Transforming Work Environments Into Real Communities: Clive Wilkinson Discusses the Publicis Headquarters in New York

Joanna Kloppenburg Joanna Kloppenburg

There is no doubt that new technologies are transforming the way we work. As autonomous tools and platforms continue to become more portable, powerful and connective, offices are decentralizing, the personal and professional realms are becoming more unified. For those designers charged with fabricating the office for this accelerated and fluid world, this task is an opportunity to both invent new formal interventions and to study the social patterns that are engendered from these kinds of environments.

Clive Wilkinson Architects has long embraced the challenges presented by this rapidly evolving typology. While the Culver City–based architecture firm has experience designing across a whole range of programs, the firm is clearly most energized by the workspace. Having designed offices for media and technology leaders such as Google, Disney, BMW and Nokia, those at Clive Wilkinson Architects evidently find themselves within their element when working at the very businesses of constructing new paradigms for work and for play.

Their most recent project was creating the new headquarters for the global advertising agency Publicis in New York City. The office spans eight floors of a Manhattan skyscraper and hosts the office’s 1,200 employees. Inspired by the connective formation of a tree, a whole range of different working environments are configured around a central atrium.

The adoption of new working style “activity-based working,” where no desks are assigned to individual employees, catalyzed a diverse array of experimental work stations, conference rooms and leisure areas. The below film — produced by architectural film studio Spirit of Space — effectively captures the dynamism and spontaneity produced by the employees’ interactions with the office. Architizer also caught up with the firm’s founder, Clive Wilkinson, to uncover more of the design process. You can read our interview after the video.

Joanna Kloppenburg: Could you tell me a little bit more about how this idea to base the Publicis office around a tree-like formation originated?

Clive Wilkinson: The challenge was working in a very typical and kind of featureless, Midtown office building in Manhattan. We felt that we had to find a way of getting out of the straightjacket of a central core in a rectangular floor plate and how to transform the way in which you experience that, which typically was just a circular path around a solid rectangular core and then very often a bunch of offices around the perimeter.

Indeed, that was the build-out that was there before we were commissioned. We wanted to connect all the floors, the eight different floors of publicists in a way that was very strong, so we developed this notion of the tree. The tree also kind of speaks to things like storytelling, the idea of branches and the idea of organic change and shifting in the spatial formation of the building and of the company. We see organizations like Publicis as being very malleable at this moment in time. The advertising industry is changing radically. It’s changing all the time, so they need to be able to be extremely flexible.

“Ad agencies live and die on ideas.”

Entrenching an original organizational idea was exactly the opposite of what we needed to do. There were two things that were important about the project. One was how to develop the central core, which also embedded a lot of other functions that would otherwise block up window space, and do it in a super organic way that made it very easy to change over time. Indeed it even changed as we were running through the construction process when needs of the client flexed and adjusted a bit. The other important thing was that this was one of the first incidences of activity-based working, which is a highly supportive version of mobile working. It really is leveraging all the advantages that technology offers us today, in 2016, to be super mobile and to be able to use an office in a very different way.

No one has an assigned desk. There are no private offices, everyone’s out in the open. You get a sense actually in the movie — which you don’t really get in architectural photographs — of how fluid the community in the building is. It’s moving around, people moving and working and collaborating in different places all the time. That’s very exciting to see.

Had Publicis already adopted this concept of ‘activity-based working,’ or is that something your studio proposed to them?

It’s something we proposed to them. We’ve done two or three other activity-based working projects. We did the first one in 2009. It’s a concept that originated in Holland about 15 years ago. It’s been slowly catching on in different parts of the world. What happens with many of our clients, they start off by thinking that everyone needs an assigned space and certain people need a private office, etc., which was very conventional. In this particular case, we were able to show them an activity-based working project in New York City that was extremely successful. They walked that site and came out saying, “Yes, we want to go this route.”

A lot of your previous work has been creating flexible office designs. How did those experiences help you prepare for this project?

I think you’re constantly using the experience of your previous projects to enrich and guide the roots on the newer ones. We are constantly reevaluating what technology is permitting or encouraging within the workplace. Every time it’s a learning journey with the clients. Every client is different so I wouldn’t say this is a formula that will work for all different types of industries or professions. It definitely suits, for instance, the advertising community because collaboration and leveraging knowledge-sharing is such a huge aspect of what they do. Ad agencies live and die on ideas. They need to do almost everything they can to inculcate and encourage idea generation.

Clive Wilkinson Architects office design for the Barbarian Group

I was reminded of your speculative proposal for the Endless Workplace when I was watching the video for the Publicis office. It’s a lot less radical, but I think it maintains that spirit of encouraging cross collaboration in localized environments. How has the firm became interested in developing those kinds of networks?

We’ve been lucky enough to work with some pretty amazing clients. We worked with the top tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Nokia. We’ve also worked with the creative industries, advertising, various media companies. They’re all companies that are interested in the next generation of how people will work and how they will collaborate. I think everyone acknowledges that having a pulse on the market is what’s going to keep you relevant and be an important market for success in your industry, and having a constant learning approach, as well, to the workplace. Everyone today recognizes the value of collaboration, so much more than they did in the past. I think we’re in exciting times for the work environment.

A rendering from the speculative project the ‘Endless Workplace’ developed by Clive Wilkinson Architects

Our “Endless Workplace” concept, while it might seem a little far-fetched today, I think is also predicated on the idea that technology is going to actually take us to another level, where you don’t necessarily need to be in the same room as the people you’re communicating with because video conferencing, in its various forms, is going to become increasingly more sophisticated. A lot of the reason we travel today is because our ability to Skype or VC [videoconference] is really so constrained by the technology. I think that’s something that will open up a lot.

“ … having a pulse on the market is what’s going to keep you relevant and be an important market for success in your industry … ”

I do think that the commute issue with people in cities is a huge, compounding problem that is not going to solve itself easily. People will actually start to become much more constrained to certain areas of the city. That also means that the notion of large corporate workplaces I think might fragment massively, where if you’re working for a large bank, you might be in any one of 30, 40, 50 locations across the city. Even though the people you’re working with might not be at your location, you can still potentially communicate extremely effectively. That underlies the idea in the endless workplace. That you would go upstairs to your office because your office was simply part of a much greater workplace concept and not restricted to one organization.

The ‘Endless Workplace’

I’d love to talk about the décor because I think the project really translates this very rigorous exploration of the new ways that people are working because of new technologies, but I felt like also the décor — the red and pink tones, also the plaid textiles and the furniture — really reminded me a lot of mid-century office design. Was there any intentionality in trying to capture the office culture of that era?

In reality, it’s so far from the office culture of that era. They were really in cubicle farms from mid-60s onwards. Before then, pretty much everyone was in private offices that had any status. The only people that were in open areas were secretaries on typewriters. It’s a very different kind of concept. I think where we are today is in something that’s fairly unique. Even though, for instance, we might use recognizable imagery, like retro furniture or something like that, nonetheless the actual configuration, spacial relationships are something that is completely new. People simply didn’t work like that in those days.

There’s another very strong reason is that the computer itself has taken over the routine work that people did really up until 2000. There’s been a complete recasting of roles in the workplace and job descriptions and all the rest. It’s a very much idea-based economy that we’re in today, which really didn’t exist 30, 40, 50 years ago. People came to the office, sat down and did the work that a computer does today.

How have these experiences designing office spaces changed your perspective on how your own office functions, on how you structure your environment as a design studio?

That’s a good question. The greatest influence is putting everyone in close proximity to everyone else, in earshot, in one open space with no barriers, and then encircling that space with private rooms that you can dash into to make calls or have meetings or whatever. It’s a pretty simple formula.

I don’t see that in itself necessarily changing much, except perhaps that everyone will become even more mobile, so the scale of the office changes and you end up with a much smaller office because far fewer people are in there at any one time, or perhaps we end up hosting an awful lot of those people that we partner with. When you have an office in a location, it might be that one-third of the people are your staff and the other two-thirds are partnering companies that you do projects together with, but there are different skills involved; therefore, they are separate entities.

I agree a lot with what you were saying earlier about how the film captures this very cross-collaborative spirit. I love also looking at the different kinds of ways that people curl up and sit and nestle themselves into their work.

There’s one little point I’d quite like to make related to that because there’s been a huge debate about introverts being compromised within an open architecture, an open work environment. What’s so great about this particular formula is that introverts can really go wherever they like because there are no designated desks. They can curl up in corners. They can slip away from noise and the crowd. It’s self-selective, and as a result it’s actually probably the best possible environment for introverts.

Has the process of producing a film about the space helped you understand the project on a deeper level?

We’re always very curious about how the client user groups adapt to the types of spaces we do. Part of the reason to do the video was a post-occupancy research thing to understand how successful it was, or where it might not have been successful. I think we were very pleasantly surprised that not only did people adapt well to it, but there was a real positive energy, a fluidity in their use of the space that I think was really exciting to see. I think the scale and the circulation and the flow and everything like that really worked very well. I think we’ve got a very happy client as a result.

What is the continuous curiosity for Clive Wilkinson to keep designing workspaces?

The sociology of the work environment is a huge thing because it affects so many people. We definitely have a very high interest in that because it’s not a luxury or privileged sector of the market. We’re not designing museums and art galleries. We’re not designing houses for wealthy people. We’re having as big an impact as we can on the ordinary worker across the spectrum. The time they spend in the workplace is the best hours of their day, and pretty much half their day, at least for most people. To be able to impact that and to make work environments into real communities is a hugely satisfying thing. To have that sociological impact is really great. Combining that with the benefits of good design is obviously two big marks in our book.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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