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Meet the Real Marc Johnson: The Man Behind One of Atlanta’s Most Beautiful Buildings

Marc Johnson - building shot

February 23, 2016

ATLANTA, GA – “Architects are often glamorized in TV and film,” Marc Johnson says as he takes a sip of his plain Starbucks coffee. “But I would say your average person just doesn’t know what a real architect today is like or even really what we do.” Towering well over six feet in stature with a football player’s build, this Hollywood, California native and Howard University alum comes across as a gentle giant who happens to be scarily knowledgeable, richly cultured and yet still surprisingly quite down-to-earth. Not the type of guy to take himself too seriously but he probably is the type of guy you would want on your trivia night team. In short, if there are any cultural stereotypes of architects, this guy breaks every single one of them.

Despite all of that humility of presence, Marc Johnson is one of Atlanta’s leading architects and heralded authorities in the industry. That’s not just in our book. We know him as the lead architect for one of our top projects of all time – downtown Atlanta’s award winning National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It’s a building shaped to feel like two hands coming together to seemingly hold or protect something precious and sacred and whose golden “skin” is designed to reflect the many different skin tones of the world. HOK and the Freelon Group collaborated on the design. The center not only focuses on civil and human rights from an American perspective, but from a global perspective as well, raising awareness of issues regarding the rights of women and girls, LGBT issues and more.

Last year alone, the Center for Civil Human Rights garnered awards from both AIA North Carolina and AIA Georgia. In 2014 it received the First Place Award for Low-Rise Buildings from the American Concrete Institute and the 2013 Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Best in Real Estate Awards – Best in Design and HOK’s 2013 Annual BIMie Award which celebrates projects that exhibit exemplary and innovative use of building information modeling and integrated design. Additionally, Marc was recently named NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) Atlanta Member of the Year for 2015.

Even with all of those accolades and awards won for a project that’s undoubtedly been the shining star of Marc’s career to date, he says people still have quite vague (and often erroneous) perceptions of who architects are and what they do. “AIA (the American Institute of Architects) has made some conscious efforts to try to educate the public a bit about us. They had the ‘Look Up’ campaign which debuted on Super Bowl weekend last year with plenty of YouTube videos, etc. The campaign told people ‘hey, we had something to do with what you see when you look up’ – referring to the buildings and skyline in your city. It was a good first attempt at connecting with the community we service.”

In an attempt to help you get to know a real architect a little better, this MillerClapperton Architect Highlight of Marc Johnson covers four main things you didn’t know:

  1. The story behind the Center for Civil & Human Rights from Marc’s unique perspective.
  2. What it’s like to be an African-American Architect here in Atlanta (along with all the issues that come along with that).
  3. Why he cares so much about mentoring young architects.
  4. His two pieces of advice for aspiring architects in the field.
Inside the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Photo Credit: NOMAtlanta
Inside the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Photo Credit: NOMAtlanta

THE STORY BEHIND THE CENTER FOR CIVIL & HUMAN RIGHTS

“By far, it’s the project I’m most proud of,” says Marc as he pushes back from the table and crosses his arms to reflect. “It was just one of those things. I feel like it was meant for me to do.” He recalls that the year prior to being called onto the project was the worst time of the recession. He’d been laid off from his previous firm due to economic conditions, but luckily, through various NOMA contacts, he eventually found himself at HOK. “I knew that HOK had won the competition for the Center,” Marc said. He also knew that the project had been shelved. Whenever it got dusted off the shelf, HOK would be the ones to do it. If it moved forward.

“Most projects were shelved during the recession,” Marc noted. He was originally hired to provide construction administration work for an enormous law enforcement facility (i.e. jail) in Douglas County – a project he originally struggled with personally to work on. “I felt like I was losing my soul a little bit. Hated the idea of that,” Marc said. However, as he learned about what the organization was doing to rehabilitate prisoners, the project proved to have some redeeming qualities. “At least I didn’t feel like I was compromising my values completely,” Marc said.

Meanwhile, the project architect who was originally assigned to the Center for Civil and Human Rights left HOK. As the project was starting to pick up more steam, one of HOK’s principles pulled him aside and asked if it was a project he thought he could handle. Marc, of course, took on the project with no hesitation. “For a project of that magnitude, to be the lead architect for HOK and to work alongside Phil Freelon was an unbelievable opportunity,” Marc said. The project investment was over $55 million, creating more than 43,000 sq ft of civil and human rights awareness in the heart of Pemberton Place – right next to other outstanding MillerClapperton-cladded projects like The World of Coca-Cola and The Georgia Aquarium. How could he say no to that? “The stars just aligned,” Marc said.

However, the project proved to be an incredibly complex challenge. “No one knew how to document and communicate how this thing was going to be built other than to say: ‘Here, these are the elements. Figure it out.’” Part of the problem was trying to figure out how to achieve the look of the building that the Freelon Group desired while at the same time staying within budget. Marc had been working with Trespa contacts up to that point who then sent them to us for further guidance.

“Just by meeting with MillerClapperton alone, we were able to determine how we could cut 20-30% of the building’s cost for a major design element of the building while still achieving the material effects we wanted,” Marc said.

“To be able to solve that problem and see the finished solution was a hell of a relief. I can’t tell you the number of sleepless nights I had over that project. At the same time, it was also one hell of an accomplishment. It was definitely cool.”

FOR MORE INFO: Read the MillerClapperton blog on the Center for Civil and Human Rights by Scott Stafford.

Listen to Marc talk about HOK’s involvement with the Center for Civil and Human Rights in this Trespa video below. 

Marc Johnson - video shot

Trespa is an international provider of architectural materials and provided the HPL (high pressure laminate) panels which MillerClapperton engineered, fabricated and installed for the Center for Civil and Human Rights. The center, in fact, is the largest application of Trespa products in the south.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN ARCHITECTS: MORE THAN CAPABLE

African-American architects make up a little more than 1% of the architecture professionals in the US. “Probably moreso here in Atlanta,” Marc says. “There just aren’t very many of us here.” It’s a comfort to know that an architecture firm like HOK has actually made some great strides in the recent future to become more conscious of the issue of diversity in the workplace and in architecture as a whole. Not only has HOK become more conscious of diversity, but there is now a real concerted effort towards making the company truly diverse in every way imaginable. “Some of it has been pressure from clients (that are now often our peers in other careers) asking the questions: ‘What is your leadership makeup? What’s your diversity makeup?’ That’s gone a long way to advance the conversation.” “While I feel positive about the strides that companies like HOK are making, the issue still is a real lack of diversity.” Marc feels that has a lot to do with the industry at large “as well as money, frankly” – in addition to possibly putting their trust in a minority architect.

That’s why Marc believes so much in his work with NOMA. “It’s always been a part of my career life,” Marc says. “We’re small. One percent is not very big and architects as whole are a small number as well.” Speaking for that small group and communicating issues and concerns that are pertinent to African-American and other minority architects and designers is important to him. While he doesn’t seek confrontation, he does believe that sometimes you really do have to stand up for what you believe in – whether that’s on a state level or with your local government.

“In the private sector, oftentimes there are issues to deal with in their selection process. We try to bridge that gap and communicate those concerns. Let them know we’re here and more than capable to not only do the job right but to do it well.”

Racism is still prevalent and it exists in this industry he admits. He then recalls a story of his very first solo design review board meeting. “I walked into this attorney’s office conference room and it was a literal Civil War room. Nothing but confederate artifacts and memorabilia all over the room. There was one Union hat in the room with a saber plunged through its crown. And that was really my introduction to the south,” Marc laughs. He admits you have to take it all with a grain of salt but it’s all a part of being an African-American architect today in Atlanta, among other things. “I represent that next generation that’s coming up behind me. We’ve got a lot of work to do!” Perhaps that’s even more appropriate that an architect like Marc ended up working on the Center for Civil and Human Rights. What he works for is at the core of what the center stands for: always pushing for change towards equality and fairness for all.

Marc Johnson (second from right) pictured with 2016 NOMAtlanta Leadership as well as the 2016-2017 NOMA South Region Vice President Garfield Peart (far right). Photo Credit: NOMAtlanta
Marc Johnson (second from right) pictured with 2016 NOMAtlanta Leadership as well as the 2016-2017 NOMA South Region Vice President Garfield Peart (far right). Photo Credit: NOMAtlanta

 

WHY GIVING BACK MATTERS

“A big part of what I do in my free time is mentoring,” Marc says. “That’s been since I was in school at Howard working with At Risk Kids in Southeast DC.” Marc feels that the key to giving back is most simply being present, particularly for young black males. “As an architect, I basically try to do the same thing – be there. Sometimes just being in the room and being an advocate for these architectural students especially minority architects makes a world of difference – reviewing, critiquing, being a part of their jury sessions where we evaluate their work in school. I try to be that mentor, that advisor.” Marc didn’t have a mentor coming up at Howard University.

“There really wasn’t that mentor other than select professors there to kind of show you the way.”

One of the things Marc loves about NOMA – an organization he’s heavily involved with here in Atlanta – is that they work closely with the chapter’s university students as well as high schoolers and elementary school kids. “We introduce them to what architecture is through career days or working on craft projects.” That kind of investment of time to expose young people to a career they might not have considered before is invaluable.

NOMAtlanta members doing an architecture activity with young students at Mercer University Douglas Regional Academic Center. Photo Credit: NOMAtlanta
NOMAtlanta members doing an architecture activity with young students at Mercer University Douglas Regional Academic Center. Photo Credit: NOMAtlanta

THE POWER OF BRANDING & NETWORKING IN ARCHITECTURE

Marc has two big points of advice for young architectural students or those who aspire to the profession: “Branding and Networking,” Marc says.

PERSONAL BRANDING: “It’s one thing to be good at something but it’s another when no one knows who you are. Having and maintaining a positive representation of yourself in person, online, in social media, is a job. It’s a job we all have to become good at.” He notes how important it is to promote yourself as an individual, especially in light of the fact that clients are getting a lot more “google savvy”: “They want to know who that particular person is working on their project. Clients want to work with that particular person, so your individual brand is critically important. Having a positive reputation also goes along with that. Your career is a business. It’s your company. You might end up working for this company or that company, but Marc Johnson the architect is a company also and you have to market yourself appropriately.”

NETWORKING: As far as networking goes, Marc advises that you have to have a decent “word of mouth about who you are.” He says “Having a network of people goes a long way to get the next project. The next job. The next opportunity. Whatever it is, you can’t be afraid to reach out.” Networking, as it turns out, is more than just card-swapping and connecting on LinkedIn. “It’s real connections. Meet for coffee. Go to that BBQ. Get to know people. Let them get to know you. And then watch what your network can do. I’m constantly encouraged by it!” Marc recalls a time when a group from his office met offsite at a local university for a project proposal. Within the first few sentences of that meeting, one of the schools contacts said “…HOK? You now Marc Johnson, right?” As soon as his group got back to the office, they made a B-line for Marc’s desk asking “Do you know Craig?” “Oh yeah,” Marc said. “We had cigars the other day.”

“That’s the cool thing about architecture,” says Marc. “Most of us are pretty cool people. Your colleagues become your friends. You hang out on the weekends. They become more than just someone sitting next to you at work.” Still, as a professional and otherwise, his own colleagues speak quite highly of him:

“Marc is passionately focused in the realm of architecture and all that the profession comprises. His involvement in practice, academia, and outreach is above commendable. Witnessing his work as a colleague, he attacks projects with a fervor that is indicative of his love of our art, but subtlety allows for the nature of the process to occur. As a mentor, he advises from close range, but allows for growth from a distance. The range of projects he has completed and his insight into various fields makes his practice of architecture strong. I worked first hand with Marc on several projects, including CCHR, and the contributions he is making are noticeable.” – Ralph Raymond, AIA, NOMA, NCARB

 

Marc Johnson speaking at Northwest Atlanta Library at Scott’s Crossing. Photo Credit: NOMAtlanta
Marc Johnson speaking at Northwest Atlanta Library at Scott’s Crossing. Photo Credit: NOMAtlanta

 

We hope this special feature of Marc gave you some good insight into the life of a real architect here in Atlanta. Now you know a little more of the story behind the Center for Civil & Human Rights – one of MillerClapperton’s Top Projects of All Time. You also learned a bit about what it’s like to be an African-American architect in the south. Furthermore, you know why mentoring young architects is so important along with personal branding and networking in this field. Hopefully it’s inspired you in some way to excel in your own career with a spirit of humility and a passion to invest in our future through our young people in the community. It might also give you a little courage to stand up for what’s right the next time the opportunity greets you.

 

ABOUT MARC

Marc Johnson, AIA, NCARB, LEED® AP, is a Project Architect and Associate at HOK in Atlanta. A graduate of Howard University with a Bachelors of Architecture & Planning and a Minor in Real Estate, he is the President Elect of NOMA (National Organization for Minority Architects) Atlanta and an active member of AIA (American Institute of Architects). LinkedIn Profile: Marc Johnson.

ABOUT HOK

HOK is a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. Through a network of 24 offices worldwide, HOK provides design excellence and innovation to create places that enrich people’s lives and help clients succeed. DesignIntelligence constantly ranks HOK as a leader in sustainable, high-performance design and technology innovation. www.hok.com.

ABOUT THE CENTER FOR CIVIL & HUMAN RIGHTS

The Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta is an engaging cultural attraction that connects the American Civil Rights Movement to today’s Global Human Rights Movements. Our purpose is to create a safe space for visitors to explore the fundamental rights of all human beings so that they leave inspired and empowered to join the ongoing dialogue about human rights in their communities. www.civilandhumanrights.org

ABOUT NOMA

NOMA Atlanta’s mission is to champion diversity within the Atlanta design professions while advocating for greater professional opportunities for its current and future members by promoting design excellence, racial diversity, community engagement, and professional development. www.nomaatlanta.org 

ABOUT MILLERCLAPPERTON
MillerClapperton is a national fabricator and regional installer of Aluminum / Metal Composite Material panels (ACM / MCM), High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) panels, and other exterior wall cladding products.  Founded in 1979 by Ted Miller and Dave Clapperton, the company has four (4) locations: Austell, GA (MillerClapperton Corporate), Mesa, AZ (MillerClapperton West), Minneapolis, MN (MillerClapperton Midwest) and Merrifield, VA (MillerClapperton Mid-Atlantic). millerclapperton.com

 
Andrea Smith

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