Founding partner William Rawn
Noah Kalina Founding partner William Rawn

The story of how William Rawn became an architect will sound familiar to most other architects—at least the beginning of it. As a child in Pasadena, Calif., Rawn showed artistic talent and enjoyed building models and imaginary towns. As an undergraduate at Yale, he sat in on an art history course taught by Vincent Scully and was inspired.

So he went off to law school and became an attorney.

“Your parents push you in directions they think [are] best,” Rawn says with hindsight. At Harvard Law, he was able to fit in three for-credit courses at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts before graduating with a J.D. in 1969. While working for a law firm in Washington, D.C., he started making limited-edition silkscreens, which were soon carried by the prestigious Pace Gallery in New York. That helped Rawn make up his mind to pursue design and go to architecture school.

“I took the attitude that if I didn’t like it, I could always go back [to law],” Rawn remembers. “Within two months, it was clear that I was probably a better architect than lawyer, and much more passionate about it.” He received an M.Arch. from MIT in 1979.

Three decades later, Rawn’s eponymous Boston firm, founded in 1983, has racked up nine national AIA Honor Awards—including one in 2008 for the interior of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College. William Rawn Associates has become the go-to design architect for elite universities and liberal arts colleges such as Yale, Stanford, Amherst, and Swarthmore. But two major civic projects that are in the works—a 100,000-square-foot facility for the Cambridge Public Library, and a federal courthouse for Cedar Rapids, Iowa—indicate that the firm is held in high regard off campus, as well.

Along with Rawn—who is the firm’s the sole owner, for now—two principals, Douglas Johnston and Clifford Gayley, and a senior associate, Samuel Lasky, share leadership responsibility. All four are designers, and only Lasky teaches, a little: “By any standard, we are totally focused on the practice,” Rawn says.

Long ago, Rawn and his senior colleagues made it a rule not to handle more than five or six projects in schematic design and design development at any one time. This way, he says, all projects enjoy the close involvement of two senior designers. It works financially, too, by promoting efficiency: Going to every client meeting with your co-designer means you don’t repeat yourself or go down blind alleys, Rawn argues. (This efficiency, plus some major awards, launched the firm of 30-plus people into our top spot, above firms 20 times its size.)

WRA has lost only one project due to the sour economy: ?“We’re very, very lucky,” Rawn says. Its early, award-winning work in affordable housing should stand it in good stead during an era of tight budgets. And so should Rawn’s inside knowledge of what makes colleges and universities tick—in the mid-1970s, he was assistant chancellor for physical planning and community affairs at U. Mass-Boston.

For the moment, Rawn is savoring the diversity of projects that have recently come his way, including his first cemetery and first synagogue. “As a lawyer, I would never have gotten to do these kinds of things. [Architecture] is still a generalist profession, and that may fade away—but I hope not.”