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April 3, 2009

Mark Engelbrecht

Mark Engelbrecht will step down as dean of the College of Design in June. Photo by Bob Elbert.

An architect of design education

by Teddi Barron, News Service

In 1958, the Cold War peaked, Sputnik triumphed, "aerospace" was coined and Elvis joined the Army. And a 20-year-old transfer from Wartburg College enrolled in aeronautical engineering at Iowa State. His name was Mark C. Engelbrecht.

"It was almost your patriotic duty to take up engineering," Engelbrecht said with a chuckle. "We were all agog over Sputnik, and we knew the Russians were coming!"

It didn't take long for the visual language of his roommates' architecture projects to seduce him away from the numerical language of rocket science. He found it "natural to migrate" to architecture.

Fifty years later, Engelbrecht is putting on the brakes in his journey through design education at Iowa State. An instructor years before the College of Design was created in 1978, he has served as dean for half its life. In June, he will step down.

'C' is for community

There's a good chance that Engelbrecht's middle initial stands for community, because community is the center of his career as educator and architect.

During his 15-year tenure as dean of the college, Engelbrecht helped transform a "collection of refugees" into a community. He wove community-based projects into studio instruction, strengthening the fabric of the college. He established college roots in two Iowa communities, with outreach centers in Perry and Sioux City. He developed an Iowa State design community in Rome, the only fully licensed study-abroad program in the Iowa regents' system.

And when he talks about architecture, he's very clear: "You can't understand architecture, if you don't understand it as a response to a community need."

Engelbrecht came of age as an architect during the turbulent 1960s when urban renewal often wiped out entire neighborhoods. He earned his master of architecture degree at Columbia University, New York City, in 1964, just before tensions between the university and its neighbors erupted. The conflict was rooted in the university's plan to construct a gym in Harlem's Morningside Park, with no access to the community.

"Columbia was a big walled city on the edge of Harlem. When you look at the campus, it says, 'Stay away, we're on our own,'" Engelbrecht said.

Similar tensions flared around the country, even in Des Moines, where Engelbrecht returned in 1964 to practice architecture. Construction of I-235 wiped out the African-American business district.

"Resentment was mounting, and it was related to Columbia and the idea that we [architects] can put our temples anywhere we want," he recalled.

Building a career

Engelbrecht was a principal in four Des Moines architecture firms between 1966 and 1979. From 1979 to 2000, he was principal in Engelbrecht & Griffin, P.C., Des Moines and Newburyport, Mass. The firm, largely focusing on various comprehensive environments for seniors, designed and constructed in 26 states. Nine projects won National Association of Homebuilders' top awards.

Engelbrecht designed Northcrest Retirement Community in Ames; The Barbican, an 11-story residential tower on Grand Avenue in

Des Moines; and the West Bank building on 22nd Street in West Des Moines. He is best known for the University of Northern Iowa's Maucker Union, which earned national honors when it was built in 1968. In 2000, it was named one of Iowa's top 50 buildings of the 20th century.

Although built underground, Maucker's design was not a response to an energy crisis, still years away. It responded to a community need.

"It actually came out of the whole idea of public life and community," he explained. "Originally the union was to be built in the middle of a green, an important pre-existing communal space on campus."

By submerging the building -- a radical idea at the time -- Engelbrecht and his partners preserved the open space while accommodating the activities of a student union.

Heeding the call

Engelbrecht began his teaching career as an ISU lecturer in architecture in 1969. He continued to teach as a visiting, temporary or adjunct faculty member until 1984, when he became a professor. In 1994, he was named dean.

The teaching progression was as natural as his migration from engineering to architecture. He came from a family of educators: Engelbrecht's grandfather founded Wartburg College, and his father was vice president there after serving as superintendent of schools in Nevada and principal in Belmond. His mother taught sixth grade.

"I have positive childhood associations about educators -- although, the doctors' families had the steak at picnics," he laughed. "But teachers always had boundless respect, particularly in this state. It's a calling that people actually prize."

When Engelbrecht (and his firm's partners) started teaching an architecture studio 40 years ago, it was considered "outrageously radical" here. But it has become a tradition within the college, particularly in architecture, to have faculty come from practice.

"We really prize this, although it's not uniformly accepted across campus," Engelbrecht said.

At the same time, Engelbrecht and his colleagues introduced community-based projects in the studios.

"We've always had a focus on working within our context and our local community," he said.

"A basic challenge has been to persuade my colleagues in science and technology that designers and artists have a lot of value to offer. They should look at our capabilities and not at our pedigrees," he said.

"We think differently, holistically. In the sciences, scholarship and research are about finding a trench and going as deeply into it as possible. In design, you think about where that trench is, how it relates to other trenches and to the whole context," he explained.

Putting on the brakes

Engelbrecht remembers most of his students and their projects. And he recalls the specific moments when he felt that a student had been changed by something he said, or vice versa.

Another great joy: Seeing the college mature "from a collection of refugees who hadn't quite found a good fit in their own classical homelands" (applied art in human sciences, landscape architecture in agriculture and architecture in engineering).

"I still remember as a student, feeling like everyone in engineering looked at us architects like we had three eyes because we wouldn't strap our slide rules to our belts like they did," he recalled.

"I'm never certain if this college was set up because it was visionary -- as it's turned out -- or if it was a way to get all the weird people into the same box off in the corner of the campus!" he laughed.

"My job as dean has been to center this college, to get us out of the suburbs. We can't do it physically, but we can do it through the quality of our programs and the issue of sustainability -- which we understand, teach and worry about every day," he said.

But Engelbrecht's journey hasn't ended. He will continue fund raising and will teach two classes in Rome next spring.

"I've made almost a lifetime investment in this place and I want to keep involved," he said. "It's difficult for me to imagine walking out of my office every day and not running into this youthful energy. We're all in a funny way addicted to that, and I'm not quite ready to give it up."


Mark Engelbrecht will reflect on his 50-year relationship with the College of Design in a presentation, "Unfinished Business," at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, in the Design auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.