Inside the mind of an architect, with our Principal of Architecture, Craig John

To give insight into the career of an esteemed professional in the architecture field, we have conducted an exclusive interview with our very own Principal Architect, Craig John! Read on to discover his inspirational journey to success and learn practical tips he uses in the architecture and design space.

So what inspired you to be an architect? Why did you decide to study architecture?

Craig: So I was pretty young when I started looking into architecture. I was interested in construction but knew I didn’t want to be a contractor. And when I realized that architects design buildings, for some reason, that just sparked my inspiration. I was probably, I don’t know, seven or eight when I just kind of came to that realization. And ever since then, it was my ongoing goal to become an architect. Sounds a little cliche, but that’s always been what I wanted to do.

I graduated from high school and didn’t have the resources to go to college right away. So I did four years in the Navy. I just used that time to really kind of focus on being in the Navy, with the idea that in four years, I would go to school. And I had my whole plan in place, and it just fell into place. I was able to go to school, and I’d hoped to get my master’s degree. But by the time I got out of school, I was married and had a daughter. So I just continued working.

I took the national test to become a registered architect in Wisconsin, which is a neighboring state, and was licensed in Wisconsin for several years. I got licensed through the state of Wisconsin because it was available to me at the time, not having a master’s degree. Because usually, you have to have like a professional degree, and a bachelor of science and architecture did not fit the criteria. To be an architect, you have to do your master’s program. So, while I did get my license, I still felt like I wasn’t licensed because I wasn’t licensed in the state that I lived in, Minnesota.

Eventually, after probably a good ten years of being licensed in Wisconsin, I just took the leap and got my master’s, went back to school, and did an online schooling program tailored to people in my situation. And through the University of Southern Illinois, or Southern Illinois University, as it was formerly called, I was kind of a weekend warrior for a couple of years and got my master’s, and then finally became licensed in Minnesota.

Where would you say you’ve gotten the most inspiration from? Are there any particular architects or works?

Craig: *laughs* So the cliche answer is the answer I always go with on this one because it’s always good for architects to say they have reverence for, you know, the masters, but generally, I’ve always been enamored by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. He’s always been kind of an inspiration for me. Whenever I see his work, it always inspires me. It’s kind of a cliche thing, but he was just really, really good at what he did.

Image: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Also, Eero Saarinen was always somebody that I also looked up to. He just kind of went out there with some of his work, especially for the time. And I’ve always respected that and loved looking at some of the things that he’s done too.

Image: My Modern Met

Are there any buildings from where you grew up or live now that are your favorites and why?

Craig: Ironically, one of the buildings that has been a favorite of mine is the IDS Tower, which has a connection to us here at Baker and is an influential building in Minneapolis. So the original building was designed by Philip Johnson, another influential architect. He was one of the top, one of the big guys. But Ed Baker was the architect of record on that project, and when I learned that, that was one of the reasons I told myself I had to work here.

What was your first architecture job like?

Craig: So, I took a job with Sandy Ackerburg. He was a developer, and he was finishing off some residential buildings, and he was working for friends. As an architect for many years, he went into development and kind of lost the architecture portion. He was doing some work for some friends and didn’t know how to do AutoCAD, which was like computer work. And I kind of overshot, I knew how to do lines in AutoCAD, but I didn’t know exactly how to do architecture. So I started working with him, and he eventually brought somebody in to help me.

And that guy guided me to KKE, a larger firm in the Minneapolis area. And I started working there. It was probably my favorite past job. I worked there for six years, and it was just something about the culture, and the work we did was just really great. It was really the foundation of my career, working as an architect. Unfortunately, when the recession came in 2008, it was deeply affected by that large recession and ended up being sold out. So, it’s no longer around.

What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve been a part of?

Craig: I have a few that were particular favorites of mine. I worked on a law firm in Egan, Minnesota. And what I really liked about that was the design process I went through, which I took from start to finish.

I was working with this lawyer and a contractor. I then worked at a smaller architecture firm, where I had a little more free reign. And I was able to take that project all the way through. Just the process of it and some of the ideas I could implement into it were fascinating for me.

Another similar project I worked on was a Rush City, Minnesota, building. It was essentially an office building for multiple school districts that kind of pooled their resources together in this one office setting. And similarly, I took that all the way through, and just the process of it was something that I kind of leaned back on, and it taught me a lot of the skills I utilize today.

Then there were some of the more challenging projects. I did a City Club apartment building in Minneapolis here a couple of years ago. It’s a housing apartment building. It was probably one of the more difficult projects I’ve worked on. The client was very, very obedient to design, but he also wanted things his way. And so there were some challenges to work through there that, at the time, were almost more than I could bear. But getting through and finally building something – it was a 17-story building, which is the tallest I’ve ever done. And I told you that the IDS building was my big inspiration. So doing like a skyscraper or a high rise was very exciting. It’s almost like the pinnacle of my career. It’s like, yep, I’ve accomplished something now. I feel like I did what I set out to do as a kid.

What would be your dream project to work on?

Craig: It’s a fair question. I mean, I’d almost say that something like the City Club building we discussed was my dream project. I have always wanted to do a high-rise residential building. So I got to do that. And as I said, it was kind of like the pinnacle of my career. After doing it, I was almost like, what do I want to do next? I want to do more of it.

And I worked on another, called Art and Architecture, which unfortunately didn’t get built by the time I left there. But it was kind of an interesting project. It was mixed retail and residential. There were a couple of different residential areas, and it backed off onto a hill. The hill kind of came down over this area, which was a courtyard for the buildings. And I got to work on the high-rise portion of it, so that was an enjoyable project, and I just really wanted to see that one through.

But projects like that have always been really inspirational for me, something I always look forward to doing. What I’m doing here with Baker has been amazing, too, with totally new types of projects I’ve never tackled before.

What do you think are some necessary qualities for architects to have?

Craig: Obviously, being good at understanding construction is always good.

You have to know how a building is built and the different materials and how they work for each other and against each other. Knowing exactly how weather and precipitation affect it, cold versus warm changes, and understanding how fluctuation occurs.

But you also have to know the people and the user, understand their needs, and how you can best serve them through this building. A well-designed building is never about aesthetics as much as it is about a building that works for how a client wants it to function.

To help think through things, I call it the grocery approach. In the house I grew up in, you come home with the groceries, and in the far back corner upstairs is the kitchen, and getting those groceries there is always a pain. So you think about, well, why don’t you design a building where that whole process becomes easier because you always have to bring groceries into the house.

So a good design is thinking about how simple it is to get those groceries into your kitchen, like getting out of the car, in the garage, going into a door, unlocking the door, and having someplace to set the grocery down. Just thinking those things through, those little things that everybody has to do daily, that’s where you start thinking about making it function. That thought process is always a good way to approach design. That’s always been my biggest way of thinking about architecture.

Art is important to be able to understand color and understand how spaces make people feel. That’s great, but in a practical sense, you don’t get to use that as much as you do when you’re designing in school, just trying to make cool spaces to show in class. Because there’s a lot more than just nice-looking things that go into making the building work.

What excites you about the future of architecture?

Craig: Well, I think there’s a lot to come with architecture. I think it’s an always-evolving field. And I think we always need somebody that takes responsibility for the building.

So there’s always room for architects in the future. There are always going to be people that are trying to take a piece of the work. And it’s kind of like, in the beginning, architecture was always, you could just do an elevation and a couple of plans. And people think, well, that’ll happen. But now, it has become more nuanced and detailed, and we find ourselves looking to experts in different various fields at certain parts of the design process that used to be all-encompassed by architecture.

I think in the end, an architect has to master all of those little things enough to be able to control all the parts and put them together into one single building and be able to be the master planner, I guess. That’s where I think I see architecture going more in the future and where I’m most excited for it to go.

Also, there’s a lot more talk about the safety and welfare of building users and getting people out in an emergency. You always have to keep that in mind. That’s kind of what we’re taking responsibility for – ensuring that in emergencies, people can get out in an orderly fashion.

We’re responsible for the public being a part of a commercial building. The commercial building is open to the public, so people have to trust that there will be escape routes available to them if something happens. Whereas in other countries or different places, residential even, people get trapped because that wasn’t thought out clearly. So it’s exciting to get to a place where these things are discussed more.

How did you get into working for Baker? Can you also talk a bit about some of the exciting things you’re doing at Baker?

Craig: I knew Baker had a rich history, you know, given the IDS building and other landmark buildings within the city, as well as the skyway systems. And I knew that the work had become more commercial, with John Baker, who took over and focused on car dealerships and car dealership design. I remember going into car dealerships and wondering who designs these? Because they’re high class, nice finished buildings. And I was inspired by some of their work, some of the finishes. So that was really the push for me to want to come and work at Baker.

Working on dealerships was also exciting because I enjoy getting into the nuances of specifics. I like to make parts and pieces like, you know, with kitchen design. I like looking at the different parts of a kitchen, seeing how it all comes together and how it works, and making something function really well. Car dealerships are about the service shops and making those functions. Knowing how to is huge because much of the car dealerships’ money is in the service area doing service to cars. Of course, they also make good money selling cars, but the service areas and efficiencies are what’s important so that they can service as many cars in a day as possible. So understanding what a service tech will need and how we can have their tools available to them most efficiently is fun to work through. And then there are the shared tools and where that gets located relative to specific lifts within a car. Those types of things always inspired me, which was very interesting.

Another aspect that brought me to Baker was my diverse background in different project types. I’ve had the opportunity to work on different projects – from residential to schools, to a lot of retail projects, IFAS projects, and being able to take that knowledge and bring it to Baker and kind of build Baker to something bigger than just car dealerships. I’m always excited to add on to augment the car dealership portion, make the business a little bit more recession-proof, and have a lot more opportunities.

So we’ve been able to do that recently. In fact, we’ve started working on a warehouse project in the St. Cloud area. We’re also working on a food shelf in White Bear Lake. We’re turning this food shelf into more of a grocery concept to make it more of a respectable, dignified way for people to shop or go to the food shelf. I remember visiting the food shelf project with the director of the White Bear Area Food Shelf and seeing the line of cars, and it was just humbling to me how much of an effect something like this could have on people. It’s a simple project, but I like it as you’re taking it from start to finish. You’re going through all the pieces and parts. Ultimately, it will probably be one of my favorite projects, so that’s really exciting.

You asked earlier about what excites me for the future, and I can say that I want to grow something I could build. I feel like that’s what we have here at Baker, so that was very inspirational to joining Kristy and everyone here and leading that process here.

Thanks for reading! While you’re here, check out some of our fave photos of our projects at Baker.