Insight News

Feb 13th

Innovative. Visionary. Attentive. Community.

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rmulaMembers of the architecture industry and consumers of architecture and design use these descriptors when referring to the work of 4RM+ULA, a Black-owned full service architectural design firm established in 2002. 4RM+ULA, a phonetic acronym that stands for form + urban landscape articulation, is linked to high profile projects such as the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit, Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center, Selby Area CDC, and Juxtaposition Arts Center Textile Lab.

James Garrett, Jr., Nathan Johnson, and Erick Goodlow, are friends and partners of 4RM+ULA who balance design, technical expertise, theory, and urban planning. The three men have known each other since youth when architecture and business ventures were a dream. After pursuing years of education at prestigious post secondary institutions on the East Coast, West Coast and Midwest, they have joined forces to bring their expertise back to the Twin Cities and are expanding globally. Now the dream is realized.

Garrett , who serves as managing partner and resident visual artist, graduated from University of California, Berkeley with an Environmental Design degree from the School of Architecture, and received a graduate degree from Parsons The New School for Design in New York. He breaks down the firm’s approach to projects into three categories; technology, environmental sustainability, and art. “We are very big on technology, and utilizing the newest technology; whether it is different types of computer aided drafting programs to draw things and create things, or different visualization modeling techniques. We are always looking for new products and new equipment to design into buildings to make them more energy efficient, to make them function better. We are constantly looking for opportunities to make our buildings and our designs as green as possible, to have the lowest carbon foot print possible, and [not] use the toxic chemicals and paints as such. We are looking to make [buildings] as efficient from a space efficiency standpoint, and efficient from an energy efficiency standpoint. We are always looking for materials and methods of construction that are sustainable. We are always looking for opportunities to engage art, and bring artists in.”

As a trained architect and visual artist, Garrett developed a business evolution that eventually turned into 4RM+ULA. He left a big architecture firm in 1998, and started JAGA Studio, a business that produced multi-disciplinary design. “I was very interested in designing not only buildings but jewelry, clothing, just a number of other things. And so JAGA Studio was sort of created as really a venue for me to be able to explore some other things outside of traditional architecture.” In 1999-2000 Garrett purchased a parcel of land in the Midway/Merriam Park neighborhood that he wanted to turn into a five unit town house development. JAGA Studio then became a vehicle for design and real estate development. In 2000-2001, Garrett partnered with Goodlow and together they turned JAGA Studio into Urban Development Collaborative. Then they had an epiphany. Garrett explains, “ we can do something more, something larger than just this particular individual development project and so we started having conversations about being more of a full service design firm focused on architecture, but also bringing the art aspect and the green aspect. It was 2002 that we sort of took our partnership and changed it into 4RM+ULA….. and really looking at larger issues of design, urban planning and architecture. It was sort of at that point that we had serious conversations with [Johnson] and started looking for opportunities for him to collaborate with the two of us.”

Johnson, a graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture, participated in the initial development talks for 4RM+ULA and became partner in 2007. He is a LEED Accredited Professional, recipient of the AIA Minnesota 2009 Young Architect Award, and professor of Architectural Technology at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Johnson and fellow partners have assumed the stance of architectural stewards for their home community. “I think we’re very concerned about what impacts our city, and what specifically impacts the urban environment. We are all Twin Cities natives. All of our families go back here for years. We have a vested interest in this community. We are particularly concerned with forming long-term public and private partnerships; adding to and improving the building stock in urban communities; cultivating vacant and/or under-utilized properties in transitional urban neighborhoods; producing new housing and commercial opportunities by introducing mixed-use medium density, socially responsible designs that are fully environmentally responsive, economically viable, and transit-oriented. All tailored to fit at the neighborhood scale,” he said.

Goodlow, the “non-creative architect” partner, converges architecture with community through his expertise in politics, public administration, and urban planning. He handles the books, and politics in working with different municipalities and governments. Goodlow graduated from Minnesota State University at Mankato with a Masters Degree in Urban and Regional Studies, has 10 years of management experience from Medtronic Corporation, and serves on the board of directors for the St. Paul Planning Commission, Fairway Foundation, and St. Paul Board of Parks and Recreation. “We didn’t necessarily say let’s get three diverging skill sets and bring them together and really bring a balanced brain trust to a small business. But honestly I think that’s kind of what happened.”

Marilyn Porter is co-founder and immediate past president of Assembly of Architects (AOA), a non-profit organization that serves communities of color with services such as architecture, planning, facilities management; services not readily accessible. Additionally, AOA encourages its members to network amongst themselves, and the group collectively reaches out to larger majority organizations and architectural firms. Currently, Johnson serves as President of AOA and Garrett serves as a vice president. Porter met the young men in 1993 as they began their careers with different architectural firms, and now she has seen them evolve into masters of their trade.

“I think 4RM+ULA is a very good organization because they have that balance between them. Johnson is a recognized designer for his vision, and James brings the marketing and the technical skills to the table. They balance each other’s strengths and capabilities, from the technical side to the more theory and design side. They have aligned themselves with people who have other expertise outside of what they do. So they have put together a very diverse and skilled group of people,” said Proter.

Porter was contacted by Roxanne Givens, co-founder of the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center, who was in search of African American architects to develop the Coe Mansion in Minneapolis as the future site of the museum. The connection made for a perfect match, and Givens continually sings the praises of 4RM+ULA. “Their commitment and focus is to design and excel; as a client they listen to what our desires are while at the same time seamlessly merge the demands that are inherent to the historic preservation dictates of the African American museum. They achieve all of this without compromising the integrity of the design aesthetic! The team is extremely innovative and creative as well as resourceful, embracing the art of collaboration whenever necessary.”

Johnson said 4RM+ULA “doesn’t have preconceived notions of what the outcome is going to be. Each project is its on individual thing and we work with the client/owner to come up with the best solution, and we spend a lot of time analyzing , thinking , trying to be creative and not trying to think within a box about how the end product is going to be. We want to give the owner, our client, the best solutions and give them all the information that they need to develop a great product, and especially since we work with a lot of community groups, I think that is an imperative.

For more information on 4RM+ULA Architectural Design Firm visit or call (651) 292-0106.

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