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Architect Tim Carl on collaboration and the merging of science and art

Tim Carl on the ASI project: “I love the way the new building is artful and Scandinavian contemporary, which is what they wanted, but it respects the historic building.”

Janet Wallace Performing Arts Center at Macalester College
Photo by Paul Crosby

Second of two articles

We continue our conversation with Tim Carl, CEO of HGA Architects and lead architect of several important performing arts and cultural spaces in the Twin Cities, including the Northrop revitalization, the Ordway Concert Hall and the Nelson Cultural Center at the American Swedish Institute. If you missed Part I, go here

MinnPost: When you were first asked to be CEO of HGA, you said no. Why?

Tim Carl: I said no because I’m a project designer. I’m motivated by the creative process in our profession, and I’m very collaborative. I thrive on working with people.

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MP: What changed your mind?

TC: We began to talk about where the firm was going. I was on the board, and because of my position on the board, I started to see certain things about what the firm needs to do as it goes forward to evolve and to compete in this crazy profession. And I started to see a design problem that I felt I had some say in.

MP: What do you mean by “design problem”?

TC: That I could treat the firm as a design problem; that there was a need for creative leadership on a different scale to tackle how we need to go forward as a firm. I was interested in that.

I talked to some of my best friends who are architects. I talked with my wife. And through that process, I came back and said I would do it under the condition that I could work on one or two important projects a year. I think I’ll be a better CEO if I stay connected to practice. We’ll see.

Tim Carl

MP: You’re currently working on a new music and dance conservatory for the University of Missouri-Kansas city.

TC: We won that last year, and then we did a conceptual design, and now it’s on hold for fundraising. Hopefully it’ll come back in a year, and that’s a fantastic project.

Given the different schedules of things, we try to balance one or two projects over the period of a year. So while that one is on hold, we’re working on a feasibility study for a performing arts conservatory in Chicago. I grew up in Indiana, and I always thought I’d live in Chicago. To build a building in Chicago is a dream.

MP: You’re staying in the performing arts.

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TC: What I’ve discovered is that higher-ed arts clients, and arts clients, are just so interesting to work for. I feel like I’m on this huge learning curve. I knew nothing about classical music when I first started these projects, and I go to a lot of classical music now because it’s so interesting in terms of what I’ve learned on the architecture side of it.

MP: So this focus has changed your personal life.

TC: Definitely. We’ve always enjoyed the arts. My wife and I have always gone to a lot of dance. Probably dance was our primary passion, and then a lot of contemporary music, but we see a lot more classical music now.

MP: From what we talked about earlier, it seems there wasn’t a single defining moment when you knew you’d found your calling. 

TC: I’m very service-oriented, so my approach is to get in the middle of things and really listen and make sure everyone understands that we’re listening, and make sure the team is listening, and try to come up with something that when you come back to the client, they’re like, “Yeah, you listened.”

So there really wasn’t a time when I thought, “I have a vision for wanting to do this kind of work, and I’m gonna work hard to position myself to be able to have access.” I got lucky. I got in the middle of this, I enjoyed it, and I served these clients really well. I love the creative process that is the synergy of the creativity they bring and we bring to the process. It’s unique to work with artists, basically. It’s really fun.

And then I also love – and the people who work on these projects love it, too – the beautiful merging of science and art, because these projects have to technically be very sophisticated, and then you also want them to be beautiful, and to get both is a fun challenge.

MP: What is a project you would love to get your hands on?

TC: Building a new building in downtown Chicago – that’s a dream. So I’m super excited about the fact that it’s even a possibility. I would say building in major cities in major urban areas is something I’m really interested in, and I’m also interested in being in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I’m interested in how HGA – not just me – but how HGA helps the cities grow.

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MP: What about internationally? Are you thinking about that as well?

TC: That’s a good question. We have offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose. We just acquired a small interior design practice that’s focused on corporate, and they work for Apple and a lot of big technology companies. So partnering San Jose with San Francisco in terms of the tech market is a big opportunity. And then we acquired, about four years ago, a firm in D.C. So what’s interesting about HGA is that we have built a nationally known practice out of Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

There’s a great legacy to this firm in terms of the founders and what they believed in, and I’m trying to get that message out to the next generation. Two of them studied under Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus tradition, and that’s all about integrating artists and engineers and architects to do work that is collaborative so you come up with something you wouldn’t have expected. You come up with more artful and more innovative solutions. [The HGA founders] had engineers from the beginning, so that story still resonates with the next generation.

The talent we’ve been able to attract – a lot from the U of M in Minneapolis – has built a firm in Minneapolis that has been able to do work all over the country. Yet we still run into problems where important clients on the coasts are like, “We’re not going to work with a Minneapolis firm.” We’ve been able to overcome that in a lot of ways, too.

Same with our Milwaukee office. They’re not in Chicago, they’re in Milwaukee, but they’re doing great work all over the country.

Now that we have offices in major cities, we have to have as strong a reputation there from a design standpoint as we do here, and that’s what we’re working on. …

I’m excited about the things we’re doing firm-wide now, in my new position. We’ve got a number of initiatives around innovation. We’re trying to leverage the strength of being a large firm by having space in which people from different offices, different practices can come together and come up with new ideas. If we’re not innovative we’re not going to survive. And so we’re really working hard on that right now. 

MP: Do you feel you’re in as CEO for the long haul?

TC: No. I don’t. I feel like I’ve got a job to do. It’s probably going to be five or six years. But I’m really open to leadership transition and being proactive about that, and [continuing to practice] once I move out of this position.

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MP: So practicing is what drives you most strongly still.

TC: Over the arc of the career, I think that’s going to be the thing that’s most important to me. But I’m taking this job very seriously.

MP: What is your favorite detail of the Janet Wallace Performing Arts Center – the thing you love best about it?

TC: I can’t pick one. I have to pick three. In no particular order, I love the concert hall and the wood detail and how that came together. I really love the Arts Commons, how it draws people in and makes that a place to be. The most recent thing I love most is the Studio Art addition, and the terra cotta panels in that front porch we created so you have these big windows in the studios.

Photo by Paul Crosby
Nelson Cultural Center, left, at the American Swedish Institute

MP: What do you love best about the Nelson Center?

TC: The courtyard. And I love the way the new building is artful and Scandinavian contemporary, which is what they wanted, but it respects the historic building. The material on the walls on the exterior of the new is the same as the slate on the roof of the original, so there’s a relationship. And then I also love the fact that the addition is helping transform an entire neighborhood. To have a whole block to work with is really cool.

MP: Your favorite things about Northrop?

TC: The way the big idea changes how people move through and occupy all the public space. That we were able to connect Northrup much more directly to the campus. The building was kind of a rock in a stream. Nobody ever came in. Now you have those east and west entrances, you come in and you’re swept up the stairs into all of that space. Every time I go to Northrop, there are students in it. Before, it was dark and windowless, and now it’s not only a good lobby space for patrons, it’s also a good space throughout the day.

MP: What do you mean by “big idea”?

TC: When we were first drawing how we might transform Northrop, the idea that they wanted a smaller footprint for the hall – 2,700 seats instead of 4,800 seats – allowed us to create public space around it. Public space and academic space. So it’s not just a performing arts space; it’s a building that’s used all day long. How the public space connects to the campus makes it a much more vibrant place to be.

MP: That’s what you get to do in higher education that you couldn’t if you were just designing a concert hall.

TC: Yes. Definitely. And there’s something really motivating about tying artistic endeavors to education. How the arts support a great education, and how the arts can bring people together from different disciplines. So it’s not just about the arts students. It’s about all the students being able to use the arts as a way to come together.

MP: What about Northrop do you like looking at most?

TC: The style of the architecture – of the new, if you look at the lobby spaces – needed to not feel contemporary, like a spaceship that landed. It needed to feel like it melded with the historic context, but not feel like watered-down historicism.

If you look closely, there are some really nice contemporary details that also have a historic connection, so when you walk from Memorial Hall into the new lobby, it doesn’t feel like night and day. It feels connected. But you’re not confused as to what’s new and what’s old.

That was really hard to do. It’s much easier for contemporary architects to just design something that looks beautiful and cool, and it’s much harder to do something that is researched and driven by its context and its place.

And I would say that’s also true for the Ordway and Swedish Institute and Macalester. That’s what I love about the projects I’ve done in recent years. They’re unique based on where they are and who they’re for. There’s not a style.

MP: What do you like best about the Ordway Concert Hall?

TC: The wow of the ceiling when you walk in. I think that turned out incredibly. And the way it makes you feel closer to the musicians.

MP: And the Huss Center at the Saint Paul Academy?

TC: They wanted a contemporary addition and a new identity for the Upper School campus. They did not want it to look like the historic buildings.

There are roughly three phases of building on that campus. The historic main hall, and then the big addition that was done in the ‘90s that is brick and pitched roof, and then in the ’70s Ben Thompson – the same architect of the Ordway – did this brutalist – but I love it – concrete addition.

We tried to do an addition that respected the historic but was much more contemporary. The way in which the detail, and the idea of the metal panels, and the brick have come together has an elegance that’s very contemporary and very connected to the Ben Thompson addition. I love that, and I love the fact that they love it.

MP: Do you have a signature? When I walk into one of your buildings, is there something that tells me I’m in one of your buildings?

TC: The only thing, possibly, in some of the projects is warmth. Sometimes use of color. Again, I pride our teams on doing something that’s unique and doesn’t look like something I just thought was beautiful in and of itself and wanted to put out there. Not that I don’t admire architects who have a style – the best ones – but I think we’re doing our clients the best service when we’re doing something that’s unique to them.

MP: So having a recognizable style of your own is not important to you?

TC: Only in the way I want everyone to like it. So I want it to be warm. I want it to have natural light. I want it to have a quality that no matter what kind of architecture you like, you’re going to like it.

There were people who fought Northrop because it wasn’t more of a literal renovation. Some of them may still hate it. But a lot have come back to me and said, “Wow, you did a nice job.”

MP: I’ve seen photos from early in the construction process, when the building was an empty box with bulldozers inside, sitting on dirt.

TC: That scared the crap out of me. I thought, “What have we done?”

MP: What does it mean to you personally that you’re doing so much work in your own community?

TC: It’s huge. I’ve pursued work nationally, and I’ve done some work nationally, but I’m constantly hearing from friends and people I don’t even know. People reach out to me, thanking me.

One thing I’m doing as CEO is, we’re just now designing a new social impact program. We’re trying to be more proactive and strategic about the kinds of volunteer work we do in the community – taking advantage of being an architecture and engineering firm and helping make our community a better place to live. The most talented millennials want to be impacting the city they live in, and there’s nothing more motivating than to feel like you’re making a difference.

MP: It must be remarkable to walk into one of your own spaces and see it crowded with people and something fabulous happening on the stage. Not many people get to experience that.

TC: It can be overwhelming, too, but yeah. I’m lucky.