Shaping Human Habitat

shaping human habitat

Essay by Jerry Richardson

It was sometime back in the 1970s. North Dakota Gov. Art Link had invited three young architects to present their ideas for a proposed new state heritage center. Here's an approximation of how the discussion began:

Link to Joel Davy, Jim Dean and Don Barsness: "Any of you fellows ever designed a history museum?"
Short answer from the trio: "Nope."
Link: "Neither have I. Let's get on with it."

The result of that brief encounter, plus a predictable mixture of architectural blood, sweat and midnight oil, was one of the more handsome, functional structures on the grounds of North Dakota's capitol. Colleges and universities rarely pass up a chance to tout the economic value of the contributions they make to their surroundings. But that can be said of virtually any enterprise that employs quite a few people. What's different about a college or university is that there are less easily quantifiable but ultimately much more valuable contributions -- social, cultural, physical and intellectual -- such an institution makes to its surroundings that go far beyond simple economics. Lectures, plays, concerts and athletic events are obvious examples. Much more important is the annual infusion of human resources -- people prepared to contribute knowledge, skills and energy of benefit to the entire community and, in a broader sense, society at large. Such contributions made by graduates of NDSU's Department of Architecture (now incorporating landscape architecture), represent a highly visible case in point. Steve Martens, associate professor of architecture, (also a graduate of the program) has been digging a bit into NDSU's architectural archives. He has found that over much of the past century, graduates of the department have played an increasingly visible role in shaping the community, state and region's human habitat -- the physical surroundings in which people live, work and recreate. Here are some of the things he's found:

Since 1914, when the program in architecture was created, it has produced roughly 1,300 graduates. (Incidentally, as of a couple of years ago, the department's oldest living alumnus was Florence Fleming Dietrich, who earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1930. At last report she and her husband were living in retirement in Arroyo Grande, California.)

NDAC awarded its first degree in architectural engineering in 1922.

Currently, at least 300 NDSU-educated registered professional architects are in practice across the United States and throughout the world, "from Oslo to Malaysia, New York to Honolulu," according to Martens.

About 150 of those are practicing in the Fargo/Moorhead community.

Martens believes the teaching of architecture at NDSU has its roots in the original mandate given America's system of land-grant colleges and universities, which directed them to focus on "agriculture and the mechanic arts." Over the years the term "mechanic arts" evolved into the various engineering disciplines including, ultimately, the present-day program in architecture. The architecture program at NDAC started with a course in drafting, producing either its first graduate or its first enrollee in 1914. Today, 90 years after those early-day students began their studies, evidence of their achievements is visible throughout the state and region, in the form of hundreds of school buildings, churches, business firms and public structures. And in downtown Fargo, an architectural renaissance of sorts, is taking place in historic preservation and adaptive re-use Recent state legislation in North Dakota intended to provide tax incentives for the restoration and adaptive re-use of languishing downtown business districts, has proved to be a boon for several members of the Fargo/Moorhead architectural fraternity:

Back in 1976 Norm Triebwasser undertook the restoration and adaptive re-use of the deLendrecie Department Store building, the first phase of which had been constructed in 1894.

Julie Rokke, YHR Associates in Moorhead, undertook an extensive renovation and restoration of Fargo's historic Fargo Theatre, which has become a focal point of the city's growing reputation as a "hip" community. Rokke, incidentally, transferred into architecture at NDSU in 1980, and was advised at the time, "Architecture is not a profession for women."

"There were nine of us enrolled in the program that year," Rokke recalls. "We doubled the number of women previously enrolled in the department's entire history up to that point." Today, 165 of the 420 students enrolled in architecture and landscape architecture are women, constituting nearly 40 percent of the total.

Michael Burns, who specializes in historic preservation, orchestrated the restoration of Fargo's Great Northern Depot, turning it into a downtown restaurant/bar and brewery, and most recently has finished work on Doug Burgum's $1 million-plus gift of the old Northern School Supply Building, which, with the help of the NDSU Development Foundation, has evolved into an $11 million home for NDSU art and architecture programs.

Terry Stroh effected the transformation of a once-rock-solid tractor manufacturing company which had been sitting, virtually idle, on the city's NP Avenue into headquarters of Fargo's venerable Vogel Law Firm.

And much more recently, a restoration by Karen Burgum of the Donaldson Hotel with architect F. John Barbour.

But we wouldn't want to leave the impression that NDSU-educated architects never stray far from home. A quick scan of a few of the department's alumni, particularly those who have graduated in recent years, makes it abundantly clear that they're finding employment throughout the U.S., and increasingly, throughout the world:

Ron Holecek is president of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, originally founded in Hawaii, now headquartered in Newport Beach, Calif., and doing business designing resort hotels throughout the world.

In Las Vegas, hardly anyone would consider building what Joel Davy terms "one of those zillion-dollar casinos" without contracting for the services of John Klai and Dan Juba.

Don Powell is a long-time member of Chicago's famous Skidmore/Owings/Merrill, designers of a high percentage of America's high-rise office buildings.

And Robert Graves heads prestigious Flad International, based in Madison, Wis.

So how good are they?
Obviously, it's the quality, not quantity that's the most important consideration in evaluating the contribution of NDSU-educated architects. In that regard, Martens believes the school's grads have gained a strong and growing reputation for being sensitive to their clients' needs, delivering high-quality structures within available resources. "They follow through well on project management and respond to the environment of the Great Plains region." Because of those strengths, he feels, NDSU grads consistently win a majority of the architectural projects currently being awarded in the area.

Sometimes their own severest critics
Architects, as is true with those involved in most creative undertakings, are often their own most vocal critics. Back when the building known in those days as The New Field House (now Bison Sports Arena) was constructed at NDSU, a handful of currently enrolled architecture students turned out carrying protest placards proclaiming "The Box the University Came In!" It had been designed by one of their co-religionists of a few years earlier and has proceeded to serve the institution with great functionality for ensuing decades. Another major campus project designed by an alum was described by a notoriously crotchety member of the architecture faculty as "a Frankenstein's Monster!" On balance, however, the jury seems to come down on Steve Martens' side of the equation: that products of the NDSU architecture program are serving society well and, in that sense, fully indicative of the value, beyond simple economics, of North Dakota's State University.

But one last rhetorical question:
is it a business or an art form?
Based on the evidence exhibited in the physical landscape of Fargo-Moorhead, North Dakota and the surrounding region, and the fees they charge for their work (usually a percentage of the project's total cost), some of the graduates appear to be doing OK. And as Steve Martens has pointed out, because of the unique relationship that architecture enjoys between being both a business and an art form, few people choose the profession solely with the expectation of making money. And, when they're lucky, the beneficiaries of that symbiotic relationship are the people who live, work in and enjoy the structures architects have created. In this region in particular, they have NDSU and its long-existing department of architecture and landscape architecture to thank for that.