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Business News/ News / It Was Back to the Literal Drawing Board When These Two Architects Imagined Their Own Home
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It Was Back to the Literal Drawing Board When These Two Architects Imagined Their Own Home

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Eschewing technology, this couple used hand-drawn schematics and physical models to design their dream home in Minneapolis

Joan Soranno and John Cook, both architects, call this contemporary home they designed for themselves on Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis the Analog House because they used old-school methods of drafting the plans by hand, instead of using computer-generated drawings, and building physical models.Premium
Joan Soranno and John Cook, both architects, call this contemporary home they designed for themselves on Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis the Analog House because they used old-school methods of drafting the plans by hand, instead of using computer-generated drawings, and building physical models.

Joan Soranno and John Cook clicked from the start. They met when they were working as architects on a Frank Gehry-designed project in 1991 in Minneapolis and spent the ensuing decades as partners, first in work and then in marriage.

Together, they have designed many award-winning cultural landmarks, from  the Marlboro Music Reich Hall Rehearsal Building & Music Library in Vermont to the Bigelow Chapel at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

But Soranno and Cook had never designed a new house together for themselves.

Then, in 2019, they saw a lake-facing, quarter acre lot for sale in the Lake of the Isles neighborhood, about a five-minute drive to downtown Minneapolis, and bought it for $1.4 million. They spent the next three years and $1.8 million building a 3,000-square-foot, two-bedroom white brick classical style contemporary.

They named their home Analog House—a nod to their decision to design it using the old-school methods of drafting the plans by hand, instead of using computer-generated drawings, and building physical models.

“It was incredibly fun to go back to basics," says Cook, 67, who built models and mock-ups of different brick veneers that he wheeled on dollies to see how they looked in various lighting conditions. “It’s why both of us got interested in architecture in the first place."

Soranno, 62, says hand-drawing the plans meant more of a commitment to every line she created. “There is a different level of thoughtfulness. With a computer, everything is so throwaway."

The house is a combination of modern and old school. To make sure it wasn’t out of place with the historic homes in the neighborhood, they chose brick instead of metal and wood, starting with a red-orange color but ending with a weathered, lime-washed brick to fit with the light stucco of the house next door. They forwent more modern, floor-to-ceiling glass walls in some areas in lieu of deep-set, punched windows to make the exterior look more traditional. The ceilings were kept relatively low (around 9-feet) to create the same scale as the older houses around them.

The interior is all white oak floors and white walls, with perfectly-placed iconic modern furnishings: Noguchi table and lights, a Philippe Starck sofa, Barcelona Chairs, an Eames Stool, a Saarinen Womb Chair, and a dining table designed by Cook. The main room has a coffered ceiling and the kitchen, with stark white counters and cabinets, is open to a dining area and living room. Large windows look out to a central courtyard in the back. During the day, the white drapes on the windows that face the lake are kept open; at night the couple closes them and turns on the lights in the courtyard. The goal is to always see nature, says Soranno.

Upstairs, the primary bedroom has a fireplace and 8-foot four-inch ceilings. The windows wrap around the corner, facing east and south with expansive views of the lake. Soranno and Cook like to watch people run and cross-country ski along the path below; in the winter, when the lake freezes over, an annual event includes a candlelit trail lined with ice sculptures, illuminating the landscape at night.

Perhaps no rooms showcase the couple’s idiosyncrasies as much as their workspaces. Cook’s workshop features several drawers of tools—pliers, wrenches, squares—perfectly symmetrically arranged by Soranno, like a display in a science museum. An arrangement of oil cans that resembles an art exhibition and a restored 1929 stained glass window hangs in a frame made by Cook. Soranno’s studio is equally meticulous, with an L-shaped white desk holding small models of the couple’s past works and a 1970s era Braun shortwave radio, cleaned and restored by Cook.

Soranno inherited the Braun radio from her father, who was an executive for the company and moved the family to Milan, Italy, when Soranno was in fourth grade. Growing up there, near the Duomo, had a big impact on her love of design and architecture, as did having classic designs by Braun around the house: “That beauty and environment became part of my DNA," she says.

Her affinity for mechanical drawing informed her precise drafting and her love of microscopic, black and white things, she says. Soranno chose to attend architecture school at the University of Notre Dame, where she graduated in 1984, in part because of the classic gothic architecture on the campus.

Cook’s focus is more mechanical and material: “My passion is how things work," he says. Growing up in Minneapolis, he built a hockey rink in the backyard every winter and made tables and cabinets for his parents. He fully intended to become a welder on high-rise buildings, but an extremely cold winter in 1976 changed his mind, and he shifted to architecture, graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1982.

Cook says his approach to architecture changed after he worked closely with Gehry on a guesthouse in Minneapolis in 1986 and he saw how Gehry wasn’t constrained by conventional design methods but instead pushing the limits by exploring new ideas, physical models and sketching by hand.

The couple met when Gehry chose Cook, who was working at Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR Design), to lead a team of architects integrating his design for the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. Soranno, who was working for national architectural firm Hammel, Green and Abrahamson (HGA) at the time, got word of the project and jumped ship to MSR.

After the project was finished in 1993, Soranno went back to HGA, and Cook later joined HGA in 1997. “We were constantly talking about how to find a way to work together," says Soranno, who says their styles are complimentary.

In 2004, now romantically involved, Cook and Soranno bought a 2,200-square-foot, three-bedroom circa 1923 Mediterranean style house together for $500,000 in Lake of the Isles. They married in 2009 and spent the next decade on extensive renovations of their home, using the same process as they later did in building their new house: Cook drew quick sketches of ideas, which Soranno transformed into detailed drafts based on the mechanical details provided by Cook. Cook did much of the physical labor, including framing and painting, with Soranno acting as “tender" (“I’m the person who hauls the garbage around" she says).

The couple had no intention of moving from their neighborhood, but they still harbored a desire to create a home together from scratch. One day, driving home from work, Soranno saw a vacant lot for sale.

Throughout 2020, kept at home by the Covid pandemic, they created draft after draft, using 50 sheets of Mylar—a polyester based film used for architectural drawings—compared with around seven for a typical house drawing. Some subcontractors balked at the hand drawn plans, says Soranno.

“They got over it once they talked to us and understood we knew what we were doing,’ she says. In June 2022 they sold their old home for $1.5 million.

Now, the couple is working on a gut renovation of the historic Tudor next door, owned by Minnesota Twins co-owner Bob Pohlad. When he was looking to buy the Tudor one day, Pohlad saw Soranno, whom he knew because she and Cook designed his family’s corporate office, standing in the yard next door; he asked her if there was any hope of reviving what he says was a mess of a house. Soranno and Cook reassured him they could make it amazing, giving him the confidence to make the purchase, he says.

Soranno and Cook have designed a courtyard for the Pohlad home that mirrors their courtyard and put in a front patio terrace similar to the one in their own house. “We are designing it in a way that talks to our house," says Soranno.

Soranno, 62, and Cook, 67, met when they were working as architects on a  Frank Gehry-designed project in 1991 in Minneapolis and spent the resulting decades as partners, first in work and then in marriage.
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Soranno, 62, and Cook, 67, met when they were working as architects on a Frank Gehry-designed project in 1991 in Minneapolis and spent the resulting decades as partners, first in work and then in marriage.

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