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A State Department Design Leader On Leaving Government For Perkins+Will

Casey Jones talks with Co.Design about the decision to move into the private sector–and what he plans to do at the world’s fourth-largest practice.

A State Department Design Leader On Leaving Government For Perkins+Will
[Photo: courtesy Perkins + Will]

Just weeks after global architecture firm Perkins+Will acquired the prominent Danish firm and sustainability experts Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, it’s announced that Casey Jones—a longtime veteran of the U.S. State Department—would be joining the team to lead its civic buildings strategy worldwide.

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NMAAHC [Photo: Alan Karchmer/courtesy Perkins + Will]
Jones has worked a variety of roles in the public sector, most recently as Deputy Director for Overseas Building Operations, in which he managed a team of more than 800 and helmed the design, construction, and operations of various federal buildings, including consulates and embassies. He previously served as Director of Design Excellence at the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. General Services Administration—and brings additional years of experience at nonprofit organizations including the Van Alen Institute and Design Trust for Public Space. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s been linear about my career,” said Jones, “with the exception of one thing—and that’s that over the course of 20 years I’ve been involved in the design profession, I’ve really been interested in this issue of public space.”

With a wide-ranging focus, Jones will reportedly work with teams across Perkins+Will’s architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and urban design practices.Fresh off a yearlong sabbatical from his tenure at the U.S. State Department, he shares his vision on what’s to come—and how he plans to apply lessons from his public service to a transition into the private sector, and the world’s fourth-largest architecture practice.

United States Coast Guard Headquarters. [Photo: Steinkamp Photography/courtesy Perkins + Will]
You’ve worked through four administrations, beginning with the Clinton years. How do you feel the tumult of the Trump administration is affecting public architecture today?

I think it’s too early to tell, to be honest. There has been a tremendous amount of change in this administration, but one of the areas where we haven’t really seen what the new strategy is going to be is in the area of design. At the moment, wherever the current administration intends to take that is not yet clear, or is status quo.

I would say that every administration—whether it be in a small town or at the national level—brings their own agenda to bear. At the federal level, we have enjoyed fantastic support from both Democratic and Republican administrations. I think that all of us hope that when you get something right, it’s embraced regardless of who’s in office and they can continue to execute it. There are a lot of really tangible examples of why good design makes a difference in our communities—and we can all get behind that.

How will your approach to civic design change with your transition into the private sector?

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One of the things that has been very exciting is to be reminded of how quickly things move in the private sector. It’s not that the government isn’t or can’t be innovative—and it may just be the case at Perkins + Will, but this is a very creative environment. We have a number of different labs that are looking at societal issues that are largely transformative, from sustainability and resiliency to wellness, and that have the potential to really impact societies in meaningful ways.

What’s really exciting is that we might be able to get in and work with government at all levels early in the process, when the decisions are just starting to be made—before everything is locked down, and the approach is perhaps too far along to bring that level of innovation and creativity to it.

Albion Library [Photo: Doublespace/courtesy Perkins + Will]
What big takeaways will you bring to Perkins + Will?

The idea that design could be transformative and help add to the communities in which it was located; that federal buildings, no less than other buildings, should be landmarks within their communities and places where citizens can sort of look and take pride in their government.

Domestically, that happens a lot with the courthouse program, in which there were a number of courthouses built across the nation over the last 25 years that have tried to do that. On the international side, I think the idea of using architecture as a tool for diplomacy—and trying to make our embassies and consulates really speak about the relationship between two countries, and try and prove the cultural exchange between them—has been really important.

Perkins + Will is a global practice, and recently incorporated into its team the Danish sustainability experts Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects. Will you also be working with that team directly?

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Actually, I was just on the phone this morning with their office. We’re trying to find all sorts of ways to bring the two practices together, find ways to collaborate, and also define new territory. They bring an incredible portfolio of cultural facilities and other building types to ours, and I think we’re all really excited about the opportunity to work together on future projects.

Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and Chicago Public Library (CPL)_Northtwon Library and Housing. [Photo: courtesy Perkins + Will]

From your macro point of view, what will be the greatest opportunities and challenges of your role?

Over the course of the 20 years I’ve been involved in the design profession, I’ve been interested in this issue of how to create meaningful public spaces. The civic realm really touches on so many aspects of our lives. It’s everything from small-scale renovation projects, to improvements on the delivery of government services to communities, to really large-scale master planning. It’s all about improving the public realm and strengthening the community that we all share.

Particularly in civic projects, when you’re dealing with taxpayer investments, you need to be able to maximize the budget and try and get multiple returns for every dollar you invest. The best way to do that is to be creative about how you can bring the best solution to bear that solves the most number of issues. Sometimes, they’re issues that aren’t even on the radar of the client—that’s where good design can help to solve the problem you don’t even know you have.

In the face of environmental crises, a growing population, and disruption happening in nearly every sector, what’s your take on the context of our immediate present?

This is certainly a very transformative time, and in many ways perhaps the most transformative time we’ve ever had in our history. It really requires a new look at how you create an environment that really takes the long view that is sustainable, resilient, and incorporates technology that allows us to create better environments than we’ve ever had before. It’s a tremendous opportunity to transform the sociocultural environment that we live in to really reflect a new way of living.

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.

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