ALUMNI FEATURES • Winter 2000

From affordable urban housing to centers for welfare services, architect Michael Willis, FAIA, and his self-built firm create environments that are visually exciting and address the needs of the human spirit.

By Judy H. Watts

"It was like hearing the call of the sea," says Michael Willis of his sudden certainty during a 10th-grade drafting class that he was put on Earth to create buildings. "I said to myself, 'This is it.' But I had no idea how to get there. I didn't even know about architecture school."

Willis almost didn't find out. His artist mother was enthusiastic about his epiphany but unable to advise him. So the teenager who had lived in St. Louis' inner-city Pruitt-Igoe housing and Laclede Town—and who was attending Roosevelt High School in South St. Louis at a time when "it was a pretty rare event for a black St. Louisan to be stepping off the bus at Grand and Arsenal"—turned to his guidance counselor for help.

The woman told Willis he should go to trade school. "We went back and forth about it," Willis says, "and she wasn't changing my mind. I was getting extremely frustrated. I simply didn't know how to take the next step."

As if by celestial fiat, "an angel on Earth" in the guise of a counselor named Gloria W. White was in the next room and had heard every word. White, who would later become vice chancellor for human resources at Washington University, called Willis into her office. "You know what? We'll get you into architecture school," she said.

Willis went on to enroll in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, the school he had always considered from his distance "that mysterious and shining place on the hill." The University was rich in remarkable people, he says; it produced friends he cherishes to this day; and it allowed him to explore everything that was important to him.

When he completed his undergraduate work in 1973, Willis entered what proved to be a life-defining joint master's degree program in architecture and social work at WU. Underwritten then by the National Institute of Mental Health, the dual-degree graduate program trained architects to be responsive to many-faceted public housing needs.

Today Willis, A.B. '73, M.Arch. '76, M.S.W. '76, holds a Distinguished Alumni Award from his alma mater and is a member of its School of Architecture National Council. And he is reveling in the work he was born to do. After spending 10 years with St. Louis' Fleming Corporation, in 1988 he single-handedly launched Michael Willis Architects (MWA) in San Francisco but thought of it as a group practice from the start. Again Willis took perfect measure of possibility. The architecture, interiors, and planning firm now has 36 members and offices in San Francisco and Oakland, California, and in Portland, Oregon.

A fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Willis is known for his award-winning firm's integration of community participation and fine urban design in affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization projects. In the Gateway City alone, he has worked on three major neighborhood efforts and is involved in a fourth, the JeffVanderLou Neighborhood Master Plan, which is supported by the Danforth Foundation. Other types of projects include the 2-million-square-foot International Terminal at San Francisco Airport, and the planning and design of major industrial, health-care, and educational facilities. MWA's unabridged project list would fill a dozen pages.

The heart of his work is transformation architecture, Willis says. "We look at every project as an opportunity for transformation. We always search for the spirit of the project. We want to create environments, for example, that help integrate the poor into society. We can't carve out a moat, put poor-people housing on it, and slice it off from the rest of the city. The St. Louis example would be Pruitt-Igoe. Well, that doesn't go. We don't do that.

"There is always an expectation about a population and what those people may or may not 'deserve.' What we do is transform not only the [client's and public's] ideas of what that population deserves but the population's own expectations as well."

To appreciate what that means, first picture a typical welfare office—a characterless room done in institutional-drab where people wait on folding chairs for a loudspeaker's summons. Now imagine the "self-sufficiency center" MWA designed for California's Alameda County to help people move from welfare to work. It is airy and high-ceilinged, with curving walls, diagonal corridors, skylights, and a striking color scheme: white walls, sunshine-yellow supporting posts and rails, and a high black grid ceiling with recessed lights like scattered polka dots. Both architecturally and technologically, the center looks like a smart 21st-century office, Willis says. "We're modeling the kind of place people will go to find work." The building even helps alter county workers' attitudes as they fulfill their new roles.

Transformation was also the matrix for a structure MWA designed for the homeless in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, one of the city's roughest areas. In close consultation with the commissioning inner-city church leader and his congregation, MWA built 9-story transitional housing next door to the church. Vertical rows of bay windows help integrate the building into the community; a copper cornice shaped like traditional African headrests seems to point to the church. Willis says he knew the building was successful when he watched a tourist walk in with luggage and ask where to check in.

And at a time when contemporary cultural critics, like their 19th-century counterparts, fret about the dehumanizing effects of machines as well as the sacrifice of quality to profit, MWA is drafting equations that include the needs and preferences of people from all economic strata. Many of the firm's projects are commissioned by water districts—among them an ozonation facility designed to fit the environment in El Sobrante, California, "without compromising one iota the engineering protocols and project necessities." Imaginative features abound, such as a main wing constructed like a skylighted art gallery, with panels of glass showcasing the stainless-steel generator, control panels bathed in turquoise-blue light, and bright red and blue pipes. "Workers can move more easily through the facility," Willis says, "so they do their jobs more efficiently." The building is energy-conserving, easy to maintain, and designed with the workers' comfort, safety, and mental attitude in mind.

Willis says he has always been awed by the great cathedrals of Europe, designed so that all who entered could apprehend the central message of spiritual power and glory. Most of MWA's massive waterworks facilities contain vast vertical galleries where visitors grasp the operation's enormity and worth. "When my clients walked into the ozonation facility, they looked around and nodded their heads. They got the point. And so does the public. And it appears, in a way, I have designed my cathedral."

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and is a former editor of this magazine.

 

Photo left: Michael Willis is pictured in front of the Halladie Plaza elevator in San Francisco. In response to a lawsuit from a disabled group, Michael Willis Architects designed it as a sculpture that provides access from Market Street to a plaza and public transportation below.

 

"There is always an expectation about a population and what those people may or may not 'deserve.' What we do is transform not only the [client's and public's] ideas of what that population deserves but the population's own expectations as well."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helping move people from welfare to work, Michael Willis Architects designed a "self-sufficiency center" for California's Alameda County. "We're modeling the kind of place people will go to find work," Willis says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This 9-story transitional housing, designed by Michael Willis Architects (MWA), serves the needs of the homeless in San Francisco's Tenderloin district; the vertical rows of bay windows help integrate the building into the community.