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Winding path led Ohio State alumnus to acclaim as architect

After leaving the surf scene in California, David Williams return to college at OSU and became acclaimed architect. Credit: OSU

After leaving the surf scene in California, David Williams returned to college at OSU and became and acclaimed architect.
Credit: OSU

Following his graduation from Ohio State, David Williams moved to southern California to do two things: surf and build resorts. Neither went exactly as planned.

Williams imagined a surf scene that featured big waves and warm weather, an impression he got from watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

“When I got to southern California, that’s not what it was about at all. Most of it was getting up at 5:30 in the morning, freezing your butt off, and surfing 10 days to get one really good day,” he said.

Today, though, he’s executive vice president of architecture for Caruso Affiliated, a real estate development firm in Los Angeles, and views his surfing experience as an analogy to professional life as an architect: “It’s the same thing in any career you go into, but reality is different than imagination.”

The reality of working in architecture in California was certainly different from what Williams originally imagined. A firm he worked for designing country clubs and resorts faced economic challenges, causing it to branch out into retail design, said Williams.

The company’s work in both retail and resorts drew the attention of Rick Caruso, a former lawyer who had a vision of marrying retail with resort amenities. Caruso and Williams began working together to develop shopping centers that brought a sense of place to their communities.

Two of Williams’ designs, The Grove in Los Angeles and The Americana at Brand in Glendale, Calif., now rank in Shopping Center Today’s list of top 15 shopping centers in the world, based on sales per foot.

Switching from resort to retail design was not the first time Williams found himself on a different path than planned. He enrolled in OSU, a plan he had since he was 7 years old, with intentions of becoming a doctor.

After an internship with a physical therapy department, he decided he was better suited elsewhere. An aptitude test highlighted a childhood passion for building, and he changed his major to architecture.

At first, the program did not live up to his expectations.

“There was an old-school way of doing things, very rigorous, and it wasn’t as much about your thought process as it was your ability to perform the tasks,” Williams said.

However, that changed when Robert Livesey took over in 1983.

“I would not be in architecture if he had not taken over the program,” Williams said. “He brought this whole new energy to the place. It became more about what your thinking was and not whether your linework was perfect.”

Livesey, a professor and the section head at the OSU Knowlton School of Architecture, said he is proud of what Williams has accomplished and cited him as an example of what he wanted the program to embody.

“My goals were to make the best architecture program in the country, to be sure that the school was part of the contemporary discourse in architecture, and to give the students the knowledge to succeed in the profession and the confidence to apply it,” Livesey said.

Williams came to OSU this week to present lectures on the future of retail design and how design drives retail, an experience he found both foreign and rewarding.

“This is a very special occurrence for me,” he said. “But it’s one of my life’s goals to come back to Ohio State and be able to bring something back with me that I’ve accomplished.”

Students attending the events said they appreciated Williams’ ability to make his accomplishments relatable. “I was impressed by how he personalized and connected everything by relating to you,” said Rachel DiMauro, a third-year in fashion and retail studies.

Williams said its a focus on community history that has separated Caruso Affiliated shopping centers apart, Williams said.

“We were creating these experiences that were rooted in history, that we researched, that we celebrated,” Williams said. “It’s really about creating an opportunity for people to go do something that they were starved to do, that nobody else had created.”

The next project for Caruso Affiliated and Williams is the a redevelopment Palisades Village in Los Angeles. Like their other projects, Williams said, the intent is to create a neighborhood gathering place for the community.

Williams said the company has a saying for both its upcoming and finished projects.

“We don’t build town centers; we build the center of town.”

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