‘You have to have a plan’

Class Acts-Community: Architect Ryan A. Wilson wants to improve youth mental health in St. Louis

Ryan Wilson
Ryan A. Wilson, a master’s candidate in architecture and construction management at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, sits at his desk in Givens Hall. (Photo: Carol Green/Washington University)

As a kid biking the streets of Kinloch and Ferguson, Mo., Ryan A. Wilson was drawn to construction sites. “I loved looking at buildings,” he recalled with a smile. “It was always fascinating to see things go up. It’s kind of in my blood.”

Class ActsAfter earning his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, in 2013, Wilson joined HOK, the St. Louis-based firm co-founded by fellow alumnus Gyo Obata, who earned an architecture degree in 1945. He spent the next two years working on Parkview Tower, a new 12-story facility for Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

More with Ryan A. Wilson

Hometown: St. Louis

On launching a career: “Right now, look outside, you can see that we’re building everywhere in St. Louis. For architects and designers, there’s a lot of opportunity here.”

On time management: “Construction sites are always moving; they never stop. One of the biggest challenges is time. There’s never enough time, but you never get more time, and new things pop up. So you have to be flexible, but you also have to have a plan.”

“I was part of the information modeling team and responsible for producing construction documents,” Wilson said. “It was a great opportunity, right out of undergrad.”

But professional experience is just one requirement toward Wilson’s ultimate objective: earning his architecture license. And so, in 2015, he returned to the Sam Fox School’s Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design as a Chancellor’s Fellow and master’s candidate in both architecture and construction management. “It was all part of the plan,” he quipped. “I’m very goal-oriented.”

Now, themes of youth and health are informing Wilson’s final degree project, which explores architecture’s capacity, both figurative and literal, for rebuilding community. Titled “A Broken Mind in a Glass Box,” the plan centers on a proposed mental health center for young adults in northwestern St. Louis.

A model of Wilson’s degree project, a mental health facility for youth in north St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Ryan A. Wilson)

“Childhood trauma, if it goes untreated, can cause issues throughout one’s life,” he said. “But mental health isn’t something that gets talked about in urban communities. If you’ve seen someone get killed, or if you don’t have a parent in the home, nobody says ‘Go get help.’ It’s kind of taboo.”

Situated at the intersection of Page and Taylor, near Ranken Technical College (where Wilson earned his associate’s degree in 2009), the two-story, steel-frame structure would encompass a variety of functions and healing opportunities.

“This isn’t the typical mental health center,” Wilson explained. “It’s surrounded by green space, it’s filled with natural light and natural materials. Kids can talk to a therapist and get assessed, but they also have opportunities for sports, for music and dance, for drama and art.

“It’s a welcoming place for families and a beacon for the community.”

Class Act: Terri Williams

Terri Williams is taking her master’s degree in American culture studies from University College in Arts & Sciences, along with a passion for teaching and inspiring young people, right back into neighboring University City. Read her remarkable story here.

Meanwhile, Wilson has continued working with local firms, most recently KAI Design & Build. There, projects have ranged from the BJC West County Hospital in Creve Coeur, Mo., to James M. McKelvey, Sr. Hall, part of Washington University’s east end transformation, the largest capital project ever undertaken on the Danforth Campus. After graduation, Wilson will join KAI full time as a project engineer.

“In the studio, you have a lot of opportunity to follow your own ideals,” Wilson mused. But working with a client, on a large-scale project involving hundreds of people, “there are hard deadlines. If something is due that day, it’s due that day. It has to get done.

“Once the clock starts moving, it doesn’t stop until the job is finished.”

On May 2, Wilson presented his degree project for final review. Reviewers were receptive, and both his father and his own son, 10-year-old Bryan, were in attendance.

“He really enjoyed it,” Wilson said, cracking a smile. “He’s good at math, and likes aviation and robotics.

“I think he’s going to be an engineer, but he says he wants to be an architect.”

Situated at the intersection of Page and Taylor, the project would include facilities for youth counseling as well as sports, dance, theater and other activities. (Image: Ryan A. Wilson)
Read more about the Class Acts of 2019 here.