Michael E. Willis, FAIA, Michael Willis Architects

Michael Willis, the principal of Michael Willis Architects, with offices in San Francisco and Portland, Ore., has had the kind of success envied by architects of every race who have wanted to own and run a successful firm. His early high school, though, is echoed by many minority architects: “I wasn’t particularly outgoing but I loved drawing. My mother was a successful commercial artist. My first stumble in the road was in my high school.” Instead of architecture school, his counselor steered him towards trade school. Luckily, the senior counselor took him aside and said “if you want to go to architecture school, I’ll get you to the door. You’ll have to do the work yourself, but if that’s where you want to go, I’ll get you there.’”

After Washington University, Willis worked for Charles Fleming, a large black-owned firm in St. Louis, where he learned business development. Subsequent time teaching at Berkeley taught him the power of talent-driven small firms doing substantive work.

After time back in St. Louis, then again to San Francisco to start an office there for Fleming, Willis started his own firm in 1988. “Our design approach was to create a place where the solutions were,” he says. He was 37.

His firm’s breakthrough came, not surprisingly, through public work. What was surprising was the type: water purification facilities. The Sobrante Ozonation Facility, in El Sobrante, Calif., become the flagship for the district, enticing visitors from the water industry and the general public. Avoiding discussion of the size of his firm (four persons) or its longevity, he concentrated during the selection process on what people who work there need: light and air … a good place to work. That project led to two other water-purification projects, profitable work that earned the money it needed to buy computers, office space, and chairs. Being an expert in such a specialization has its advantages, Willis says. “There’s almost no bar to your being involved if you understand the technology,” he contends. “And because it’s not glamorous, it narrows the field.”

Willis approaches community development similarly. He talks to the public client about the way people live. What can you see from the window? How does light and air get into your building? What’s your relationship with the outside from your front door?


Anonymous said...

A joke-there are no 'Black Swans' but, a BLACK FAUST, now there is a
label that will stick and resound through this period of American History.

Anonymous said...

Oh,and yeh-How did the Detroit Office work for you?-you were
used-and I don't think you realize
it-enough said!