M. Arthur Gensler Jr, who founded the world’s largest architectural firm and designed the world’s second tallest tower, has died aged 85. After an 18-month battle with lung disease, the San Franciso Chronicle reports that he passed away in his sleep at home in Mill Valley, Marin County.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Connecticut, four years after his 1958 graduation from Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning, Art relocated to the West Coast. By 1965, he had already started a small studio in San Francisco that would later evolve into the world’s largest architectural firm. Now operating in 50 countries worldwide, today, the humble studio that he originally founded with the late Drue Gensler, his wife, and James Follett has an annual revenue of $1.5 billion.
The firm got a leg up in the industry designing local skyscraper interiors for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and continued expanding across the U.S. throughout the 1970s. In the following decades, its reach grew overseas, with offices opened in London, Japan and Hong Kong in the late 1980s and early 1990s, followed by Shanghai in the early naughts. Throughout this time, Gensler worked on countless projects, ranging in scale and typology, from the thirty-five-year involvement in the San Francisco International Airport to the New York Times Headquarters’ interior to the recent expansion and renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In addition to his business acumen, Art was a decorated architect and critical figure in ennobling interior design within the profession. Championing a human-centered and experience-driven approach to design — described as an “inside-out” architectural approach — led his firm to prioritize the user journey in their buildings.
This design philosophy translated into a business model that is not only client-focused but also one that strives to nurture its employees. During the era where “starchitecture” gained traction, Art rooted his business in a “one-firm firm” culture, advocating for teamwork and promoting collaborative design as an essential strategy for realizing great buildings. As the company expanded across continents, he recognized the value of integrating local talent with global building culture.
As stated by the office that he founded, Art’s “gift to the firm was not a vision for what it could be, but rather an ethos that allowed it to grow and prosper against all odds. That ethos was distinguished by a belief in collaboration, support of design education and career advancement, respect for individuals, dedication to clients, and endorsement of sustainable design.”
For these reasons, his legacy does not simply rest in the buildings that his firm produced, nor does it exclusively lie in the eponymous office that he leaves behind. Art Gensler’s leadership and values impacted the entire profession for over half a century and will continue to reverberate in the years to come.