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Designing man

Marquette native part of Holocaust museum team

March 12, 2011
By RENEE PRUSI Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - Marquette native Aaron Leppanen said several influences led him to his career in architecture.

"The North Woods. Gitchee Gumme. And of course, John Lautner," Leppanen said.

The North Woods are where Leppanen grew up, in a home on County Road 550, near Gitchee Gumme, a common nickname for Lake Superior.

Article Photos

The outside of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Leppanen)

Lautner was a world-renown architect who also grew up in Marquette.

Leppanen, 31, is making a name for himself in the field, most recently as the architectual project designer and the project manager for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

The first in his family to pursue architecture, Leppanen cites his relatives' varied interests as the impetus for his career choice.

"I think for me personally there is balance in this career between spatial design and the inspiration of nature," he said in a recent telephone interview. "There are several science-engineering people in my family and several involved in the arts. Architecture fuses the two."

From an early age, Leppanen was fascinated by design.

"I wanted to know how beautiful shapes are produced. How did nature design things? That curiosity, coupled with inhabiting an environment near the woods led me to this," he said.

"John Lautner, the way he dealt with materiality and space from nature pushed me further into it," he said. "The forms (Lautner) used, especially being in California, are a huge influence."

While his father, Dan, is a math major, others in Leppanen's family have pursued artistic careers, including an uncle who's a jazz professional in Seattle and a cousin who's a photographer.

"Watching my Dad and my uncle build their own log homes from scratch also taught me," Leppanen said. "It was an 18-year project so I was always around construction. Plus my grandfather was a carpenter, finish in both senses of the word."

Leppanen's father still lives in the home along County Road 550 while his sister, Ashley, is a Spanish teacher in the Gwinn Area Public Schools. He also has a grandmother in the Marquette area.

But Leppanen's career has led him away from home.

After getting his college start at Northern Michigan University, Leppanen completed his architecture degree at the University of Michigan in 2002. He returned to Marquette briefly to work with local architect Barry Polzin, but moved to Los Angeles to start graduate school at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in the fall of 2003.

He graduated in 2006... and moved to Dubai.

"That was fascinating," he said. "I got to experience travel as a tourist as well as what it's like building a city. There was quite a mix between the locals and the Westerners brought in. I think it was an interesting way to experience the Middle East. Dubai is not as conservative as its neighboring countries."

The project he worked on was called "The World," man-made islands off the coast of Dubai that were shaped to look like the world and were developed for a number of uses.

Upon his return to L.A., Leppanen worked with Greg Lynn (GL Form) on a collaboration project with Frank Gehry Partners. From there, he began working with Belzberg Architects. Immediately, he became involved with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust project, which took more than three years from design to completion.

"It was quite an an amazing opportunity, to be part of a project like that," Leppanen said. "It's the oldest Holocaust museum in this country. It has deep roots. Its original members left Europe and came to L.A. after the Holocaust and formed an organization that eventually led to a museum.

"The dialogue, the story there, is very powerful. It's dedicated to teaching the story of the Holocaust and it's overwhelming to have been part of this project."

The Holocaust survivors who banded together to create the museum were moved when the facility opened, Leppanen said.

"At the opening, seeing these people in tears made it so amazing," he said. "They had talked about it for so long and to be able to be part of making that dream a reality was amazing."

For the next phase of his career, Leppanen is heading south, but not before a trip home.

"My girlfriend (Gabriela Anker) and I are moving to Quito, Ecuador," he said. "That's where she is from. I am going to open an architectural firm there in May.

"But before I move, I am coming back to Marquette to get some trout fishing in," he said.

Leppanen credits his growing-up experiences for leading him to success.

"Being a part of such an amazing community there... there's something about that that prepares you for going out into the world," he said.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her e-mail address is



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