Expressing Passion: Misa Lund on Staying Fluid and Designing a Practice
By Julia Gamolina
Misa Lund is the Managing Principal of wHY, having started at the firm as a designer, then serving as the director of wHY’s IDEAS Studio. She is a strategic thinker, helming the creative management of the firm and its projects, with a foot in both sides of architectural practice. Her approach is rooted in a deep interest in how people and communities can be better engaged in the process of design to create experiences that are unique and relevant.
As the previous Director of the Ideas Workshop at wHY, and now its Managing Principal, she leads a variety of projects and strategic initiatives. She is particularly passionate about working in the diverse cultural landscape of Los Angeles, where after 20 years, it is possible to discover new places, ideas and communities. In her interview, Misa speaks to Julia about designing a practice, encouraging young architects to express their passions and to be open-minded.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
ML: First, there was a very subconscious influence when I was younger. My Japanese grandfather, my maternal grandfather, was a traditional carpenter and quite well known for his craft in the area. He passed away when I was really young but the stories of his work, of building and making things, were always with me.
I also grew up in the kansai area in Japan. At the time, Tadao Ando was becoming very active. He was active internationally, but in Japan, and in that particular region, we would see a lot of him speaking about community and doing more community activism. He was on TV a lot, talking about cultural identity and public space in Japan. I didn’t then make the connection to architecture as a field and a possible profession, but I think it always kind of stuck with me. When I came here to study, the dots finally connected.
What did you learn about yourself in architecture school?
In college, I actually first started studying psychology. That was my passion in high school and I was interested in doing social work. Being in a pretty large research university in an urban setting, I naturally met a lot of people, and eventually met people in the architecture school. I started to take some classes. Along the way, I think the past experience I had and what was in the back of my mind really clicked.
I discovered that I like the broad problem solving - trying to think about the challenges of our city, our time, and then trying to resolve that through space. I was hooked by the idea that solutions could come from so many different perspectives and so many different influences, doing something that didn’t have necessarily a right or wrong answer at the end of the day but was really an exploration of all the different aspects of our lives.
How did you get your start after school?
There was a recession when I graduated, so I first went to work for a graphic design firm called Sussman/Perzja, who had done the graphics and branding for the 1980 Olympics. Deborah Sussman was a very influential figure to me - she had developed, with Paul, a very collaborative work culture. It was kind of the start of the interdisciplinary thinking for me, the exposure I got in her office.
From there on, I got introduced to a planning and architecture group based in New York, EE&K, though I was employed here in LA. That was pretty foundational for me because I went from studying architecture to first working in graphic design, which is a different way of looking at design, and then coming to a planning firm which had large scale projects. I had to learn and adapt very quickly to understand building and construction at that scale. For me, looking back, that experience added another layer to the design process that is focused on public space and urban planning, and less on architecture. The training I got there from all of the people helped me to develop a design approach that is responsive to the issues that are unique to each scale.
What did you do next?
A principal at EE&K left the firm shortly after I joined to start his own practice. I was his first employee, and then he grew the office to about thirty people.
I was with him for ten years. It was foundational, because being there from the beginning in a small office, you see a lot of different aspects of the practice beyond the design, beyond the projects. I was exposed to financial and other aspects of what it takes to run a practice, which is kind of in a way what brings me to today. I didn’t know it at the time, but it may have been a career changer for me. It sparked an interest. It was the first time I became interested in how the management of the practice affects the outcome and how those two are really interrelated.
How does the management affect the outcomes of a practice? What were some of the lessons learned?
The practice itself is a design challenge. The people, how you develop the process, how much structure you create - all of those things are unique to each firm and are constantly being tested. These decisions really affect how that creative process can take place, especially when you are trying to do interdisciplinary work. How do you create an environment of collaboration that leads to innovation?
The projects that had that spark, had multiple disciplines, builders and thinkers at the table from the very beginning, almost on day one. Creating that kind of environment for collaboration isn’t linear and isn’t about rules or boundaries of who does what. We need to leave things open so people can ask questions and dig deep into solving problems together in real time. In order to create that, you have to have a certain communications and operational structure, one that isn’t hierarchical or departmental. You want specialists that aren’t being confined by their specialties. The deep knowledge is as important as the naïve questions. That process and that structure is what I really have seen work and I believe in it.
You’ve been with wHY now for almost ten years as well. What have been the main milestones here?
I initially joined as the Ideas Director. We have four workshops: ideas, grounds, buildings, and objects. Ideas is more of the ‘how’ aspect of things – how to get the most value out of the process, how to execute strategy, and how to approach the program and other underlying things behind the architectural design process. I got to engage with a wide variety of projects this way and I also ran some projects that were local in LA including CalArts, Pomona College and some exhibit design projects.
In 2015, I left for a little bit when I had my son. The experience shifted my perspective. I was trying to reassess my career at that time, to find out what I really want to pursue and how I do that while having a family. During that time, I started my own practice, but about a year later, when Kulapat called and asked if I wanted to come back, I realized that I really missed the collaborative environment and working with a team of people. I took a step back again to look at my whole career and think about what would be the thing that I really want to do, and I came back full circle to the idea that I most enjoy the challenge of designing the practice. I rejoined wHY in 2016 and I‘ve been here since.
Where do you feel like you are in your career today?
Today I feel like I’m at a beginning. A lot of things have connected for me, and I feel I’m doing things that I’m passionate about. I’m very excited about the future of this field - it’s a very interesting time to be thinking about the future of the practice. So much has changed in the last 10 years and I think there will be even more disruption in our field. In the last 10 years, we have seen bigger firms expand as multidisciplinary businesses and smaller firms focusing on building partnerships. We’ve seen changes in the approach to data and all sorts of input, hatching new types of design practices. We’ve seen how technology has affected both how we do the work and the outcome of the work. What kind of practices will come to the forefront? This is really a time when architects and architecture will reassess their value proposition as a field in the context of where all the challenges lie.
Looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
For me, professionally, I am pretty introverted by nature. Starting from architecture school and getting up in front of a group of strangers and speaking about your work and then being questioned - those were things that were constantly a challenge at every level of my career. I’ve learned to not be afraid to make a mistake and put forward what you believe in - engaging people and having discourse in that way can be really elevating. You have to put yourself out there.
What about the biggest highlights?
Meeting such a diverse group of inspiring people. I am constantly learning new things and hearing new perspectives. As architects, we get so involved with different people and their lives - one day you are working with non-profits and homeless children and the next day you are talking about the future of museums. Our work touches a broad spectrum of our society and it’s incredible to be able to do that.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I come back to what my mother has always said, which is to be fluid. There is a better word for it in Japanese. On the one hand, being very determined and singularly driven has its own value. But she has always reminded me to look outside of the situation, to look at the bigger picture and the context of everything. I’ve always considered the opportunities that have come up. Even though they might not initially have seemed like something I would have pursued or might not fit conventional wisdom - if I felt it was the right thing at that time, I would follow that path. That has taken me to very interesting places and they’ve all connected.
What advice do you give to architects that are just starting their careers?
Let your passion guide you and be open-minded about the doors that open along the way. Passion is infectious, and if you can express it - not just have it but express it - as you engage with people, you can bridge across all kinds of differences and all kinds of challenging situations. If people see that you’re passionate, everybody's energy elevates. That’s been my experience - people will guide you and help you once they see it.