Cuningham Group Architecture founder John Cuningham, FAIA, is awarded the state’s highest individual architectural honor for his enormous impact as a designer and as a mentor to future leaders in the field

By Linda Mack

When John Cuningham’s firm moved to St. Anthony Main in 1992, the Minneapolis riverfront was still an abandoned industrial landscape. “This whole complex was empty,” says Cuningham. “Now, the area is on the brink of unimaginable growth.”

Minneapolis’ central riverfront could be a metaphor for Cuningham Group Architecture. Established in 1968, just four years after its founder received his master’s degree from Harvard University, the firm now employs 350 in eight offices, which stretch from the U.S. to Doha and Beijing.

While many firms founded by brilliant architects have soared and died—or been purchased—Cuningham Group has weathered economic storms to flourish. The secret: the founder’s commitment to nurturing the talents of others. “We give a lot of responsibility and a lot of ownership to our people, and it has been incredibly motivating,” says Cuningham.

His assessment is mirrored by those who have worked there.

“John empowers people—young and senior designers alike—to be a critical voice in the design process,” says Tim Dufault, FAIA, Cuningham Group’s president and CEO since 2007.

“John has always embraced diversity in the profession, from those early days in the 1970s when he took a chance on hiring a young woman architect like myself when there were few of us in the field,” says JLG Architects’ Linda McCracken-Hunt, FAIA. “He influenced diversity in the industry decades before it was on the table.”

Cuningham also recognized the importance of transitioning ownership. Today there are 38 owners. He retired on October 1, 2018, 50 years to the day after the firm was founded.

For these attributes and accomplishments and a host of others, John Cuningham was honored in late 2018 with the highest individual award given to an architect in Minnesota—the biennial AIA Minnesota Gold Medal.

Cuningham’s love of architecture was instilled at the University of Minnesota, where he studied and later taught under legendary dean Ralph Rapson, and studied under and later worked for modernist James Stageberg. “I was so lucky to have been in school at that golden time,” he says. “They loved what they did. And I was just swept into it.”

After teaching at the university for 17 years, he stepped down to focus on his practice, but he has always thought of the firm as “a learning organization.” Highly regarded for its support for the profession’s internship programs, the firm has always given employees time to study for their registration exams and covered the costs of the tests, says Dufault.

At the U, Cuningham also imbibed a philosophy of architecture as a civic activity. “Our profession is the primary steward of the built environment,” he says. In 1996, the still-new Cuningham Group office at St. Anthony Main buzzed with activity as 10 visiting design firms—including two from the Netherlands—sketched visions for the Minneapolis riverfront. “That’s one of my fondest memories,” he says. “We wanted to make people aware of the assets.”

The riverfront charrette gave rise to another firm initiative: Urban Currents, a monthly, open-to-the-public breakfast presentation by community leaders in transit, education, housing, arts, or culture. “I thought we would do it for a year,” says Cuningham. “We’re now in our 15th.”

And each of the Cuningham Group offices in the U.S. adopts a community organization. As the firm celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, Cuningham visited each office, gave a talk about the firm’s history, and saw each studio pursue a community project. In Minneapolis, employees packed lunches for the Sheridan Story, which fights child hunger.

“John is a citizen architect,” says architect Mohammed Lawal, AIA, who worked at Cuningham Group before starting his own firm, LSE Architects.

Of course, it’s the practice of architecture itself that’s driven Cuningham’s career, from his first house designs to a quarter century working for Epic Systems, the giant medical software company based in Verona, Wisconsin. “Everything I learned about architecture, I learned doing houses,” he says. “Managing budgets, monitoring construction, working with owners. How to adjust the dreams to the pocketbook.”

He also learned what developers need when he became co-developer of the Itasca in Minneapolis’ North Loop, the first adaptive-reuse condominium project on the river. He moved his firm there in 1982, and, he notes, “We’ve been on the river ever since.” Other favorite projects include Breck Chapel of the Holy Spirit in Golden Valley and the Episcopal House of Prayer in Collegeville (both winners of AIA Minnesota’s prestigious 25 Year Award, which celebrates time-tested design), as well as the Fair School in downtown Minneapolis (“500 kids on one acre—I love it!”), Heinavarra Elementary School in Finland, and the ongoing work at Epic.

Epic founder and CEO Judy Faulkner says she’s been working with Cuningham Group since her company had 30 employees. Now with 10,000 employees on 1,000 acres, Epic boasts five themed campuses and an 11,000-seat underground auditorium called Deep Space, all designed by Cuningham Group.

“I wanted the auditorium underground so it wouldn’t dominate the campus,” says Faulkner. “John pointed to a hill and said, ‘That’s our 11,000-seat auditorium.’” A wide-span structure, Deep Space won the Associated General Contractors of America Grand Award for the best building built in the U.S. in 2014.

“It’s been a good match between two people who think out of the box,” says Faulkner of their long working relationship—and friendship.

“There’s a bigger dimension to architecture. It’s not just keeping people warm and dry,” says Cuningham. “You know it when you see it. You’re walking around and inside it, and what do you feel? It’s uplifting.”

“The environment John cultivated was collaborative and empowering to young architects, and it made an enormous impact on my development. He created a shared passion about the work and fostered the belief that design could profoundly change the world—particularly in K–12 education, in working with underserved communities, in the public realm, and around sustainability and urban issues.”
Jennifer Yoos, FAIA, VJAA

“Twenty-five years ago, John graciously agreed to support and host Minneapolis’ first-ever Architectural Youth Program, an after-school outreach effort that introduced minority, female, and at-risk students to architecture and the design arts. He participated in sessions when we visited his firm and provided great inspiration to the would-be designers.”
Mohammed Lawal, AIA, LSE Architects