Instructor Nathan Johnson wins AIA Gold Medal Award

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Minneapolis College instructor Nathan Johnson and business partner James Garrett are the joint recipients of the 2020 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minnesota Gold Medal.

This award from the American Institute of Architects Minnesota is one the highest honors bestowed by the organization, recognizing individuals whose work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture in Minnesota, and significant, positive impact on the Minnesota architecture community and culture.

Garrett and Johnson are known to be, as one letter noted in support of their nomination, “fiercely passionate designers who work tirelessly to create architecture that heals relationships and confronts issues of access, displacement, and segregation present in our built environment that negatively impact how communities live and thrive.”

Nathan Johnson, AIA, NOMA, joined as a partner of 4RM+ULA in 2007. They established their firm to reimagine cities and neighborhoods, reunite architecture and art, design spaces that respond to community, climate, and context, and create high-quality architecture in underrepresented communities typically underserved by design professionals. Both are recipients of numerous state and national awards for individual accomplishment and project design.

Both Garrett and Johnson also volunteer extensively with AIA Minnesota plus arts and community organizations and provide strong voices of advocacy—locally and nationally—for an equitable and just profession and a built environment that centers the human experience. Their complementary, partnered approach to leadership and service has created an extraordinary cumulative impact.

Numerous examples of built work led by Garrett and Johnson were brought forward in the nomination: high-quality, highly impactful built projects that improve communities and center underserved and marginalized populations. These projects include Great River Landing, affordable housing for individuals who have recently been incarcerated; the Rondo Commemorative Plaza, which unites art and architecture to heal a community torn apart by highway development; and the stations on the Green Line light rail, allowing hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans to experience beautiful, welcoming, innovative design.

As one letter of support noted, “good enough is never good enough” when it comes to design for these innovative professionals; they constantly seek ways to incorporate innovation, sustainability, and cultural assets into design regardless of budget or end user.

Core to the approach Garrett and Johnson have consistently employed is the melding of architecture and art, establishing long-standing collaborations with artists and designers, including Juxaposition Arts and TENxTEN, and centering art and equity in community visioning processes.

This approach was also demonstrated in the way that Garrett brought the Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture exhibit to St. Paul from New York City, reworking it in a manner that successfully engaged the local Black community and youth of color.

Johnson has also had tremendous impact in shaping the profession of architecture to become more equitable and inclusive. Johnson served as the first African American president of AIA Minnesota in 2018. He also led the AIA Minnesota task force that created a research report and recommendations for creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive profession that has become the model and launch point for AIA chapters across the nation. Johnson’s leadership in the implementation of these recommendations has been instrumental in AIA Minnesota becoming known as the most impactful AIA chapter in this work of organizational and industry-wide transformation. At the firm level, the base pay matrix that Garrett and Johnson created with their colleagues at 4RM+ULA is creating more transparency and equity in architecture firms.

These recent examples of leadership are rooted in decades of shared commitment to mentoring the next generation of architects. Johnson has been an adjunct instructor at Minneapolis College for nearly 2 decades and Garrett has served as an adjunct instructor at the University of Minnesota College of Design. Garrett and Johnson also worked behind the scenes to help establish a local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects and to create and support leadership opportunities for women of color in the profession.

Garrett and Johnson will be celebrated at the virtual AIA Minnesota Awards Celebration on December 4. Garrett and Johnson are the first people of color to receive this award. This is also the first time the AIA Minnesota Gold Medal has been awarded to two individuals who have created a distinguished body of work through collaborative partnership.