Global Conversation with James Timberlake, co-founder of Kieran Timberlake

Article by Charlotte Thomas, GPA Ambassador

James Timberlake and Stephen Kieran established the architecture firm, Kieran Timberlake in 1984. Since then, the firm has obtained recognition worldwide. James has guided the firm to receive awards for his work with Stephen on hundreds of state-of-the-art structures, including the AIA Firm Award in 2008 and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in 2010. The pair received the Benjamin Latrobe Fellowship for architectural design research from the AIA College of Fellows in 2001, and in 2012, James was appointed by the Obama Administration to serve on the Board of the National Institute of Building Sciences.

Before arriving at the Kieran Timberlake architecture firm—just before lunch time on a Tuesday—a first-time visitor might have anticipated hearing the lackluster sounds of nine-to-five employees anxiously preparing for a brief lunch respite. Instead, it’s immediatly apparent touring the building that the people working are not wearied employees, but engaged innovators enthusiastically contributing to the development of Kieran Timberlake designs. Structures surrounding the busy but quiet teams downstairs serve as testing units—do the walls appropriately capture the passing drafts? Are they equally as impermeable for moving sound? And they are built on site, readily seen in the windows at the entrance of the practice.

Despite the improbability of our voices carrying above a whisper in this equipped workshop, Executive Director of GPA, Zabeth Teelucksingh and I met with James in a space removed from the occupied craftsmen. Here, James outlined the steps the duo took to settle their globally lauded firm into the quiet but in vogue Northern Liberties neighborhood in Philadelphia.

What drove you to design various global structures like the US Embassy in London?

From the inception of the firm 24 years ago, Stephen Kieran and I have always developed strategic plans. We have always looked at projects aspirationally from a national level, Philadelphia, to international. With experience and with age, but mostly experience, come opportunities. Back in 2009, the department of state put out an R.F.P (request for proposal) for the new US embassy in London. We were contacted by a colleague who had advised the state department, and who worked on projects like this that we had known for a long time. The State Department had gotten away from doing competitions, but because it was such a signifiant commission, they wanted a national American architectural competition for it. 39 firms submitted proposals, and 12 of them were asked to interview. Of those 12, four were picked. There were four generations of firms, those of which included Morphosis Architects, Pei Cobb Freed, and Richard Meier & Partners. We were the youngest firm, and the international jury selected us after allowing us six months to come up with a scheme.

When you achieve that pinnacle of public affirmation obviously there’s good things and bad press. That includes a little bit of cheeky UK press and New York Times architectural critique. After that it’s been immensely positive. There had been political battles with the State Department and with Congress during the Obama administration. With this new State Department there is a bit of a different ethic going on. The good news is that it was built, and it is opening in January.

What other prominent projects have you undertaken recently?

We worked in Singapore for the National University of Singapore and Yale University in a joint project. There was a lot of preplanning in schematic design for the campus there. We also worked in Malaysia for the Sime Darby Corporation. They asked us to do a sustainable off site produced mass customized house. They ultimately accepted the design, but it wasn’t built because the corporate directors left and changed.

We’ve worked in India. Working on both middle income and low-income housing, using a mass produced, mass-customized housing strategy scheme in a joint venture. Now we’re working on the 27 million unit housing deficit in India. We have two prototypes for this that we hope to commercialize. They are quite environmentally sustainable and environmentally performative—mass cutomizable and mass scalable. They could be small, medium large; one, two, three stories.

The other thing we’ve done internationally, is that for 8 out of 10 years, while both Stephen and I have taught in a studio at UPenn, we’ve been on leave of absence from faculty, but for 8 of 10 years we took 12 to 15 students to Bangalesh each year. We produced a book published on that effort, “Alluvium”. We studied water and housing issues, heath, social, economic, and infrasructure issues. We used that laboratory as a case study for how architects can be useful in intervening in underserved economies.

Did you grow up in Philadelphia? How did you develop a global perspective?

No, I was born in Ohio, but I grew up in Michigan. My parents traveled with me at a young age. My father was an Episcopalian priest. In 1965, we traveled to South America when I was in ninth grade. For the last month of the eighth grade and the first month of the ninth, we lived in Guyana, in Georgetown when it had just become independent. I traveled extensively there, and traveled to Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua as examples.

When I got to Penn, I won many different travel scholarships that were available and traveled extensively again. Travel has always been in my blood. And Stephen has done the same thing. We’ve always wanted to work internationally and we’ve always been circumspect about where we work.

We’ve softly pursued a little work in China. The work requirements demand teaming partnership arrangements and knowledge agreements. We haven’t found the right opportunity there just yet. We’ve been looking at Europe and actively pursuing work in the UK, and met with several universities because we’ve done a lot of college work.

As you radiate out from Philadelphia, I’d love to hear how you view this city, and how you position that with your expertise?

People do say, ‘why aren’t you in New York City or Los Angeles?’ One, you can focus on work here without a lot of noise. In a global economy you don’t have to have platforms in the California or New York markets. In places where there is work to do, we do work.

In terms of positioning Philly, I got here in 1974. I was here when the decline was still occurring. In 40 years, we’ve seen the arrest of that and the repositioning of Philly and rebirth. In Detroit, we’ve seen the same thing happening there.  

One of the great things about this city is its scale, it’s a large city on a small city scale. It has immense resources, it has an ease of global connectivity, and its history and culture of course are fascinating. We’ve attracted a lot good brains through the health industry, and through education industry. Comcast and others of course have also done a good job of that. There’s also wide range of choices here for public to private school. 

We started the practice in an attic in West Philly in 1984, then moved to 3rd Street. Then moved to a store front. Four years after that we moved to a seven story building on third street on the fourth floor and then mutliple floors. Then we moved to behind the Barnes Foundation for 15 years. Then we finally moved here. One of things that’s kept us here is that 90 percent of our staff live in the city limits and either walk or ride a bike or take mass transit to get to work. When we took over this building and took over the plant, we had previously looked at over 40 offices to stay in the downtown district. We wanted to find a right size building to grow and take over and contribute to the neighborhood. One of the things that’s so great about this city—and traveling to London, it reminds me a little bit of London—this is a city of neighborhoods and deep history. Philly and London have immense linkages. Historically, culturally, politically, demoraphically. Its just, the city has always been a very attractive place for people to come to do business. We don’t have any trouble with people coming to us. They love coming to Philadelphia with its ease of traveling and acessibility. They love our new digs.

I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but Philly is definitely a great place to raise a kid. There are lots of European expats who love living here, and many more people from around the world!

Yes, we’ve brought up our kids as city kids. They’ve traveled extensively and filled up two passports. We adopted our daughter from the People’s Republic of China, and she’s now at the Penn Charter School. Our son is a freshman at college and wants to be a baseball pitcher.

Both kids have been taught to travel frequently and look outside of their realm. As you mentioned when you came in, I am an Obama appointee to the Board of the National Institute of Building Sciences. These are the kind of intiatives that Stephen and I and the rest of department have engaged in. Outward looking, paying it forward, trying to help the human condition not just create iconic buildings.

What’s your favorite iconic building in Philadelphia?

This a tough question for me! I grew up admiring Franklin Wright and Louis Kahn…My answer is I have many favorites. One of the reasons that attracted me coming from the Midwest is that I came here on one of the trips my family took us on in 1964 on the way to The World’s Fair. Back in that day…people were starting to buy and renovate the buildings. I remember walking out of a restaurant and seeing a big pile of dirt across Walnut. This was Society Hill Towers under construction. I remember going through the Art Museum and driving up Spruce Street seeing shells of buildings…then the wonderful landscape of Fairmount Park. Those were seared into my brain when I applied to Penn.

The thing that has always sustained me about being in Philly is that there’s this rich architecture history. There’s Independence Hall, William Strickland, all architects from the 1800’s like Frank Furness and Paul Cret, and then Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. I was thinking, ‘what better place to be an architect that internationally inspires, that is the cradle of architecture and landscape?’ The immense amount of incredible architecture examples here is sustaining to me. One of the things I always comment on when traveling is that this place holds no candle to any other place in the US. We’ve got iconic buildings, rich landscapes, famous architects. And art and sculpture and murals to boot. This is a place I am very bullish about.


Both James Timberlake and Stephen Kieran are innovators in their field. They find a way to design buildings that reflect the site, program, and people of the place in which the project is constructed. This balanced relationship between community and design is instrumental to creating a more unified world, that those who add their perspectives to diverse skylines consider the viewpoint of the local outlook. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the firm itself resides in Philadelphia. Its headquarters reflects Philadelphia’s quiet richness—the US’s first World Heritage City.

Photo credit: Kieran Timberlake