Rios Clementi Hale Studios’ Anthropological Approach Drives Workplace Design

Mark Motonaga Leads Eight New Office Projects in California and Texas

Through extensive research, Mark Motonaga, Partner at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, reshapes the workplace inventively and respectfully to reflect a company’s cultural customs, rituals, and stories. Top row (L-R): The Yard; The Park at San Diego Technology Center; The Reserve; and FLIGHT at Tustin Legacy. Bottom row (L-R): San Jose Gateway; Palo Alto Square; One American Center; and GreenStreet. Photos: Anne Garrison. Renderings: Rios Clementi Hale Studios. Click here for high-resolution images.

Mark Motonaga, Partner at multi-disciplinary design firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios, is leading the firm’s workplace design practice with eight new office projects in development or recently completed—from multi-building campuses to shared workspaces to lobby re-imaginings—in major cities across California and Texas.  Through extensive research, and an anthropological approach, Motonaga reshapes the workplace inventively and respectfully to reflect a company’s cultural customs, rituals, and stories for new meaning and future success.

Rios Clementi Hale Studios aims to find the specific story behind each company’s brand to reveal, explore, and invent designs that amplify the environment.  To find these stories, Motonaga and his team of multi-disciplinary designers fully immerse themselves in a company’s culture to conduct extensive research into its processes by interviewing users, shadowing employees, and administering focus groups.  This interactive approach informs the design of workspaces that are more than just places, but rather, settings that evoke an emotional connection for users.

“A company is like a mini society that we need to understand in order to design spaces that draw people together with a common purpose,” said Motonaga, who has played a significant role in the 30-year-old firm’s ongoing evolution.  “It’s imperative to grasp employee rituals, daily life, and cultural processes before developing the design concept.  Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, we customize program elements and organize spaces based on our client’s culture, lifestyle, and work.”

An example of how this process works toward understanding cultural rituals is evident in a recent office design for a large technology company.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios interacted with employees and observed how they collaborate with each other and perform their daily jobs.  By attending the company’s important all-staff project reviews, the designers discovered that, even though these meetings were central to the client’s culture, the imperfect space allotted had a negative impact on the staff, as well as on the way teams prepared, presented, and collaborated with senior management.  These observations led to proposing a special space in the building that created a forum-like effect with areas capable of being augmented to meet different uses for presenters.  By changing the format of the space, employees felt a sense of transparency and openness to celebrate the ritual of this event.

By working collaboratively with clients, Motonaga makes the design and construction process inclusive to comprehend their goals and help them envision the site in a new way.  He leads this endeavor by hearing client problems, finding solutions, and creating robust designs that personify the company’s culture in physical form.  Relating to clients on a personal level “involves, most importantly, interpreting the unsaid, which may be conveyed through innuendo, energy, and nonverbal cues,” he explains.  He aims to distinguish the client’s values, and what they need, to ultimately create a meaningful space that conveys the value of design.

In addition to understanding the company’s goals and culture, the designers consider the site’s history and the role it plays in shaping the workplace.  Often the program may be informed by the environment’s natural surroundings, ethnic influences, employee demographics, or formal/informal practices.  These circumstances inspire designs that activate the brand’s cultural landscape and trigger new ways of using the space when completed.

Incorporating a site’s surrounding in the design is a driving factor in the firm’s work on FLIGHT at Tustin Legacy.  Here, the design team developed a ground-up creative office campus to appeal to a wide range of companies seeking a collaborative work environment.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios’ design team immersed itself into understanding the Orange County office market, and on the client’s desire to change the current workplace experience.  The designers researched the site to create a concept authentic to its surroundings, while incorporating flexible spaces, generous interior height, and exterior connections.  The result is a design that reflects Tustin’s tech potential, while celebrating the former Marine Corps air station where airships were once housed and deployed.  The project successfully weaves the city’s history into a new work environment for future success.

As a multi-disciplinary design firm, Rios Clementi Hale Studios is able to determine client challenges and provide solutions based on the firm’s wide range of design disciplines.  Spanning the sectors of architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, urban planning, graphic design, signage, and product design, the team offers multiple innovations from one practice.  This process enables Rios Clementi Hale Studios to create more effective environments in the spirit and mission of each project’s specific site at a variety of scales.

Since joining Rios Clementi Hale Studios in 2009, Motonaga has become an innovative leader and risk-taker.  Known as “Moto” by colleagues, this fitting moniker personifies a partner who is, according to firm founding partner Mark Rios, FAIA, FASLA, “the engine that keeps things humming.”  He’s involved in all aspects of the award-winning firm—from sharing ideas and spearheading project teams, to networking and nurturing client relationships.  His formal education and extensive experience in architecture and regional planning, coupled with his interest in ethnography, makes him an indispensable design leader.  Acting as a “conceptual bridge” between the firm and its clients, he grasps the underlying cultural currents of a physical site to generate results that deliver a culturally sustainable place, as well as a distinct story.

The commonality among Rios Clementi Hale Studios’ culturally driven environments is the ability to inspire interaction among a client’s employees, increase productivity, and improve work quality.  Some clients have sought out the firm to shift interior spaces from cubicle floorplans to collaborative office structures for increased livelihood and wellbeing.  This strategy centralizes communal spaces and offers environments with variety, openness, and indoor/outdoor accessibility.  Other strategies have focused on the incorporation of amenity-driven spaces to attract, retain, and encourage talent to remain on campus.  Additional approaches have embraced bringing the workspace outside the office, such as re-imagining lobbies for central gathering or meeting spaces, and rethinking landscapes to embrace interaction with the outdoors.

“At the core of designing a great office space is understanding a company’s way of working, accommodating its office culture, and shaping it to meet the challenges of its users,” noted Motonaga.  “Just as important as how a company works today, is how it aspires to work in the future.  Today’s office requires designs that celebrate a company’s culture, build on its successes, and add new elements that enhance the employment experience.”

The following office projects span Southern and Northern California (San Diego, La Jolla, Tustin, San Jose, and Palo Alto), along with cities in Texas (Austin and Houston), to exemplify the firm’s broad reach from a single Los Angeles office.

Southern California

San Diego Shared Workspace Emphasizes Interaction With the Outdoors
Locale Advisors developed the 57,000-square-foot shared workspace called The Yard in San Diego, CA, to include an open floor plan with interactions to the outdoors.  Roll-up doors provide an indoor/outdoor connection to capitalize on an underutilized courtyard space and convert it into an outdoor room for eating, collaborating, and relaxing.  A trellis surrounding the main seating area in the courtyard defines the heart of the campus to offer visual privacy and shading by day and lighting at night.  The building’s signage and graphics mimic the trellis motif in a striped pattern with bold, brightly colored signs to add visual interest.  Drought-tolerant native plants throughout campus common areas give the landscape a healthy green color while minimizing water use.  Interiors feature a newly designed conference room with pivoting walls to double as white boards or doors for privacy, while a custom-designed reception desk adds a distinct point of arrival in the lobby’s main entrance.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios is responsible for the architecture, landscape, graphics, and signage of The Yard, which was completed in 2016.

Park-Like Office Campus Encourages Work/Play Environment in San Diego
The 650,000-square-foot, 13-building office campus called The Park at San Diego Technology Center in San Diego, CA, transforms a traditional tilt-up office warehouse district into a creative work/play environment taking advantage of its park-like setting.  Developed by Locale Advisors, this ambitious workplace re-design and expansion adds 450,000 square feet of office space above the complex’s existing one-story buildings, increasing the leasable area by 70 percent.  Glass-encased modules are placed atop several of the buildings that surround a re-designed five-acre park and are oriented differently to avoid redundancy.  The modules hover above the park to create the sense of a floating treehouse.  The ground-floor central quadrangle includes a fitness center, basketball court, and beach volleyball court.  Landscaped corridors extend from the central courtyard, between the surrounding buildings, and all the way to the street.  This not only strengthens the connection with nature throughout the complex; it also breaks up the massive floor plates of the larger buildings.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios is responsible for the architecture, landscape, branding, graphics, signage, and site furniture of The Park at San Diego Technology Center, which is currently under construction and planned for completion in September 2017.  The fitness center is scheduled for construction in fall 2017, and planned for completion in summer 2018.

Orange County’s First Purpose-Built Creative Office Campus Re-Imagines Former US Air Station
Lincoln Property Company redeveloped the former Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, CA, into a 870,000-square-foot, eight-building, mixed-use office campus.  FLIGHT at Tustin Legacy—the first purpose-built creative office campus in Orange County—delivers a workplace experience to improve livelihood and efficiency across 38 acres.  The design borrows cues from the aviation vernacular with large, light-filled floor plates and double-height buildings to recall airplane hangars that once occupied the site.  Rather than a central core and lobby in each building, all common areas, elevators, and stairs are oriented outside to connect to the landscape.  This bold strategy delivers more usable interior square footage and encourages interactions among employees.  Tenants have easy indoor/outdoor accessibility from exterior spaces into their own work areas.  The campus provides direct access to a park, inspiring artwork, dining and retail options, and other amenities.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios is responsible for the architecture, landscape, interior design, and urban planning of FLIGHT at Tustin Legacy, which is currently under construction.

Northern California

Amenity-Driven Office Campus Enhances Workplace Community in San Jose
San Jose Gateway, developed by Hudson Pacific Properties, features a renovation of 10,000 square feet of lobby space within the four-building office campus in San Jose, CA, delivering an additional 3,850 square feet of amenity spaces and creating a sense of community throughout the site.  The project strategically reduces existing lobby circulation space and reallocates the surplus area to introduce a new restaurant, conference center, tenant lounge, and fitness center.  Glass-lined lobbies adjoin amenity areas and extend beyond each building envelop to announce entries in vibrant colors for wayfinding.  A centrally located restaurant anchors the campus to form a gathering spot for tenants.  Interior spaces connect to the exterior through large garage-style doors that roll up for an indoor/outdoor relationship.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios is responsible for the architecture, landscape, and site furniture of San Jose Gateway, which was completed in 2016.

Palo Alto Office Campus Designed Around Central Courtyard for Easy Amenity Access
The 328,251-square-foot, six-building campus Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto, CA, features an upgrade to the existing U-shaped central landscaped courtyard to accommodate greenspace, walking surfaces, a fitness center, and covered parking.  Developed by Hudson Pacific Properties, the office campus received a lobby reduction to accommodate amenity spaces and expand interior circulation.  The reconfigured lobbies feature spaces for gathering, meeting, and relaxing with comfortable poufs coordinated in the same color as building numbers.  Interior spaces showcase floor-to-ceiling windows for natural light and roll-up doors affording indoor/outdoor ability.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios is responsible for the architecture, landscape, and site furniture of Palo Alto Square, which is currently under construction and planned for completion in late 2017.


Building Atrium Provides Communal Spaces for Working, Meeting, and Socializing in Austin
Developed by Endeavor Real Estate Group, One American Center in Austin, TX, reimagines an outdated 22,327-square-foot, three-level atrium with new communal areas intended for working, meeting, and socializing.  The lobby levels allow tenants to conduct business outside the traditional office environment with convenient access to shared building amenities.  A sense of work bars wrap around guardrails, while clusters of poufs and scattered armchairs provide spaces for respite.  A grand staircase leads down to the lower-level amphitheater to offer comfortable seating for casual encounters and special events.  Custom-designed brown leather “super sofas” create a Western feeling that connects to popular cowboy iconography in the region.  To maintain the site’s distinction, the architects strategically incorporated the existing pink granite by introducing a complementary porcelain tile and changing the geometry of the floors.  A mix of materials—wood-veneer ceiling slats, light-brown back-lit walls, and perforated high-polished metal guardrails—refresh the space with a contemporary twist.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios is responsible for the architecture, interior design, and site furniture of One American Center, which is currently under construction and is planned for completion in late 2017.

Former Houston Shopping Mall—Three City Blocks Long—Adapted Into Collaborative Offices
Midway transformed a former multi-level, open-air shopping mall in Houston, TX, into a premier office, retail, restaurant, and entertainment destination occupying three city blocks.  The 570,000-square-foot, mixed-use development GreenStreet features amenities on the ground level and more than 90,000 square feet of collaborative office spaces on the second and third floors.  To privatize offices, yet keep them open to corridors, the architects enclosed workspaces with glass walls and developed a vine screen system to shield views from passersby.  Circulation areas and amphitheater seating are planned along building connector bridges, running above cross streets, to reduce sound penetration in offices.  Roll-up doors on the building façade and interior corridors provide tenants street views and easy access.  Various trees and plantings enliven spaces to bring nature inside and add color to complement the existing green roofs above escalators.  The walkways showcase overhangs and fans, drawing inspiration from porches commonly seen in Houston residential design.  Rios Clementi Hale Studios is responsible for the architecture, landscape, interior design, and site furniture of GreenStreet, which is currently under construction.

These projects add to Rios Clementi Hale Studios’ extensive workplace design portfolio.  Throughout more than 30 years, the architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and interior, exhibit, and graphic designers have created dynamic environments using their holistic approach—one that merges multiple disciplines together—to bring character to a place.  Some notable projects in California include the award-winning Columbia Square, a $450-million, 675,000-square-foot vibrant mixed-use creative campus in Hollywood, transforming the long-neglected former CBS West Coast studios into a destination for entertainment, media, and technology companies; The Exchange on 16th, a four-building, 750,000-square-foot office and retail development in San Francisco, offering plazas and courtyards for building users; Sacramento Downtown Commons, a 16-story, mixed-use tower in Sacramento that includes office and retail spaces, a hotel, movie theater, and public plazas; The California Endowment, a 118,000-square-foot, 6.5-acre campus in Downtown Los Angeles, showcasing a bold building and landscape design that visually connect the area’s disparate ethnic communities and urban context; Steelhouse Media Office, a 17,000-square-foot industrial space in Culver City, highlighting the technology marketing firm’s culture, daily routines, and work/play environments; and GeoCities, the pioneering Internet company, presenting an open floor plan with collaborative spaces—one of the architects’ early examples of a tech workspace.

Rios Clementi Hale Studios has earned an international reputation for its collaborative and multi-disciplinary approach, establishing an award-winning tradition across an unprecedented range of design disciplines.  The firm’s partners—Mark Rios, FAIA, FASLA, Julie Smith-Clementi, IDSA, Frank Clementi, FAIA, AIGA, and Bob Hale, FAIA, and Mark Motonaga—comprise a team involved in every aspect of design, from practice to education.  Acknowledging the firm’s diverse body of work, the American Institute of Architects California Council gave Rios Clementi Hale Studios its 2007 Firm Award, the organization’s highest honor.  For its varied landscape work—from civic parks to private gardens—the firm was named a finalist in the 2009 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards.  Since 1985, the architects, landscape architects, planners, and urban, interior, exhibit, graphic, and product designers at Rios Clementi Hale Studios have been creating buildings, places, and products that are thoughtful, effective, and beautiful.  In May 2017, Rios Clementi Hale Studios released its first monograph entitled Not Neutral: For Every Place, Its Story, a robust visual collection of the firm’s multi-disciplinary work, published by AMMO Books.  The monograph is available for purchase at  For more information visit