Gensler turns 50 years old this summer. As the world’s largest design firm, it counts about 5,000 staffers among 46 offices. But the firm has never been guilty of haphazard growth or overreach, instead allowing its accounts to spawn new offices in new cities. In its formative years, Gensler’s founder devised a novel way to thrive in the field, according to the firm’s Chicago design director and principal Todd Heiser.
“Art Gensler plugged a hole in the market,” Heiser said. “Architects weren’t really thinking about what the future office was going to look like. Art centered the firm on corporate interior design.”
Today, they do a little of everything. Whether tackling the Shanghai Tower, which recently topped out as the world’s second tallest building at 2,073 feet, or healthcare and technology incubators at Merchandise Mart, Gensler comes at every project in a democratic way, involving the client in charrettes and avoiding the “black cape role” at all costs.
The fact that Gensler is employee-owned helps explain this hardwired philosophy. “It really drives the way we act, from compensation to cooperation,” said Heiser. “Each person who enters through the door at some level becomes a shareholder in the company.”
As interiors specialists, Gensler often collaborates with other architects. They have teamed up with Jeanne Gang on the Wanda Vista tower proposal at Lakeshore East, with Santiago Calatrava on the aborted Chicago Spire, and with HDR on the new Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) building in Streeterville.
“We listened to Jeanne’s story for the Wanda tower and took on the challenge to build an equally compelling interior story,” said Heiser. “There’s nothing worse than walking up to a great piece of architecture and the interiors are terrible.”
The inside of Gensler’s Chicago office is certainly not terrible. A staff of 300 claims almost a full floor of Louis Sullivan’s masterful Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. Building in a dense but respectful reuse. The build-out relies on oak, steel, and natural finishes to conserve the rawness of the original space. The new design leaves room for the original columns to breathe while keeping the open department store layout, and adding a perimeter of co-working spaces so groups of staff can break off from the main pack.
Though the Chicago outpost has its hands in many projects worldwide, its main sphere of influence is The Windy City and the lower Midwest.
The Ability Institute of RIC
Designed by architecture firms HDR and Gensler, RIC is the new flagship research hospital of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. With the super structure recently topped out, the two firms are collaborating to leverage the design of the new building to fully express RIC’s vision, one of an iterative rather than linear process of clinical care and recovery medicine. The building gestures to this with a vertical corrugation disrupting uniform horizontal etchings in the glass curtain wall. The “Ability Lab” is the active nucleus of each of five innovation centers that separate the different categories of recovery. Specific colors were chosen to produce better patient outcomes.
This is the newest office development mounted by Sterling Bay, a titan of retrofit with several interests in Chicago’s West Loop. Large floor plates meet competitive rents at these sites, the most prominent of which is 1K Fulton—Google’s new home—and technology firms are biting. 1K Fulton is three blocks away, so Sterling Bay has reason to double down on a modern office district. For Fulton West, Gensler is blowing out the footprint of a skeleton from the dot-com bust and climbing to nine stories. Expected to wrap in late 2016, the end result will be a two-tone soft loft with 290,000 square feet of office space, a café, roof deck, balconies, and a public pocket park.
A not-for-profit, co-working space designed to reflect the vision and needs of the healthcare technology community, Matter is embedded in the Merchandise Mart as a sequel of sorts to Gensler’s 1871 tech incubator. The focus is on collaborative cultivation of ideas between industry powerhouses and entrepreneurs in the medical sub-sectors of biopharma and hospital equipment, giving birth to startups. Design-wise the spirit of cubicle-less flexible interaction, very much en vogue in corporate America, is well served. Interior walls are partial and moveable, meeting rooms and libraries are transparent, and materials are vibrantly unpredictable.
Le Méridien Columbus, The Joseph
For this new boutique hotel located in Columbus, Ohio’s Short North arts district, Gensler called on the city’s diverse ethnic roots and geological landscape. Developer Ron Pizzuti made it a vessel for a few dozen pieces from his renowned modern art collection—a merger emphasized by Starwood Hotel’s Le Méridien brand. Fifteen local artists were commissioned to make artworks for guest rooms, much of which is for sale. The 11-story building presents a stack of offset rectangular slabs permeated by floor-to-ceiling windows. The property’s architectural envelope is eclectic, fusing industrial elements and opulent materials with intimate settings.