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Leadership Profile: Adam Ferrari, AIA

As a lifelong student of the sciences, I remember hearing about the theory of liquid helium. I have never sought confirmation of the truth, but my high school physics teacher explained to our class that at temperatures approaching absolute zero, helium would change phase from a gas to a liquid. This liquid was so viscous and lightweight that if you placed it inside a container, it would not only conform to the shape, but it would actually transmit itself or climb to the outside. While this conjured up visions of The Blob, spreading underneath doors and through windows in all-consuming pursuit of its victims, I have kept that liquid helium concept with me throughout my life as a metaphor for uncontained drive and initiative. It is the visual manifestation of an undying will to succeed.

So what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object?

That conflict was awaiting me upon graduation from college. From my earliest days at the University of Kansas, I heard the same repetitive axiom of architecture: there are no good young architects. From teachers and studio critics the inevitable career of an architect was described and such was our destiny to mire in mediocrity until well into our forties. My generation (the "Millennials") has been most often criticized for our inability to wait. We are unwilling to slowly advance up the corporate ladder. We want immediate success and instant results. While I admit that the practice of architecture is difficult and is a series of trials and mistakes that become lessons, I refuse to believe that my classmates and I are unable to be immediate influences on the community and world around us. I, like the liquid helium, refuse to be contained.

In many ways the start of my career was normal. I got a job after graduation at a well-respected, medium-sized firm and began the traditional architecture path. I was exposed to several projects of different scales with different uses and dredged through the usual intern work. I was content to perform every menial task assigned with the fervor and passion that I had for a studio project, but I still wanted more. I wanted to work through design problems more in depth and larger than what I was being offered at work. I wanted to help people resolve issues and make their environment better. It was at this point in my first year of practice that I volunteered for the Minnesota Design Team which is an established group of design professionals who volunteer their time to visit small towns in Minnesota. The Design Team establishes a rapport with both community leaders and residents over a long weekend to aid them as they struggle with issues of growth, economic diversity, sustainability, planning and design. This event so profoundly affected my perspective of a designer’s role in shaping and influencing the direction of a community that I have been an advocate for design in the public realm ever since.

The experience with the Minnesota Design Team galvanized for me the reasons I pursued architecture. The group with which I shared that weekend was from diverse academic and geographic backgrounds, but once we combined our resources to listen and respond to significant human needs we were able to weave together a comprehensive strategy to improve many of the issues that had been overwhelming a small rural community. It didn’t matter that I was a young intern architect who hadn’t designed or built any buildings of note. It had nothing to do with my name or prestige. It was simply a moral and ethical obligation to use my skill set for altruistic pursuits. My realization: a professional life should be dedicated to improving our world with a service to humanity instead of striving for individual glorification.

I continued to be employed by the same architectural firm for almost four years in Rochester, Minnesota. However, outside of the "9-to-5," I pursued opportunities that gave me a chance to build a better community. I helped form a non-profit organization called Livable Rochester that is committed to inspiring and supporting partnerships that will enhance livability as Rochester grows and develops. I also joined the Rochester Design Society which strives to enhance the quality of life in Southeast Minnesota by promoting a better built environment through professional interaction, community service and dedication to design excellence. It was at this point, February of 2009, that I received a healthy dose of corporate reality. As our firm's only satellite office, we were an easy decision to be eliminated when the economy went south. It was announced that the office would be closing and half of us were immediately laid off. I naively thought that I could get a job the next day with a few local contacts as well as being on the verge of licensure, awaiting my final ARE exam results. Who wouldn't want a young licensed architect?

I ended up spending three months unemployed with absolutely zero leads in Rochester or the Twin Cities. Finally, a chance phone call to a recent acquaintance resulted in a whirlwind three-week interview process at the Rochester Area Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to community betterment. The position of Architect at a Community Foundation never appeared in any textbooks from architecture school. In fact, the idea of working for a non-profit was only mentioned one time that I can recall during my education. During my last year in school, Steve Badanes of the design/build firm Jersey Devil visited to give a guest lecture. Looking back, I recognize the effect that his speech had on me as he described the skills that architects possess and how our training during the past five years gave us a broad set of skills that could be used for myriad jobs. Steve’s motivational speech was influential in a job climate in 2005 that was much more forgiving than the one that recently passed, but the speech still resonated with me during the period when I was most concerned for my professional future.

The result is that I now am self-employed at the Rochester Area Foundation and have been instrumental in developing a unique strategy to assist in our community investment. We have capitalized on the down economy and sought architecture graduates through AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers. We were fortunate to receive two volunteers for a year of service, both of whom could not find employment in the traditional architecture field. Essentially, we have crafted a small design studio that has the flexibility to pursue new ideas, research methods, and long-range concepts. We offer design services for local non-profits and the community to catalyze transformative change. We have idealistic goals and wear our design passion on our sleeves, but I enjoy heading to work every day without worrying about insane imposed deadlines, inane project managers, business development, and other corporate issues. I am doing what I have always wanted to do—help people through design.

That is precisely where our profession has diverted. We have lost touch with the ideology of architecture—the responsibility of practice. Architects and architecture have become increasingly commoditized which is why during an economic recession, commissioning architects for buildings has been seen as a luxury. We are missing an architecture of relevance. The process of design is what holds the power and I would encourage all young architects to consider the profession in terms of providing a design process as opposed to an architecture product. I am convinced that out of this recession a new type of architect will emerge. This architect will focus on the needs of the quiet masses. That is what I am striving to do and what I am committed to pursue. If I have learned anything over the past year, it is that age does not ensure success — discipline, drive and an unwillingness to accept the way it has been are the keys to liquefying the helium.

Adam is an architect with the Rochester Area Foundation in Rochester, Minnesota.  He is a passionate advocate for design and a firm believer in its power to transform people's lives. 


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