For the architects of 4RM+ULA, the whole city matters

The creative team at 4RM+ULA
Photo by Bill Kelley
The creative team at 4RM+ULA

As kids growing up in St. Paul, James Garrett Jr. and Nathan Johnson both knew they wanted to be architects one day. Erick Goodlow, who befriended Garrett when both boys were teenagers at St. Paul Central High School, did not have architecture dreams. He went to business school and earned his masters in management. Together, the three of them make up 4RM+ULA (pronounced Formula), a St. Paul-based architecture firm with a design philosophy rooted in commitment to truly make a difference in the cities in which they work.

 “We were urban kids,” Garrett explains. “We know the city and we’re very concerned about people, neighborhoods, and communities.”

Beyond attractive buildings
It’s not enough to design attractive, functional buildings that thoughtfully interpret three-dimensional space, says Garrett. Architects working in urban areas have to always be thinking pragmatically about how their creations will actually serve a city’s needs and then incorporate those realities into their visions. “How do these things serve the people who live their lives every day in the places we design? That’s what we have to ask ourselves,” he continues.


To accomplish this goal, 4RM+ULA, which was founded in 2002, focuses on forming long-term public and private partnerships. In addition to working to improve existing building stock in urban areas, Garrett and his team are known for coming up with innovative ideas for new housing and commercial spaces designed with sustainability in mind. Last August, for example, 4RM+ULA placed third out of 40 architecture firms that entered Minneapolis’ Bearden Place design competition.

Sponsored by the City of Minneapolis and the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, the competition was held to produce a design for artist housing on the city’s North Side. It was also viewed as a way to generate new ideas for breathing life back into inner-city areas where poverty and the ongoing foreclosure crisis has taken a heavy toll.

Joining with Juxtaposition Arts
Garrett is particularly proud of the work 4RM+ULA has done with Juxtaposition Arts. Roger Cummings, who founded the North Side arts center for youth with his wife DeAnna 15 years ago, is a high-school friend of Garrett’s, and Garrett has taught classes there over the years. (Read our 2010 feature on Juxtaposition’s expansion plans here.)

Stretched to the limits by more than 650 young artists learning everything from textile art and graphic design to photography and aerosol mural making, Cummings and Garrett began talking about the desire for an expansion that could meet the needs of the students and the community. But the goal really started to gel in 2008 when Roger and Deanna went on sabbatical to ponder the future of their organization. DeAnna attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Roger studied design at Harvard.

The result is a phased $8.2 million expansion that will transform the art center into a 20,000-square-foot facility that will include a greatly increased gallery space, room for retail where artists can sell their work, and a textile-design center. Work on the project’s final phase, the gallery and retail spaces, is set to be finished by 2015.

“It’s been a fun project and we’ve tried to design something that’s dynamic and takes the energy the kids have and converts that into light and color that emanates out into the community and says, ‘Hey, looks what’s going on over here.'”

A history-making building
4RM+ULA is also working on plans to renovate Minneapolis’ historic Amos Coe mansion into a new African American Museum and Cultural Center. When completed, it would be the first black-history museum in Minnesota.

Fundraising for the museum is ongoing, and Garrett and Johnson continue to explore ways to navigate the difficulties of turning a landmark into a place capable of offering the kind of exhibits today’s audiences expect.

“We’ve been designing a three-story building that would be next to the mansion that could house interactive exhibits while the house would offer other kinds of things,” Garrett explains. “We’re trying to find ways to have modern functionality without dominating the nature of a historic building.”

Design on the move
Transit is always on Garrett and Johnson’s minds when they’re designing anything in the city. So they were happy to partner with DMJM Harris/AECOM in 2007 to design 18 light rail transit stations along the Central Corridor (Harris has since been acquired by AECOM).

4RM+ULA has been leading the design process for the stations along the line, which connects downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul via University Avenue, and their vision was to create something progressive and modern yet functional. “We explored a lot of options that used forms, colors, and lighting schemes to evoke a 21st-century feeling while taking into consideration the practical needs of people getting on and off trains, buying tickets, and dealing with our climate,” he explains.

Over time, though, practical considerations raised by everyone involved in the collaboration yielded more traditional post-and-beam results. But Garrett and Johnson were able to work in some translucent materials that will allow natural light to filter down onto the platforms.

“One of the lessons learned from the Hiawatha line is that every station can’t be a standalone design because when things break, you have to make a custom repair each time,” Garrett says. “Standardizing makes everything more efficient, so we just tried to make something that fits with the modern world.”

As for the future, Garrett sees the 4RM+ULA team continuing to ask themselves, and fellow development collaborators, a thought-provoking question: “How do we apply twenty-first-century ways of sculpting and shaping to the urban landscape? Because we’re all about articulating new ways to understand and visualize the city.”

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

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