Contract - Legend Award Winner 2010: Arthur Gensler

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Legend Award Winner 2010: Arthur Gensler

10 January, 2010

-By Holly Richmond



Spending an afternoon with Art Gensler is an exercise in humility. The possibility of coaxing this icon of design to talk about himself seemed peripheral at best, permissible at worst. Gensler, chairman and founder of Gensler, one of the world's largest and most prestigious design firms, eschews "me" in favor of "we." This is not disingenuous posturing or a contrived persona—this is Art Gensler, a design culture unto himself. For those rare few people in the industry who have not had the opportunity to meet Gensler, you may wonder if this renowned leader is as down-to-earth as his reputation confers. In a word, yes. Who else, when asked how he had the know-how and courage to start a firm with one draftsman, minimal prospects for work, three children and a wife to support, and $200 in the bank would reply, "Because I was too stupid to know any better."?

That was 1965 in a one-room office in San Francisco. Today, 45 years later, Gensler corporate headquarters are still in San Francisco, though the array of talent that makes up the firm is in 34 worldwide locations from New York to Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi to Beijing. Gensler's conception of what a design firm should be—an inclusive entity to meet clients' needs not feed designers' egos—has persisted since day one and now permeates every Gensler project from large to small. Gensler states, "I believe much of a project's success rests on the chemistry between client and designer. Every designer at Gensler is a good designer, so there is always a perfect fit. I don't try to control it. I just get out of the way."

As usual, the conversation veers back to the firm's role, not Art Gensler's role, in generating success. This idea is encapsulated in the Gensler motto: "The one firm firm." Not to sound too Musketeer-ish, but Gensler himself seems to thrive intrinsically on the concept of "All for one and one for all." You can almost imagine this perpetually optimistic leader's 6-ft.-plus, formidable frame donned in an early 17th-century blue tunic and feathered hat, wielding a French sword whilst chanting the melodic refrain. "There was no grand plan when I started, but I knew I could communicate well and get people excited. It's really an attitudinal perspective for me," says Gensler.

His positive attitude is no match for his design skill and business acumen. He describes how the two work in tandem by stating his belief that certain people, including himself, are born with a three-dimensional perspective and capability. "Architecture is great training for almost any business because we have to think circuitously, not simply lineally. Both design and business are a progression. I thrive on the process."

This process, it seems, is what the Gensler team thrives on, as well. Walter Hunt Jr., vice chairman, client satisfaction officer, partner-in-charge and a 41-year firm veteran, who is also based in San Francisco, says that a choice aspect of his job involves accompanying Gensler to client presentations. Hunt, as well as others who work with Gensler, paints a picture of a role-up-your-sleeves, pen-in-mouth, excited yet in-charge leader and visionary. He chuckles as he reflects, "'Super!' is one of Art's great lines." Hunt also admires Gensler's presence in front of groups, adding, "He gets to know the client and from there can truly inspire them. I'm not kidding when I tell you he believes in every single project and sees it as a venue to make the client's life better."

What is it that makes Gensler so inspiring? Those who know him best say it is his focused dedication to the client. He takes his time to perceive what the client's needs are, sift the good ideas from the great, and then offer a solution. "It is almost as if he is standing in a client's shoes," says Andy Cohen, Gensler Santa Monica, Calif.-based executive director, who has been with the firm for 30 years. Cohen believes that Gensler redefined the design industry with the notion that design is always for and about the client. From the firm's inception, Gensler believed that architecture is not an object; it is about people. "He's always light-years ahead of the competition and thus started looking at architecture from the inside out, from the people's perspective," Cohen adds. This, Cohen believes, is why the firm now has 16 practice areas and dozens of globally based offices. "It was revolutionary, thoughtful, and therefore successful. Art is focused on building the client's dream, not building a building," he says.

Gensler is not shy about this fundamental aspect of his ideology. He does not believe in selling a style. He likes to start with a blank sheet of paper and piece together all aspects of the project from budget to aesthetics to schedule to the smallest of design details in order to formulate a plan that is appropriate for that client—and only that client. "Success is not jamming an idea that I think is great down a client's throat. It's meeting the client where they are and designing a building that perfectly matches their needs," Gensler asserts.

That was the case with Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services, where Gary Saulsen, director of corporate real estate, says Gensler went above and beyond their initial goals for the prototype. PNC conceptualized the first and largest "green bank" in the United States. Today, six years after meeting with Gensler, 80 bank branches are LEED certified in locations including Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. "Art has been ahead of the curve in so many aspects of design," Saulsen says. "He's big-minded and believes good design includes aspects of green architecture. It's not about the project in a limited sense, but how that project influences its users and how its users influence the world."

Gensler is resolved in the belief that his success—and the firm's success—is built on relationships. He points to clients like GAP, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Gensler designed GAP's second store. "We've also been with Bank of America for 42 years, and we have many other long-standing relationships for which I am immensely appreciative," he remarks. "The better we know a client, the better they'll know us; and if we take care of them, they will take care of us."

Another long-standing client is MGM Mirage, based in Las Vegas. While it is obvious that Gensler cherishes every past client relationship and opportunity for growth, he cannot contain his enthusiasm about the present project for this particular client. The firm is serving as executive architect for the largest private real estate project ever done in the United States. The MGM CityCenter, which opened on December 15, 2009, encompasses 18 million sq. ft. of mixed use space, including four hotels, a casino, an 1,800-seat theater, 300,000 sq. ft. of convention space, 16 restaurants, four pools, 475 sq. ft. of retail space, two 37-story residential towers, and one 1,540-unit condominium/hotel. The biggest aspect of this project, however, is the budget—$8.5 billion. "It has been four incredibly exciting years," Gensler exudes. "It is a one-of-a-kind project with starchitects doing their thing but working together, which is not the typical modus operandi for this crowd."

William Smith, president of the MGM Mirage Design Group, matches Gensler's enthusiasm as he describes the complexity of the project, which consists of 10,000 people on-site daily, with 50 Gensler executives from offices across the country overseeing every detail seven days a week. Gensler was the only firm that Smith believed could manage the enormous scope of CityCenter. "Art has been a progressive designer for more than 40 years and we knew this project was one he would thrive on. In this instance, experience counts, as well as the sincere commitment that he brings to every project. Art is the whole package," Smith says. Additionally, Smith knew he could count on Gensler's resources, including the ability to add people to the team as the deadline grew closer. "Gensler as executive architect added a level of credibility to the project," he concludes.

Dan Winey, San Francisco-based regional managing principal for Gensler's Northwest and Asian regions, is also at work on a large-scale project—the Shanghai Tower, which will open in 2014 and be the world's second tallest building. He says Art's dedication to a culture of collaboration has been apparent every step of the way with their Chinese partners. "Art loves to talk about the constellation of stars, which is how he describes Gensler's people. It is not about him, and it isn't about us. Every project is the client's project, the client's building," Winey explains. He reiterates Gensler's ability to establish and preserve the firm's values and foundations. "We play by Art's rules, which are passion for people, entrepreneurship, collaboration, and an intense desire to succeed."

Winey also makes note of "The one firm firm" motto, saying, "Art always brings us back to ourselves." The firm's culture is inclusive, so much so that Winey says the "regional" part of his title often seems irrelevant. He speaks to a global, holistic sensibility in regard to their design scope and corporate culture: if one individual or practice area succeeds, they all succeed. "We are encouraged to be entrepreneurs, to reinvent and challenge ourselves," he says. "You won't stagnate at Gensler. Art is an incredible encourager of forward motion."

Gensler himself has seen much change in the industry and is excited about its steps into the future. He explains that 20 or 30 years ago clients knew where they were going, what type of business they would be in, and how that business would be run. Today, he feels the story is quite different. "The rate of change is practically day to day now," he notes. "Our work has to morph, the design process has to be fungible to meet the new business paradigm." He sees this manifesting in environments that are essentially built on wheels, encouraging flexibility and adaptability. He believes companies are pushing collaboration rather than isolation. "Everything is evolutionary so we must design around these issues," he says.

In regard to Gensler's next step forward and future plans, he emphasizes the social responsibility that he believes designers have today. He wants Gensler, as a firm through its people, to add value to each project even more than the client expects and in ways that will serve the local community. "It's about building trust and continuing our strong relationships. Our business is all word of mouth, which couldn't serve us better," he says with a smile. As for his "constellation of stars," even though he says he is "sitting in the back of the house now," he is not the least bit concerned about the progression of the firm, stating that he knows his people are great and will continue to be great—to shine, of course. He ends on a typically humble, humorous note, one that continuously beckons the stars to align: "If it were all about me, it would be boring."


Legend Award Winner 2010: Arthur Gensler

10 January, 2010


Spending an afternoon with Art Gensler is an exercise in humility. The possibility of coaxing this icon of design to talk about himself seemed peripheral at best, permissible at worst. Gensler, chairman and founder of Gensler, one of the world's largest and most prestigious design firms, eschews "me" in favor of "we." This is not disingenuous posturing or a contrived persona—this is Art Gensler, a design culture unto himself. For those rare few people in the industry who have not had the opportunity to meet Gensler, you may wonder if this renowned leader is as down-to-earth as his reputation confers. In a word, yes. Who else, when asked how he had the know-how and courage to start a firm with one draftsman, minimal prospects for work, three children and a wife to support, and $200 in the bank would reply, "Because I was too stupid to know any better."?

That was 1965 in a one-room office in San Francisco. Today, 45 years later, Gensler corporate headquarters are still in San Francisco, though the array of talent that makes up the firm is in 34 worldwide locations from New York to Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi to Beijing. Gensler's conception of what a design firm should be—an inclusive entity to meet clients' needs not feed designers' egos—has persisted since day one and now permeates every Gensler project from large to small. Gensler states, "I believe much of a project's success rests on the chemistry between client and designer. Every designer at Gensler is a good designer, so there is always a perfect fit. I don't try to control it. I just get out of the way."

As usual, the conversation veers back to the firm's role, not Art Gensler's role, in generating success. This idea is encapsulated in the Gensler motto: "The one firm firm." Not to sound too Musketeer-ish, but Gensler himself seems to thrive intrinsically on the concept of "All for one and one for all." You can almost imagine this perpetually optimistic leader's 6-ft.-plus, formidable frame donned in an early 17th-century blue tunic and feathered hat, wielding a French sword whilst chanting the melodic refrain. "There was no grand plan when I started, but I knew I could communicate well and get people excited. It's really an attitudinal perspective for me," says Gensler.

His positive attitude is no match for his design skill and business acumen. He describes how the two work in tandem by stating his belief that certain people, including himself, are born with a three-dimensional perspective and capability. "Architecture is great training for almost any business because we have to think circuitously, not simply lineally. Both design and business are a progression. I thrive on the process."

This process, it seems, is what the Gensler team thrives on, as well. Walter Hunt Jr., vice chairman, client satisfaction officer, partner-in-charge and a 41-year firm veteran, who is also based in San Francisco, says that a choice aspect of his job involves accompanying Gensler to client presentations. Hunt, as well as others who work with Gensler, paints a picture of a role-up-your-sleeves, pen-in-mouth, excited yet in-charge leader and visionary. He chuckles as he reflects, "'Super!' is one of Art's great lines." Hunt also admires Gensler's presence in front of groups, adding, "He gets to know the client and from there can truly inspire them. I'm not kidding when I tell you he believes in every single project and sees it as a venue to make the client's life better."

What is it that makes Gensler so inspiring? Those who know him best say it is his focused dedication to the client. He takes his time to perceive what the client's needs are, sift the good ideas from the great, and then offer a solution. "It is almost as if he is standing in a client's shoes," says Andy Cohen, Gensler Santa Monica, Calif.-based executive director, who has been with the firm for 30 years. Cohen believes that Gensler redefined the design industry with the notion that design is always for and about the client. From the firm's inception, Gensler believed that architecture is not an object; it is about people. "He's always light-years ahead of the competition and thus started looking at architecture from the inside out, from the people's perspective," Cohen adds. This, Cohen believes, is why the firm now has 16 practice areas and dozens of globally based offices. "It was revolutionary, thoughtful, and therefore successful. Art is focused on building the client's dream, not building a building," he says.

Gensler is not shy about this fundamental aspect of his ideology. He does not believe in selling a style. He likes to start with a blank sheet of paper and piece together all aspects of the project from budget to aesthetics to schedule to the smallest of design details in order to formulate a plan that is appropriate for that client—and only that client. "Success is not jamming an idea that I think is great down a client's throat. It's meeting the client where they are and designing a building that perfectly matches their needs," Gensler asserts.

That was the case with Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services, where Gary Saulsen, director of corporate real estate, says Gensler went above and beyond their initial goals for the prototype. PNC conceptualized the first and largest "green bank" in the United States. Today, six years after meeting with Gensler, 80 bank branches are LEED certified in locations including Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. "Art has been ahead of the curve in so many aspects of design," Saulsen says. "He's big-minded and believes good design includes aspects of green architecture. It's not about the project in a limited sense, but how that project influences its users and how its users influence the world."

Gensler is resolved in the belief that his success—and the firm's success—is built on relationships. He points to clients like GAP, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Gensler designed GAP's second store. "We've also been with Bank of America for 42 years, and we have many other long-standing relationships for which I am immensely appreciative," he remarks. "The better we know a client, the better they'll know us; and if we take care of them, they will take care of us."

Another long-standing client is MGM Mirage, based in Las Vegas. While it is obvious that Gensler cherishes every past client relationship and opportunity for growth, he cannot contain his enthusiasm about the present project for this particular client. The firm is serving as executive architect for the largest private real estate project ever done in the United States. The MGM CityCenter, which opened on December 15, 2009, encompasses 18 million sq. ft. of mixed use space, including four hotels, a casino, an 1,800-seat theater, 300,000 sq. ft. of convention space, 16 restaurants, four pools, 475 sq. ft. of retail space, two 37-story residential towers, and one 1,540-unit condominium/hotel. The biggest aspect of this project, however, is the budget—$8.5 billion. "It has been four incredibly exciting years," Gensler exudes. "It is a one-of-a-kind project with starchitects doing their thing but working together, which is not the typical modus operandi for this crowd."

William Smith, president of the MGM Mirage Design Group, matches Gensler's enthusiasm as he describes the complexity of the project, which consists of 10,000 people on-site daily, with 50 Gensler executives from offices across the country overseeing every detail seven days a week. Gensler was the only firm that Smith believed could manage the enormous scope of CityCenter. "Art has been a progressive designer for more than 40 years and we knew this project was one he would thrive on. In this instance, experience counts, as well as the sincere commitment that he brings to every project. Art is the whole package," Smith says. Additionally, Smith knew he could count on Gensler's resources, including the ability to add people to the team as the deadline grew closer. "Gensler as executive architect added a level of credibility to the project," he concludes.

Dan Winey, San Francisco-based regional managing principal for Gensler's Northwest and Asian regions, is also at work on a large-scale project—the Shanghai Tower, which will open in 2014 and be the world's second tallest building. He says Art's dedication to a culture of collaboration has been apparent every step of the way with their Chinese partners. "Art loves to talk about the constellation of stars, which is how he describes Gensler's people. It is not about him, and it isn't about us. Every project is the client's project, the client's building," Winey explains. He reiterates Gensler's ability to establish and preserve the firm's values and foundations. "We play by Art's rules, which are passion for people, entrepreneurship, collaboration, and an intense desire to succeed."

Winey also makes note of "The one firm firm" motto, saying, "Art always brings us back to ourselves." The firm's culture is inclusive, so much so that Winey says the "regional" part of his title often seems irrelevant. He speaks to a global, holistic sensibility in regard to their design scope and corporate culture: if one individual or practice area succeeds, they all succeed. "We are encouraged to be entrepreneurs, to reinvent and challenge ourselves," he says. "You won't stagnate at Gensler. Art is an incredible encourager of forward motion."

Gensler himself has seen much change in the industry and is excited about its steps into the future. He explains that 20 or 30 years ago clients knew where they were going, what type of business they would be in, and how that business would be run. Today, he feels the story is quite different. "The rate of change is practically day to day now," he notes. "Our work has to morph, the design process has to be fungible to meet the new business paradigm." He sees this manifesting in environments that are essentially built on wheels, encouraging flexibility and adaptability. He believes companies are pushing collaboration rather than isolation. "Everything is evolutionary so we must design around these issues," he says.

In regard to Gensler's next step forward and future plans, he emphasizes the social responsibility that he believes designers have today. He wants Gensler, as a firm through its people, to add value to each project even more than the client expects and in ways that will serve the local community. "It's about building trust and continuing our strong relationships. Our business is all word of mouth, which couldn't serve us better," he says with a smile. As for his "constellation of stars," even though he says he is "sitting in the back of the house now," he is not the least bit concerned about the progression of the firm, stating that he knows his people are great and will continue to be great—to shine, of course. He ends on a typically humble, humorous note, one that continuously beckons the stars to align: "If it were all about me, it would be boring."
 


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