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Stan Wagnon (left) and Bill Burris have intentionally kept their architecture firm small because they enjoy personally working on design and construction documents, as well as overseeing the construction projects.

Intentionally small Burris/Wagnon Architects defies fashion and trend

By BECKY GILLETTE

Burris/Wagnon Architects, P.A., is an “intentionally small” firm in Jackson that has had a big impact on architecture in the state. The firm has designed a wide variety of commercial, residential, civic, ecclesiastical, and educational projects across the state. The firm has won more than a dozen state, regional, and national design awards over the years, and has had work appear in several publications.

“They are good, really good, defying fashion and trend,” said Michael Berk, Director of the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University. “I admire their work. “Stan Wagnon and Bill Burris are alums of the MSU School of Architecture. We are proud of their office, also made up of younger alums, as they continue to produce profound and beautiful work in the state of Mississippi.”

Burris and Wagnon met at MSU’s School of Architecture in the late 1980s, graduating in ’89 and ’91, respectively, establishing their own architectural firm about ten years later. The firm was established by Wagnon, who was joined by Burris in 2000, becoming Burris/Wagnon Architects, P.A. at that time.

The firm was founded with the idea that full staff size would never exceed five or six, including principals. They have found this scale of team has worked well, for both large and small projects, for 21 years.

“We as principals really enjoy working on the projects on a daily basis,” said Burris. “We enjoy personally working on design and construction documents, as well as overseeing the construction projects. Remaining smaller has allowed us to successfully fulfill this early vision. At this size, we never feel that we, or any of our staff, are inadvertently left out of the process. We like for all team members to feel part of the project. Most of our projects are touched in some way by every member of the firm.”

Burris and Wagnon feel that they well-complement one another, work closely with one another, and with all staff, on practically every project produced by the office.

“We do not generally run multiple studios within the firm,” Burris said. “It happens at times, but is not necessarily the model. We usually function as a single studio. We have found this process to work well for us and for the cohesion of our projects.”

Burris/Wagnon, considering themselves general practitioners, have enjoyed designing a diversity of project types, of all shapes and sizes, over the years, including occasional residential work, ecclesiastical projects, and a wide array of public projects, large and small, many on state agency, college, and university campuses.

Wagnon said the firm does not produce a particular style, or type of work. “Rather than pursue current trends, or stylistic uniformity, among our projects, we would rather be known for an overall quality of our work, work that is well-considered, well-designed, and well-built for our clients,” Wagnon said. “We strive to meet not only the programmatic and functional needs of our clients, but also their more human needs for beauty, space, and light. We aim for a timeless architecture, one that holds its aesthetic value and energy over many years. It is important to us that one of our projects, aesthetically, is as important and accessible to a user in 50 years as it was at its ribbon-cutting.”

Wagnon said the firm’s passion for architecture is rooted in its love of materials, how these materials converge with one another into details, and then how these details interplay with natural light to create architectural space.

“Our work is carefully detailed–the interface of a steel beam with a brick wall is important to us, and we believe that a family of such details within a project work together to define and enhance architectural space,” Wagnon said.

Burris was reared in Clinton, but enjoyed visiting family on Delta farms throughout his childhood. Wagnon grew up in a small town in the Muscle Shoals area in north Alabama, also spending lots of his childhood on family farms. Both principals feel that these childhood experiences greatly influenced their later architectural work.

“Much of our work certainly exhibits a vernacular quality that originated in these formative childhood experiences,” Wagnon said. “However subtle that quality may be in our current buildings, we are nonetheless able to think within our pasts to the beautiful way that structure may have been used in, say, an industrial or agricultural building, and how these memories weave their way into our current-day architecture. Vernacular architecture embodies universality in its response to the environment, and we seek to embody this same universality in our work.”

And the design and construction principles that led to sustainability in great vernacular architecture are not unlike the principles employed in contemporary practice to attain sustainable architecture, Burris said.

“We just might pursue sustainability with slightly different and newer materials than those utilized in earlier vernacular architecture,” Burris said. “Most of our buildings, these days, would be considered very energy efficient when compared with buildings just 20, or even 10, years ago.”

While they have enjoyed working on many projects over the years, a few stand out, for various reasons. Two very early projects that lent themselves to much exploration, soul searching, and professional growth included the original construction phases of First Baptist Jackson’s MissionFirst campus in the Westpark Community, as well as a residential project, a writing studio for Mississippi authors Willie Morris and JoAnne Prichard Morris.

Much of Burris/Wagnon’s more recent work has included campus projects. Three projects that have really proved meaningful to the firm include a Classroom Building project at the State Fire Academy, an extensive Addition and Renovation to Miss. University for Women’s Fant Library in Columbus, and a very recent renovation of Delta State’s mid-century cafeteria in Cleveland.

Wagnon said the small Fire Academy project was particularly meaningful to him.

“I felt that in this project, the rawest of materials–masonry, steel– morphed into something more special,” Wagnon said. “They became memorable, as their relationships with one another became spatial.”

A project that stands out for Burris is the much larger Mississippi University for Women Library project, designed and constructed over a 10-year period.

“This building presented numerous technical and planning challenges, but we felt that, after all of the years involved in the project, the campus ended up with an interesting functional, spatially-rich, and timeless complex that students and staff seem really to enjoy,” Burris said. “The original building was, in many ways, completely re-purposed from a vault for books to a more open and transparent collaborative vessel for people. The new addition, including meeting, classroom, and study spaces, connects to the original building with glass bridges, enveloping an internal courtyard for sculpture and outdoor functions. The project was really rewarding, in that we got to work so closely with a client, for so many years, who was so invested in making an important, and needed campus gathering space.”

Another favorite project is the newly opened Delta State Cafeteria project that the two architects said benefited from extensive campus input, resulting in a fascinating re-configuration of original space by opening a previously concealed attic space, resulting in a daylight-filled food court and kitchen space that students and staff alike have already embraced and enjoyed for several weeks.

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