Lilian Asperin Named Partner: A Conversation on Inspiration and Equity in Architecture

Lilian Asperin Named Partner: A Conversation on Inspiration and Equity in Architecture

Reflecting WRNS Studio's commitment to effect meaningful change within our communities, Lilian Asperin has been named partner. Lilian approaches architecture with wide eyes, curiosity, and a healthy dose of discomfort, defining success by the number of lives transformed through equitable access to the places and experiences that create opportunity for growth and connection. A leader in our higher education practice, she was recently named to a three-year term as the Society for College and University Planning’s Pacific Regional Council Chair. We sat down with Lilian to talk about her unique perspective on the practice of architecture.

How did you get into architecture?

My mother tells the story of “the manger scene” built with only with toothpicks and brown paper. Apparently, the introverted me, at 3 years of age, crafted a 4”x 4” Nativity scene inclusive of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. It was the first time I recall appreciating capturing “experiences,” only to learn later that that’s what architects create: opportunities and high performing spaces that sponsor meaningful outcomes. That love for craft plus story is what has always inspired me about architecture.

Who or what were your early influences?

I arrived at Cal’s School Environmental Design having had zero classes in drafting or model making but what mattered was having access to opportunity, and amazing teachers who met me where I was, then I made up for the rest. Karen Bermann taught my very first studio at Cal. She could tell I didn’t have the training but I was young enough to let my naivete propel my courage, believing I could have an impact on people’s lives through architecture. She said “There’s always a first time.” And when our semester ended, she called my mother to explain to her why I wasn’t coming home for the summer. She negotiated time away on my behalf so I could intern with Stanley Saitowitz. It has been almost 30 years and I am still fascinated by how many more first-times there are, and should be. I think these formative days in college sparked my passion for the higher education sector. It’s my time to give back.

Then, there was the person who believed in you long before you believed in yourself and opened the biggest doors for you. The person who introduces you as their partner and they mean it. The person who gives you frank feedback and when you ask, solid advice. This was my late mentor, Jack MacAllister. Jack taught me what it means to be more than an Architect, to be a collaborator in the truest sense and to approach our work with humility and dedication because that legacy will outlive us. I try to be “that person” for others, every day.

What's your approach to architecture? 

Frankly, I delight in un-architecture. At least once a year I seek out the feeling of being the only one among others, of hearing things said differently, of witnessing the outcomes of “what if’s?” by immersing myself in the events of other incredibly successful creative and business models.

Architects already look the same (it’s true!), we sound very similar and it’s important that we avoid same-think. These explorations into un-architecture have led me to my first ever hackathon experience at Facebook, an insider’s view of Sub Rosa as part of the 99U Conference and to learning about LEAN by studying the Toyota Way alongside practitioners in Healthcare. I love to go out into the world and draw that back in to our studio.

Speaking of our studio, what brought you to WRNS?

I remember getting a postcard in the mail announcing “WRNS in Construction." It was a photograph taken from what seemed to be a 12-foot ladder, capturing the studio literally being assembled. In view were about a dozen humans with confident gazes straddling metal studs and a spiral duct on the floor. I found it to be a refreshing and honest take on the firm’s culture. A message that speaks to what matters — the people. This resonated with me and to this day, I am convinced that the people are the studio’s secret sauce. We do everything as a start-up, we make things ourselves, we are scrappy — in other words we never lose sight of being a studio.

What are you excited about in architecture right now?

As an emerging professional, the workplace I experienced exhibited very little in the way of understanding or supporting pathways to success for the talented men and women in our profession such that everyone could have a fair chance to thrive. In collaboration with AIASF and my colleagues from Equity by Design, we have created a nationally recognized platform for data, discussion and action towards equitable practice in architecture. Through the efforts spanning the past five years and the insights garnered through three Equity in Architecture surveys, we are closer to identifying barriers that can be minimized in order to maximize our potential for success.  What I am most proud about is our team’s approach to these difficult conversations and our commitment to a positive, inclusive, solution-oriented (ex. hackathons!) process for bridging between current and future states of our workplace. Much more work needs to be done, but we have traction and with more of us at the table, we are starting to feel the wind in our backs. 

What do you want to teach the next generation of WRNSers?

That there is design in everything we do, including how we do our work. First, that there is no such thing as “project management” but rather “process design.” Project managers traditionally do things right. Process leaders focus on doing the right things. Our clients and teams expect way more than meeting budgets and schedules; they want us to focus on value and being their trusted advisors. Second, that work happens around life, not the other way around. Our most creative and forward leaning work will only exist if we are equally committed to living our personal lives with courage and authenticity.

New Partners Tim Morshead, Russell Sherman, and Lilian Asperin