Inside Track: Building inspiration through perspective
Peter Hugo Baldwin credits family trips, mentors for desire to become architect.
Peter Hugo Baldwin credits his choice of becoming an architect to an interconnected assortment of incidents that happened earlier in his life.
Trips to Europe and across the United States when he was a kid, the stimulus of his fourth grade teacher, the mentorship of a business partner and his father’s drawn-out sermons helped kindle in Baldwin an abiding curiosity in structural design.
Summers included family trips with his parents, Rev. Allan and Claude-Marie Baldwin, older brother, Tim, and younger sister, Claire-Lise, with a pop-up camper in tow to nearly every state in the union and Canada.
“We saw a great deal of the country from the back seat of our unconditioned car,” Baldwin said.
Then there was Europe, known for its soaring castles and cathedrals. The Chillon Castle, located on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, especially fascinated Baldwin, which helped spur in him the desire to gain more than a passing interest in architecture.
“I was amazed at the strength of it, how it soared,” Baldwin said. The scale of (castles), often in cool settings, like lakes and mountains and the materials that were necessary to make them big, like stones and masonry, and unique geometric shapes is what I think makes someone a good architect, meaning perspective is fundamental to understanding people, first of all, and spaces as well.”
But just touring someone’s castle wasn’t enough for Baldwin. He wanted to try his hand at constructing one himself — on a smaller scale.
“My family loved going to Lake Michigan, where I built sand castles,” Baldwin said. “The combination of the two (real and sand castles) inspired me.”
Baldwin credits a handful of people who either intentionally or inadvertently shepherded in him a love of the visual.
That includes his fourth grade teacher, Nella Snapper, at Oakdale Christian School.
“Mrs. Snapper inspired me to learn, and she inspired me by letting me draw and do reporting and studies by pencil, posters and sketch books,” Baldwin said. “She was very ahead of her time with respect to differentiated learning and instruction. I wanted to be an artist. She was the one who just let me do it and inspired me to learn and be curious.”
Baldwin’s penchant for the visual extended to an unlikely space — inside a church sanctuary. While his father preached his sermons at Christ Church (Presbyterian Church in America), Baldwin hauled in a “huge” roll of paper and drew to his heart’s content, despite askance looks by some parishioners.
“I wasn’t as good a listener, so my grandmother sent me a present, a huge roll of paper I could roll out as my dad’s sermon started,” Baldwin said.
“I started drawing and kept rolling and rolling it. I drew all kinds of things: cartoons, wars, soldiers attacking castles, and I also liked drawing things that I saw outside. A lot of people in the church thought it was pretty odd they let this kid fire off drawings during his entire sermon, which often lasted 45 minutes.”
Baldwin took his penchant for drawing to the next level by enrolling first at Calvin College, where he studied for two years and then transferred to the University of Michigan, where he eventually earned a master of architecture degree in 1988 at U-M’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Before working at AMDG Architects, Baldwin’s stints include architectural assistant for Thomas S. Monaghan Inc. in Ann Arbor (1983-1985); design assistant for Giffels Associates Inc. in Southfield (1985); designer for Hobbs and Black Architects Inc. (1985-1986); assistant designer for Detroit-based Albert Kahn & Associates Inc. (1987); architectural designer/project architect for Corporate Design Group in Ann Arbor (1988-1992); senior design/project manager for Grand Rapids-based Integrated Architects PC (1992-1996); and then AMDG Architects Inc., initially as senior vice president/principal in 1997 and then president/principal in 2007.
Baldwin’s time as a student at U-M also was important because his design professor, Calvin Jen, founded AMDG Architects in 1992 in Ann Arbor. Baldwin joined the firm in 1997 and relocated it to a loft suite in downtown Grand Rapids in 2001. Today, it is located at 25 Commerce Ave. SW.
AMDG designs 35 to 60 projects annually, with construction budgets ranging from $350,000 to $20 million. They include commercial/office, health care, residential, educational environments, faith-based, industrial, sustainable commercial and residential projects. AMDG is an acronym for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, Latin for, "To the greater glory of God."
As AMDG grew, transitions ensued. Jen retired from the firm in 2007, the same year Baldwin assumed the role as president/principal. Baldwin credits Jen for helping him gain a firmer grasp on running an architectural firm.
“When you’re trained as an architect, you don’t get a lot of training in the practical aspects of a business from accounting to cash flow to HR, pretty much all the other things you need to know how to do well,” Baldwin said. “Cal and I shared a lot of similar ideas of architecture in purpose and practice. He was also an incredible mentor and teacher and also had a good business mind. He helped me become a good business owner.”
In the field of marketing, “branding” is the bone and marrow of promotion.
Baldwin’s personal brand is a duo-expression: Always ensuring his middle name Hugo is an integral part of his name and his varied collection of bowties.
“My grandpa’s name was Hugo, and when he lived in Switzerland, he was very interested in architecture,” Baldwin said. “At the age of 13, being raised in a home financially challenged, my great grandpa took him out of school because he needed to become an errand boy to make ends meet, and he never got to be an architect. I only understood that when I was halfway through architecture school that my grandpa’s aspiration was to be an architect. I always put Hugo on everything as a way to honor his aspiration.”
Bowties are Baldwin’s haute couture of choice; he said he has a collection of 60-80. He confesses he doesn’t know how to tie a necktie in a double Windsor but finds tying a bow tie “super easy.”
“It’s become a bit of a brand,” Baldwin said of his natty neckwear. “It’s probably the really square version of being different. I went to a meeting about 20 years ago where I wore a regular tie, and everybody said I should never wear another one. They were disappointed. They had equated me with the bowtie, so we’re one in the same.”
About four years ago, Baldwin launched the AMDG Speaker Series, initially as an internal intellectual tune-up for his staff and himself that has since become open to the public. Its monthly offerings include a range of guest speakers from a recent talk of Dr. Larry Gerbens’ art collection based on the prodigal son parable to Zebra Imaging’s Mark Holzbach on how the military uses digital holograms.
“I started it primarily because I was evolving as a leader and reflecting on some of my shortcomings and challenges,” Baldwin said. “It brought me to a point of understanding that I can’t be all things to all people, and I’m not the solution to the leadership. I felt like our firm had become stale at its thinking and design work. I knew we had to innovate and change and rethink ourselves.”