A moment in time with … Mark Engelbrecht

Frances Myers

Mark Engelbrecht, professor of architecture and dean emeritus of the College of Design, is a man of utmost intelligence when it comes to architectural design.

What interested you in architecture to begin with?

I started out majoring in aeronautics, but two of my roommates were architectural design students. I learned a lot about the major through them, and what they were learning interested me far more than aeronautical equations did.

Where do you get your style? How do you decide how to design your projects?

It’s not so much style as you must be sensitive to the context of the surrounding environment. For example, if you are in an older community, you need to pay attention to the surrounding buildings as well as the climate.

Work with the values of the natural world and surrounding community. That’s part of what I like about having architectural design students study in Rome is that they have access to an environment that is thousands of years old.

When and how did you start out in this field?

I was a dean for 16 years and I have always been a designer since I was a student.

My partner and I started a business in Des Moines in 1967 known as Engelbrecht Griffin Architects. Our main office was originally just in Des Moines, but as our work headed to the East Coast then over to the West Coast, we added another office in Newburyport, Mass.

I worked primarily out of the office for 10 years, and then I moved on to basically working on big projects all while teaching here.

Our firm designed the Maucker Union at UNI and we also specialized in retirement housing and health care facilities in over 26 states.

What are your thoughts on receiving the Christian Petersen Design Award?

I was very pleased particularly with this award because this is the primary prize the College of Design gives out, and I have been able to present it to over half of the winners in the past; so now that I am able to receive it — that makes it quite special.

There have been only about 40 winners for this award so far, and it rewards people who have supported the College of Design whether it’s financially or for work that the recipient has done advancing design here at the college.

What is the hardest or most frustrating part of your job, whether it is as an architect or teacher, etc.?

What makes architecture so frustrating is attempting to assimilate so many ideas into one final product. You must take into mind the desires of the owner, the financial adviser, as well as so many other people.

You are the middleman, the common thread. Your challenge is to take into mind all these ideas, voices and agendas that are handed to you and balance them. Your job is to be a filter.

You must listen carefully to what these people want. The owner may want one thing, but the financial consultant will tell you that that is not in the budget. Therefore you have to listen carefully to what everyone wants, but at the same time add your own value to the product.

The hard part is putting together what everyone wants without losing the value of your own contribution.

What advice do you have for students going into the field of architecture?

Be calm and listen before judgment and decisions. Your job is to be a good and honest broker of the desires of everyone involved.

Also, sometimes people do not know what they want in the product. You must be a good listener not only in what they tell you but what they are not telling you.

Figure out what type of person they are and what their “wish list” includes. It is difficult getting students to understand the importance and how much of a challenge this can be while only learning in the classroom.

Being a truly good architect is something you can only learn through hands-on experience.

Engelbrecht’s history

After joining the faculty at Iowa State in 1969, Engelbrecht has worked to help the College of Design achieve national distinction for excellence, as can be seen in the national rankings of its degree programs.

His most notable projects include the Maucker Union at the University of Northern Iowa. This earned national honors back when it was built in 1968, and in 2000, it was named one of Iowa’s top 50 buildings of the 20th century by the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

In 1991, he started the Rome Program, and since then he has helped it develop into a fully licensed branch of Iowa State. Through this program, more than 1,600 students majoring in architectural, studio and graphic design have been able to spend a spring semester in Italy studying design.

Engelbrecht’s accomplishments include earning numerous awards from the AIA. These include the AIA Iowa Chapter’s first annual education award and the AIA Medal of Honor for distinguished service to the profession. He also won the ISU Order of the Knoll Faculty-Staff Award in 2009.

Most recently he became the 2010 recipient of the Christian Petersen Design Award, presented by the college and given annually to alumni, staff and friends of the university for distinguished work that advances the design and art professions.