HGA Architects and Engineers’ Joan Soranno, FAIA, and John Cook, FAIA, share a studio and collaborate on design projects. And when the day is done, they go home to the house they own—and have renovated—together.
By Joel Hoekstra
In Joan Soranno’s workspace at HGA Architects and Engineers in Minneapolis is a large table filled with blueprints, drawings, models, and a turntable. The latter item is set atop a box, and when she is working on a project, she places the model on the turntable at eye level, so she can look at the building from “street level.” Occasionally, as she spins the model, Soranno peers down a corridor or through a set of windows and sees a face peering back: It’s John Cook, her office mate, fellow architect, and husband.
Soranno and Cook have been married for six years and have collaborated as architects for more than two decades. Accomplished designers as individuals, they now market themselves as a team, providing services to primarily cultural clients. Their award-winning projects include a garden mausoleum for Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis and the chapel at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minnesota, and they were recently commissioned to design an expansion for the Walker Art Center. Publications ranging from Architect magazine to the New York Times have lauded their designs, and clients speak fondly of their experiences with the pair. “We had a marvelous working relationship,” Wilson Yates, former president of United Theological Seminary, says of his meetings with the couple regarding Bigelow Chapel. “There is such substance to these two people, and it emanates in what they do.”
JOHN, MEET JOAN
Cook and Soranno met in 1991 at MSR (then Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle), when the Minneapolis firm was hired to execute Frank Gehry’s designs for the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. Cook, an MSR veteran charged with figuring some of the most technical aspects of the complicated project, returned from a few days’ vacation to discover that his bosses had hired Soranno—then just 29, with almost no technical experience—to assist him. “All I could think was, ‘Oh no . . . what am I going to do with this person?’” he recalls.
But Soranno proved hardworking and a quick study, and Cook was pleased to learn that his new colleague’s skills complemented his own. He’s known among his peers as “an architect’s architect,” while she’s often described as an artist, but both have high standards and like to push the limits of what is possible, both creatively and technically. When Soranno left MSR for HGA in the mid-1990s, it was with the understanding that they would collaborate again soon.
Shortly thereafter, Cook followed her to HGA. Their work styles are now so synced that they can practically finish each other’s sentences and schematics. “When Joan sketches or describes something, I know in just a few strokes or words what she has in mind,” says Cook.
There’s no signature style to the couple’s work—a handful of angular wood cottages for the Marlboro Music Festival, for example, were based on the Cape Cod form, while the white-stucco Barbara Barker Center for Dance at the University of Minnesota is all about curves. Rather than stamping each building with a particular style, the couple homes in on the goals for each project with unique passion for the process. “Joan immerses herself in the client’s world and develops a very intuitive sense of the client’s reality,” says Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA, director of the University of Minnesota’s Metropolitan Design Center. “Her imaginative response to the experience of her clients is remarkable. Meanwhile, John, ever sensible and creative in his own right, plays an invaluable role in realizing the ideas. They make a brilliant team.”
Cook and Soranno are both in their 50s, tend to dress alike in grays and blacks, and clearly share the same taste in art, books, and travel destinations. But clients and colleagues note clear differences in their personalities and roles: Joan is passionate and creative; John is quiet and pragmatic.
Winona County Historical Society executive director Mark Peterson commissioned the duo to design an addition for the Winona County History Center in the late 2000s. He recalls working with them to resolve a problem with a donor who wanted his name on a room. “He had his own ideas and even had designers who worked for him, but they weren’t architects. Joan had her ideas and fought very hard for them,” says Peterson. “I admired her fortitude—I learned a lot from both her and John. We trusted them to deliver, and they more than gave us what we were asking for.”
In 2002, after nearly a decade of working together, Soranno and Cook began to see each other outside the office. “I think if you can work well with someone eight or more hours a day, there’s probably a pretty good chance you’d be compatible with them outside work as well,” says Soranno. They married in 2009.
Work consumes much of their lives, the couple admits. But at home they rarely talk about projects or clients. Soranno runs each day, and Cook works out at the gym. They both read avidly, and roughly once a year they travel to Florida for a few days at the beach. In recent years, much of their off-hours time has been spent gutting and remodeling the interior of their Mediterranean house in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood.
“John can build anything,” Soranno says of the remodel, during which they lived amid the dust and debris. “I, on the other hand, had never used a paintbrush before this project.” Now complete, the refreshed interior with its clean lines and detailing echoes the aesthetic these architects bring to their work for clients: design that marries beauty, simplicity, and functionality.
“We spend almost 24 hours a day together—at work, at meetings, at home,” says Soranno. “Not every couple would want that. But the good thing about our partnership is that, in almost every way, it’s complementary.”