Business of architecture. A conversation with Art Gensler

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Интервью с Артом Дженслером.

We met with Art Gensler, the founder and president of the biggest design firm in America at one of its two offices in New York – at the Rockefeller Center . Our conver-sation took place just one day before the office relocated into higher floors of a neighbor-ing building within the Center. The company is doing very well. It is stated in its expen-sive and sleek-looking new quarters that would be a real financial burden for many of the firm′s prominent clients, should they try to match Gensler′s sophisticated and highly de-tailed workplace.
Mr. Gensler confirmed that his firm presently employs over 2,400 designers and architects in 30 offices around the globe. The company continues to grow at a staggering pace of ten people per week. Last year was by far the most profitable in the history of the firm with total revenue exceeding a cool half a billion dollars. Offices in New York, London, Los Angeles and Boston are hiring dozens of new architects.
I heard stories about how Mr. Gensler always happens to be in the right place and at the right time. For example, his acquaintance with the founder of Gap took place at the beach. What seemed to be just a casual conversation led to a drafting assignment for the very first jeans and records Gap store on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco that opened in 1969. Soon more Gap projects followed. Since then Gensler designed over 1,200 stores and other facilities for the company worldwide. Another time Art had to rush for a busi-ness meeting. The airline that he regularly used could not find any availability for a rea-sonable price. So he turned to JetBlue. Amazingly, on his flight he was sitting right next to the company′s president. Word after word and now a huge new multibillion-dollar terminal at JFK airport in New York is being designed by Gensler.
- How did you discover architecture?
The truth is – I never wanted to be anything but an architect ever since I was just five years old.
- Where do five-year-olds get such ideas from?
I don′t know. My dad was a sales rep for Armstrong acoustical ceiling. In fact, he worked at the Rockefeller Center right across the street from where we are right now, in the building with the Today show on NBC.
- You grew up in New York? Now I understand why you went to Cornell Univer-sity.
I was raised in Hartford, Connecticut where I lived till Junior High School. Then my fam-ily moved to Long Island. My dad knew some people at Cornell and I applied there along with some other schools. But my heart was set on going to Cornell and it was not too far from home.
- What happened after graduation? Did you go to Europe to see great cathedrals and modern buildings designed by Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier first hand?
No, no, no! My parents didn′t have any money for those things. My parents barely man-aged to send me to college on a scholarship. I got married to my wife (with whom we are together for 50 years) in my final year in college. We were really scraping just enough money to live on. Our first son was born one week before graduation. Right after gradua-tion I went to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for six months. In December 1958 after return from the Army I flew to California, which to me was like land of milk and honey. But when I went there I couldn′t find a job. So I returned to New York where I inter-viewed probably with 50 different architects. I ended up working at Shreve, Lamb and Harmon.
- That′s the firm that is most famous for designing Empire State Building.
That′s right. I worked for them for more than a year and a half, checking shop drawings and learning how buildings are put together. But it was a very traditional firm and I wanted to do something else. So I looked around and finally went to Kingston, Jamaica where I stayed for 20 months working for a British firm. At that time it was a British col-ony and then it became an independent country. I was told: "Jamaica is a black country and you are white – get out of our country". So I was forced to leave. But it was a great experience. Then I came back and worked for a school architect on Long Island for about a year. I worked during the day and studied at nights for my architectural license exam.
- You were preparing for opening your own firm, right?
Not really, no, not at all. I just wanted to learn. Also by then we had three kids and we simply needed to earn more money. In those days I was making just over $100 per week.
- How did an opportunity to open your own firm come along?
I was just lucky. In 1965 I was working for an architect in San Francisco. He was a good architect but a terrible businessman. He was borrowing money to pay my salary and sala-ries of other employees. Then I was contacted by a classmate from college who was working as a manager for a developer on a very large local mixed-use project. The office tower, Alcoa Building was designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill and there was no-body to do tenant development work. I said to myself – this is my chance. I was 29 and a half. I did it and here we are today. My wife and I had three kids and $200 in the bank. I had no intention of building such a big firm. I just wanted to hire a few draftsmen and work on interesting projects. I didn′t know what tenant development was at that time. I think I can take credit for professionalizing work on interiors. Architects were not pursu-ing that kind of work before. Interiors were never considered real architecture. They were done by furniture dealers and decorators.
- Do you want to say that you started what is now a truly global firm, just like that?
Yes, with my wife and a friend. Drucilla was my secretary and accountant one day a week and Jim Follet would do drafting and I would go out and meet with clients, draw sketches and hand them to Jim. Then a lot of people came. Many of them are still with us today. Then we started offices in Denver, then Houston, New York and so on. Every new office was opened because of a particular project. Somebody heard of our work and in-vited us to town. We would come for an interview, get the job and open a local office. Then we would stay working on new projects. Even to this day, if we see an opportunity to work on a major project in which we can invest time, energy and money we open a new office and recruit professionals from local community.
- You built a very successful firm. Is there a secret to how it succeeded?
I never thought I was doing something different. I just did what was the obvious way of doing – by observing what worked and what didn′t. As it turned out it wasn′t the way other firms were organized or structured. I was involved in doing tenant development work and was very fascinated with how accountant offices, law firms, consulting corpo-rations and others did their businesses. I always wanted to add design value to their envi-ronments. Also I was much more around business people than many other architects are. So I became fascinated with the business of architecture. I was never interested in star system of architecture. My interest was always in solving client′s problems – giving them what they need and want, but also pushing them to invest in good design and architecture. Over the years I built a battery of ideas about how an organization can run and eventually we shifted from a firm that was 99% interiors to all-around design firm with a strong fo-cus on architecture.
- Do you consider yourself more as an architect or a businessman?
I think of myself as an architect, but I′m also a business leader. It is not about me, it is about us and about the client. The profession has become very complicated. That′s why I don′t believe in design stars. It takes all kinds of people in this day and age to make a successful project. We are strongly focused on design but with a business sense. We are dealing with the luxury high-end of the market almost in all cases. We work with clients who demand and expect top quality. Also we are not focusing on a signature design. We are open to many influences. People ask me – how do you control what′s happening in the firm. The answer is – you don′t. You hire the right people and that insures the bond-ing of all of us together.
- The office building represents the face of American business. Many millions of Americans spend most of their time inside offices. If exteriors can be aspiring and hopefully beautiful, interiors need to be creative and functional. In New York the interiors of such innovative 21st century office buildings as Hearst Tower, New York Times Building and The Bank of America new building are designed by Gensler. Today Gensler is known as a leading strategic workplace specialist. I believe you even coined a phrase: “Form follows strategy”. What is a workplace strategy and why is it important?
We just did a nation-wide workplace survey based on responses of over 2,000 individuals from all major industries. Based on this survey – 9 out of 10 office workers and business executives believe that the quality of the working space enhances job performance. We as designers, planners and strategists try to help companies to understand the way they func-tion best. Strategic planning is a tool, just like a production line in a factory. It is really important to create a space that would be responsive to company′s directions. It is all about having the right interaction, communication and having what you want, where you want, how you want, when you want and so on. So what we do is not just about a pretty picture and how a facade looks like, although we want it to be wonderful. But it is more about how to make things work and then – pretty.
- Is workplace design taught in schools?
No! First of all even the faculty doesn′t have a clue of the things we are talking about be-cause they are not exposed to how businesses work. I′m 100% self taught in business of architecture. I have no formal training in this. I sort of learn as I go. I think it is important for architects to take business school classes and also share more their knowledge. It is important to understand psychology and philosophy of how people work. I think most architects are focused on aesthetics of architecture, but that is just one aspect of architec-ture. When we talk to retail client the language is very different from law firm or adver-tising agency clients. People who work on these projects need to understand what makes these businesses profitable and how they operate. Design has a lot to do with it, but also costs, layout, positioning and circulation flow have an enormous impact.
- In 2000 you wrote a preface to a book called “On the Job” where you talk about workplace revolution. Is it still going on?
I think it is. My dad worked for Armstrong practically all his life. Today we live in a time when companies come and go. People constantly move. There are towns and communi-ties where industries have moved away. So people there can′t just sit and say – well, this is my home and I′m going to stay. The world is different now. We really are in a global environment. The world is constantly changing and it will continue to change. Now many people work with blackberries from anywhere in the world.
- Do you have one?
Who me? I don′t even have a cell phone! I would rather have everything going to Belinda, my secretary in San Francisco. When I′m sitting with clients I want to pay full attention.
- Is it true that you don′t have a favorite architect?
No, I don′t have favorites. But I think Frank Lloyd Wright was still the best American architect.
- What′s your favorite hobby?
I play golf, enjoy traveling and of course, I love to spend time with my wife and four of our sons. I′m also very involved with philanthropy. I′m on the board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, Cornell University. I′m a vice president of the board at the Buck Institute for Aging in Novato, California. So I spend a lot of time giving back to the community because a lot of people helped me when I needed it.
- Is there a Gensler style?
No… I hope there is Gensler quality.
- Is architecture more business or pleasure for you?
Both. I believe business can be a great pleasure. Absolutely!
Rem Koolhaas, also Cornell graduate, said: "People can inhabit anything. They can be miserable in anything and they can be ecstatic in anything." That′s maybe true, but it is also true that architecture can make either positive or negative impact on how people perform at work or in everyday life. Good architecture should always strike for the right balance of beauty and functionality. To achieve that, according to Gensler, ar-chitecture needs to be approached not only as an artistic but also as a business-like opera-tion.
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