An interview with architect and planner, Clark Philipp Stevens, AIA, APA

Clark P. Stevens AIA/APA is the President of New West Land Company, Inc., a conservation-based design firm located in Topanga, California. Mr. Stevens is a pioneering practitionaer and author who has designed buildings in four nations as well as over two hundred square miles of conservation-based land plans for numerous states and municipalities. I had the pleasure of conducting the following interview with Mr. Stevens for the AIA Practice and Design Conference.

AH:       What was the influence of your founding, formative years on your current design process and work?

CPS:    1. Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America taught me how to be a naturalist beginning at age 6, which is the manner in which I practice architecture today.  My life list is long, although I stopped writing it all down many years ago.

2.  Rob Cole at the University of Michigan introduced this straight-up mid-westerner to the work of Peter Wilson, Zaha Hadid and others at the AA in London (as well as his own extraordinary layered 3-point perspectives), leading to an undergrad portfolio of note and to the GSD.

3.  Summer internships with Morphosis, working initially for Thom Mayne on industrial design items, which Thom suggested and that I thought would give me a chance to see something built sooner than a role on a building design team, which was true.  Thom and I worked on some crazy kinetic lamps the first summer, which fed my interest in the detail and in (literally) kinetic architecture.  The next summer we worked on a winning (sort of- a long story) competition entry for the American Library in Berlin. Thom reinforced and expanded my interest in complex, semi-autonomous ordering systems which continues today.  I still think of him as the most talented 3-dimensional graphic designer in the world, but the purpose or intent of all that complexity did not particularly matter to me at that time- and I suspect not so much to him either at that time, although that is certainly not the case now.  I did not work with his partner Michael Rotondi until after graduation and I began full-time employment, at which time conceptual intention and larger purpose began to matter. 

3.  Michael and I started with the Teiger house in NJ, and worked together for 15 years, a decade of that as business partners.  Michael helped bring me (back) to the landscape and my naturalist roots. Michael worked from the cosmos down, me from the earth up.  With his mentorship and then partnership I learned to find and formalize significances in the Land.  He supported my parallel interest in “ruralism”, which I taught before there were clients for such work.  He was supportive of my side project to RoTo- New West Land Company- which became my sole practice in 2006

AH:       How has your work continued in the same vein as those formative years and how does it now differ?

CPS:    Generally, the complexity of analysis has increased; the complexity of the form has decreased.  I have been a bit consumed by landscape, mostly big places with big cultural and ecological significance.  I guess in the old days you would say I have become a planner or in the new days a landscape urbanist, or in the newest days an ecological urbanist but there is more rural than urban in my work, more space between the buildings than buildings between the space.  But to me it is all architecture, and more than that.   One of the big contributions Michael as a mentor was to model an expansive view of “architect”.  This has helped me to be free to expand from the architect as form-maker to architect as engenderer, instigator, medium, and exhorter.  This is why a career as architect/teacher/resource conservationist feels absolutely natural to me.

AH:       Do you have a continued relationship with those firms today?

CPS:    Not directly, but the kinship and lineage is inescapable.

AH:       How do you see architecture having changed in the past five years or so?  What is your “New Normal” like?

CPS:    I changed my life and practice a little over a year before the big change in the economy, selling my half of RoTo to Michael shortly after my son was born in 2006.  I was passionate about engaging critically in landscapes that had been largely ignored by the architectural and landscape architectural practice and academy.  The new solo work followed from the passions and purpose- I got most of my jobs without ever showing a portfolio; it was flowing, the new practice was growing.  I did not have to go to the Far East to practice architecture and planning on a large scale.  Then of course 75% of my work stopped pretty much overnight with Black September.  Painful as the transition was, I am grateful for it, as it strengthened the three-prongs of my work, and gave me confidence in my ability to learn and grow laterally.

AH:       Was there a decisive moment in your life or career or had some major influence that led you into the design profession and where you are today?

CPS:    There are many but here are four: 

  1. Avoiding a language requirement in college in order to keep my GPA high for grad school in business and law by applying to the architecture school at Michigan.
  2. Deciding not to go to a graduate school of business or law.
  3. Deciding as a grad student with mounting debt to work for Thom and Michael for less, rather than at a corporate (and this is NOT a pejorative term in my mind) firm for more.  My parents supported that decision and they still hope they were right to do so!
  4. Working with the Sicangu Lakota, where I remembered that language and story is written in the land.

AH:       How did you form the initial relationship with your Mentor? What is the story of how you met and began working with them?

CPS:    Protégé:  one who is protected or trained or whose career is furthered by a person of experience, prominence, or influence.
I was in Los Angeles for summer internship interviews with three of the corporate biggies, but that were also respected design firms.  I had been asked by my professor, Marc Angelil, to stop by the office of Morphosis to say hello to his former student Steve Johnson (now of Johnson Favaro) who was a project architect there. I was wearing a suit, which is quite funny to think of now. That was the first and last time in 15 years of Morphosis/roto relationship that I wore a suit to the studio.  Steve asked to see what I was going to show in my interviews, and made a copy of one of my drawings.  Thom Mayne called me the next day and asked why I had not asked for an interview at Morphosis.  I was flattered but told him I could not afford to work for him.  That struck a nerve with him, and we negotiated a deal where I worked for him at a slightly less unaffordable rate. I am a bit better negotiator now, but perhaps not much.

AH:       How do you make the decision to stop working with your Mentor?

CPS:    The shift from Thom (initial mentor relationship) to Michael (next mentor relationship) was fluid.  Immediately after graduation I was project architect for Michael on a house in New Jersey.  This was the first time I had worked with Michael in two years of internships, and there were rumors of him and Thom splitting from the day I arrived.  Within a year they dissolved their partnership.  Since I was Michael’s project architect, I went with my project.  Four years, two houses (Teiger and Carlson-Reges) and one corporate learning center later (Gemini Consulting) I was ready to head to Montana.  Michael offered a partnership instead, which lasted another 11 years.  The only dissatisfaction I had with the partnership in all that time was that it was (understandably) difficult for the architectural world to see us as partners since I was 15 years his junior and known only in relation to him.  So ego (mine, mostly) was a factor in the decision to stop working with my mentor.  I realized that until I was the client rain-maker as well as the design principal this would be a problem, but more than that I was excited about a new direction for practice- working in the for-profit conservation of ecologically and culturally critical landscapes.  We had talked vaguely about ending the partnership for about a year, but the birth of my son made the decision for me in the end.  I came home from the hospital with him and his mother and decided not to drive downtown any more, and to make a go of it in Topanga.

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