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Clive Wilkinson: Designing the Theater of Work

About this talk

Clive Wilkinson and his firm work to design bleeding-edge offices for the way we work and the environments we work in. As the economies of work have shifted (from agricultural, to industrial, to the service economy, and now the idea economy), the type of work we do has changed. It’s time our work environments should reflect that.

Clive Wilkinson, President & Design Director, Clive Wilkinson Architects

Clive Wilkinson FAIA, RIBA, is an architect and strategist working at the intersection of urban design, architecture, and interior design. His large-scale design projects for Google, Nokia, JWT, FIDM, Disney, and Macquarie Bank have established new paradigms for building creative and educational communities. While innovative in its architecture, his design process is primarily focused on the social agenda of buildings, and how people connect with each other.

Wilkinson was born in South Africa and educated in the United Kingdom. His practice, Clive Wilkinson Architects, was established in Los Angeles in 1991 and is an acknowledged global leader in workplace design, with over 100 design awards to its credit. He has served as a keynote speaker at global media, advertising and design conferences, and has contributed to radio and television shows on architecture and design affairs.

Full Transcript

We build creative communities, or at least, we try to. We are architects and designers based in Los Angeles, kind of different to quite a lot of the other types of skills and disciplines that you guys are all a part of. But we moving very much to a cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary world. And I think the more we share the way we think, the more positive things can be.

I titled this The Theatre of Work, because I think that work is where we spend most of our waking hours. And it’s been a horribly under-served area of environment really, for forever. But that’s all been changing in the last 10 to 15 years with all sorts of experimentation and a lot more thought put into how people work and a lot of that’s being driven by the creatives themselves through different creative industries.

So architecture in my view, frames the theatre of human experience. And to become theatre, a building must address community structures, knowledge sharing, choice and opportunity, social bonds, and tribal organization and connectivity. And things like tribal organization and connectivity becoming more and more a tangible, important aspect of our lives because we are becoming more clearly defined and segmented into tribes. And the world’s changed dramatically We continue to use old tools to solve new problems, an incredibly auspicious observation that’s Marshall McLuhan made way back in probably about 1965. And in a way, so much of the space that surrounds us, in a way, is carrying on traditions of thinking and thought and old images about culture that really are no longer part of our world today. And that’s become increasingly obvious given that the digital age has transformed our daily lives so dramatically. Back again in the ’60s, Jacques Tati’s work was observing– the filmmaker, many of you, I’m sure know– was observing this kind of schism between modernity and the advance of technology and how to adapt that to our world.

And indeed, we’ve gone through a whole number of economical paradigm We’ve gone from an agricultural economy– which was prevalent really back to the Stone Age practically– through an industrial economy– which lasted a fair period of time– to the service economy– which really dates probably to about 1920, when the number of white collar workers actually exceeded the number of blue color workers in the developed world– to what we call kind of roughly an idea economy. We probably still don’t know enough about it to actually name it where all the conditions are actually changing. And we are much more global, local at the same time. We network. We have unlimited mobility. And we’re an innovation-based economy. You innovate or die.

So talking about old tools. It’s amazing to us, that really the options to work have just been a desk or an office for so long. And the office, in fact, is only driven by primarily a status thing. If you spend enough time with the company and you achieve enough, perhaps you get an office. And then that office could also evolve to a corner office or to a suite, and you can actually measure your life by the square footage of your surroundings, which is paramountly ridiculous in our current age. And we’ve also moved from a paper economy– which was the primary vehicle of transacting business years since the invention of the printing press in about 1450– to a digital economy where we don’t rely on paper anymore. And, in fact, we are slowly being released from paper entirely. In 10 years, I think it’s going to be kind of an anachronism that’s used for artistic reasons. And indeed, the conception of how people work in space has changed enormously. It’s like we’ve learned things and we’ve also unlearned things. The image on the left– it was a painting by Renaissance painter, I’ve forgotten now his name imagining [INAUDIBLE] Rome in his study So this is a projection from a Renaissance painter imagining the surroundings up this famous scholarly saint in an environment that is so rich in symbols. And I actually can’t begin to enumerate these all. Those birds and things like that on the threshold there have symbolic meaning. In addition to, of course, the spatial kind of configurations the project back from the viewer. There is a novel in that one painting. And then we look at the environment that we work in today, and it’s kind of broken down into basics that work sometimes and sometimes don’t work. And interestingly, the image on the right is from [? Shiatay’s ?] 1995 first experiment with a virtual office in Venice, California, which lasted a couple of years before all sorts of problems kind of hit them, like the fact that all their clients were still using paper, even though they weren’t. And they had to use the trunks of their cars as filing cabinets. But they partially solved the problem of mobility in the office, except for things like of course the ergonomic challenges of that kind of chair.

So another fascinating thing is in the last 15 years, routine work across the border has reduced massively. And non-routine work has been escalating. And I think this is also yet another piece of data that underscores the importance of the knowledge economy. And also, of course, technology is rapidly advancing to such an extent that we are looking at things like lunar modules as our potential future homes. Some of that is ridiculous, but then there’s another aspect of our brains which is fascinating, which is that we adapt to these technological changes and our brains are changing. We no longer have the brains of our great-great-grandparents. And as far as the workplace goes, the model has changed, as everyone knows from a highly individual segmented with small amount of group space to a blurred relationship between these spaces, and an increased emphasis on group and collaboration. And the goal, ultimately, of pretty much all of our clients, is how do you get one community unified and working together and kind of rubbing off each other synergistically. And then together with this kind of digital age transformation, our buildings and our spaces increasingly will be built by computers, fabricated by computers. This happens to be part of the cutting pattern of the plywood elements in the Barbarian’s Superdesk which we’ll show you in a moment.

So which factors shape the new workplace? We think there are six things. The cultural model, the urban paradigm, disruption and play, fluidity and transparency, choice and diversity, human scale, community, and collaboration. The most fascinating one, in a way– because people find it so hard to define– is the culture model. How does our workplace fit into our culture and what we understand to be our culture in this moment in time? And it’s really interesting, the projections that happened 40, 50 years ago. Melvin Sokolsky did some incredible photographs in Paris of models in these dome elements, globes floating in space. And it’s such a kind of a symbol of the future kind of melding with history and the past that’s still kind of provocative and fascinating today. And then there’s a convergence of commercial aspirations which is very, very different. How things like the future sales and history as a billboard and mobility in motion kind of overwhelm our city and overwhelm our culture. And it’s our job, really, as designers to find a way of organizing this type of chaos. And I put these two images together because they’re really fascinating. It’s Marie Antoinette, obviously painted while she was still alive in about 1780 and a modern woman. And the kind of similarities between what’s referenced here and what is expressed are really great. But the thing that’s most fascinating about this, is that Marie Antoinette’s hair is gray. Why is her hair gray? Well, in 1780, unlike today, power resided in old people. If you had money, you were generally were people who had power and so the youth aspired to be old. Complete opposite of where we are today. And this sort of underlines again, the kind of changes that we’ve gone through, where that was a culture of maturity and even extreme maturity which broke apart around about the first World War for sorts of very good reasons. And we are now in an immature culture, a culture of experimentation and play. So on the left, we have the palace of Versailles but it’s really, in some ways, not so different from the image on the right, which is a project of ours for Disney where we made a lot of storage hexagonal cubes for storing the products that were made at this headquarters building. So we have an opportunity for ordinary glamour that we can play with.

The urban paradigm, a fundamental kind of reference point for us in our work, is the city. And the city because it is a place that everyone is familiar with that everyone has a kind of concatenation of images in their heads. And therefore contains in a way, the archetypes of what we believe to be the life we want to live. And so, so many of these words that we use in discussing with clients about neighborhoods and town halls and main streets and all the rest are really kind of based in the medieval city. And they are there for us to use and reinterpret almost endlessly. This is a project we did in London a few years ago, where the client was I was optimistic enough to break through six floors of office space and pay for that leased space in order to create an atrium that would connect to his different businesses together in a very dramatic way. So a vertical village of a kind. Some images of that project.

Disruption and play– also fundamentally important. One of the things that [? Jay ?] [? Shide ?] actually said to me way back in 1990, was that he didn’t want his people to be comfortable. I think we’ve had some conversation, because at the time being comfortable in your office was seen to be the right goal. And that was pretty much what everyone was pushing. And Jay said, I don’t want my people to be comfortable. I want to be provoked. I’m not going to get great work our of people who are comfortable. And it made total sense. So the idea of serious play– of course, there have been books written on the subject– is incredibly important. The architecture and the language of space is not something that is meant to make you go to sleep. I put this in because it’s great. It’s the same letters, just slightly different. And, of course, the meaning is so fundamentally different. So how you play with design of course with very small twists can become something that is either oppressive or uplifting. And this project actually also for the Disney store in Pasadena. They wanted a meeting and they didn’t want to give up the space for that, so we said well, if you added in the space in your main conference room and we could break down the wall then meeting space. So we made the wall out of foam blocks which also became the seats for people at the meetings. And then we worked out, it took 25 minutes for two men to rebuild the wall every time they had a big meeting, which was quite reasonable. And that’s the village, in a way, that we created in that warehouse building. And then also, I think it’s also fundamental to challenge all of those components of the office. And this is JWT here in New York where we did a lot of meetings with soft walls, for both money reasons and also, because it was fun. And then, of course, the Superdesk where the desk itself became ridiculously big, and also kind of like a soft element in the space.

Fluidity and transparency– we think it’s fundamental to promote a culture of transparency within organizations because understanding and accessing information and know what everyone is doing, is really fundamental to knowledge sharing. As soon as you put up barriers and walls, there are things happening that are out of reach and kind of suspicions arise in people’s minds. And it’s thoughts provoking the wrong feeling, but then also the other great thing about transparency is people are theatre. And the motion and activity of people within the workplace creates theatre, and I really do think it’s our business to amplify that theatre, because this is the drama of human life that we spend most of our time with, and damn it, it should be fun. And, of course, everything we are doing is kind of portable and a short lifespan, in many ways, because we work on the insides of buildings, and operations change. Organizations change, shrink, expand and contract, move around. And we need to be fundamentally flexible. We also been very concerned about breaking down corridors. This is a diagram, actually, we did way back in 1999, showing a very conventional plan of an office building in the upper left center and how all of the corporate offices around the perimeter kind of destroyed the environment for the people on the inside. And then our aversion for a digital studio for 20th Century Fox at the same time treated the corridor as something that was an opportunity for people to use space in a completely different way, far more collaborative and open and accessible. About 10 years ago, we got involved in doing Mother, the advertising agency in London’s offices. And that was also a great story about how the company had grown from a small table to an extremely large table. It was an opportunity to make a 200 person table and we made this out of concrete, because it just seemed such a ridiculous thing to do for an advertising agency. People would either love it or hate it. And it’s so interesting too, how in the occupation of the space, they’ve left it very raw. And they bought up our notion about using [? Merrymaker ?] lampshades. We actually pilfered the warehouse of [? Merrymaker’s ?] factory in Helsinki in order to get 52 different patterned fabrics, in order to create these life shades, which also actually dampen sound because they’re acoustically wrapped. I’m going to have to go a little faster.

Choice and diversity– offering people a range of opportunities within the workspace. Google’s headquarters of 10 years ago and then the range of workspace settings that we designed for Google. There were about 13 different work settings. And the plans below refer to the notion of zoning acoustic temperatures in the space, so that there’ll be loud and active spaces and also quiet focused spaces off around the perimeters. Quick image of that project. And one of the most important things for us is the day in the life of a worker. It is in the case of one desk, and spending all that day in one desk. That we need to be able to move and interact with people, and so offices should be designed with that specifically in mind. This is Macquarie in in Sydney, Australia. One of the typical Each space is designed very specifically around different work settings for different types of collaborative work. And that’s the atrium, which really kind of celebrated collaborative work with these cubes of meeting spaces across 10 floors. And the transparency we got with this bank was fantastic. Clients could actually look across the space from these meeting rooms, see the whole of the bank in operation, and also not see anything on anyone’s screens. So the bank maintained its security and it conveyed an image of transparency and accountability to its clients.

Human scale, community, and collaboration– small companies don’t need much help. They act like extended families. Large companies need a lot of help because of all the challenges of alienation and issues like that. This is about looking at Wired’s San Francisco’s offices and how to transform neighborhoods into flowing spaces that move into one another, rather than being segmented into silos.

And then lastly, the Barbarian desk, the Superdesk designed for about 150 people. And then this is the kind of the cloud off 150 individual desks on one side. And then the unified community desk on the other. The initial sketch for that desk. And we really went from one sketch to drawings. And then models. And we played with cardboard and paper to kind of understand these forms. And tried different colors. We went back to white. Wired mapped this in the computer, which took months because every little piece of plywood had to be adjusted, based on the structural engineer’s calculations. And then in construction, it was kind of a fascinating construction site. And the finished product. And the spaces, of course, underneath. In order to keep the table monolithic we, of course, had to lift the table up, but we used the opportunity to create these great collaborative spaces underneath the table. And then if the table gets damaged, we had to think about a way of doing it. It was Benjamin Palmer’s notion to use this Japanese concept of Kintsugi, where you except the damage of the table and you amplify it in the repair, so you use gold dust in the glue to rejoin the pieces. And so the effects of nature are, in a way, celebrated. So that’s it. Thank you very much.

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