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Architectural Firm Practices One-Stop Design : Gensler & Associates Specializes in Planning Project's Inside as Well as Outside

August 21, 1988|LEON WHITESON | Leon Whiteson is a Los Angeles-based design writer. and

When Arthur Gensler opened a small architectural office in San Francisco in 1965, he gained a sharp competitive edge by shrewdly exploiting a sector of the design market that was poorly served at the time.

The under-served area of design Gensler staked out for himself was "space planning," a technical term for the overlap between architecture and interior design.

These two services were, and often still are, discontinuous. An architect designs the shell of an office building, retail complex or other facility, and then a different designer is commissioned to lay out all or part of the interior. The mix of styles that results is often jarring, and the client is frequently dissatisfied.

By fusing architecture and interior design in one operation, Gensler expanded his practice nationwide. Today, with regional offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston and New York, and over $700 million a year in commissions, Gensler & Associates is one of the nation's largest design practices.

From Partitions to Roadways

The Los Angeles office was founded in 1976 by vice presidents Ed Friedrichs and Marvin Taff. Now the largest Gensler branch after San Francisco, the local office employs 100 people, plus another 30 in its Irvine spinoff.

"Our practice is split evenly between architecture and interior design," Friedrichs said. "This enables us to provide clients with a full range of services, from master planning to graphics.

"It means we can plan a building from the inside out, from the layout of office partitions, say, to the location of roadways.

"Our flexibility and range allow us to handle projects as small as the interior of a Beverly Hills boutique and as large as Columbia Pictures headquarters expansion in Burbank, and make a profit on both," Taff said. "That is the name of the game."

The Los Angeles office's current and recently completed projects include: the Delta Airlines Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, terminal expansion studies for John Wayne Airport in Orange County and Chattanooga Airport, Tennessee; corporate headquarters for Epson America in Torrance, Columbia Pictures in Burbank and Pacific Enterprises in downtown Los Angeles.

Business and Vocation

Also, the design of Jefferson Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles, project management of the proposed UCLA Northwest Campus housing, a study of the conversion of Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills for use by the Museum of Natural History, master planning for Disney Studios in Burbank, the Disneyland expansion in Anaheim, Koll Center in Irvine, interior and graphic design for a wide range of clients, from Columbia Pictures to McDonnell Douglas.

Following Arthur Gensler's dictum that "design is a business as well as a vocation," Friedrichs and Taff select their staff on the basis of an "entrepreneurial profile."

"We want our people to develop their own initiatives in seeking out new clients and identifying possible areas of new business," Taff said. "This gives them a feeling that they are in a collaborative partnership that allows them to grow. The result is that nearly half our associates have been with us for more than 10 years."

Gensler & Associate's Los Angeles office, which occupies one floor of a Century City high-rise, is organized in four divisions or "studios," two dealing with architecture, two with interior design. Taff and Friedrichs operate as "a kind of floating resource" to all four, Taff explained.

Airport Terminal Project

"As designers, we are not primarily stylists, in the ego-driven sense," he said. "Our designs are people-driven, intended to satisfy not only the particular client but the people who will work or live in the buildings we design and the general public who pass by. We have a responsibility to all of these users."

The new Delta terminal is a prime example of Gensler's "people-driven" designs.

Laid out like a pleasant boulevard or internal street, the terminal's sidewalk-style cafes and stores, pastel color scheme, subdued signage, planting and natural lighting offer agitated airline passengers a soothing oasis.

Gensler's most urbane building here so far is the Wilshire Palisades office and restaurant complex facing Santa Monica's Palisades Park. Completed in 1981 for Tooley & Co., Wilshire Palisades is a sleek, terraced wedge of white precast concrete and glass horizontals that derives its inspiration from the 1930s Streamline Moderne mannerisms of the Hotel Shangri-La across the street.

The architects' strong sense of responsibility to the aesthetic and social context in which they function is revealed in the art shows they present in their offices and in the research studies to explore urban problems.

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