ICAA Interview with Mark Ferguson, Chairman of the Board

Mark Ferguson
Photo by Trevor Oswalt.

“The ICAA can do many things. It is a convener of like-minded people and as long as we align ourselves with common goals we are capable of achieving big things.”

Carnegie Mellon University's College of Fine Arts Building.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Mark Ferguson at the 2013 National Curriculum Conference.
Photo by Kate Koza.

 MARK FERGUSON, FOUNDING PARTNER OF FERGUSON & SHAMAMIAN ARCHITECTS, LLP and long-time ICAA member and advocate, was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees earlier this year. ICAA Associate Director of Education & Special Collections, Nora Reilly, recently sat down with Mark to speak with him about his background, his relationship to the ICAA, and his vision for the future of the organization. 

Nora Reilly: You have been involved with the ICAA for a long time.  What was your very first encounter with the organization?

Mark Ferguson: The day Richard Cameron and Donald Rattner were assigned to the same studio in our office. Some time later I noticed heavy Xerox machine use and after-work gatherings with other young architects looking conspiratorial. [Laughter]  But seriously, they were forthcoming about the school they were creating. They were motivated by the dearth of formal training we had received and the ambitious professional opportunities we faced.  At the conclusion of their first six-week summer program there was beautiful work on the walls and plenty of cold beer—lots of passion and camaraderie. 

NR: Did you always know you wanted to be an architect? 

MF: No. I wanted to be a musician. I played trombone throughout high school and performed all types of music, from orchestral to rock.  When it came time for college I realized, reluctantly however, that I didn’t have the talent to make it professionally. Following sound advice from my parents, I chose a broader course of study that promised greater possibilities for employment.

I was accustomed to making things and I knew what went on inside an architect’s office. My mother’s sister is an architect and she shared her work with me.  A career that required drawing all day sounded pretty good, almost as good as making music.

NR: You received a Bachelor of Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University. Were you exposed to classical architecture there? 

MF: Yes. The campus was designed by Henry Hosbostel. It is a Beaux-Arts composition inspired by Jefferson’s campus in Virginia.  One of our first assignments was to sketch the entrances to buildings on campus. It was a good introduction to seeing the myriad ways that architecture speaks.

The architecture curriculum was built on three equal disciplines: Design, History, and Technology. Even though the university at its founding was oriented toward technology—and it still is—design and history were given equal footing. The history faculty was exceptional and the course offerings were broad and deep.  Nonetheless, the direct use of precedent in design was not encouraged.

The College of Fine Arts is an extraordinary building.  It sits at the head of the campus—a Beaux-Arts palazzo for teaching Drama, Music, Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, all under one roof.  The theaters are on the ground floor, practice rooms are on the mezzanine, the drafting room is on the piano nobile and the painting studios are under skylights in the roof.  The floors are connected by two monumental stairs, encouraging everyone in the building to hear and see what everyone else is doing.   

NR: Is that experience related to the prize (The Ferguson Jacobs Prize in Architecture) that you and your wife and colleague Natalie Jacobs started at Carnegie Mellon?

MF: Natalie and I wanted to give something back, and after conversations with the Dean we decided to develop a prize.  

The prize, which is now in its sixth year, is available to both students and faculty and it is project-based. We wanted to offer an incentive for people to work within the classical tradition. We understood that the union of Design and History in the current curriculum created a sympathetic environment for those who chose to pursue the prize—they would not work alone. 

NR: After receiving a Master of Architecture from Princeton University, eventually you ended up at Parish-Hadley Associates, the renowned interior decoration firm. What was your experience there?  Who inspired or mentored you? 

MF: At Parish-Hadley the principals and designers worked closely together in small teams, so coaching and mentoring occurred naturally and frequently. Design was discussed continuously. Differences in training between architects and decorators kept the conversation lively. At the time there was a dearth of architectural talent working in a traditional language, so the decorators at Parish-Hadley worked closely with the staff architects to design architectural backgrounds for their projects. 

I arrived woefully unprepared for the work ahead, but my friend, Paul Engel, who initially referred me for the interview at Parish-Hadley, helped me navigate the firm’s design culture and directed me to the small library he had assembled.  I delved into it immediately—monographs on David Adler, Charles Platt, et al., and The American Vignola. I took The American Vignola home and read it. Who does that?   

NR: Was it always a goal to start your own firm?


MF: It was a distant dream, but one day Albert Hadley presented an opportunity to create a separate division within the firm devoted to architecture. I talked it over with my colleagues John Murray and Oscar Shamamian and we decided to make a counter proposal—to start an architecture practice, one that would be sympathetic to collaborating with interior decorators. Albert, always supportive of young talent, surprised us, and endorsed the idea. He and Bunny referred our first clients to us. 

NR: Do you have any advice for those just starting or thinking of starting their own firm? 

MF: Be authentic, be honest. Your clients will choose you because they feel a connection to you. Know how to collaborate well. Our industry requires diverse and strong talents to make projects happen. Oscar and I owe our success to understanding the power of collaboration. As a team player you learn when to lead and when to follow. Business success also requires seeing what’s ahead. 

NR: And how do you accomplish that

MF: Anticipate all possibilities. Know there will be good times and bad times. Know that you don’t know when they will occur. They can occur suddenly, so be prepared for both.  

NR: Speaking of planning and seeing what’s ahead, this is a pivotal moment for the ICAA, a moment of transition and change. As the new Chairman of the Board, what is your vision for the ICAA? Where would you like to see the organization in one year, five years, ten years? 

MF:  The ICAA can do many things.  It is a convener of people in diverse careers, but with a common interest. As long as we remain aligned with our goals we are capable of achieving big things. I believe we will be most successful if we remain alert and aware of the opportunities around us. 

For instance, the Certificate in Classical Architecture offered at the University of Colorado in Denver, was unplanned. The faculty saw what we were doing in our classes in New York and in the Chapters and they sought our help building a similar program of study.  Their classes are modeled on our curriculum and the students who complete the courses receive our certificate. We never imagined working this way, but it is a terrific opportunity for us to be aligned with the educational establishment.

There are 120 architecture schools in the United States. Perhaps less than 6 of them offer courses in classical design. The average person would be surprised and probably appalled to know it is not required training in an accredited program. If the ICAA could collaborate with just 10% of these schools—to double the number of schools offering classical design—that would be a terrific near-term goal.  

A long-term goal would be for the graduates of these 12 schools to begin their careers with a love of classical architecture. It would be a positive change for the profession. Over time, we may create a culture that isn’t so divided between classicism and modernism. 

In the immediate future I see my job as encouraging alignment and cohesion. We are 15 chapters. There is a lot we can achieve, but only if we work toward common goals. It will require many conversations. 

NR: It sounds like you’re going to be on the phone a lot. 

MF: [Laughter] Yes, and I have big shoes to fill.  Peter Pennoyer, former Chairman of the Board, and Paul Gunther, former President of the ICAA, set the bar very high. They guided the organization through a period of tremendous growth. They expanded the range and quality of programs and increased the number of chapters from coast to coast. My job is to preserve their achievements, nurture them, and help the organization grow to the next level.