Joe Szurszewski

James Garrett Jr., AIA, and Nathan Johnson, AIA, are residents of the Twin Cities who cofounded the St. Paul, Minn.–based firm 4RM+ULA because they wanted to improve local neighborhoods like theirs. Since 2002, they’ve been doing just that, building trust in communities and embarking on projects that aim to benefit the underserved. They’re also aware of architecture’s limitations, especially as the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement shine a light on inequity in the Twin Cities and beyond. “It’s not just that we don’t have all the answers,” Johnson says, “sometimes we don’t even have all the tools. And if we don’t have them, how do we get them?”

Johnson: We have to get over this idea that architecture alone can fix anything. We can create a lens through which the world can be observed, but it’s not our job as designers to fix things. It’s our job to participate in the conversation and provide a place for reflection, but in regard to architecture’s capacity to fix systemic issues, I don’t see how it happens. What we can do is create a framework to start real conversations and help bring back the culture of communities that have been historically disenfranchised. We have a role to play, but it’s not the role we often see ourselves in.

Garrett: There’s an element of humility that is needed as well. During my eight years of architecture school, humility was not something that was taught or emphasized. But it’s something I learned the hard way, working in specific communities that have been traumatized, that have been underserved, and that have had a lack of resources over long periods of time.

Architects need to accept that we don’t necessarily have all the answers, but what we can do is formulate the right questions, invite the right people to the table, and create the right conditions to have the conversations from which we can obtain the right answers.

Community members are experts in what makes them happy, in what frustrates them, in what traumatizes them, in what they wish for future generations. That is real, actionable information that we can take back to the lab and use to formulate architectural operations.

Johnson: Going forward, we need to make a distinction between community projects and projects in communities that have experienced trauma. A lot of our projects are among the latter; we are very intentional about the work we do, and many of our projects are those that fill unique needs within communities of color.

Yes, we have the capacity to produce great buildings and great spaces, but do they have to grow out of what we learn in school, or can they come from the community? As we spend more time listening to the communities around us, it should change the way we practice. — As told to Steve Cimino