Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

It’s an uncharacteristically wet day when I meet with Los Angeles–based architect Clive Wilkinson at his office in Culver City, a mixed-use building he designed in 2012. Wilkinson is a bit of a coffee snob, so it makes sense that his ground floor tenant is Cognoscenti Coffee, which serves some of the best brews in the city. Despite the downpour, brave souls on laptops shelter under the overhang formed by the stairs leading to the reception desk at Clive Wilkinson Architects (CWA).

It’s a tableau indicative of our time—of how we work now. Work is itinerant and flexible. Work is everywhere and anywhere there’s Wi-Fi and espresso.

Given the transient nature of our contemporary work lives, supported by a host of mobile devices, the actual need for an office might seem unwarranted. But Wilkinson believes in the workplace as a kind of urbanism, as community, and as a theater for everyday life—his book, “The Theater of Work,” is scheduled to come out in February. For close to three decades, he’s been at the forefront of workplace design. How, why, and where we work is central to his award-winning practice.

Rain streams down the windows of Wilkinson’s headquarters. Inside the open-plan office, designers sit at monitors placed along an oversized desk that looks like a giant, squiggly strand of DNA. And even though in recent years there’s been backlash against the ills of the open office—noisy, distracting, lacking privacy—here, everyone is quietly productive.

“Our philosophy is encapsulated in the idea theater, in the idea that environments need to maximize the potential for social interaction,” says Wilkinson, once we are seated in a conference room with a large glass wall facing back into the office—we are on display. “We always look for different theatrical opportunities. There isn’t really a good enough reason to be boring with what you do.”

A conversation with Wilkinson is hardly boring; we stray from design topics and follow tangents about baking, politics, and poetry. “I have a bread recipe from South Africa that’s gone with me from there to England, to Australia, to here,” he explains, efficiently covering the territories of his biography. “I’ve had to adapt the recipe in each country because the water and the flour are different in each place, and the bread does different things.”

Charting his own path
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Wilkinson studied at the Architectural Association in London, then worked for postmodernist British architect Sir Terry Farrell for the better part of the 1980s before moving to the West Coast. Landing in LA, he found a job as a project manager in Frank Gehry’s practice at a time when the firm was embarking on its most signature projects to date: Disney Hall and advertising agency Chiat\Day’s headquarters in Venice. While Claes Oldenburg’s iconic binoculars still sit outside the Gehrydesigned building, it’s now home to Google. Both companies,
however, are pivotal to Wilkinson’s creative success.

After his short stint with Gehry, Wilkinson founded his own practice in 1991 and his first breakthrough project was for the advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day in 1998. The 120,000-square-foot converted warehouse was conceived as an “Advertising City”—an urbanism fueled by creativity. “I’ve always thought that big projects become interior cities,” he says. The office design needed to live up to the kind of dynamic innovation that defines the agency. Under a vast metal roof, stacks of bright yellow offices line an indoor main street. There are billboards and a central park. And at a time just prior to foosball tables springing up in every dot-com office, the scheme even included a basketball court.

Two decades later, Wilkinson still finds inspiration in the organic social and commercial life of cities. His designs may push conventions, but they are grounded by a more ancient need to come together and trade stories and goods. Just returned from his honeymoon to Marakesh, Morocco, he reflects on his visit to the Medina of Fez, which was founded in the 9th century. “[It is] 1,000 years old and no street is wider than about seven feet, and it’s a complete labyrinth,” Wilkinson says. “There are no cars and people push things on carts, and there are donkeys—and if you put a lid on it, it’s like a huge workplace, and it works fine.”

Of course, for all his enthusiasm for the labyrinth, he also quickly analyzes the drawbacks: the maze is all on a single level and there are no external views. “Life has to happen on the roof level to just get outside and see the world beyond the constrained internal spaces,” he notes.

Revolutionizing workplace design
In 2005, CWA designed one of the firm’s best-known and award-winning projects: Google’s Mountain View headquarters. At 180,000 square feet, it has the feel of a small town tucked within the shell of an existing suburban office building. Or, a small town rapidly growing into a city. A big challenge was accommodating a variety of program areas: engineering, training and meeting rooms, food service, and recreation areas, while strategizing for rapid expansion on a tight budget. One of the solutions, what the architects call a “Glass Tent” office system, could have been lifted from the Medina. Soft architecture—fabric walls and a tent-like ceiling—creates a private, three-person workroom.

“I’m very much shaped by African lessons in frugality, economy of resources, and direct responses to needs,” Wilkinson explains. He’s critical of the boom of workplace projects he considers “mediocre” and “halfheartedly” produced that seem to check all the aesthetic boxes, but fail to attend to basic needs of the community served. He ticks off a list of what is lacking: sensitivity to acoustics, privacy screening, ergonomics, proper lighting, and access to views.

Large companies, like cities, are all about the relationships between people and the physical infrastructure around them. They also come with their own ills; Wilkinson believes that design can make a difference. “We love doing big workplace projects because those communities tend to be the most stressed—alienation happens in larger communities where people feel like a tiny cog in a huge wheel,” he explains. “We’re not interested in just making buildings look nice. So, that’s what drives us, and has always driven me, is to what extent are we are making a meaningful contribution to the community.”

He’s excited to apply these principles to an upcoming project—the headquarters of Malouf, a high-end bedding brand based in Logan, Utah. The 210,000-square-foot, ground-up building is a bit like a company town. There’s the workplace—circular and glazed to offer 360-degree views from its three floors, a bar-shaped structure that has ball courts, a fitness center, a swimming pool, and an existing warehouse. Wilkinson even notes that the vegetables used in the food service will be grown on site.

The analogy between urban and workplace design will be tested as CWA works on Google’s Sunnyvale campus with Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Olin Landscape Architects. At stake is over one million square feet of interiors serving 4,500 employees. The project is huge and complex: two five-story buildings, each a stack of terraces topped with green roofs. The ambitious concept maximizes the amount of direct access each employee has to the outdoors; early renderings show Googlers rollerblading or biking up ramped terraces to get to their desks. It is more than a city; it’s a landscape. The pressure brought on by the scale is compounded by constraints due to speed of construction. The project is on track to open as early as 2021. “I think it will be a great design in the end, but it will have been achieved with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” Wilkinson says.

Embracing a fearless approach
CWA’s portfolio is full of bold and brightly hued visions, from interiors filed with canary yellow shipping containers to an oversized 4,400-square-foot desk that loops through an office. Wilkinson attributes his propensity to take risks to his education and the political situation while growing up in white South Africa. As a young man, like many young men, he wanted to be a writer. Poetry provided an outlet to what he calls “the stresses of puberty” and in high school he rigorously studied criticism and the classics of English Literature, with an eye on getting a doctorate at Cambridge. But when his parents nixed his plan to study abroad, Wilkinson decided to study architecture at Cape Town University. He showed up at the Bauhaus-oriented course with a head full of poems. “I was probably the only person in the class who didn’t care if he failed,” Wilkinson recalls. “I did quite well, I guess because I could take more risks. So I got sucked into architecture, and the goal of going to Cambridge vanished into the background.”

After three years studying architecture, Wilkinson was drafted into the South African Army. His time at university had awakened his awareness of structural violence and inequity under apartheid. There was no way he was going to fight for a political system he was against. So, instead of training in an active military zone along the Angolan border, Wilkinson left Cape Town and finished his education in London.

Wilkinson’s personal history primed him to be comfortable taking risks and speaking his mind. This iconoclastic approach is best illustrated by CWA’s now-famous design for The Barbarian Group—
a glossy white Superdesk that snakes through the company’s loft-like offices in New York City. That project opened in 2014, and while the ad agency’s leadership has changed in recent years, the top brass at the time embraced a radical approach to digital culture. A bombastic workplace was meant to encapsulate that spirit.

“I did one very messy sketch piece of paper—I had never done anything quite so messy with a client before—and I just had the confidence to go in and say, “We’d like to do this,” Wilkinson recalls. “There was silence for a moment and then they wanted to know more. We never did another sketch.”

Designing beyond the workplace
For Wilkinson, the heart of creativity is bringing two diametrically opposed things together and seeing what happens. A table is limited, a community is open-ended; the answer is about inclusivity—an endless desk.

“Clive’s talent resides in his ability to see a mind’s vision in 3D and to create the physical environment that represents the vision,” says Joanne C. Smith, president and CEO of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. “He is a disruptor—he translates radical ideas into transformative designs.”

As patient-centered research hospital, the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is unique. The lab embeds scientists and technologists in the clinical space, alongside doctors and clinicians. According to Smith, it’s an approach that hadn’t been attempted in healthcare before. As a departure from more conventional understandings of workplace and hospitality, the project, developed in collaboration with architecture firms HDR and Gensler and opened in 2017, is unique for CWA. The 1.2-million-square-foot facility is designed to welcome and support the patients while providing backstage research lab areas. Corridors are extra wide to better accommodate wheelchairs and the ceilings are blanketed in op-art graphics. “Clive immediately and innately understood how space could transform relationships and work,” Smith recalls. “[His vision] enabled us to merge cultures in a completely novel space and, as a result, to alter fundamentally the process of scientific inquiry in the quest for better, faster outcomes—even cures—for our patients.”

CWA’s venture into healthcare parallels Wilkinson’s desire to continue to expand the firm’s horizon beyond the future of work—to other architectural types that make an impact on our lives, such hotels, residential, and especially affordable housing. He sees that the revolutions that happened in workplace over the last few decades have not been echoed in low-cost housing, an area that is critical to cities all over the United States, but especially in Los Angeles where as the cost of housing skyrocketed, so did the homeless population. He quotes from cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan: “Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!”

“We have to find appropriate tools to solve new problems,” says Wilkinson, confident that design plays integral part in our social and political lives. “I believe buildings can become healing communities, I really do. If you provide a sense of enlightenment and inspiration through architecture, then you have a chance of bringing out the best in people—and if you can bring out the best in people you will empower them to confront their circumstances in more honest ways.”