Architects can do a lot through small advancements in their design approaches, to address water issues and bring awareness of the importance of water conservation into public awareness. Regarding diversity, the State of Colorado enjoys an incredibly diverse population, yet the profession does not reflect that same diversity. I believe that architecture is a profession for all, for the public good, and so its voice should reflect the people it serves.

Where do you see the profession going in the future?

I think an emerging area of development for the profession is research. Historically, most architectural research has been conducted outside the profession, by non-architects, or in the academy. I think that in the future, it will be important for architecture firms to develop business models that incorporate research of all kinds. I am interested in how the academy might partner with progressive, forward-thinking architecture firms to conduct research that is of mutual benefit. A few firms in the U.S. have started to do this in a robust and lucrative way, but this is a nut that few have cracked. I think there is real potential here for a new business model for architecture firms.

What do you like to do outside of work and service?

Anything I can to spend time with my wife, Connie, and my two daughters, Maeve and Enna. We love to travel and do things outside, like hiking, skiing and biking. In my personal time, I read a lot (especially since I moved here and started commuting on light rail), I’m a video game nerd (although my gaming time is more and more limited), I recently took up swimming, which I love, I run and bike, and when I travel, I love to sketch. My passion for in-situ sketching has been rekindled on recent trips to Turkey, China and Japan with students. I had forgotten how much I love it! Having just moved into a new house, I enjoy working on projects around the house, especially if they involve putting stuff together or designing something new to make. I love to work with my hands.