In Memoriam: Arthur Gensler

Arthur Gensler, Photo ©Emily Hagopian courtesy of Gensler

Art Gensler passed away peacefully last Monday, May 10th  at his home in Mill Valley, California. He was the co-founder, with his wife Drue and associate James Follett, of M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates, Inc. known simply to us as Gensler – the world’s largest architecture firm.

Art was predeceased by his co-founder and wife of nearly 60 years, Drucilla (Drue) Cortell Gensler. He is survived by his four sons and their families: David and his children (Aaron, Thisbe, Dunia, and Pales) with Alisoun; Robert and his wife Gillian; Douglas and his wife Kinzie and their children (Cortie, Cailin, and Mamie); and Kenneth and his children (Morgan, Jake, and Sam) with Jennifer and their grandchild Charlotte (Art’s great-grandchild).

In 1965 Art and Drue, along with Mr. Follett, founded Gensler on the basis of the core values of “putting people first” – and Art embodied those core values in his everyday interactions with people. I had the pleasure of meeting him personally on several occasions. In every case it was in his offices in San Francisco.

On my first visit, I recall sitting in the lobby waiting to be called in to the great man’s presence, but instead he came, dare I say, charging out, calling my name and greeting me as if I were the friend he couldn’t wait to see. Once inside his office he wanted to know everything about how I was doing, how my company was doing and what was going on in my life. What was essentially a business meeting felt a lot more like catching up with an old friend.

Art Gensler was a star of the architecture world without being a “Starchitect.” From my perspective he seemed to be more concerned with designing an amazing firm – a unique way of organizing, growing and maintaining a professional services company than with advancing his name and reputation as a talented architect. Gensler co-CEO Andy Cohen said it this way: “The firm was not about him, but about all its people moving forward together.”

We are all witness to the remarkable success with which he built Gensler into the multidisciplinary design powerhouse it is today. As the firm grew from one small shop in San Francisco to a behemoth with 50 offices in 19 countries, his steadfast embrace of those “people first” principles – of working with trust, mutual respect, passion, empathy and team spirit – created his “one-firm firm” culture and permitted it to thrive.

Of his people he expected professionalism but not workaholism. He wrote “Art’s Principles” in 2015, to offer today’s entrepreneurs the business insights he wished someone had given him when he was starting out. One of his maxims as stated in the book is, “It’s 6:00 p.m. Go home! Get a life!”

“Early in his career, he recognized the need for a new architectural discipline that came to be known as tenant development. Beginning with the Alcoa Building in San Francisco, the firm developed the programming practices that have become the framework for interior architectural projects throughout the profession,” says the Gensler website.

From that early recognition Gensler grew to become a dominant player in design for corporate offices. To some extent this dominance grew out of Art’s avuncular personality and willingness to collaborate with other architectural firms as the Executive Architect.

He had a strong belief that interiors, often overlooked or relegated to an inferior status in the minds of many architects, were where design had the most impact on peoples’ lives. “I’ve known since age five that I wanted to be an architect,” he told Catherine Bigelow of the Nob Hill Gazette. “It wasn’t until later that I realized how much I love doing interiors, too, because they really touch people’s lives.”

He was a great champion of women in business, perhaps enlightened by the example of Drue. But he was also a believer in the value of diversity in general, and he put effort and money behind his beliefs. In 1990, under Art’s direction, Gensler established Gensler University, the firm’s chief platform for leadership development, and the Diversity Scholarship, a juried program that recognizes emerging talent among African-American college architecture students.

The Gensler Brinkmann Scholarship Fund was established in 1999 as a memorial to Donald G. Brinkmann, a gifted interior designer and former partner at Gensler, for the benefit of students enrolled in a U.S. not-for-profit educational institution who will begin their final year of a CIDA-accredited interior design program.

Upon his retirement, Art focused on his philanthropy on supporting those beliefs and institutions near and dear to him, including a $10 million gift to Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning (his Alma Mater), to fund its New York City satellite program in perpetuity.

In their public announcement of Art’s death Gensler co-CEOs Diane Hoskins & Andy Cohen said, “Art’s lasting legacy is a global brand that only he could have created. He mentored his colleagues to put clients first, fostering a dynamic that can be seen in the firm’s decades-long relationships with clients. He championed the adaptive, proactive, and client-focused approach that treated service as a privilege and clients as partners. His philosophy of working alongside our clients to provide solutions for their most pressing challenges was part of this trademark style for yielding the most value for clients. His spirit and people-focused values will always be the pillars of Gensler.”

Sadly, a giant of our industry has moved on.

Shanghai Tower seen peek over the Yu Garden, Photo via Wikimedia