Building from Mistakes: Guy Nordenson ’73 on His Experiences as an Architect

Andover Alumni Award of Distinction recipient Guy Nordenson ’73 reflected upon his professional career as a Structural Engineer and Architect in Ada’s Room last Friday, October 25. His talk expanded on his speech from All-School Meeting (ASM) earlier that day. 

During his talk, Nordenson focused on his contributions to the development of the planning and building of the African American Museum of History & Culture, a Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., that interrogates events in America’s history through the perspective of the African American condition. 

Audrey Hsieh ’23, who introduced Nordenson at ASM, traveled with her school last year to the African American Museum and found that the building’s decisive architecture was insightful and contributed to emphasizing the messages of the exhibits. 

“The architecture itself was very innovative and makes the museum a super unique and very…immersive experience. It’s an incredible piece of work that is structurally put together… If you look at the structure of the building and the blue prints, it was a super intricate and difficult thing to build…. it makes everything inside more significant,” said Hsieh. 

According to Nordenson, an experience he had during his Junior year at Andover sparked his interest in understanding African American culture and traditions—he attended an African American Association meeting uninvited for an English assignment. Nordenson found that a moment of embarrassment served as a reminder for him to be empathetic to those in different circumstances. 

Nordenson said, “Looking back to the spring of my Junior year, I had to write a weird English assignment that asked us to [pursue] activity that we normally don’t do and write about it. So whatever reason, I decided that I would visit the African American Association uninvited, which at that time took place in Peabody House. I did not handle it well, I have to say, as the gentlemen who were there weren’t too happy about my showing up uninvited and unannounced. The whole event was awkward, and I came to learn that I needed to have a better understanding of other’s cultures and space. Maybe that was what motivated me in my later pursuits.” 

According to Nordenson, he first learned of the Smithsonian’s intended construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture when receiving news that developers had established a general venue program for the museum and wanted to hold a design competition to select an architect who could design the museum. Nordenson immediately contacted and started working with a group of other architects, a collaboration that allowed them to proceed to win the competition. Though Nordenson believes that the process was occasionally overwhelming, he found it to be a meaningful point in his career as an architect. 

Nordenson said, “I asked Max Bond, who was one of the two African [American] architects, to work as the head of the initiative to build the African American Museum with Lonnie Bunch, if I could be included in the team. Since he has already been working with my friend Matt Oppenheimer, they were kind enough to invite me. All of us worked on a design, which we then showed to the board members of the Smithsonian. Although there were 6 to 7 architects competing with us, we luckily got selected and then spent the next few years thinking about the budget, drawing, and the physical construction. It was a hard task, but team effort made it all possible.” 

Nordenson found that his experiences as a student at various institutions strengthened his ability as an architect. Specifically, pursuing a breadth of activities at Andover and college gave him the chance to discover new programs and experiences that provided him with skills needed in his later work. 

“One of the things that I discovered as an Andover student was the pleasure of writing. I very much enjoyed the English classes offered, and that led me to study literature in college. But instead of going to a traditional liberal arts college, I wanted to attend MIT, where I was interested in studying literature and philosophy in the context of technology. As I went through my years at MIT, I continued to work on my interest in writing by taking a lot of classes, and founded the magazine called “Rune,” which served as MIT’s Journal of Arts and Letters, still existing to this day. In the end, I did become an architect, but my interest in literature has nonetheless helped in my profession in many ways.” 

According to Hsieh, Nordenson’s career trajectory exemplifies Andover’s lasting effect on the lives of alumni.

Hsieh said, “[Nordenson’s experience at Andover] just shows Andover really has a lasting impact on you throughout your time and career here, regardless of whether it was a good or bad experience here. [Andover] directed him in the path that he took, I know he visited an architecture class here and helped educate them and I think that was super awesome.”