Experience is an Arch, To Build Upon
What is the most exciting part of your job?
“The most exciting part is all in your head.”
This is how my conversation with Clive Wilkinson ends.
Without knowing I’d be interviewing him a few weeks later, I had actually met the South African-born architect at a party. He stood stout, upright in front of me, and spoke tenderly but firm with the cadence of his accent, seemingly softened by the years of living outside his native country.
In an age of militant slogan bombardment, misuse of Pablo Neruda quotes on Facebook, and 140-character piecemeal, Wilkinson’s words that bookend the interview strike me as colorful.
An architect? A left-brainer? A numbers dude? Dreadful graphs and things?
But the Cape Town expat wasn’t always set to study architecture. As he says it, “Well, it’s an interesting story because I wanted to be a writer.”
Wilkinson explains, “I did a lot of literature courses when I was in high school and I fancied myself writing poetry and writing novels, but at the time in South Africa there wasn’t a kind of challenging course in literature at the university level, and my parents at that time couldn’t afford to send me to Cambridge—I wanted to do British Literature there, and so I was a little bit at a loss what to do. At the time my sister was in architecture school and I found out that the first year of architecture school was a very all-round arts course, which was kind of Bauhaus-influenced.”
Wilkinson had left his apartheid-stricken home in favor of London for a prized education at Architectural Association School of Architecture—which is either the best or next to the best architecture school in the world, depending on who you’re asking.
He spent 12 years in London, finishing school and finding work, but he eventually succumbed to wanderlust, traveling the world and looking for the sun—for the time, shelving the prospect of creating his own firm.
“So I went around the world for a year trying to find a place that had good weather, and had good prospects for my business, and an interesting kind of creative climate. I spent several months in Sydney and worked there—I was very attracted to Australia, but it was a bit too much on the edge of the world—and then I came to America after going through Asia, and I had job offers in New York and Los Angeles, and the L.A. one was more attractive. A.) Because it was Frank Gehry, and B.) was more money than the New York one.”
The Gehry job—perhaps the most famous Gehry job if such a term exists—was the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown L.A., a job Wilkinson was fired from and remarks on humorously.
“I’m a bad employee. So then I started my own firm, and I’ve had my own firm ever since. “
Which brings us to Clive Wilkinson Architects, his namesake, which was established in L.A. in 1991. With an emphasis on transforming previously built sites and building frames into bright, creative workspaces and inviting office environments, the firm has since worked with Nokia, Macquarie Group, TBWA\CHIAT\DAY, and Mother.
Famously, the company designed the Google Headquarters, leaving behind boxed-in cubicles for sunlit open areas and glass rooms. Furthermore, in 2013 Wilkinson and company designed a whimsical new campus for Funny or Die, and in 2016 will finish L.A. radio stalwart KCRW’s new offices.
On top of that, Wilkinson has been inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame, named a Master of Design by Fast Company, and a ‘Pioneer of Design’ by IIDA.
And so at the end of our conversation when Clive Wilkinson says, “The most exciting part is all in your head,” I can’t help but wonder what he’d have accomplished if he’d gone to Cambridge and become a writer.
We were engaged by the School of Theater, Film and Television to produce a master plan to renovate the very fragmented school, dating back to the 1960s, to meet contemporary pedagogical needs and to re-unite the different disciplines into one creative community, as well as reposition it for a multi-media future as a community center for story-telling. They saw the immense value of their school serving as a creative arts platform for both the university community and the larger Los Angeles community.
The Superdesk was a rapid project to get The Barbarian Group into a new space by a tight deadline. We all agreed on the powerful simple idea of the continuous desk, and then spent months building it in the computer, structurally analyzing it in the computer, and then outputting it as CAD files to feed into the laser cutting re-purposed automotive robots of Machineous, an L.A. fabrication company. Interestingly, the files were installed onto floppy discs to direct the robots. A number of rules were set up to ensure clear leg space beneath the desk, continuous support spine that would carry power and data wiring, and a consistent structural approach which could be tweaked endlessly for different functional and structural conditions, including built-in meeting and storage space under the arches. Every part had to be manufactured to fit into the building’s small goods lift, and then re-assembled like a large jigsaw puzzle in the building’s 7th floor. Once assembled, all joints were filled with bondo, sanded and painted white with metallic flecks. The final finish was an eco-resin applied in one continuous 30-hour pour by a team lead by the L.A. artist Casper Brindle to create seamless finish/no joints. The table capacity is 125 people, expandable to 175.
In 1996, after winning the project for TBWA/Chiat/Day’s new L.A. headquarters, we built this model to convey the concept of a ‘creative village.’ It cemented the idea of a main street with a clustering of shared ‘public’ amenities surrounding it. The model also proved to be a crucial tool to communicate the idea to all of the client stakeholders, so even when there were budget challenges, the whole team was focussed on building without compromising the design.
JWT New York
When we renovated JWT’s offices in Manhattan in 2005-2007, we also built models to convey the design. Except this time they had to be shipped to N.Y. and FedEx or UPS did their usual careful delivery. We had to fly out two people to spend two days rebuilding the 1,000 shattered model pieces just in time for the client presentation. The design united the 900-person ad agency population on different floors by surgically cutting into the existing structure to insert atria with continuous staircase connections, and encircles with collaboration spaces.