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One-on-One with Mark Baker

Mark Baker

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It all started with the backyard treehouses, built from pulleys, ropes and scraps of wood collected at a nearby creek.

That childhood hobby of Mark Baker’s branched out into a full-fledged architecture career, which led to ownership of two Albuquerque coffee houses and a brewery, purchase of a downtown building and now development of a planned food hall.

It’s an unusual path for an architect whose home-grown firm, Baker A+D, started out designing everything from “the garden wall in your front yard … to a bedroom addition or a kitchen remodel,” says Baker.

“I think more architects will do design-build – that’s a natural progression,” he says. “But to design, build, operate? That’s definitely more rare.”

Baker’s foray into ventures beyond the design world started five years ago when he opened the appropriately named Humble Coffee.

It initially was a 600-square-foot space at Lomas and Montclaire NE. Baker describes the location this way: “Technically, it’s in the Nob Hill district … but it’s kind of in this forgotten no man’s land. We call it the Lomas corridor or LoCo, which really hasn’t stuck, but we like it.”

He also opened the nearby brewery, High and Dry Brewing, as he came to realize that architecture could have meaning beyond a simple building project.

“I have learned along the way, it’s more than just about the buildings,” said Baker, who recently turned 50. “It’s about building community.”

The Lomas shop, which he calls Humble Coffee One, has expanded several times and hosts community events, including a neighborhood block birthday party “every time we turned another year” and the “Humble Holiday,” featuring an arts and crafts market.

It’s not what Baker envisioned when he first plied his trade for big architectural firms in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“I think when I was younger I wanted to have that heroic vision of an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright or Howard Roark from ‘The Fountainhead’ (by Ayn Rand). I was going to do ground-breaking work,” Baker says. “We certainly do some progressive, exciting work here at Baker A+D, but I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized (that) good design can be engaging, and that people will actually come to places that are well-designed.”

Baker does a lot of work for Albuquerque Public Schools and is designing Bernalillo County’s Tiny Home Village.

The popularity of his cafe and brewery led him to his latest venture: buying the old Sears Building at Fifth and Central. That 58,000-square-foot space is now home to Baker’s second edition of Humble Coffee, his company’s offices, 34 apartments that were all leased within 60 days and the food hall that will cover the entire ground floor and feature seven vendors with a shared dining space.

Baker says his coffee shops and brewery are the sorts of energetic centers that are coming to be known as “third places,” a concept especially popular among millennials.

“We have our home, which might be our first place, and we have work, which is our second place, and then people are looking for that third place where they feel comfortable,” Baker says. “They can have a sense of ownership about it, and they become regulars there.”

“We have a lot of people who are working on laptops – people who don’t necessarily work in a traditional work environment. They work at Humble Coffee or they work at High and Dry Brewing all day long. We have regulars I recognize that spend as much time in the building as I do.”

What buildings do you most admire?

“The Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas (a Dutch architect). It was wonderful for me to see that because I’m kind of a perfectionist, and as a modern architect, I always want all the joints to be just so and all the details to be just so. Just absolutely perfect level of construction, and that normally translates to high budgets, which are certainly rare in Albuquerque. So when I first got to see that project (by Koolhaas), it’s very loose, it’s very rough, it’s not perfect. That imperfection actually gives it a little bit of character. I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is where I need to live as an architect/designer.”

How did you get to New Mexico?

“I moved here for two reasons. One, because of the weather. I had just done an exchange term in Birmingham, England, and it rained me out. I was soggy wet by the time I got back. When I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, I knew I was going to move away. I had my sights set on Seattle, of all places, and I second-guessed it because of the weather. So I said, ‘I’ll go to the Southwest where it’s sunny.’ One of the main reasons I chose Albuquerque as opposed to Phoenix or a number of other places was because of Bart Prince. He’s like a visionary architect, and he taught a symposium-type class at the University of Oklahoma that I took, and I fell in love with his work. How creative, how wild. So I got to know Bart and his work, and it was like if I’m going to move to Albuquerque, I’m going to work for Bart. The second part didn’t happen, but I did move to Albuquerque.”

What was your first job?

“Sno-cones. I was 14, and he (the boss) paid me the minimum wage. I believe it was $3.25, but he made the argument that he only had to pay me $3 because I wasn’t 16 yet. My second job was fast food Chinese. So you notice they’re both restaurant-related. I never thought I would come back to owning a restaurant. In fact, I took one of those aptitude tests in high school, and it kicked out that I’d be a restaurant owner. And I said, ‘well that’s not happening.’ I gave it no credence.”

What do you do in your free time?

“I play tennis. Our family is a member of Tennis Club of Albuquerque. My wife is a skier, and the kids and I are snow-boarders. But, really, my family will tell you that I can’t just relax. I don’t know how to chill. On the weekends, unless I have something planned or I’m out of town, I’ll end up jumping on my motorcycle and going over to the coffee shop and walking around, just making sure everything’s in order, and then going over to the other coffee shop and then to the brewery to take a peek. That’s what I do. For me, it’s more enjoyable than just watching TV or something.”

What are your pet peeves?

“It does drive me nuts when people don’t put things where they’re supposed to be. I’m kind of an organizer. I have to keep things organized. There’s a lot of driving-related ones, too. Not using a blinker. I think blinkers are helpful. People will say, ‘I don’t use a blinker because no one’s around,’ but that’s a time you want to use it, don’t you? When you don’t know whether someone’s around.”

What do you want your legacy to be?

“I would like my legacy to be that I improved the places that I’ve been – the things that I’ve touched architecturally and in terms of community. I want to be remembered as a fine architect who did wonderful buildings that will be there for another 50 years that people will enjoy long after I’m gone. But I also want to be remembered as someone who helped bring life and improved the lives of people in certain neighborhoods.”