James Garrett Jr. didn’t want the new North Loop supportive-housing project his firm designed to look or feel like low-income housing.
He believed the intended residents — men who due to past incarceration have faced issues such as joblessness and homelessness — deserved better.
“They are going to be coming home to something that reflects who they are and who they aspire to be,” Garrett said. “There’s something very powerful about that.”
Garrett’s St. Paul architecture firm 4RM+ULA (pronounced “formula”) is busy this summer with several high-profile, community-focused projects across the Twin Cities.
He leads the 16-year-old firm with Nathan Johnson and Erick Goodlow, with a team of six people who share a brightly colored, sunny office near the St. Paul Farmers Market in Lowertown and two employees out of New York City.
The St. Paul office — anchored by a massive mural featuring the faces of the partners as they channel the thoughts and creativity of their black ancestors — is representative of how the firm approaches projects.
“Part of what 4RM+ULA is doing [is] trying to create these kind of micro examples of culturally relevant, socially pertinent design,” Garrett said.
Later this month, construction will begin on the 72-unit Great River Landing, located on 5th Street and 10th Avenue in Minneapolis and developed by Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. It will have features normally found in market-rate apartments like a street-level gym, meditation space and a vegetable garden. There will also be classrooms, meeting areas and a community space that doubles as a cafeteria.
The 4RM+ULA team partnered with Roger Cummings — one of the artists behind the firm’s office mural — to design a piece of art that takes up a large column of perforated metal above the building’s entrance. Artwork made with significant input from the residents and staff will be incorporated throughout the building.
“We wanted this to really feel like market-rate housing,” Garrett said. “We want people to walk down the street and say, ‘Oh, where is the rental office? I would want to live here.’ We didn’t want it to look like or feel like low-income housing or affordable housing.”
In north Minneapolis, 4RM+ULA is assisting nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts to prepare the site where the organization’s new modern art center will be built. The firm designed a concept for the building about nine years ago, but with a new fundraising campaign underway for the center, 4RM+ULA is revising the design. The plan is for the center to be completed by 2022.
Across the river in St. Paul, Garrett and his partners also are working on the Rondo Commemorative Plaza at Concordia Avenue and Fisk Street. The plaza will be a community gathering place dedicated to the historically black Rondo neighborhood, which was destroyed by the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1950s and 1960s. The plaza is scheduled to be finished by the Rondo Days celebration in late July.
In addition, the firm is working with the family of Philando Castile to potentially create a memorial to the man who was shot and killed by a Twin Cities police officer in 2016.
4RM+ULA is only one of a few black-owned architectural firms. Less than 2 percent of registered architects across the country are black, according to the National Organization of Minority Architects. In Minnesota, blacks make up only 0.69 percent of architects and associate members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minnesota, according to a 2015 report.
“I believe in the profession we recognize there is an underrepresentation of people of color and women,” said Johnson, one of the partners at 4RM+ULA and the president of AIA-Minnesota. “We have a unique challenge to engage a diverse group of people so we can build and mentor the profession of the future.”
Diversity in the field of architecture is critical, Garrett said.
“I think it’s important for people who come from the culture who are products of the culture to be able to interpret and translate the three-dimensional spaces in a community,” Garrett said. “If you grew up in that community and you know what people’s habits are, how they live [for example] for a culture that spends a lot of time out on the porch, that wave to everybody … then as you are designing things and thinking things, you are thinking of ‘Oh this is where grandma is going to sit out on the porch.’ You are going to create those spaces to allow people to live their best lives.”
Garrett, who was born on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands before his family moved back to Minnesota, has always known he wanted to design buildings. As a child, he would sit in Mears Park and watch the cranes work as skyscrapers were being built in downtown St. Paul.
“I remember just sitting there on the old park walls before they had benches and all that kind of stuff and just watch and try to count the floors everyday,” Garrett said.
Garrett has several goals for the firm including opening an office in the Dominican Republic, where his wife has already done work for the firm. He also wants to eventually work to create housing that can stand up to the tropical storms that hit Caribbean islands.