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Design powerhouse has put its stamp on Houston’s skyline

Looking at the Houston skyline, there are few buildings that don’t have Art Gensler’s fingerprints on them. And it all started with the iconic trapezoidal towers at 711 Louisiana.

When M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates Inc. came to Houston in 1972 to develop the interior architecture of Pennzoil Place, it was a 7-year-old architecture firm from San Francisco with a vision to improve interior spaces.

“We were fortunate to be asked to come to Houston when it was beginning to explode,” said Art Gensler, the company’s founder, in town recently to visit the Houston office. “It was a time of transition, more open planning; and the new way of designing interiors and buildings reflected that.”

Corporations and their CEOs were involved in the development of their offices and were recognizing the value of being housed in a well-designed building, Gensler said. Until then, little attention was paid to a building’s interior and whether the space was functional and beneficial to its workers.

In a stroke of serendipity, Gensler’s Houston office is now on the third floor of the Pennzoil building – the same building where its Houston roots were planted.

In the past 45 years, Gensler has expanded its business in breadth and scope. It is an architectural design, planning and consulting firm with 38 offices across the globe – in the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It works on more than 3,000 projects each year – from designing something as small as a work lamp or a wine label to an urban shopping district or a 60-story office tower.

The company operates in a variety of disciplines: corporate campuses, office buildings, retail, aviation and transportation, education, hospitality, sports, urban design, sustainable consulting and entertainment.

Gensler’s recent grand addition to the downtown Theater District is the Houston Ballet Center for Dance, the country’s largest professional dance facility. The six-story, 115,000-square-foot building of granite and glass has nine studios, a dance laboratory and administrative space. The magnificent glass windows give passers-by a glimpse into the ballet world as dancers can be seen practicing inside. Artistic etchings of figures in motion line the steel sky bridge that connects the building to Wortham Center, where the Houston Ballet performs.

Other downtown gems that Gensler has touched include the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel, the new Hess Tower, University of Houston-Downtown, 1100 Louisiana (Enterprise Plaza), Wells Fargo Plaza, South Texas College of Law Library and the Julia Ideson building (aka the “old” library).

Gensler has been involved in interior architecture work in “most every building downtown,” according to Jim Furr, managing principal at the Houston office.

Another new feather in its cap in Houston is the new ExxonMobil complex that will be built on 385 acres near I-45 and the Hardy Toll Road. Several office buildings, a laboratory, training centers, a conference center and centers for wellness and child care are included in the plan.

Gensler has a zeal for sustainable design – environmentally conscious design techniques that enhance efficiency and minimize the negative impact of a building.

“We have a responsibility to the larger community for which we work,” Furr said, adding that Gensler looks to “do whatever is best for the building.”

Rives Taylor, the sustainability director at Gensler, said ecological balance is always in mind when approaching a project. Many of the company’s projects are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified; and the LEED guidelines are used as a tool to help direct them.

Hess Tower, for example, was developed and built on the eastern edge of downtown overlooking Discovery Green with a notion of high performance from the very beginning. Sun shading and special window technology on the exterior help to conserve energy, dehumidifiers cool the air more efficiently, and rainwater that collects on the plaza is later used for irrigation, Taylor said.

At the Mickey Leland Federal Building at 1919 Smith Street, Gensler will work on interior architecture in the lobbies, new ceilings and floorings in the offices, air ducts and dehumidifiers to improve air quality and efficiency, and solar panels atop the garage to reduce energy consumption. The building will have a new, energy-efficient exterior “envelope” that keeps out heat, glare and UV rays but allows in more light – reducing the need for interior illumination.

Last year, one of Gensler’s projects – the BP Helios Plaza in west Houston – was the first commercial office building in Houston to be certified LEED Platinum.

As a global company, Gensler’s reach is vast and deep. But with each foray into a new community comes a responsibility.

“If a community invites you in and supports you, it’s important to give back to that community,” Gensler said.

“We need to be integral to the cities in which we are located,” said Furr, managing principal of the south central region, which includes Houston, Austin and Dallas.

One might think that with its worldwide sway, Gensler (the man and the company) would be stuffy and unapproachable. Not so. Gensler, the man, chats amiably with visitors and employees, opens doors for others and invites everyone to just call him “Art.”

The Houston office is set up to invite creativity and interactive collaboration. Executives stop to talk with employees as they walk among the open-pod system, while the linear design and good lighting support Gensler’s ideal of efficiency in interior design.

“We embrace the idea that we are in it together,” Furr said of the family atmosphere. Although there are many offices globally, the company prides itself as a “one-firm firm.” With each office working together, clients are able to receive the best the company has to offer from what he calls its “galaxy of stars.”

When Gensler first started the business, it was meant to be a place where talented people would come for a career, not just a single project, Furr said. That vision is still how the company does business. And by so doing, it manifests lasting relationships with both clients and employees.

“I never thought it was going to be built as big as it has,” Gensler said of his company.

Gensler acknowledges that it is the talented staff that keeps things growing.

“I hire great people and get out of their way and let them do great things,” he said.

And in downtown Houston, the evidence is everywhere.

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