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Walnut Creek Magazine

An American Architect: Arthur Gensler

Sep 14, 2016 12:47PM ● By Cale Finta


Arthur Gensler on Walnut Creek and the Urbanization of Suburbia

By Deborah Burstyn

In October, this internationally celebrated architect and recipient of multiple awards comes to Walnut Creek as the keynote speaker at the 50th Anniversary Awards Luncheon for the Action for Beauty Council.  Gensler, now 80, served as a judge in 1983 for the Action for Beauty Council, which recognizes innovative and high-quality architecture and landscape in Walnut Creek. He returns to share his views on the urbanization of suburbia.

Gensler became famous during the last decades of the 20th century for applying modern design principles to the interiors and exteriors of commercial buildings. Today M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates, Inc. operates offices in 46 cities in 16 countries but remains headquartered in San Francisco.  Founded by Gensler, his wife Drue and James Follett in 1965, the firm continues to project his modernist vision forward into the 21st century.  Among his many awards, Gensler was honored this year with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Design Futures Council.

How has your philosophy about buildings and design changed over the years? I have become more appreciative of the power of design as I have become more experienced. Buildings don’t add value to a community by looking wonderful. They also must work to add value to the people who live and work in them.

Which projects are you most proud of and why? I am proud of all of the work by the firm. Both large and small. But recently, the completion of the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world, has given me a great feeling of pride.  It’s a wonderful project.

What are your thoughts on the resurgence of cities and the current generation’s affinity for urban living?  Was it surprising to you after the flight to the suburbs of the previous generation? Cities are resurging and becoming 24/7 exciting places to live, work and play. I think the resurgence has come partly because the millennials are marrying later and having children later, so they want to live in cities where they are surrounded by activity. It will be interesting to see if they move to the suburbs once their children start school. Cities still have not solved the problem of poorly performing schools.

What do you think about suburban towns like Walnut Creek urbanizing? Towns like Walnut Creek are caught in a transition.  People want to live near where they work.  A community like Walnut Creek is near employers, has the amenities people want, but also has good schools, good public transportation and a much less expensive cost of living than Oakland and San Francisco. 

What style is your own home? Did you design it? I did not build my own home.  I wanted to stay married so I wouldn’t take the chance of fighting over the design with my wife.  We’ve been married 59 years so I guess it has worked. Our home is a craftsman style with exposed wood and predominantly Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, Korean chests and some contemporary pieces.  It’s warm and comfortable. A place to live, not show off my design skills.

Do you collect anything?  We have a varied art collection.  The one thing we have is a lot of giraffes both large and small.  We started collecting them as a lark then people started giving us giraffes as gifts.

What new trends in architecture and design do you like?  I think there will be fewer “look at me” buildings, which I think is a good thing.  There are fewer crazy-shaped buildings and more simple and straight-forward designs.

You have been quoted as saying that buildings should be torn down and replaced after 30 years. Do you still feel that way?  The rate of change and knowledge is moving so fast that buildings, and especially building systems, go out of date quickly.  So keeping buildings that are just old makes no sense once they have done their job.  Removing them and replacing them with a new building makes more sense.  I love our projects but most of them will run out their useful life.

How do you feel about historic preservation and the character of cities? Historic preservation has its place.  Good old is better than bad new.  But old for the sake of old makes no sense to me.  Save the great projects, adapt them to new uses, and get rid of the bad projects.  Don’t keep them just because they are old.  Life changes.  So should buildings and communities.

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