Speaker Spotlight on Wendell Burnette, AIA




Wendell Burnette, AIA

Wendell Burnette Architects, Phoenix, AZ


“Great architecture can happen anywhere, any place.”

That was the closing comment of our interview with Wendell Burnette, AIA, who said place is the operative word for his presentation at the AIA Tennessee 2014 Convention & Expo in Nashville July 30-August 1.

“Crafting Place” will explore the general topics of sustainable design, urban design, building envelope and other aspects of design for both public and private projects, from residential design to libraries, hotels and community centers.

He said the authentic reading of place, the context in which a design will happen, is the starting point. “I’m sincerely interested in the specificity of place, what that means, and how that might influence the work. For the people you’re building for, that’s the way it will resonate with them and their place,” Burnette said.


Reading Place

A native of Nashville, TN, Burnette said he was an avid hiker who loved the outdoors, and fell in love early with the West. Now in Arizona, he said reading place is a skill he honed because of the desert and uses daily in his work and in his travels.

“Things are very evident here; it’s kind of a naked landscape, in other words. It’s allowed me to go to any place and maybe bring a fresh set of eyes – not imposing a preconceived idea of what a place is.”

From that point, he said focusing on the experience of a place – how it will work, function and make people feel – is the key to crafting design that goes beyond the temporal. “I’m thinking about that as I work – it’s a kind of synthesis of function and poetics and how we are doing both, because it wants to rise beyond the functional; it wants to be more than a mere building. It wants to become something people really cherish and fall in love with for some visceral reason, because it makes them feel good.”

If his Phoenix studio, Wendell Burnette Architects (WBA) had a mission, Burnette said it would be crafting design that is simultaneously functional and poetic; both useful and aspirational.

Back to Nashville

Burnette said he is “excited” to speak in his hometown – he doesn’t visit often because family has also relocated, but has great memories and experiences of his time there. As a high school junior and senior he worked part-time with William Mims Associates in Nashville, and was influenced by Bill Mims to attend the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, AZ. He returned to Nashville for two years after graduating before accepting a lead position with Will Bruder Architects in Phoenix. He co-designed the Phoenix Library and designed and built his own studio and residence – which made an international splash, including the cover of Architectural Record Houses – and simultaneously launched his own architectural design firm in 1996.

An award-winning self-taught architect, Burnette was the recipient of the prestigious 2009 Academy Award for Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a Professor of Practice with The Design School at Arizona State University, and has taught around the country on the “art of place making,” including Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Firm honors include a 1990 Young Architects Award from Progressive Architecture magazine, a 1999 “Emerging Voices Award’ from the Architectural League of New York, a 1999 P/A Design award from Architecture magazine and three “Record House” awards in 1996, 2000 and 2006 from Architectural Record magazine.

Connect with Wendell Burnette Architects 

Not really one for engaging in social media, Burnette insists he does just fine in the electronic world. “I graduated high school before the PC existed,” he laughed, “But I have a laptop, I do email and I manage my images. My main tool is a roll of sketch paper and that’s the thing I engage the most.” For digital media, he relies on a studio employee. The firm has a presence on the web, as well as several other social media platforms:


Wendell Burnette Architects