Kids who demonstrate an innate understanding of geometry, sketching precise blueprints and building elaborate structures from LEGO are often the ones nudged toward careers in architecture and design by the adults around them. After his father took him to visit Tom Hall, a prominent architect in Chesterfield, nine-year-old Marcus Adrian needed no further encouragement.
“He lived in one of these split-level, zany, crazy homes — like no other home I’d ever seen. He took us through it, and we ended up in his studio,” Marcus recalls. “He had this awesome desk with really cool studio lights shining down on it. And right next to his elbow is this wall full of cool, expensive-looking markers. He starts drawing on tracing paper, talking as he’s drawing, and I was mesmerized. The die was cast at that point; I was going to be an architect.”
That eager nine year old eventually blossomed into a talented high school senior with an impressive design portfolio, having just whittled his college choices down to two: Washington University in St. Louis or Notre Dame.
As a finalist for the coveted James W. Fitzgibbon Scholarship in Architecture, Marcus stood a good chance of getting his undergraduate work paid for if he chose Wash U. On the other hand, who wouldn’t be seduced by the prestige and tradition of Notre Dame?
Initially runner-up for the Fitzgibbon, Marcus became eligible for the full-ride scholarship when the top contestant ultimately turned it down. So would he stay close to home and go to school for free, or would he surrender to the allure of South Bend? Wash U Admissions gave him four days to decide.
After his parents assured him his decision would not bankrupt the family for years to come, Marcus finally reached a conclusion.
“There’re about 100 architecture schools that send kids abroad. Of those, there’re about 50 programs that send students to Rome or Florence, Italy, but there’s only one program that sends an entire class to Rome for a full year, and that’s Notre Dame,” Marcus declares. “The fact that I would be spending my entire junior year living and studying architecture in Rome made the decision for me.”
Marcus made the most of his time in Italy, excelling through the architecture program at Notre Dame. But he wasn’t immune to the pressures of graduating into an economic recession.
“In addition to finishing up my classes, I’m putting out these resumes. Just imagine, it’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m in the computer lab, feeding envelopes into this laser printer, typing the names and addresses of all these different firms and putting stamps on them,” Marcus recounts. “I went to stuff the envelopes and I realized there’s this one for Mackey Mitchell Architects that I must have fed into the printer wrong because the address was upside down. I just tossed it in the trash and didn’t apply.”
From the 90 resumes he did send, Marcus was only granted four interviews. Although his first couple of jobs out of school weren’t exactly what he had in mind, fate soon intervened in a substantial way.
After responding to a job announcement in the newspaper, Marcus was hired by Mackey Mitchell Architects in 1997, the same Mackey Mitchell that didn’t receive his resume three years before due to a printing mishap in the wee hours of the morning.
The irony and improbability of the situation are not lost on Marcus.
“At the time, Mackey Mitchell wasn’t in the habit of hiring kids straight out of college, so it probably wouldn’t have mattered, but it’s just interesting that their application is the one I ended up throwing away,” Marcus acknowledges. “Typically, Mackey Mitchell does its recruiting through word of mouth, so the fact that I just happened to see that ad in the paper is unusual in and of itself.”
Marcus, who currently serves on the Universal Design Summit 7 (UDS7) Steering Committee, would eventually emerge as an influential voice in communication access and the design of learning spaces. Like many young professionals in his field, however, he initially dreamed of designing sports venues, marvels of engineering that are instantly recognizable and become cultural icons over time.
“A certain kind of young architect, especially the type of young architect who would be drawn to a place like Notre Dame, is going to be fascinated by stadiums because they’re so big, they’re so flashy, everyone talks about them,” Marcus explains. “When a new one is built, it’s featured in all the magazines, not just the architectural ones. They’re exciting projects, and you always want to be involved in exciting work.”
One such project landed on Marcus’s desk when Mackey Mitchell collaborated with a firm from Denver to design Chaifetz Arena, a 10,600-seat venue on the campus of St. Louis University. Completed in 2008, Chaifetz Arena is home to SLU basketball and volleyball as well as a variety of concerts and community events throughout the year.
As challenging and rewarding as Marcus found this work, he didn’t discover his true passion until he began designing schools, specifically schools for the deaf. During a project at the Central Institute for the Deaf, an environment where students are expected to use spoken English rather than American Sign Language, Marcus implemented strategies for eliminating background noise and creating the quietest classroom setting possible.
Subsequent assignments also took him to schools for the deaf in Maryland and Delaware, places where ASL served as the primary mode of communication. In these environments, students required an unimpeded view of the teacher’s facial expressions and hand gestures to fully digest the lesson material, so the classroom had to be engineered to facilitate visual rather than auditory learning. Marcus became immersed in design elements like window placement and light distribution, factors that could disrupt visual learning if not carefully considered.
These early experiences inspired Marcus to dedicate years of his career to the design of learning spaces, incorporating principles of Universal Design to level the playing field for students across all ranks. As Marcus has explained at various national and international conferences, signal is the information or educational material being shared by the teacher, while noise refers to any type of interference that prevents students from receiving it.
“The design of any classroom presents thousands of decisions, whether it’s furniture, lighting, mechanical systems, windows or the space itself,” Marcus explains. “If you can make as many of those decisions as possible with respect to amplifying signal and eliminating noise, then you’re shaping the communication that goes on in that classroom.”
In situations where the signal, or communication can’t be accessed by everyone, whether it’s a classroom or any other setting within the built environment, Marcus is adamant that limitations of design are usually to blame, not limitations among people. All the same, he is encouraged by rapid improvement in this area, largely fueled by advancing technology and increased awareness.
“What I think is fundamentally true and beautiful about 21st-century America is that we have thought more purposefully and aimed more legislation and design attention at inclusion across all levels of human ability than anyone who’s come before us,” Marcus proclaims. “As a society, we’ve examined that more thoroughly than anyone, and we’re only getting started.”
The growing momentum behind Universal Design is further evidence of this progressive spirit. Marcus sees UDS7, taking place May 12-14, 2021, as more than an opportunity for professional development. It represents the shifting paradigm that a truly inclusive society depends on.
“This conference fosters a level of intellectual fascination that really brings these problems and solutions to life through creativity and collaboration,” Marcus concludes. “So it’s more than a set of minimums we’re trying to improve upon. It becomes a philosophy we’re cultivating as a community.”