Several years ago, Clive Wilkinson was flipping through a magazine when he stumbled on photos of an advertising agency. Designed by another architect, the shop's custom-made workstations and futuristic entrance tunnels bore a suspicious resemblance to the Los Angeles offices of ad giant TBWA\Chiat\Day, one of Wilkinson's best-known projects. Surely he'd been knocked off—but Wilkinson didn't phone his lawyer, nor did he sit and stew. Instead, he called to congratulate the offender (who acknowledged the debt) for a job well done. "We have an absolute antipathy to the idea of protected knowledge because it's antithetical to progress," says Wilkinson, speaking for his namesake firm. "We encourage anyone and everyone to copy us."
The incident, and Wilkinson's response, seem to sum him up pretty neatly: broad-minded, contrarian, influential, and perhaps most important, perceptive. Indeed, since founding his Los Angeles—based architecture firm in 1991, the 52-year-old has helped an enviable array of clients—
Completed just last year, Wilkinson's new offices for Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters are a paean to boundless ambition and nonconformity. At the core of the Googleplex, as it's called, is a miniature city of tented glass rooms, padded pavilions, and Astroturf lawns, all anchored by a monumental stair that's embedded with laptop ports, to encourage stoop- sitting during the workday. For Mother, a top-shelf London ad agency where employees are accustomed to working around a communal table, Wilkinson built on tradition, but on a massive scale, installing a 250-foot-long concrete "desk" that swoops around like a racetrack and seats up to 200.
Through his designs, Wilkinson reacts against the standard-issue office, with its dreary warrens of cubicles, preferring to see people and workplaces as comprising a more complex organism. "The workplace is ideally a mirror of the organization in the same way that the human body represents how its organs collaborate as a multifaceted machine," he says, dressed in a black skater-graphic T-shirt and black pants. "The first task is to clarify the workings of the machine, but the second, equally important point is that individuals should feel some sense of ownership and belonging—of possessing and being possessed by the company."
In many ways, Wilkinson's work is informed by some fairly basic tenets. People like variety. They need places to congregate. Casual interaction fosters teamwork and creativity. A little visual excitement wouldn't hurt. To Wilkinson, this sounds an awful lot like a city. Which is why his design for the Googleplex, for example, features a central spine or "Main Street," around which "neighborhoods" of activity are clustered.
But what most visibly distinguishes Wilkinson, apart from his 6-foot-4-inch frame, is his ability to concretize imagination. It's there in the conference table he once built out of surfboards, in the rooms assembled from stacked shipping containers, the interior landscapes of towers and pavilions, and in his explosive forms, sweeping gestures, and walls of lime green and lipstick red. Just as stifling environments beget stifled workers, the theory goes, inspired spaces breed unconventional ideas. "One looks for opportunities to be provocative," Wilkinson says, "and my feeling is that there's no overwhelming reason to be polite in workplace design."
Architectural provocation was instilled in Wilkinson early on. A native of South Africa, he trained at London's Architectural Association, where his instructors included the radical Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the legendary iconoclast Peter Cook. After working in Australia, South Africa, and London, Wilkinson headed for L.A., he says, because he was drawn to its open-ended possibilities.
It was during a short stint with Frank Gehry in 1990 that Wilkinson was introduced to what was then called Chiat\Day, the ad agency for which Gehry designed a now-iconic building in Venice, California (it sports a pair of giant Claes Oldenburg binoculars in front). Over the next five years, Wilkinson struggled as a one-man operation out of his garage—until adman Lee Clow offered him the commission to build the new headquarters for what was by then called TBWA\Chiat\Day. The result was the agency's 120,000-square-foot headquarters in Playa Vista, and when it was completed in 1998, its interior basketball court was unheard of. So was the rolling 2,000-gallon fish tank. "We all gathered for the 4 o'clock Friday fish feeding," recalls Colette Chestnut, who was a CFO at the agency (she now holds the same position at MTV Networks). "The fish would splash around, and everyone would cheer and yell."
"My feeling is that there's no overwhelming reason to be polite in workplace design."
If you tell Wilkinson this all sounds like dotcom-era decadence, he'll cringe. He sees that period, with its office foosball tables and desk-side bean bags, as representative of "a puerile notion of rebellion." He thinks of his designs as being rather more substantive, and others seem to agree. "Clive's work doesn't come from cool and groovy; it comes from thoughtfulness, honesty, and humanity," says Cindy Allen, editor-in-chief of Interior Design magazine, which last year inducted Wilkinson into its prestigious Hall of Fame.
Indeed, Wilkinson's clients will remark on his sense of responsibility—to them, to their workers, and, in some small way, to the larger world. "Clive has an incredible sense of integrity," says Chestnut. "From an artistic, intellectual, and ethical standpoint, you just can't get any better." Wilkinson also doesn't believe in profligacy. Like Gehry's early work, his interiors often use inexpensive materials such as plywood and chain link; he thinks nothing of reusing old doors and office systems, and selects eco-friendly materials when he can.
Wilkinson estimates that he has so far designed about a million square feet of office space, with another million—for clients including JWT (formerly J. Walter Thompson), the Adcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the
Aric Chen is a contributing editor for I.D., Surface, and Interior Design magazines and regularly writes for The New York Times, Art + Auction, and others.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.