Marcel Wilson probably won't like the way I start or end this profile. That's because I'm going to write about his past, and the landscape architect is obsessively focused on the future. But to fully understand what comes next, we have to look at what came before.
Wilson is changing the shape and texture of some of California's most beloved landscapes and outdoor public areas in ways that are surprising, unconventional, and delightful. As part of that, he's planting trees—and a lot of them. The irony is that his father owned a South Bend, Indiana, lumber and hardware business, and Wilson grew up watching trees chopped down and rendered into boards.
You might think Wilson became a landscape architect in order to replant what his father harvested. Though it’s a poetic thought, it’s not quite the case. If anything, Wilson's work was inspired by his paternal profession. "My father would find land, cut the trees, and haul them to the mill. I spent a lot of time in the machine rooms watching that process," Wilson explains. "Looking back, it directly affected my understanding of how the world is shaped and manipulated—as well as its economics.”
And let's not disregard the influence of his hometown in his work. "In Indiana, everyone seems to be one degree away from a farmer. It's part of the rust belt too, and while I was growing up in the 1970s, it was still a place where people made things," he says.
Know that Wilson grew up where the forest and farm meet the factory—and where people enjoy nature but bend it to suit their needs—and you can start to fathom his work. "When people ask about my job, I try not to give a long explanation," he says. "But I tell them that what we do involves combining things that are alive with things that are made. Another way of talking about it is to simply say we ‘enable life’ by making accessible places for people, all while taking economic forces into consideration. Integrating all those things in a complicated world takes intelligence, inventiveness, and effort."
If it sounds high-minded and complex, it is. Wilson says his firm, Bionic, takes on projects of all scales. But peruse the plans, renderings, and photographs that line the walls of his stark white and sky-blue office, and you can easily see this isn't the landscape architect who is going to build a simple porch over your postage-stamp lawn.
In fact, in project after project, common themes emerge: a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the changing forces of nature, to create green spaces on complicated sites where none existed before, and to make the inaccessible accessible.
For example, there's the Tech Deck in Mountain View, California. In many parts of Silicon Valley, there appears to be much more silicon than valley. In this project, Wilson and the Bionic team took what could have been an unassuming roof on blocky building and endowed it with a green oasis that Wilson describes as having “social, ecological, and infrastructural functions.” What that means is that the roof has plantings and a amorphous, vaguely petal-shaped shade structure, as well as a bocce court and comfortable places for "collaboration"—all perched sixty feet in the air above a sea of concrete.
Then there is the firm's lead role in the transformation of India Basin, a waterfront spot that was long home to the shipping industry. Located in the easternmost corner of San Francisco, it could be considered the city's last frontier in terms of contemporary development.
Bionic has been tasked with creating a nearly 13-acre waterfront park that winds in front of new housing and retail. Not only does the project involve environmental remediation, new construction, and the preservation of wetlands and water, the forward-thinking Bionic team is grappling with the problems of rising waters and increasingly powerful waves.
There’s also the firm’s Adobe Creek Bridge, located across the highway from Google in Mountain View (thanks to a ribbon-like pedestrian and bicycle bridge), or the new main LinkedIn campus in Sunnyvale (where public paths zigzag amongst triangular green spaces), and the narrow urban park called the 3rd Street Flash Light in San Francisco (where a faceted wall refracts the views of a very busy thoroughfare, turning it into an abstract artwork).
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the word “bionic” is: "having normal biological capability or performance enhanced by or as if by electronic or electromechanical devices." Wilson's company combines plantings with science, technology, engineering, and architecture to achieve extraordinary projects. As he says: "Our sensibility is geared toward invention and uncommon results."
We asked if, as the announcer solemnly intoned over the opening credits for The Six Million Dollar Man, if that means the firm makes things that are "better, stronger, and faster?"
After considering the antiquated pop culture reference for a moment, Wilson smiles and says, "Well, I am a child of the ’70s."