The master architect on conquering his field, defending Salesforce Tower and why he’s the anti-Howard Roark. “I believe the words ‘I’ and ‘Me’ are all wrong,” he says. “It’s about ‘We’ and ‘Us.’”
Three years ago, Gensler, the San Francisco-based global architecture firm, achieved a new milestone: It surpassed $1 billion in revenue.
Yet every Friday, as he’s done since the 1965 founding of his company on Clay Street, across from the then yet-to-be-built Transamerica Pyramid, 82-year-old M. Arthur Gensler Jr., a child of the Great Depression, counts the money earned for the week.
That task, followed on Monday by a firmwide conference call, is a bit more wieldy now. Almost 53 years later, Gensler has grown his operation from its initial two employees—a draftsman and Gensler’s late wife, Drue Gensler, as office manager—into the world’s largest architectural firm, with 5,571 employees located in 44 offices in the Americas, Asia and Europe.
The Gensler firm is skilled in 31 different practices—from buildings and interiors to branding—and is a longtime leader in developing sustainable, LEED-certified architecture. Its groundbreaking designs, such as Shanghai Tower (the world’s second-tallest building) or the first Apple stores, have achieved international impact.
“Starting out, my goal was to have six employees and do garage remodels,” says Gensler, as he stretches the long legs on his lanky 6’4” frame beneath a wooden desk in his sunny corner office in the landmark Hills Bros. building.
“What did I know?” he chuckles, modestly.
Starting out, my goal was to have six employees and do garage remodels. Art Gensler
Gensler’s greatest hits are many: A 35-year partnership with San Francisco International Airport that’s transformed terminals (including T2 and T3) into 21st-century travel hubs replete with yoga rooms, tech lounges and a world-class art collection. A chance encounter with Don Fisher on a La Jolla beach led Gensler to build the second Gap store, followed by hundreds of Old Navys and Banana Republics. And the firm has reimagined interior spaces for tech giants (Facebook, Airbnb) and Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post).
Gensler’s recent work includes interiors for the new Salesforce Tower and Donald Trump’s least favorite British building: the state-of-the-art U.S. Embassy in London.
In Santa Clara, Gensler designed the future at the new headquarters of Nvidia, a visual computing graphics chip maker. Gensler was already an early pioneer in its use of computer-aided design. But prior to completing skylights on Nvidia’s triangle-shaped headquarters, Gensler architects employed the tech company’s virtual reality headsets to determine how diffused daylight would interact in the space.
Art Gensler was born in Brooklyn in 1935. He grew up an only child in West Hartford, Connecticut, where his mother worked at the phone company and his father sold ceiling tiles. In 1958, he graduated first in his class from Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. While at Cornell, he met Middlebury College student Drue Cortell. They married in 1957.
“I’ve known since age five that I wanted to be an architect. But I have no idea why. I played with blocks, erector sets and Lincoln logs,” he recalls. “I just really love buildings. It wasn’t until later that I realized how much I love doing interiors, too, because they really touch people’s lives.”
Following 52 interviews after graduation, Gensler landed his first job in New York at the firm that designed the Empire State Building. He was paid $2.50 per hour.
The Genslers moved to the Bay Area in 1962, settling in Tiburon with their four sons (David, now 59; Robert, 57; Ken, 56; Doug, 49). For decades, Gensler commuted daily to the city by ferry, catching the 5:30 p.m. back home in time for dinner. Once the boys were asleep, he often drove back to San Francisco to continue working.
In a scenario he downplays, Gensler’s firm was hired, and fired, by Steve Jobs. He and Jobs met in the late ’70s at a Monterey design conference where Gensler spoke on interiors and Jobs explained the future of personal computing. Jobs later invited Gensler to his office, demonstrated how the VisiCalc spreadsheet would change the way people do business, and Gensler signed on to design Apple’s offices.
After Jobs’ return to Apple, he rang Gensler again in 1997 to discuss building retail stores—a surprising concept for Gensler, since Apple had exactly two products: a laptop and a desktop computer. He had no idea that the iProducts were already in the pipeline of Jobs’ fervent mind.
You’ll never see an ‘Art Gensler’ building. It’s the client’s building or interiors or branding or whatever we’re providing them. Art Gensler
Every Thursday for six months, Gensler worked in a locked, guarded warehouse. He’d design a whole store in a week, then Jobs would rip the plans apart. Eventually, Team Gensler built Apple’s initial 100 stores. But before they hit 101, Jobs axed his Apple retail honcho, who went to work for Microsoft. That ex-employee then recruited a Gensler architect to build stores for Microsoft, Apple’s rival.
“Steve heard, got me on the phone and said, ‘This is Steve Jobs. You’re fired.’ And Steve was right and we were wrong,” Gensler recalls. “After Steve’s death, our firm was rehired by Apple. But Steve was the smartest person I ever met: a demanding perfectionist and true visionary. I’ve been very blessed to work with people like that.”
Gensler also candidly admits that when he landed his first San Francisco client job in 1967, directing tenant development for the then-new Alcoa Building at Maritime Plaza, he didn’t know exactly what all that entailed.
At the time, he was working for storied architect William Wurster. Gensler expressed to his boss that, though lacking any capital, he wanted to establish his own firm. With Wurster’s blessing, Gensler worked for Wurster in the morning and acted as his own boss, developing business, in the afternoons.
Gensler was paid by the developer to create tenants’ desired interior space. He quickly realized the importance of how people interact within those interiors—a concept that’s turned out to be Gensler’s forte: “Unanticipated opportunities.”
The firm rapidly developed as a pioneer in this new architectural discipline, creating interiors from the ground up or transforming an existing space. One of Gensler’s star designers was Orlando Diaz-Azcuy, then the firm’s youngest-ever vice president, who eventually struck out to form his own residential furniture design company. Last fall, Diaz-Azcuy completed interiors at 181 Fremont Street, the future SF redoubt of Facebook that’s topped by 67 units of the city’s most luxe residences, including a penthouse currently on the market for $42 million.
In 2014, when Gensler was honored by California College of the Arts, this reporter made the mistake of employing what she thought was a snappy lede—“Fountainhead”—to introduce the architectural item. Except for his height, Gensler is the exact opposite of Howard Roark, the uncompromising architect protagonist of The Fountainhead, a 1943 Ayn Rand novel about egoistic moral ideals.
“I believe the words ‘I’ and ‘Me’ are all wrong. It’s about ‘We’ and ‘Us.’ That’s very important to me: Gensler is a one-firm firm, which is ‘We’ are all together serving our customers,” he emphasizes. “You’ll never see an ‘Art Gensler’ building. It’s the client’s building or interiors or branding or whatever we’re providing them.”
Nor does Gensler dabble in the mania of “starchitects,” though he doesn’t fault them. It’s a way of doing business, and many of those one-name colleagues are also his friends.
“I hire really great people, let them do their work and support them,” he says. “Together we’ve learned to trust and respect and share. We share all the money, all the rewards. There’ve been projects I was more involved with and others I’ve participated on as a team. We’re not about who gets credit; the firm always gets the credit.”
I believe the words ‘I’ and ‘Me’ are all wrong. It’s about ‘We’ and ‘Us.’ Art Gensler
In 2010, Gensler stepped down as company chairman. But most days he’s still at the office as a part-time advisor. Under his tenure, Gensler established a system he calls “Constellation Stars”: a dazzling galaxy filled with design stars, contract stars and stars who get the project built properly.
“And the administrative staff is part of our team—they’re not back-of-the-house,” Gensler continues. “They make our tech run, assist staff and support our state-of-the-art systems. They’re the best of the best in that field.”
In 2015, Gensler wrote Art’s Principles, a book sharing lessons he learned while building his legacy. His democratic spirit also extends to his office location. The company will soon move to new digs on Fremont Street. But in the meantime, Gensler’s windows face Spear Street, looking over a slice of cityscape—directly opposite a bank of windows that frame the shimmering waters beneath the mighty Bay Bridge.
“I go in and out every day. But there are people here working long hours, so they deserve that view,” he explains. “When we move to our new building, I’ll be off in another viewless corner somewhere.”
Gensler never imagined he’d be working South of Market.
“The city’s center of gravity has shifted to SoMa. We’ve loved it here,“ he muses. “But when I first arrived in San Francisco, you wouldn’t build down here. It’s a whole different world now.”
That world includes the oft-maligned Salesforce Tower, now the city’s tallest building, which looms over almost every corner of the city. But Gensler is a fan. And not because architect Cesar Pelli is a friend, or because Gensler’s firm designed “Ohana”-inspired interiors imbued with the Aloha-spirit philosophy embraced by Salesforce founder/CEO Marc Benioff.
“A lot of people don’t like its verticality. But I think it’s just fine. When the LED light art is installed on top, the tower will attract people’s interest,” he notes. “A lot of people felt lighting the Bay Bridge was a horrible idea. Two years later, it became permanent. Now it’s a wonderful San Francisco asset.”
Gensler cops to a different take on life: He doesn’t look back or wallow in nostalgia. He’s seen his firm’s own buildings torn down. In some cases, the firm tore them down to build something new.
“The world changes,” he says, with a shrug. “But San Francisco remains one of the most difficult places to build.”
The city, he explains, had “some ugly periods of building regulation. And it’s still a NIMBY system, wrapped in yearlong regulations that make building costs rise. Then folks in City Hall complain, ‘Where’s the low-cost housing’? Buyers wonder why their condo is so expensive. Well, it’s subsidizing the low-cost housing that here, even if the land is free, costs at least $600,000. In 99 percent of the world, that would build a mansion.”
Gensler also generously devotes his time to numerous institutions and is a proponent of design education advancement. He endowed a scholarship at Cornell, where he’s a member of the advisory council to his alma mater’s architecture school.
A side project that currently occupies Gensler is trying to solve California’s water crisis. Joining forces with atmospheric physicist Carl Hodges, he founded Seawater Works, an LLC growing crops in the Salton Sea.
“The world’s water is 97 percent salt and just three percent fresh,” he says. “Mexico has agreed to send water up from the Gulf [of California]. But the politicians in Sacramento have yet to grasp that giving up some water rights for this concept is the best deal they’ll get, at pennies on the dollars they’re paying now for an acre-foot of water. But the state’s solution is to commit $9 billion to build a Delta tunnel.”
Gensler also serves as board chairman to California College of the Arts and is a longtime executive committee member at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“Art has left an indelible mark on SFMOMA, not only in his design work but also through his passionate service to the museum,” says SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra. “His support is nothing short of exemplary. I am forever grateful for his friendship and good counsel.”
In 2012, Gensler and his wife donated $5 million from their Gensler Family Foundation to the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato. During his long trusteeship there, Gensler championed a geothermal heat exchange program that reduced the institute’s energy bills by more than $430,000 annually. Not surprisingly, Gensler also assisted in the planning and construction of Buck’s Regenerative Medicine Research Center.
Drue Gensler died last July, just three months shy of the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary.
“She was a terrific lady—I was really lucky,” he says. “She died too young, but we had almost 60 years together and four great sons. I’ve accepted that as my reward. She accomplished a great deal in her life as an early supporter of the women’s movement and past president of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. Drue left a hell of a legacy.”
Gensler has been instrumental as California College of the Arts expands its DoReMi campus to include affordable student housing. He joined the board in 2010 and is in his second year as board chairman.
“Art is a dream to work with. He has such a curious mind and absorbs information in a way that’s so youthful,” enthuses the college’s president, Stephen Beal. “When he steps on campus and sees students creating and interacting with our teachers, his energy level visibly rises.”
When Beal asked Gensler to lead the board, he hesitated because Drue had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Before he accepted, says Beal, Gensler first discussed the appointment with his wife.
“I still remember—Drue absolutely insisted that Art accept the board chairmanship,” Beal recalls. “Her selflessness was truly poignant. The energy they had as a couple, and that Art continues to have, is just so inspiring.”