Noe Valley Voice July-August 2007

To Theo Revlock, Global Is Good

By Steve Steinberg

Theo Revlock is a master of the global economy. He runs his design firm from his Noe Valley home on 25th Street. He consults with his associate designers in London, Poland, and the Philippines. He creates kitchen remodels for his neighbors. And he is designing a business and residential complex that will house 4,000 families in China.

Despite the fact that he has two degrees in architecture, Revlock does not like to think of himself just as an architect. That's too limiting for the 52-year-old Revlock. Rather, he sees himself as a designer of many things. "We're doing media designs, graphics and branding, animations, web pages, landscape architecture, performance spaces, as well as buildings," he says of his company Sea Design.

Although Revlock has maintained a design/architecture business in Noe Valley for the past 10 years and completed projects throughout the Bay Area, it is his international work that has put him on the map, so to speak. A few years ago, Sea Design collaborated with a French firm that was designing the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, Iran. He also worked with an Iranian firm on the design of Iran's National Museum of Water. Closer to home, he submitted a master plan for the Presidio of San Francisco that won the backing of former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.

Last year, he encountered what may turn out to be the biggest opportunity of his career. A Chinese development firm invited the international architectural community to submit designs for a mixed-use residential and commercial development in the city of Zhong Shan, a metropolis of two million people northwest of Hong Kong. Knowing that the competition would be stiff, Revlock insisted on traveling to China to discuss his proposal personally with the director of the development company, who, surprisingly for China, was a woman. The personal touch worked, and in December of 2006 Sea Design's plan was accepted.

The city of Zhong Shan has special significance to the Chinese. It is the birthplace of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who overthrew the last imperial dynasty and founded the Republic of China in 1912. Revlock notes that two 24th Street merchants have told him they are originally from Zhong Shan.

In addition to the 4,000 residential units, the complex that Revlock and his associates are designing will have schools, libraries, and shopping malls. It sits on 56 acres of formerly industrial property. Besides the master plan for the project, Revlock will design the various detailed phases of the complex. He expects to be engaged on the project for at least another six months.

"We go to China once or twice a month now to work on the development," says Revlock. His associate designer and project manager, Dawn Ma, 34, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, generally accompanies him. Ma's fluency in Cantonese has helped to smooth over many language and cultural issues. (Revlock can speak only a few words in Chinese.)

Revlock says the Chinese authorities seemingly have no compunction about asking foreigners to design large parts of their infrastructure. "They recognize that the West has a greater level of sophistication when it comes to design. They want to get Western firms to help them."

To that end, Chinese government planning departments move much faster in inspecting and approving plans than their counterparts in the United States.

The only hitch that Revlock has thus far encountered was the mid-project announcement of a new law, which mandated that all new housing developments in China had to consist of at least 70 percent low-cost units. "China has a tremendous need for housing, particularly low-cost housing," Revlock notes. The problem has been exacerbated in recent years, as many rural Chinese have moved to the cities in search of industrial jobs. Sorting out the ramifications of the law put a temporary halt to many construction jobs, including Revlock's. But eventually, the Zhong Shan project got the green light to continue.

Because it was initiated before the 70 percent law was proclaimed, Revlock's project will mainly be designed for wealthier Chinese. Each residential unit in the complex, to be known as Glory Park, will be approximately 1,500 to 2,000 square feet in size, and will have one to four bedrooms. Revlock expects that most of the residents will be young professionals and their families.

Although the housing development will be a gated community, bowing to a strong Chinese need for security, Revlock is trying to convince the developer to allow some public access. "I'd like to have an environment where you have security without segregation," Revlock says.

Asked to characterize his design for Glory Park, Revlock calls it "a new form of modernism." He adds that in today's architecture, the idea of style in the traditional sense is over. "Architecture doesn't play by the same rules of style as in the past," he says. "We break the rules each time we design a building, so that every project has its own rules."

Long before he became involved in the Zhong Shan project, Revlock had acquired an enormous respect for Chinese culture, as well as for the country's vast economic potential. "The writing has been on the wall for a long time that China is going to be a player in the world economy," he says. Both of Revlock's sons, now 9 and 14, at one time attended the Chinese American International School in San Francisco and were, at least while they attended the school, fluent in the language.

Revlock's own background is thoroughly American. He was raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, the son of a chemist father and an artist mother. He had decided by the age of 19 that he wanted to be an architect. He received his architectural degree from the Center for Construction, Design, and Urban Studies in Philadelphia. He then worked for the next several years at various "dynamic firms" in Philadelphia, including the Yellow Springs Institute, known for its cutting-edge projects in the arts and media. "I did set designs for theater, furniture, and event architecture," Revlock recalls. He also worked for more traditional firms, designing restaurants, apartment buildings, and the like.

He was never completely satisfied, however, with the way architectural firms operated. "It was always a top-down approach," he says. What Revlock was looking for was a more collegiate way of doing things.

He then obtained a graduate architectural degree from the prestigious Architectural Association in London, where he made many of the architectural contacts that he still uses today in the conduct of Sea Design.

Asked who his architectural heroes are, Revlock does not mention any of the greats of the past like Andrea Palladio, Leon Battista Alberti, or Frank Lloyd Wright. Rather, he includes names like Rem Koolhaas, Ben van Berkel, and Zaha Hadid, living designers in the experimental forefront of their field.

Revlock moved to San Francisco in 1990 and founded Sea Design a few years later. The Sea in the name comes from the computer term self-extracting archive. But it doesn't necessarily mean that, Revlock says. He uses the word merely as a readily identifiable symbol that people will remember.

He loves living and working in Noe Valley. "It's a tight neighborhood; I know everyone on my street," he says.

Revlock is very excited about the future of Sea Design, particularly after the Zhong Shan project, and even anticipates opening an office either in that city or in Hong Kong.

Still, he insists that however far his career advances, he will never shy away from the kitchen remodels in Noe Valley. "I love the contrast," he says, "from the very big to the very small."