James Timberlake ’74, making designs that matter

February 06, 2018
James Timberlake '74 credits his undergraduate education at Detroit Mercy for leading him on the path to success.

As the son of an Episcopalian minister, the last place James Timberlake thought he would find himself was a Jesuit university.

But it’s his education at University of Detroit he credits with giving him the skills and confidence to build a successful career in architecture helping design significant projects like, most recently, the U.S. Embassy in London with his Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake.

Establishing a goal

Not many five-year-olds have chosen their career path, but Timberlake knew from about that age that he wanted to be an architect.

When Timberlake was young, his father moved the family from a church in Ohio to another in Grand Haven, Mich. This new church needed remodeling that involved planning and designing a new parish hall and replacing the existing church. It was the beginning of his design education.

“My father would meet with architects fairly regularly,” Timberlake said. “Once every couple of months, they would take my dad out to dinner, and I would go along with him. They would be talking about the project, they would also toss the kid a question or two and I would always ask about a building element and what the definition of that element was.”

Timberlake’s mother was a self-taught artist who spent much of her time painting and decorating.

“All of us kids were encouraged to take on artistic avenues and ventures,” he said, adding that the combination of his parents’ talents and interests helped shape his decision to become an architect at such an early age. “I think my grandfather asked me what I wanted to be and I said, ‘an architect’ and it was just something I kept repeating. All through high school, my friends all knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Timberlake excelled in drawing and drafting classes in high school, but he wasn’t as studious when it came to other subjects, even calling himself “phlegmatic” about his work. That made applying to colleges a little less-than-satisfying. He was denied admission or wait-listed by several schools, and when he was accepted to the University of Detroit, it came with the agreement that he would need to do well in his first semester to be admitted to the architecture program. He had earned his spot that second semester.

Defining moments

“I started college at 17. You’re talking about an 18-22 year-old male and you’re talking about a point where male faculties and character functions are still being developed,” he said. “You have someone who is an open vessel. I think the thing the school taught me was really about character development, about developing yourself as a person on just a skills basis.”

Close interaction with the faculty and staff not only honed his skill in architecture, but also his self-confidence.

Late one night, while furiously finishing drawings and designs for review and exhibit, Timberlake said architecture professor John Loss approached him.

“He showed up at my desk at about 7:30 at night with a six-pack of beer and sat down next to me and said ‘can we have a chat?’ ” said Timberlake. They talked late into the night, drinking beer and sharing philosophies. “Before he left, he said to me in so many words, ‘You have immense talent and you can be whatever you want to be because of that talent. What you need to do is to make sure you apply it.’ Now, how many kids he told that to in his tenure at the University of Detroit, I don’t know, but when I tell other people about it, it’s a pretty unique experience.”

Timberlake said it opened his eyes to the opportunities that come from the work ethic he had learned. After he graduated in 1974, he moved on to University of Pennsylvania with a scholarship.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my undergraduate education,” said Timberlake.

Supporting students

At the time Timberlake was at University of Detroit, study abroad programs were not available to Timberlake. Graduate work was a different story, and he was a Prize Fellow for the American Academy in Rome in 1982-83, which allowed him to live in Italy for a year.

“I understand the necessity to look outside of your realm and have an appreciation of architecture and culture in other places, along with understanding people and customs abroad. It broadens our view and it makes us better architects and citizens,” Timberlake said.

His passion for foreign study opportunities was the impetus behind his $75,000 gift to the School of Architecture’s study abroad programs.

Timberlake supports up-and-coming architects in other ways as well. He participates in a mentoring program at his firm, KieranTimeberlake. He also teaches, speaks publicly and sets an example they can aspire to.

“Work and life is a constant balancing act,” he says. “Finding time for family, firm, friends and the future — including those students and young architects who desire and seek mentoring — is something that energizes me. While I cannot always fulfill each and every request, and family must come first, giving time to others, and ‘paying it forward’ is something I will continue to do as long as it is meaningful and the results are positive.”

Leaving a lasting impression

Timberlake has worked on globally-recognized projects, including the Melvin J. and Claire Levine Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, Cellophane House at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Embassy of the United States in London. He has received hundreds of awards for his work, yet to him, it seems surreal.

“I look back on all of these achievements and what we’ve experienced and it’s a little bit of an out-of-body experience,” Timberlake said. “I try to bring down the arrogance of architecture. I think that architecture should be accessible and provide a service to all who need it, whether that be the one percent or the one percent that don’t have anything.”

He said while working on the Embassy in London, he’s also working on low-income housing in India.

“Both projects should be served by architects at a high level,” he said.

Among his favorite projects is working with the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Timberlake’s firm took part in actor Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” initiative. It’s for his body of work and service to the community that the University named him a Spirit of Detroit Mercy Alumni Achievement Awardee in 2016.

“Architects need to help and look beyond the obvious, the public glory, and find ways to truly help the human condition,” he said. “In the end, that is to take one’s talent to help make a difference. Seeing resident’s faces, and relief, in their new homes is heart-warming and the best validation an architect can experience that the work we do matters.”

The Campaign for University of Detroit Mercy is raising funds to make studying abroad more affordable to students. If you're inspired by James Timberlake's gift, please consider making a gift of your own online at udmercy.edu/donate or by calling 313-993-1250. Gifts of any size can make a major difference.