WRNS Studio’s New Associates on Leadership, Studio Culture, and What’s Next

WRNS Studio’s New Associates on Leadership, Studio Culture, and What’s Next

Our new Associates share their thoughts on leadership and what makes WRNS an incredible place to work.

WRNS defines its work as being about beauty, sustainability, and the public realm. What do these concepts mean to you?

Daniel Johnson: In my opinion, architecture is useless without people, and for me, architecture that extends its experience to the public realm is probably one of the most exciting potential offerings of architecture. Buildings that are primarily private almost seem like giant rocks in a stream redirecting the flow of water, whereas publicly infused architecture is more akin to bridge, and I would prefer to build bridges versus dams. Metaphors aside, some of my favorite works of architecture have incredible public experiences – the modern entry plaza to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid by Jean Nouvel had a profound impact on my understanding of the power of architecture and the public realm. Not only did the architecture create an interesting relationship to the historical building it was attached to but the way Nouvel created drama from the sky to the plaza was a magical experience that opened my eyes to how architecture not only shelters and defines space, but creates phenomenal connections between earth and sky. When you mix in a flowing stream of people into an experience like architectural value becomes truly evident.

Emily Jones: Beauty, to me, is a moment (usually fleeting) that is prompted by an experience of place. As an observer and a designer, I seek to both experience and create beauty; however, I have found that, in attempting to create beauty through architecture, it is essential to acknowledge and utilize the beauty found in nature. Therefore, for me, architectural beauty is a deliberate and skillful composition of natural elements of beauty translated through design that, when successful, evokes a visceral experience of place. Consequently, for me, beauty and sustainability are inextricably linked as sustainable design strives to preserve what, to me, is an essential element of beautiful design – nature.

Ben Mickus:  While all buildings occupy a space necessarily, it is the interaction of a building with the surrounding space that transforms into place.  This is what excites me about architecture: a building and the space around it fusing into something more than any of the constituent parts, and becoming a piece of the ever-changing public realm.  While the public realm as an abstract concept is fluid, dynamic and buzzing with energy, it is architecture in the public realm that somehow channels that energy, allowing it to be experienced through the creation of views, moments, sequences, tactile interactions, and relations to context.  We create a unique experience of a place.


What do you think makes a good leader?

Dan Sakai: I have a toddler who likes to lead me around. Her inclinations rarely coincide with the rest of the family’s, but she enjoys a song called Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes – you may know it – which provides a useful mnemonic for leadership in grown-up organizations.

  • Head: Clear thinking leads to insight and level headed decisions.

  • Shoulders: Sharing the load inspires and builds team cohesion.

  • Knees and toes: Dynamism requires nimble responses and flexibility to address changing markets and individual project and team needs.

The verse repeats and the children touch the different body parts as they sing along. Then there is a bridge including:

  • Eyes: Vision requires a long view and hawk-eyes for shortcomings and opportunities.

  • Ears and Mouth: A strong communicator is both articulate and a good listener.

  • Nose: Integrity is crucial; when something fails the smell test, action is taken.

I am not suggesting adults need to be able to touch their toes, but leadership touchstones are central to effective, inspirational organizations. Getting my daughter pointed in the right direction is another matter.


What drew you to WRNS when you first came? What made you want to stay?

Daniel Johnson: It sounds obvious, but the work is what drew me to WRNS. There was a clear point of view – architecture that was tuned to its context, composed thoughtfully, and used materials in ways that were modern and sophisticated. Additionally I was very impressed and intrigued by the fact that WRNS grew the practice through a terrible recession, and some great work came out of that period of time, which to me signaled that this was a company that knew how to run a successful business, a trait I was very interested in learning. What makes me stay is all of the above but with an added layer, the staff and leadership is incredible. I feel like I can be myself here, and I am surrounded by a bunch of really smart, creative, interesting and idiosyncratic people who have given so much to my professional and personal life. As much as they are my colleagues they are (for better or worse) becoming my family.  

Lily Weeks: The work at WRNS is what drew me first. I wanted to be a part of the growing interior design practice in an architecture firm, after all, my education is in architecture and my experience in interior design – it was a great fit for me. What made me stay was the studio environment that I can only describe as a rigorous creative hive with some of the most talented people you will meet, what else could I ask for?


What are you excited about in architecture right now?

Hattie Stroud: The way in which social responsibility is becoming an important part of practice is really great. I’m a big fan of offices like MASS Design Group that really champion the ways design can be beautiful but also smart, sustainable, and supportive of its community. This isn’t about community process dictating a design – it’s about architecture that is responsive to its context.


Where do you see WRNS in the next five years? How do you want to see us grow?

Ben Mickus:  As WRNS grows, the design profile of the firm–as defined by the caliber of projects we pursue–should grow with it.  The diversity of projects in the office has been so strong since the inception of WRNS, and I hope it will continue to be a defining strength, as we deepen our experience across so many practice areas.


What are your inspirations outside of architecture?

Dan Sakai: Autonomous vehicles are super-exciting. As economies of scale incentivise ride-sharing over personal vehicle ownership, tremendous amounts of land currently used to store empty cars may become available in places we care about: along our streets, on the ground immediately surrounding many destinations, and in robust structures in high land-value areas. Extensive use of ride-shared autonomous vehicles may actually align incentives for congestion pricing, change commute patterns and public transit paradigms and radically shift development and planning patterns (for better or worse). There is a lot at stake for urban communities and the environment.

Lily Weeks: Art & fashion. Every morning I walk to work, 30 minutes downhill – I walk past the merchandise displays of Prada, Valentino, Dior & Britex Fabrics. These brief but constant glimpses of human centered design, textiles, and pattern play give me my first creative jump start to the day. In moments of creative daze I have taken a short respite to SFMOMA, just a few blocks from the office, to visit a favorite piece, wander a new exhibit or sit & reflect on a balcony.