An Interview with Industry Professional John D. Anderson, FALA

An Interview with Industry Professional John D. Anderson, FALA

A fascination with the design of cities as a child and a GI Bill of Rights-funded Harvard education launched John D. Anderson into an architectural career that has spanned five decades.

Mr. Anderson was the founding principal in 1960 of the organization that has evolved to become Anderson Mason Dale Architects, a 45-person Denver firm with a regional public sector practice in architecture and planning.

The firm has received more than 85 local, state and regional design awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as well as others from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Council of Educational Facilities Planners, the American Correctional Association and the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. Anderson Mason Dale was honored as the Firm of the Year by the Western Mountain Region of the AIA in 1986 and received the same award from AIA Colorado in 2000.

After service in the US Naval Air Corps at the end of World War II, Mr. Anderson received a bachelor of arts degree in architectural sciences cum laude from Harvard College in 1949 and a master of architecture degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1952.

A strong proponent of sustainable design, he has appeared in many states as well as a lecturer and panelist on energy conscious architecture. In 1983 he was a U. S. Delegate to the World Energy Congress in New Delhi, where he presented a paper on the status of design with solar energy in the U.S. In 1986, he was appointed architecture advisor to Peking University on the development of its new natural sciences and computer studies center. Since then, Anderson Mason Dale has continued its emphasis on sustainable design and the LEED Program of the Green Building Council. "There's a real responsibility that we have as designers of the built environment to find ways to design and build sustainably, which means to use little or no energy from the finite pool of resources," Mr. Anderson says.

Major projects of the firm designed and constructed under Mr. Anderson's direction include the master planning of the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), Front Range Community College, Breckenridge Events Center, Jackson Hole High School and various visitor facilities at Mesa Verde National Park.

Active for most of his career in the AIA, he has held local, state, regional and national offices, including as president of the national organization in 2001, and is a fellow of the organization. Though recently retired from the day-to-day business of the firm he founded, he continues to serve on various task forces and committees with an emphasis on institute governance and membership diversity. "The fact that I've provided leadership to AIA is a success to me, especially to see the institution grow, to take on new challenges such as the deep concern about diversity," he notes. "Seeing that something needs to be done about an issue, and then trying to find a position of responsibility that allows you to make a difference is what drives you to keep going with the organization work."

Mr. Anderson & His Career

What led to your initial interest in the field of architecture?

It's hard to pin down a why. At some point that I can't put a date or time on, I began to get interested in buildings and community and cities and how it all worked, and that interest grew. I must have been interested in architecture from a long ways back. In the sixth grade, my family moved to Philadelphia from New Haven, Connecticut, and here was this monstrous city I was encountering firsthand. I remember getting a piece of butcher paper, putting it down in the basement, getting some Ivory soap and carving the whole city out of ivory soap. I carved Philadelphia building by building; my mother wondered why she was constantly running out of soap. My first interest was in urban design; I was fascinated by the city.

I enlisted in the Navy in WWII, and they sent me off to college for the naval aviation training program. I had a course in descriptive geometry, which was taught by an out-of-work architect. Everything at that time was aimed at the war effort, so architects were doing new things. I had a wonderful instructor, and I struck up an acquaintance with him. When I got out of the Navy, I took a Veteran's Administration test, and the results said, "Yes, you could be an architect." I applied to MIT, RPI, Yale and Harvard, and the only one I got into was Harvard. I look back and wonder how I could have been so lucky.

Your architecture career has spanned 50 years. How has the field evolved in that time?

The practice of architecture is very different now. When I graduated from school, an architect was a person who had an office. The evolution of the nature of the profession has included changes in the size of the firms, the scope of the projects, the global reach, and the educational changes. I went to work for an architect; he had an office and he was in charge of everything. Today that has evolved into the whole idea of corporate practice; many individuals practicing in a corporate way is probably the biggest difference that I see. I also see architects offering services way beyond what they did when I first got into the field. We're into all kinds of things now, everything from real estate management to building evaluation to studies on site selection. In the past, these sorts of things were not part of the process of designing one building or one campus. Though there are still many small offices, the much larger practices really run the show these days.

What are the most challenging aspects of being a founding principal of Anderson Mason Dale Architects? Most rewarding? In the early going, I just decided I wanted to do this, and I just went out and did it by myself. How to grow a firm, to turn it into something that allows you to be in line for larger, more interesting, more complex work, from being a single practitioner is certainly a major challenge. As a single, you have full responsibility for everything, from marketing to final inspection of buildings, but how do you really do all that without having a portfolio you can march around with and say look what I've done. It's a hard thing to get going, and I think that was the biggest challenge of all.

The other challenge is to see things that are interesting and meaningful that architects should be doing. I go back to the 70s, when I had been in practice for 10 or 12 years, and the energy crisis hit. I saw the energy crisis as an area where architects could make a difference. But if you haven't done a solar heated building, you don't really understand what it takes to create sustainable architecture. I invested a lot in understanding that, and at one point we had the largest number of square feet of actively solar heated buildings in the world. We had a huge community college project that we did from scratch that had about an acre of solar collectors. I had to make brand new connections with consultants who knew something about this field. It took a lot of time and effort to learn how to go about this, and actively produce something that worked and didn't use as much energy. Out of that, ultimately, came the master plan for the Solar Energy Research Institute, which was particularly challenging, something new that had never been done before. We figured it out over a long period of time.

There have been tremendous rewards, seeing something happen, watching the growth of knowledge among your own colleagues and peers in the field, and ultimately some recognition and awards.

What types of architecture projects do you specialize in?

Almost all of our work is in the public sector, a lot of education projects, such as colleges, laboratories, research facility work; we've done a number of courthouses, libraries, and public buildings such as visitor facilities. One of our favorite projects is what was essentially a re-do of the visitor facilities at Mount Rushmore. A broad definition of public works includes justice, housing, federal agencies, national parks service and the forest service.

Who (or what) were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Certainly, going to Harvard and studying under Walter Gropius, who without a doubt was a leader in the modern style of architecture. It was a new way to approach the design of buildings: How do they serve the purpose for which they are designed? He was a master educator. One of my favorite instructors was Hugh Stubbins, who has gone on to be one of the star architects of the last half of the 20th century. Fay Jones, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's who had a largely regional practice based in the Ozark in Arkansas and Missouri, was also a major inspiration. He did wonderful chapels and housing work using wood in a wonderful, different way. Here in Denver, two other firms, William Muchow, who is the dean of good design in the Denver area, and his protégé, who is still practicing, George Hoover. They were the ones everyone wanted to work for here in town. One more firm is the New York-based firm Mitchell, Giurgola; great people, they have some younger folks who are running the firm now that are equally good, but more anonymous than the original principals.

What projects rank among your favorites?

From the very beginning, even before I went into private practice, I struck up an acquaintance with the concessionaire at Mesa Verde National Park here in Colorado, and did quite a bit of work there. There's no question that Mount Rushmore is one of my very favorite projects; we completely re-did all of the visitor facilities up there, and won a number of awards. Another is the Front Range Community College in Denver. It is totally solar heated, and we've since done other houses and schools using solar energy as well. Another favorite is the master plan of the Solar Energy Research Institute. The last one on my top list would be Colorado's Ocean Journey, which is a land-locked aquarium on the Platte River. It's a wonderful facility.

Your firm has received more than 85 local, state and regional design awards from the AIA as well as others from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Council of Educational Facilities Planners, the American Correctional Association and the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. What does such recognition mean to you on both a personal and professional level? It means a lot. Mostly to me it means we did the job well. The recognition by your colleagues that you've done some good work is rewarding; professionally, the joy is the increased reputation and recognition for your firm. It's recognition that you've done a job well and professionally.

You have been active for most of your career in the AIA, holding local, state, regional and national offices as well as serving on various task forces and committees with an emphasis on institute governance and membership diversity. How has such extensive involvement contributed to your career?

I got started because somebody asked me to be a candidate. You realize as you start to take on those responsibilities that there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Seeing that something needs to be done about an issue, and then trying to find a position of responsibility that allows you to make a difference is what drives you to keep going with the organization. There's some frustration in terms of getting others to take responsibility, so you go ahead and do it yourself. You realize that if something is going to get done, you had better do it yourself, and then that can get others to step forward. That's the biggest return on investment of your time, seeing that others come to feel the same way.

You have also been active as a lecturer and panelist on energy-conscious architecture. What drives you to be so active professionally?

It's a sense that still with me that we have a responsibility. A lot of the energy used in this country and in the world is the energy it takes to run buildings and to build them. The resources that we have taken for granted for so long are indeed finite, and are running out. I marvel at the sense that people are just now coming to understand about finite nature of our natural resources - coal, oil, natural gases. Everyone knows we are using up those resources at a faster rate than ever before. There's only so much to go around.

So there's a real responsibility that we have as designers of the built environment to find ways to design and build sustainably, which means to use little or no energy from the finite pool of resources. There are other ways to do things, but we can't seem to get the powers that make our policies to understand that we have to get going. Time is running out, there's no quick fix, and technology isn't going to do it this time. When the fuel is gone, the fuel is gone. It's driven me and frustrated me in the process, in taking some leadership in our profession in demanding that buildings be sustainably designed. Some of the awards we've gotten, going back up to 25 years, have been based on our buildings being sustainable and energy efficient; that's something we're proud of.

What do you consider your greatest success? Biggest setback?

The fact that I've provided leadership to AIA is a success to me, especially to see the institution grow, to take on new challenges such as the deep concern about diversity. When I first went into graduate school, there were two girls in my class, and that was unusual, because women were typically steered away from the profession. After the Christmas break our first year of school, there was only one girl left; the other had committed suicide. I've been concerned ever since then of the need to increase the diversity so our profession is reflective of the population. We're doing well now with gender diversity, more than half of the architecture students in the country are women, though they tend not to stay in practice, for many reasons, often to raise a family. I am concerned about lack of progress especially with African Americans, though I do see that is something that is getting started, turning around. I also feel that I've been able to focus AIA's attention on architectural education and its need for change.

One setback would be an inability to get others in the profession to take responsibility and be the leaders in terms of sustainability. We build buildings that pollute and over-consume energy. It's been an ongoing frustration; we lead the design-build process, but we don't provide the leadership to make change that makes a difference.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?

One goal is to continue to work on the diversity issue, to poke and prod and cajole to see that ours becomes a profession reflective of the society it serves in terms of gender and ethnicity. A second goal is making changes to the architectural education process so that it better prepares new graduates to deal with the growing range of issues and complexities that impact the profession.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your undergrad education in architecture and your master of architecture education at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

I was on the GI Bill through graduate school, and it allowed me to get the best education that was available to me. It was an incredible education. The important thing, as I look back, is that it was demanded of me as an undergrad that I have a solid liberal arts foundation. That's terribly important. Some intense architecture programs lack the foundation to allow students how to understand and communicate with clients. Clients are not other architects that share the dense jargon we use, they are people in positions of leadership in the community. Understanding their concerns is one of those things that is critically important that comes from a liberal arts education. At Harvard's grad school, there was a point system, based on grades and projects. When I was in the thick of it, I didn't give it much thought, but when you reached a certain number of points, you could do your thesis and get your degree. We all didn't graduate at the same time; I was second to graduate in class. Harvard's program was a locked-in basic undergraduate/graduate continuum. I had a head start on the master's degree by taking graduate level classes in my junior and senior years of my bachelor's program, so I already had a leg up.

How has your education benefited your career?

Immensely, because I got that great foundation in liberal arts studies; the curriculum was wonderfully broad based, not just architecture. Once I was through with core courses, I was allowed to take electives, and I gleefully went through the whole university and took electives like construction law and political geography. One other thing wonderful about Harvard at the time was that it was demanded that you work for a contractor in the field for the three months with tools. It was a remarkably important piece of my architecture education. I spent one summer drawing up a project, the next summer I worked with the contractor to build it. That's helped my career as much as anything else.

How can prospective architecture students assess their aptitude?

I had the advantage of having the Veterans Administration administer a battery of tests, so I zeroed in on whether architecture was something for which I appeared to have proficiency for. I think other testing services do this as well, though I'm not sure which ones. I think there are three keys: read what is going on in the architecture field in magazines and books; observe; and sense if you have an interest and passion. If a student thinks there is sense of interest in architecture, it's just a matter of spending time with architects, visiting schools and in high school, sharpening your visual skills. The business of observing and sketching is very helpful in deciding if you have any proficiency.

When is a good time for students to pursue their master's? Is it necessary to be successful in the field?

It's a personal thing. You can work for an architect for a while, do what's called 'grunt' work: details, not have much real design work. Taking one year or two out of school to work would be helpful for some people, but it's very much a personal thing. I went right into a gradate program. But, timing is up to the individual, whether they are burned out with school, or just raring to go.

Based on your industry experience, what are some of the most respected and prestigious architecture schools, departments or programs?

Certainly Harvard; the other top three are Yale, Penn and Cornell. Then it starts getting very diverse. The University of Cincinnati has a work study program that is excellent; one of my partners went through it, and we've had several students come with us for 10-week blocks of time as part of the program. Some others are Berkeley, Cal-Poly; University of Washington on the west coast, and in the upper Midwest, the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota. These are all schools worth looking into.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

Absolutely. In the course of your graduate work, particularly toward the end of that work, you create a portfolio of projects you've done. If you can walk in to a job interview with an impressive portfolio, it makes a difference.

What can students applying to architecture schools and programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Students should develop a good record in high school, and take what is available in terms of drawing and drafting classes. I would also suggest high school kids look into doing menial tasks in an architectural office to learn about the profession by being with architects practicing architecture. As a junior or senior in high school, perhaps get some construction experience.

What is right and wrong with today's architecture education offerings? What suggestions do you have for improvements?

The belief that you can turn out a proficient and socially conscious architect in five years has to be put aside. It ought to be a minimum of six years to attain a true master's level degree. Another thing is the demand that you get a good liberal arts background; you need an education before you can get trained. You can't go into the finite training for architecture, without a broader subject background, where other skills such as design capability are rewarded. You can't spend your career in architecture just designing. Really, 90% of what goes on in an architectural office is not design; it's the fine-tuning and the understanding of how buildings go together and how systems interrelate. There is just as much opportunity for creativity as for what we call design. We need to have broader subject background in the architectural curriculum.

We need to do a better job of mentorship. As students go through education and training, they need to form meaningful bonds with people in the profession, including their instructors.

Career Information & Advice

On a basic level, what skills are required to be an architect?

We need to know how to think graphically, not just draw. You need to be in able to envision something before you even sketch it, and a capacity for understanding of how things are going to look and relate to one another. Thinking both graphically and creatively is important. Architecture is all about vision. You need skills to communicate clearly, including graphic, verbal, literal. We're terrible with words, as many of us haven't had liberal arts education to learn how to express ourselves, and consequently, we're shy. There is a terrible need to be able to communicate clearly, not just draw great pictures, but how to explain things that can't be shown graphically, and use words that others can understand and at the same time be persuasive. The last thing is that you have to be passionate about what you are doing. On a very basic level, you need to have a background of being passionate for creating something special.

What are some of the top challenges facing the architecture field over the next decade?

The first thing we need to be dealing with is our response to globalization. For instance, firms are now able to outsource creation of drawings to places such as India where the cost is lower (they don't just have call centers for trouble with appliances). I'd suggest students read a book by Tom Friedman called The World is Flat. It's a fascinating book that explores how the United States, though a military a superpower, is just one of many nations and regions of the world on an increasingly level playing field.

The second challenge is how to retain design control and project management within the teams that put the buildings together. Architects create documentation for a vision. We need to understand how to form teams and alliances; with whom do we team, and why?

What are some common myths about your profession?

  • The typical myth is we are seen as people that draw blueprints. But few people understand what you do with a blueprint after it's drawn.
  • That we have little or no involvement in the construction process. We actually have deep involvement. We don't just draw pretty pictures.
  • That we work alone, as opposed to leading the design and documentation process, in what can be huge teams.
  • That there is no sense of cost control. Whenever you hear that a building went over budget, the blame is always placed squarely on the architects, and that's not typically the case.
  • That there are limited opportunities to make a decent living, and we've promoted this myth within the architectural profession as a means of boosting our own self-esteem. We tell people this is a hard way to making a living, that the hours are long and the pay is low (which really could be exposed as justification for not paying our people enough). But there are perfectly good opportunities to make a living. I'm driving an Audi, which is a perfectly good car; I don't live in a big house simply because I don't believe in them.

How are professional collaborations important in the field of architecture?

An increasingly big chunk of what we do is collaboration. The ability to collaborate is opening doors to a boarder variety of work. If we tend to think we can do it all, we really limit ourselves. Collaboration is really a delightful practice, because you learn new skills that you can't bring to the table otherwise. Allows you to team on a broadly geographic basis. It's the only way to be considered beyond the skills you and your firm may have. If you go into a potential client with a team already formed, and you can show a broader array of skills that are going to be needed on a project, you have a better shot at getting work.

How has the popularity of the Internet impacted your profession?

It has sped up the transmission of text and data and has also sped up the transmission and sharing of ideas quickly. You can have a conversation, but if you can turn it into a real dialogue, which the Internet makes possible, you can share ideas, make sure you've understood what's been said by asking questions. It empowers a greater geographic range for project teams, such as the possibility for outsourcing of 'grunt' work to India, where it is done while you are sleeping; it really turns you into a 24-hour operation.

What are the hottest architecture specialties? What other kinds of job tracks are available to graduating architecture students?

I think healthcare is totally open-ended. For instance, the University of Colorado has bought a surplus Army site, and we'll be starting from scratch to create a whole new health science campus. Technology and research is constantly creating the need for facilities.

Education is something that will always be with us and will always be hot; our knowledge is increasing exponentially. We must consistently remodel and re-fit existing buildings.

High-tech and research facilities are going to follow along in the same pattern, as globalization takes effect; the need for facilities where people can spend leisure time is going to increase.

How available are internships? Any tips for landing one?

Internships are increasingly available. We are coming to our senses; we realize that if we want really good people working for us and being our successors for the future, internships are the way to go.

To land an internship, start looking early. Instead of waiting until you are just about out of school, start making some contacts very early. Pick high quality firms on which to focus, and ask what they are looking for. As you finish your internship, you can concentrate on the things that you need to focus on in school to get into your chosen area of work.

How does the field of architecture contribute to society?

In the most simplistic and broad-based terms I can think of, we solve problems for shelter, civic quality and comfort. Architecture and good design, good civic planning are really major elements in the quality of life, as major as any other factors.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about architecture in order to be successful in the field?

Absolutely, and particularly if your expectations are high. As a measure of success, you must care about it. The hours are long; it isn't a 9-5 kind of thing. If you are fleshing out an idea, you don't just pack it in at 5 and say, "I'll get back to it tomorrow at 9."

In Closing

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career or the field of architecture that would be interesting or helpful to students?

We didn't get into firm culture in any depth. The firms are very different. Some are based on principals who want to make a lot of money, and if you are employee at a firm of this nature, creativity is less valued, and the work is less interesting and rewarding. Others are more family than they are firm, which is a goal of ours; there's a broad range of firm cultures. What should an architectural firm be in terms of providing a culture within which you can grow is a topic in itself.

Another is the necessity and responsibility of being involved in the community. If there's a problem in the community, and a task force is formed, the last people asked to contribute are architects. We have a lot to contribute, physical planning and creative skills. We can bring a lot to a task force because our whole practice is solving one thing after another; we can bring those raw skills to the table. The time commitment is a factor, which is also used as an excurse for not getting involved in community affairs. You need to make time, and still be committed within your firm.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow up with John Anderson personally about this interview, email him at

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