Fundamentally Hollywood – Leveraging "Beyond Architecture" Skills With Rasa Bauza

By Amy Spooner

During the economic recession of the early 1990s, Rasa Bauza was exactly where she wanted to be, but unsure of what to do next.

Freshly licensed, she had left Connecticut in 1990 and fulfilled her dream of moving to Los Angeles. But when the work dried up at UIG (a small UCLA-affiliated studio) a few years later and she decided to hang her own shingle, she faced a “now what” moment: The firms weren’t hiring. A post-master’s stint doing architectural research in Switzerland had put her several years behind her peers in acquiring the credentials needed to build a practice. And, it bears repeating, no one was hiring. 

“I told myself, ‘It’s time to get back to fundamentals.’”

Fortunately, Bauza is well versed in fundamentals. One of the things that she says she appreciates most about her education at Michigan is the solid training in architectural history, structures, acoustics, light, air, circulation, environmental sensibility, and site design. But at this particular point in time — this crossroads of how to pay the bills beyond small interior design jobs here and there — the fundamental she drew upon came from lectures by Professor Gunnar Birkerts. “He had said that, in the process of design, we should study every aspect of the project and then set it aside. To be very diligent and thorough in our research so we understood the problem well, but then to let it incubate and trust there will come a moment when the solution clearly presents itself.”

During that early period in L.A., Bauza turned her research eye to the new Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law that requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations. “It seemed obvious that architects would need to know this law, so I might as well learn its practical applications while I had the time.”

Bauza likens the Warner Bros. lot to a small town.

So when Paramount Pictures had the problem of how to incorporate the ADA into the buildings on its lot, Bauza was able to position herself as the solution. She had done small remodels for Paramount as a sole practitioner, so she made known her expertise in the ADA when the studio needed a comprehensive study of how to roll it out. She ultimately parlayed that assignment into eight years of full-time employment with Paramount. “Because of the study, I got to know every single building on the lot,” says Bauza, who notes that a studio lot is like a small town, so becoming intimate with each structure is no small feat. “Since I had this knowledge base, it was natural that I oversee implementing the recommendations I had made.” 

Bauza intended to return to design practice but found she liked working in L.A.’s signature industry. She eventually became executive director of design at Paramount Pictures, where she again benefited from being able to dig in and grasp the fundamentals. “Suddenly, the process of design and construction kicked in and I hired consultants; directed design requirements; managed contracts, budgets, and schedules on multiple projects; and learned how to navigate within a complex enterprise. It was boots-on-the-ground learning where I was the studio client as well as an in-house resource serving the business units and studio executives,” she says. 

In 2001, she joined Warner Bros. as executive director of project management. She is responsible for managing projects throughout the lot, including entitlements for campus development projects; new construction of stages, parking structures, and retail/tour/food service facilities; building renovations for offices, production, and post-production editing; seismic upgrades; and security, utility, and solar panel installations. As part of the company’s sustainability goals and under Bauza’s leadership as a LEED AP, Warner Bros. became the first Hollywood studio to earn certifications of LEED Gold for a new stage and LEED Silver for a commercial interior renovation. “I work at a place that is a leader in environmental initiatives,” says Bauza. “Whether or not certification is pursued, we start each new project with a best-in-class mentality of implementing what we’ve learned from previous projects.”

“The biggest challenge is keeping a lot of plates spinning, maintaining transparency, and communicating clearly within a large, complex corporate enterprise. Every day is different, every project has a unique dynamic, and that’s what I like about my job.” 
— Rasa Bauza

She also is part of the corporate real estate group, which manages the company’s global real estate portfolio. Bauza oversees tenant improvement projects with colleagues in lease transactions, facilities management, accounting, and legal, which is complex because facilities range from being in another state — like the WB Games interactive gaming studio in Seattle — to across an ocean, like a full production studio near London. “I translate into architecture and construction speech what the enterprise and end users require in their spaces for the business to be successful,” she says. “The biggest challenge is keeping a lot of plates spinning, maintaining transparency, and communicating clearly within a large, complex corporate enterprise. Every day is different, every project has a unique dynamic, and that’s what I like about my job. ”

Bauza, a Detroiter born to Lithuanian immigrants, began studying architecture because she liked to draw and was inspired by the rich urban experiences and vibrant architecture of her native city. But she says it’s her “beyond architecture” skills that have advanced her career. “My fundamentals-based DNA has enabled me to learn the skills of developing business strategies and managing projects. The credibility gained by taking the time to fully comprehend client, consultant, colleague, and enterprise parameters allows me to challenge and problem-solve the path to appropriate design decisions.”

And she looks to hire architects who embrace similar values. “There can be an aspirational dimension in architectural culture to make a ‘signature’ design mark from one’s work. However, if the architect’s primary focus is to meet the human, functional, and business needs of a project, and the budget and entity paying for the product of this design are respected, the result is a worthy endeavor of our chosen profession.

“Architects’ ability to be cross-disciplinary is the profession’s safety net.”