In 2012, world-renowned architect Brian Lee made the journey to TEDxFargo to share his philosophy on design: that our cities should be cohesive and connected, vibrant and full of opportunity, stimulating and inspiring. Buildings, in their design, should enrich the experiences that occur within them.

“We shape our cities, and therefore they shape us,” he said, a play on the famous Churchill quote.

But Lee did not make the trip from Chicago just to give an 18-minute speech to a room of 100-some people. He came to design a master plan for one of his firm’s upcoming projects– and that project, set to begin construction this fall, was Block 9.

From Beijing to Broadway

Lee is a design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM),  one of the world’s largest and most influential architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms. SOM has erected architectural marvels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas–  7 World Trade Center in New York City, Al Hamra Tower in Kuwait, and soon, the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Lee’s own portfolio includes the China World Trade Center in Beijing (the city’s tallest building) and the University of California San Diego Telemedicine Education Building.

In 2015, Architect Magazine recognized SOM’s contributions to our world’s skylines. SOM took second place overall in the magazine’s Architect 50, an annual ranking of the top 50 design firms. Earlier this year, Lee himself was named to NewCity’s “Design 50: Who Shapes Chicago 2016” list.

Lee has spent his career traveling the world, leaving 74-story skyscrapers and striking glass exteriors as his footprint. Throughout his travels, he has found himself repeatedly asking one question: what makes a city a great place to live, work, and play?

While each city is unique, Lee has discovered some qualities that unite the most vibrant. These cities are walkable and offer places to engage in nature, art, food, and culture. They have housing located throughout, creating a 24/7 timetable rather than a 9 to 5 commercial metropolis And these qualities are not found only in cities with populations of 1,000,000-plus– according to Lee, they are right in our own backyard.

“Fargo has those qualities already, they just need to be kind of nurtured and encouraged and added to,” Lee said. “Obviously it’s a great place to live, because people are moving downtown already.”

Lee attributes much of downtown Fargo’s success to efforts made by the Kilbourne Group and its leader, Doug Burgum. So when Kilbourne conducted a nationwide search for an architecture firm to take on Block 9, he was excited to find that their visions for the project coincided.

“We got infected with Doug’s group, their enthusiasm for what was going to be happening downtown and bringing life to the city,” he said.

Another piece of the puzzle

When he wasn’t speaking at TEDxFargo during his visit four years ago, Lee was walking the streets of downtown. He took note of the city’s historic buildings, well-scaled streets, and burgeoning identity. He looked to the 48,000 square foot surface-level parking lot at the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue North and began to imagine how Block 9 could fit into the landscape.

Plans for the 18-story tower—created in collaboration with the Kilbourne Group, RDO Equipment Co. and TMI Hospitality– reveal million-dollar condominiums, a hotel, a rooftop garden, and an event-packed plaza (with potential for a splash pad, skating rink, and bandshell). The Kilbourne Group estimates that the project will create more than 500 jobs.

But Block 9 has stirred up a bit of conflict among Fargoans, making appearances in several opinion columns and Facebook rants. Citizens have expressed concerns about gentrification, tax incentives, an overhaul of the spirit that has come to be definitively Fargo– and Lee hopes to offer some reassurance.

“A lot of times, people worry about change,” he said.  “We wanted to be flexible; we don’t want to impose something on the city. I think that this project would be, hopefully, another little piece of the puzzle that energizes downtown.”


Feature photo courtesy of Dan Francis Photography. Watch Brian Lee’s 2012 TEDxFargo talk here.


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Katie Beedy