Raul Garduño Named Partner: A Conversation on Beauty and Sensibility

Raul Garduño Named Partner: A Conversation on Beauty and Sensibility

Following ten years of design leadership at WRNS Studio, Raul Garduño has been named partner. If you ask Raul why he chose to be a designer, he will consider the question carefully, raise his hands, and say, “perhaps it was just in me.” Then, things will get existential. Raul is one of those people who couldn’t have been anything but an architect; his eye knows, his hand sees.

“In architecture, with knowledge and content generated through many modes of production, there has always been a dichotomy between talking and drawing. Raul is one of the most beautiful drawers I’ve ever known, bringing the poetry that is at the center of an authentic architecture, the sensibility that is the DNA of our firm. I’ve personally loved our collaboration, of not many words but of many drawings.” – Bryan Shiles

We recently sat down with Raul to talk about life at WRNS.

You were one of WRNS Studio’s first employees, joining us in 2005. What brought you here?
I’d been working with Bryan Shiles and Sam Nunes for a few years at our former firm, and we had a symbiotic relationship, so joining them here felt like a natural step. Aesthetically we were speaking the same language, and that continued at WRNS, which immediately had a very real, authentic studio vibe. My good friend Brian Milman had come over too and I thought—I want to be working with these people.

When we started, we had a strong start-up culture. We had to hook up computers and printers ourselves. The plotter room had no lights so we used a flashlight to make sure the right drawing was plotting. There were eight to ten of us and we were always meeting as a studio, making meals together. We were super focused on just getting through the first year or two. Very rapidly we started growing, moving around from office to office. Every project was getting better than the previous one. In the blink of an eye, ten years went by.

WRNS has grown exponentially, jumping from 75 employees in 2015 to 150 projected by the end of 2016. How do we keep our soul?
Our studio’s hands-on vibe and focus on craft has everything to do with our people. We like to work with people who work hard but have fun. A couple of years ago, when we started hiring intensely, John Ruffo came up with the idea of creating a hiring committee. He picked four leaders with very different perspectives to invest in recruiting and hiring the right staff who fit into our studio culture and meet our high standards for talent. As a result we have a low turnover rate, and we’re surrounded by people we enjoy working with—architects, designers and creatives we admire and respect. 

What are some of the biggest opportunities and challenges the studio faces right now?
Architecture has been diverted, necessarily I’m sure, by more complicated paradigms—programs are more complex, regulations are more strict, budgets have increasingly precise targets—and there’s no way around that, but as a design firm we take beauty as the overarching principle that adds significant value to the equation. Fortunately, our clients share this philosophy.

So the challenge comes with every new project in that we strive to make a better building—a more beautiful one—than what came before. What we’ve learned on past projects informs future ones. Of course, there’s great opportunity in trying to outperform ourselves.

How do you define beauty?
The concept of beauty is so subjective; what is pleasant to me might not be to you, and vice versa. And of course, the concept of beauty changes with time. But for me, beauty brings pleasure to the senses. While most often related to sight, beauty in architecture has a strong (and very personal) spatial dimension; we are conscious of our bodies in relationship to different scales or different environments, and we experience emotions while inhabiting or moving through these spaces. 

Who or what were your early influences?
I think the first building that moved me was a country club on the outskirts of Mexico City by the Polish architect, Vladimir Kaspé, a refugee living in Mexico. I must have been ten years old and I walked into this outrageous lobby with a grand, circular stair inside a glass pavilion. That place struck me, and I’ve always remembered it. When I began practicing, I was quite taken by the work of Kalach, Broid, and Norten, who were challenging the strictures of critical regionalism and the “emotional architecture” that followed the works of Barragán. That was why I approached Enrique to ask if I could work for him. He didn’t have any positions open but I said, “just let me learn, don’t worry about paying me,” and that conversation turned into my first real studio job.

How has being from Mexico City informed your work?
Design is everywhere in Mexico—textiles, ceramics, paintings, even food. We see it, we breathe it. Design feels intrinsic to our culture, part of our DNA.Our culture is a blend of pre-colonial cultures, and the mix of baroque and Moorish influences of the Spanish conquerors. Therefore our arts are infused with mysticism, expressive forms and colors. As a counterpoint, I found with enormous interest an almost opposite aesthetic approach in the U.S., one that is more rational, structured, organized and pragmatic. So in my work I try to balance sensibility with rationale. My approach, as a designer, is that rationale frames the basis of design and then I let my emotions and feelings drive my hand. 

How did you learn what being a designer meant?
Understanding processes, foreseeing problems and workload, organizing a team, managing client requests and budget issues—I think these are all things that can be learned through training or experience. But design per se…it may be something you come wired with and hone through discipline. 

We say that form is the byproduct of thought, but there’s a certain magic that happens through one’s sensibilities. You might craft a great story and yet not make a beautiful object, and on the other side you make a great object with no underpinning thought at all, which can be problematic, so there’s this perfect balance that must be struck between rationale and feeling. 

What are your inspirations outside of architecture?
I find a lot of interest in graphic design. I enjoy the proportion, balance and depth of two-dimensional compositions. I also learn a lot from object design—the different ways that things can be put together, the physics of materials, the elegance of forms, the mechanics of assemblies, etc. This is an old topic in architecture, but I also enjoy the correlation between music and architecture. Both represent spatial phenomena—volume, depth, rhythm, harmony—and music can elicit the same kind of emotions that catalyze an idea or result from appreciating a space in a certain way.

What is it you really want to do on projects?
I want to make sure that the project responds responsibly to its context, that it is well situated in its city or place, that it ties seamlessly with the local culture, and that it will age properly. When we look back to our designs in five or ten years and find the quintessential concepts are still there, and that people are enjoying what we made, then we can measure the impact of our design—and that’s the most rewarding achievement.