Art Gensler is an architect and entrepreneur who founded the global design firm Gensler in 1965. The business has thrived for over 50 years, growing from a three-person office to the largest design firm in the world. Its success is based on a combination of exceptional design services, innovative leadership, a team-oriented infrastructure, and a deep understanding of the client. An early advocate of networking, Art cultivated enduring relationships with a diverse range of clients, including Bank of America, Gap, and Cushman & Wakefield. A graduate of Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning, he has earned many honors, including the Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1995, as well as Ernst & Young’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2000, Gensler received the American Institute of Architects’ “Firm of the Year” award.
Take us back to the beginning, how was Gensler originally formed?
When I was in college at Cornell, a critic architect sang the praises of San Francisco. Following my service in the Army, I came to San Francisco in the Fall of 1958, and I realized it was the place I eventually wanted to be. Returning to NYC In 1961, I found a job managing an office for a San Francisco-based firm and when the project we were working on was canceled, the owner and I returned to San Francisco to re-open his office. Although he was a great architect, he was an awful businessman, and when that office eventually failed, I went to work for Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons on setting the standards for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. As I was finishing that assignment, a college friend who had become the Director of Development for the Golden Gateway project mentioned he was searching for a tenant development architect and discovered there were only two firms in town offering that service. I asked him if I started a firm that offered those services would he hire me. I didn’t know what was needed exactly but this was an opportunity to start a firm and so with a trial contract in place, I rented space in the back of the original Cornell visiting critic’s office. With a draftsman and my wife as the part-time secretary/bookkeeper/office manager, we started in 1965. We had no money, no business plan but we did have a contract to supply tenant services for a 450,000 square foot office building. That started the firm.
Can you tell us about your first project? Did it impact your modus operandi moving forward?
Everything went well on that project. The tenant signed up to move in and I hired some great people to help me. The success of that project led to being selected for tenant services work at the Bank of America Headquarters building which involved planning 1 million square feet for potential and future tenants. Cushman & Wakefield was the real estate broker for the project, and they liked the firm’s work and recommended us for other projects in Denver, Los Angeles, and other cities. We opened offices in those cities and we were off.
Were there any particular influences early on in your career?
There were no particular influences because architects at that time were not active in doing interiors. Office space was just rows of desks with offices ringing the exterior of the building. When Herman Miller developed the first real office system, everything changed. We adapted to the new systems and worked with our clients to change the way they experienced their offices. By that time, we had designed a couple of small buildings but nothing of significance and then I was asked by a developer to look at the floor plans of their architect’s design. I never changed the exterior but I did re-arrange the core and the layout of the tenant space for more efficiency. Finally, the developer approached us to do both the building and the interior.
How does Gensler do things differently in terms of process?
We believe in a “one-firm firm” concept with a “constellation of stars.” We live in different cities but are committed to supporting each other. We don’t believe in silos. Wherever you go in, we all use the same systems so we can move people and projects to various offices and the approach is the same.
What would you consider to be the biggest change(s) in the field of architecture since you opened your firm?
Since I started, interiors has become a large part of the services provided by design firms. We design from the inside out, always keeping the human experience in mind. Research is a large part of our design process. We design for the client and their people, not just to design something that looks good when you drive by the building.
Where would you like to see Gensler, in say, 30 years?
Gensler is now a global firm. The location of our offices, projects and the diversity of our staff represents every sector of the world. Our mission is “to use the power of design to make the world a better place.”
If you were to give your younger self advice in regards to a career in architecture, what would it be?
My suggestion to young people starting out in the profession is to remember that the project is the client’s project, not their project. Listen to the client and respect them. They will be the one impacted by their experience and they will be the owner of the project. So stop saying “my” project and remember you are designing for the client, the community it’s located in, and the environment. Realize that the business and design world is not about “I and me” but “we and us.” Teaming is required in almost every assignment so learn to work in a team with your client. Become their trusted advisor and then whether you end up in a large, medium or small practice, your future will be positive.