"It's all about beauty," said architect Joan Soranno. "Whether it's the placement of a joint in a wall or the design of a whole building, to me it's all about beauty."

At a time when fast, cheap, no-frills buildings litter the landscape and beauty is discounted even by architects, Soranno's values set her apart. And they have won her acclaim, including the Star Tribune's 2012 Artist of the Year award for her design of the Garden Mausoleum at Minneapolis' landmark Lakewood Cemetery.

The $30 million mausoleum, which opened in May near Lake Calhoun, already has garnered a dozen awards and citations for its elegant design, extraordinary light, artful shape and integration into the landscape.

"It's one of the major works of architecture of any type built in the nation this year," said Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design. For a new building in Minnesota to get so much national attention is unusual, but for a mausoleum it is unprecedented, he said. "I can't remember a time when a building of this type has received this many awards."

Notched into a hillside in the 1871 cemetery, the mausoleum looks from nearby 36th Street like a little pavilion embraced by ancient trees. In summer, its rough gray-granite exterior contrasts with lush green lawns; when winter snows wrap the building, they echo the white marble mosaics that gently curve around the entrance.

Inside, the building unfolds in a direct but often counterintuitive way as light seems to flood in from all directions, including the floor below.

"I think it's breathtaking," said Susan Mundale, author of "Haven in the Heart of the City," a history of Lakewood Cemetery. "It is so simple, yet the architecture is so sophisticated, and instead of being dark and gloomy, it is full of light and so peaceful."

Light from underground

On the entrance level, a wood-paneled reception room and terrace offer views of the cemetery's park-like landscape and the sunken garden and long reflecting pool on its south side. White marble stairs lead down to a small chapel and a series of skylight crypt rooms that are dug into the hillside and are virtually invisible from the street. There, translucent floors of pink, green or honey-hued onyx warm and animate otherwise somber spaces.

The building has an understated harmony that seems organic and timeless, but designing it wasn't obvious.

"How do you create spiritual space, transcendent space?" Soranno constantly asked herself during the 3 1/2 years she spent on the project. A principal designer at HGA Architects in Minneapolis, she read exhaustively on funerary architecture and identified things -- light, textures, nature -- that help to comfort and resolve grief.

"That idea of going down into the earth and coming back up as a metaphor for death, that was an influence," she said, referring to Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Then, after "stuffing my brain with facts, figures, information and knowledge," she set it all aside and started drawing. Her most unusual decision was to place three-fourths of the Lakewood mausoleum underground, while using huge windows and carefully angled skylights to assure a generous wash of natural light in all seasons.

"The way the building nestles into the hillside keeps it from being overwhelming," said Christine Morrison, chair of the cemetery's board of directors. Although "not strictly a modern architecture person myself," Morrison said, she is "blown away by the beauty of the building, which is in every detail exquisite."

The tranquility of the space is reinforced by the interplay of pale stone and dark wood, sunlight and shadow, silence and serenity. While strictly contemporary, the minimalist design has a classical sense of dignity and proportion.

The crypts dug into the hill remind Fisher of the mound burials of ancient peoples.

"Those skylights look like open graves and, at night, light spills out of them, which goes to the heart of the experience of death," reminding us of the lives lost and the memories they evoke, he said.

An accidental Minnesotan

Soranno, 51, is no stranger to accolades.

She won a 2008 American Architecture Award for her sculptural $42 million Museum of the North at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Two years earlier, her Bigelow Chapel at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton was honored by the American Institute of Architects for its curvaceous blend of stone, glass and translucent maple panels.

Although she graduated from St. Paul's Highland Park High School, she is something of an accidental Minnesotan.

Born in Boston, she spent seven formative years in the Italian industrial capital of Milan with her parents and six siblings while her dad, an executive with the Gillette razor-blade company, managed a subsidiary there. She was a high school junior when they returned to Boston, and a senior when the family moved to St. Paul. En route to Minnesota, they visited the University of Notre Dame, which she fell in love with. She earned a bachelor's in architecture there in 1984.

Her 1986 return to the Twin Cities was equally arbitrary. An impatient perfectionist, she had burned out working 80 hours a week at a Chicago architecture firm.

"I came back home thinking I'd be here two years and then move on," she said. Soranno found work with HGA as a "junior designer" doing interior plans for the Minnesota History Center. After five years, she moved to the Minneapolis firm Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, which was working on the Weisman Art Museum with Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry.

"We were all in our 20s and when Gehry saw us he said, 'Aren't you guys a little young to be detailing my project?'" she recalled. They were, but the 1993 building won international acclaim and launched Gehry's architectural star.

It was also the job at which Soranno met architect John Cook, known for his technical expertise and design savvy. Cook "was basically my mentor and taught me everything there was to learn about that project," she said. She soon returned to HGA, and he joined the firm in 1997.

Professional and personal mates

Ten years ago, their personal lives began to entwine, too, and in 2009 they were married in Lakewood Cemetery, of all places, in the century-old, mosaic-filled Byzantine-style chapel near the new mausoleum. They live nearby and often stroll the cemetery's leafy grounds.

Soranno and Cook share a spacious, big-windowed alcove at HGA's Minneapolis offices, located in a repurposed Ford auto-assembly factory in the Warehouse District. Miniature paper models of building parts line the blond-wood shelves, and between them is a large turntable on which they test models for scale, design and landscape-fit.

"In the public realm I'm identified as the creative force, but these buildings would not look the way they do without him," Soranno said. At Lakewood, for example, Cook suggested the white-marble mosaics around the mausoleum's entrance as an echo of the chapel mosaics, and proposed sod mounds to conceal the skylights' steel framework.

"Dividing up work is not so hard because we do complementary things," Cook said. "When Joan is in the creative phase of design, I try to keep her protected."

"Because I get really crabby," she interrupted. "If I'm coming up with an idea, he can immediately project it into reality" and determine if and how it will work, she said.

"I don't just give her no for an answer," he said. "I try to give her options."

Whatever the choice, beauty is always Soranno's goal. Because so much of contemporary society is edgy and provocative, some architects think buildings should be that way, too. She disagrees.

"Beauty has gotten a bad rap," she said. "It's something most architects don't talk about but it's the driving force for me. I think of beauty as anything that stirs the soul.

"There are shapes and proportions and rhythms that feel good to the human body. A lot of them relate to nature. Who doesn't respond to light, or to wind hitting your face? It's a very universal thing we can all connect with."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431