Aspiration is Necessary to Transform Urban Centers with Clark Manus

Tom Dioro: For our guests today, we’re honored really and excited. Definitely super excited for our guests, Clark Manus. Architect and principal of Heller Manus, an architecture firm dedicated to more than 25 years of developing a diversified client oriented firm; that is the design and sustainability leader in the profession. You can find them on the web at Again, Hello, Clark. How are you?

Clark Manus: Always a pleasure to see you and in healthy face.

Tom Dioro: Yes, but both of us very good. Clark, where do we begin with this? I don’t think I’ve asked you this before but what quote or mantra can you recall that matters to you or you kind of think of every now and then, that kind of carries you through the day or even through circumstances of life personally and professionally, you can think of one or even two.

Clark Manus: Well, the second and twisted one is no good deed goes unpunished. So many things that we see in the world that we’re doing for good; and I’ve been in circumstances where you were involved in a really great thing, and it went bad and sideways. So that’s my sort of joking thing. And then in this season, I am forever a fan of teams; team play teams and stuff like that. Watching the Bay Area, San Francisco Giants, basically be literally who are these guys to this, these guys have the formula that they won the World Series with. So that is really just really heartwarming to see that that’s really possible when people work together.

Tom Dioro: Clark, where did that come from? Obviously, you’re a professional, but where and why does that matter so much to you?

Clark Manus: I would probably say, being the son of the psychologists, maybe it’s one of those things where you try and find places for people to feel good, motivated, excited, and somehow it’s always been like that. I feel like I have achieved a lot in my life, but I certainly know that there are people who motivated me, who excited me about what they were doing, who if I certainly was not the smartest in the group, I sort of felt like hey I belong, so we all go feel that way. And I had a validation; this morning, I was asked to participate in a course, the professor at the University Of Buffalo School Of Architecture, and planning was running about students and master’s programs and thinking about architecture and how they go and what they do. And being a student there in the second class that this program created a very noteworthy program in a SUNY system, like the California system. It was really great to sort of reinforce to students who were in the beginning of their career that networks are great, teams are great. We can all be Frank Lloyd Wright thinking it’s our way or the highway. So anyway, so that sort of how that life approach actually I managed to sort of validate the life approach on multiple instances.

Tom Dioro: If you can draw a parallel to those which you stated earlier, Clark who are these guys and then they just come out and just are remarkable. Can you draw a parallel to like the giants now?

Clark Manus: You never think of the Yankees that way. Who else? The wild cub’s teams.


The Cubs came back from the sort of voodoo magic that had been played on their edge for nearly 100 years. We’re like, oh, we can never win, and we’re blah, blah, blah. So I think that that’s really a function of the mindset of the people who were championing those people. So anyway, that’s my sense.

Tom Dioro: Yeah. And if you can see a project that you’ve worked on where owners thought that, well, we’ll give Clark in Group A shot, and then we like what they’re doing, but we’ll see what happens, and then they just are blown away in the most beautiful way. Can you share with us, even if maybe not to name names?

Clark Manus: Yeah, I would say, a lot of the projects, I would say that the firm’s evolution was to try and work on many different project types, we all debate about, like I don’t want to do the same thing over, I want to do something different. Just like you, you want to be able to talk to a range of people and get different perspectives and stuff like that. And I think as a result of either the initial approach about doing that, or being able to be involved in whether it was a residential high rise building, whether it was a residential low rise building was a high rise as a renovation. They offered us the opportunity, because I think it’s a sort of thought process, that you demonstrate to people that they’re willing to take a chance on you, I guess, Tom is the best way to describe it. They’re willing to say, ‘Yeah, I know you accomplished. There’s no doubt about that. But are you going to listen to me? Are you going to incorporate things that I think are necessary? Or are you just going to sort of do what you think is right, and not care about that?’

So in my mind, there’s a lot about that sort of chemistry with clients that sort of enables you to do different project types. And I would say in my career, the firm’s practice career, the range of projects that we have been privileged to work on is really amazing. But the latest one that’s under my watch is a 1915 boats are at the end of Lake Merritt called the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. So five years ago, we pursued it selected. So with the owner, we have this program to refurbish a theater, an old historic theater. Calvin Simmons theater, it was really great for historic and then conversion of an arena that used to be 3000 people hosted people like James Brown, Dreadful Head, Martin Luther King; it goes on and on from orators to musicians, and that will then be a space that can be converted for the use of the arts community, to be able to use for their support space, or stuff like that, that they need in terms of delivering whether it’s ballet or Symphony or other arts groups.

So anyway, so that’s absurd, a good example of you offer that up, and you can’t say, I’ve done exactly that. So when we achieve stuff like that, in my mind it is really that sort of team attitude. So to your point, I look at the Giants, their local history, being a fan, you know, I just watching, you either go like a guy, you’ll never get together or Wow, she and you beat everybody’s expectations for a new manager, right? Who everybody was suspecting, right? And now it’s like, wow, this guy’s good. We have this faith versus your doubt. So that would be my take.

Tom Dioro: If you didn’t touch on that, the range of projects that you’ve done, is that something you purposefully pursued, came to you or a bit of both?

Clark Manus: I would say circumstance in some instances. I would say aspirational for sure. Okay, aspirational to work on different projects. This shouldn’t be boohoo like, I just like to do this project. But I think it was an aspirational view that the firm always embodied the challenge of bringing expertise and working on projects in different locales. We’ve been fortunate to do that.


Overwhelmingly though it’s been in San Francisco, which has been sort of our backyard and truly it an amazing honor, as I sort of look back and watch the city transform itself for better or for worse. Sometimes it’s hard to say you never really know where things are going to go. But the one to your point that probably both on a sort of professional advocacy role on the removal of the freeway, I don’t know if you remember that removal of  the freeway and planning for the area and Rincon Hill, and then being able to be the architect on projects there. That neighborhood now, that in town, high density neighborhood fulfills so many of the desired aspirations of helping our issues on climate change, living in urban centers. Certainly we’ve learned a lesson on the pandemic, creating activity for people in terms of that, delivering 30%, affordable housing in a district, being near transit, all the things that we all lust, to do in support of creating good urban environments, or good environments where people can live and enjoy. So anyway, that for me is probably the best example of the Ryan. So not really clear about whether you stumble upon it, or your momentum gets you there, or you aspire to do it.

So I think aspiration is always necessary. I think sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And then being able to continue to champion that path in terms of doing that by championing a path, you at least equip yourself to be able to try and do more of that versus doing the same thing. It’s, I don’t want to say that it’s easy to do the same thing. But it comes much more predictable, and there’s less variables, versus I need to think out of the box, I need to color outside the lines, I need to understand how this fit to this doesn’t fit. And I think I’m not quite sure whether this was probably before this, but I now have a night job, and I am an Oakland planning Commissioner, coming on their sixth year as a commissioner, and so that has been a very rewarding and very eye opening experience, to be on the sort of side of looking at issues that are our land use or architecture, in a community that I’ve lived in for decades.

Tom Dioro: You’re listening to the Modern Built Environment podcasts, powered by Swinerton. We’re talking today with Clark Manus, principle of Heller Manus. For more information, feel free to visit his website at that’s Clark if you can touch again back to the Oakland Planning Commission and how has that also helped your practice as well as just your communication with people, clients and just the community in general?

Clark Manus: So the normal role for an architect involved in the projects is to appear before Planning Commission’s in the city in which they’re pursuing the approval by a body and our practice in San Francisco. Again, it enormous amount on hundreds of time, and also been out in the course of doing projects on community outreach to describe to people what a project might be, because you know that the visual nature of a sketch or the scope of a proposal, if you’re not trained becomes much more challenging because you don’t feel comfortable reading a plan or section or elevation. So, not something I pursued in any way, not something that I really felt was anything that I would pursue wanting to consider doing. But I got to know leadership and in the Oakland planning department and they made a point to me is like, you practice in San Francisco, you do buildings, major buildings is a part of your everyday existence. Andwe have projects that come before us and we need architects and they couldn’t remember the last time an architect had been on the commission, to put it simply, which is like, really.


I accepted the honor, I met with the mayor and the mayor interviewed me about my interest and stuff like that. And I was then ultimately appointed to the commission. But the thing that you asked, which I think is the most interesting, is that if you’re in that role, you have to be good at listening, you really have to try and listen. It’s easy, like a judge or somebody is a legislator to make a decision, and either I care about your opinion, or I don’t. And for me to be able to sit on the other side, because I understood that the presentation side and what the objective was, I feel like I can fast forward to, we don’t need to play a lot of games, we both have the same aspirations, good simple process, good architecture, and let’s build it, okay, so really a very basic kind of thing.

I’ve stayed with that over the course of the nearly five years gone on my six, in doing that, and learned a lot, heard issues that maybe I was aware of, but heard more vividly, everything from fairness in zoning, which obviously is always in everybody’s mind, to issues on diversity in hiring, or inclusion or good character infill projects that fit the urban context. They’re all a part of that formula. So is pretty much an indecision maker, you feel the responsibility to be open, and listen, and be able to be fair in helping to fulfill the decision and not be sort of stuck in politics, sometimes that that happens. And I think my tenure in this role hit and the people that I’ve met, the other commissioners I’ve served with, it’s been just really a great experience, great life experience. I would chalk it up there. And you never know when you enter into a obligation that doesn’t pay you anything, whether the rewards are actually part of the end result.

Tom Dioro: Now, about the politics in architecture and I’ve heard it before, I don’t know who said it actually, architecture is politics. I don’t know if that’s accurate, or it’s just my own mind thinking of it, but share with us what it means just the politics of architecture, maybe not our times, but actually, in any time. Like, how and why is there politics involved just in architecture itself?

Clark Manus: Well, I mean, the first thing is you would attest is really, at the most elementary level, it’s about style, sometimes, like I like modern, I like classical, I like mid-century, I like concrete, the those are things that are probably not fact not political, but are the nature. And then architecture gets woven into the land use decisions. And to your question, really, what happens is that politics makes a play about either the appropriate policy that’s being fulfilled, is there enough landscaping? Is the building too tall near its neighbors? Does it have enough affordable housing? And then you get into the esoteric stuff that it’s not politics, which is, the glass is too dark, or the building is too foreboding, or it’s not good at the ground level where there’s an ability to accommodate retail in people’s activities. So you’re correct in your assessment that in many instances, and I find this is true in a lot of the projects that we’ve worked on, and on the other side, separating the political discussion about land use, which is embedded in architecture and taking the architecture portion sort of out of that equation.

So you’ve resolved the political side, you’ve resolved the land use, the building envelope, the number of units, the type of units, all the sort of quantitative things that people want to make a bargain. And in the world of politics and the architecture side is a sort of soft side that people don’t have to raise the issue about politics like Trump who tried to create a style out of federal, because he didn’t like modern architecture, he only liked classical. But that’s the most extreme version of somebody dictating the style.


Generally, communities end up in those places in my mind. And if you’re stood in being able to evaluate that as a project goes forward, you can help to, I don’t want to say neutralize, you can help to compartmentalize the way the decisions get made. And based on my own experience, and now sort of sitting on the other side, as the commissioner, I weigh, let’s get those quantitative things resolved. So there’s no real debate about this. There’s real clarity and specificity, and it’s acceptable to everybody, and you don’t have to waste your time and money and blame yourself to blame your architect or the buildings should have been green instead of blue, or the glass should have been clear instead of dark, or there should have been a driveway in this location. Those are not political things. But the other parts of the land you side are highly political, you certainly see it entirely across the bay area, this is one of the most complex regulatory environments to seek a land use approval on architecture just becomes the sort of the enclosure of what that looks like. And yet it’s one of the most important things.

Tom Dioro: Clark, outstanding, you’re listening to the Modern Built Environment Podcast powered by Swinerton. We’re talking today with Clark Manus, Principal of Heller Manus. Our public service announcement for today is for the Center for architecture, the AIA San Francisco, the Center for Architecture and Design. The Center for Architecture and Design is dedicated to creating a publicly focused dialogue on architecture, design, through a variety of public programs, exhibition lectures, film, screening tours, and more that are open to all communities. For more information, visit the website at, again, that Clark, as we close out our show, can you share with us about the center and its meaning and what you’re so excited about it as well.

Clark Manus: So, across the country, many are probably too handful of cities, over time have created gathering places, that’s best way to describe it, or centers that really focus on architecture and design elements associated with being able to provide the public and the profession with greater learning opportunities associated with this. So, one of the most remarkable ones is the Chicago Architecture Foundation. And it’s sort of on again, it’s a companion to the AIA in Chicago, but they function independently because one really focuses on the profession. The other one really is about public outreach.

So for me, the Center in San Francisco, which has been a sort of virtual thing for more than a decade, is now sort of found a place to have a physical home in a historic building at the ground floor, accessible to the public and everybody and greater and sort of interplay with profession as well. And your sponsor, Swinerton certainly is a part of the Bay Area family and amongst what we are trying to do is gather all of our colleagues in this entire industry and say, “This is what we need to do. We all work on things like that, we all value each other.” Everybody from those people who build the projects, those people develop the projects, and those people supply things for projects.

Its goal is really to help continue to make those connections offer continuing education and exciting programs, very similar to the one that you’ve been doing for quite some time to educate people about architecture and how they can feel more comfortable about how to talk about their environment or what to do, how to get involved. But for me, it’s really one of those things that this is it’s time and it’s a perfect opportunity to do this. So the space that we’ll be going into in the first curtain wall building in the United States and the holiday building was Pope is the architect couldn’t be a better location. It pretty much says, this is the history of architecture in the Bay Area and also represents the sort of historic landmark architecture that was created that is being used all over the world.


Tom Dioro: Outstanding again, Clark, it’s been a real honor to enjoy having you on the Modern Built Environment Podcast today. I hope you come back soon. We really got to have because you always leave me wanting more.

Clark Manus: It’s good,Tom, what a wonderful program you do, great dialogue and great issues that you precipitated. So, again, thank you for having me on.

Tom Dioro: Thank you very much, Clark. I really appreciate that. You’ve been listening to the Modern Built Environment Podcast powered by Swinerton. You can find us online at

Our guest today has been the great Clark Manus. architect and principal of Heller Manus, an architecture firm dedicated to more than 25 years of developing and diversified client oriented firm that is a design and sustainability leader in the profession. You can find them on the web at

Join us again next time when we welcome another leading architect, engineer, builder, manufacturer or civic leader, committed to building a better and more beautiful built environment for healthier cities, communities and lives. Thank you. I’m Tom Dioro.