As a firm engaged in landscape architecture, planning, architecture, and product design, Rios Clementi Hale Studios seems to be weathering the recession better than most. AN’s Marissa Gluck spoke to principals Bob Hale and Frank Clementi about their latest projects, from the Grand Avenue Civic Park and the Century City Greening Plan to their new espresso cups for Intelligentsia.
The Architect’s Newspaper: Tell us about the origins of Rios Clementi Hale Studios. How did you find each other?
Frank Clementi: Mark Rios started the company with another partner in 1985. He’s a landscape architect and architect, so right from the beginning the office has been multidisciplinary. In 1989, Julie Smith and I were working together at another office on the Sepulveda Arts Park competition, and through that collaboration Julie came to work in this office. About a year later, I came over.
Bob Hale: I met Mark through Eli Broad’s house. I was working at Frank Gehry’s office on the house and Mark was selected as the landscape architect. That was in 1990. I left Frank’s office in 1993 to go work as the VP of design and planning at Universal Studios, where I was responsible for the development of all the projects in Hollywood.
FC: A lot of multi-partner offices have a silo condition, where each partner is responsible for a certain discipline or certain projects. We’re a little more fan-shaped. We all started in architecture and we’re all back-to-back in the center of the circle, but the areas we look at are overlapping. I have a strong product design and graphics background. And Julie is now president of notNeutral, which is our product and pattern design company. So all of us have this interest in planning, but also have questions about how the different disciplines build on each other.
What are the major differences between disciplines?
BH: One that’s interesting is the relationship between pattern-making and landscape architecture, and its overlap with product design. I never really approached an urban or landscape problem from that standpoint, but in fact it becomes a huge piece of it.
FC: This gets a little esoteric, but just the word “field” as it relates to “figure” as opposed to “landscape.” When you are so close to something that you can’t see anything but the details, those details become the most important thing. But when you’re so far away from something that it dissolves into a field, then how it all works together becomes really important. And landscape is a condition that exists at all of those scales. It goes from being right in your face this minute—this flower is blooming—with graphics, nametags, typography, to planning for 50 years from now when this hotel needs to be here, so how do we put streets in place in order to make sure the valets can work without pissing off the neighbors? Architecture sits in the middle of all that.
From a business perspective, how do you integrate the different disciplines organizationally?
BH: We have a relatively flat office hierarchy. In the last ten years, we’ve added designations of partners and senior associates and associates and designers, so there’s just four levels. A partner is involved in every project, and a senior associate deals with its day-to-day management. There’s a lot of interoffice communication. We’re a networked organization more than a hierarchical one. We all work together, we all have similar values in terms of design, but also financial things.
FC: The money goes into one big pot.
Do you feel you’re insulated to a certain degree in a shifting economy?
BH: I wouldn’t say that we’re insulated, but the diversity has helped us get through.
FC: We did that very consciously. There was a time we could get any childcare project we wanted. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the first few of them were built. At a certain point, we realized if we become known as the childcare office it ran counter to the general idea of a design firm. So we actually stopped taking that work. Now that seems kind of crazy but it was very calculated; we were careful to always reinvent the wheel. If you know what you’re going to be doing, you’re not really designing anymore. The process of design is really important because you don’t know what you’re going to end up with. You just can’t go through the motions, if you’re doing design.
BH: This is a firm that is driven by ideas and exploration. Anytime we get a little too comfortable with things, we move to something different.
Let’s talk about your collaboration with Intelligentsia on coffee cups. How did that come about? I guess you guys really love coffee.
FC: I’m a dilettante compared to those guys. There’s a contact high, similar to our experience with Austin City Limits, of working with people that are into what they do. It’s completely different from a spec office building. You’re designing for a very specific condition. Intelligentsia is serious. They are very empirical, they don’t care about the rules, they’ll try anything. They saw we were like them. We weren’t going to just do things the way they were always done. We had to prove they were the right way to do them. It’s a very democratic and pragmatic method. We end with a product as small as a cup at the same time we’re working on a 16-acre park downtown with some of the same staff.
How do you transition from private developer to working on a civic project for Century City?
BH: We’ve done lots of work for both private firms and public entities. We got to know the public folks through having initiated work from a private developer.
FC: Century City had systemic problems. Each of the blocks will never have a connection to another block unless you deal with it systemically. Originally, the planners thought that it didn’t have to have pedestrians.
BH: It’s been interesting. There is a lot of work going on there now like the Century Plaza hotel. We’re also doing the masterplan for Universal Studios. In terms of acreage, it’s the biggest project but it’s only at the planning and entitlement level. The Grand Avenue Civic Park is about to go out to bid. That’s the largest landscape we’re building. There was a lot of civic engagement in terms of process. The Related folks had to pay the lease on the land upfront. The check had cleared before they started having problems. It’s the only part of the whole Grand Avenue project moving forward.
FC: If you’re a populist, then it’s a huge lucky break for the city.
When do you expect to break ground on the Civic Park?
FC: It should break ground by June.
Let’s talk about the direction LA has been taking in the past decade. Where do you see it moving in the next decade?
FC: You can float along, but you still should know where the waves are. I grew up here and what I like about the city is its nodal quality—its centerlessness. I live in Venice and deliberately don’t work there. I take public transportation. There are overlapping layers of the city. I love classical cities like Paris and Manhattan where you have an understanding of the hierarchical condition. But I like the rhizomatic nature of Los Angeles. The concern I have is that an antiquated notion of a central condition is the only option. I still question if that is the only way. Technology makes it not so necessary to be in the same physical place. This idea of shifting centers is intriguing. I don’t argue that Silver Lake is better or worse than Venice. I love the balkanization. There’s a cultural richness that resists homogeneity.