It was an auspicious confluence of AIACC presidential duty and privilege when I had the honor of presenting Art Gensler, FAIA with the AIACC Lifetime Achievement Award Jun. 16. It struck me that there were some interesting scale issues at hand with the founder of the world’s largest architectural firm accepting this honor from the leader of a firm one thousandth (yes, that is 1/1000th) as large. Yikes, that’s a vast difference, but in having the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Art (he insisted on being called Art even though we had just met), I found far more similarities between us than differences, and an instant sympatico. Although Art gave up the official pinnacle of leadership of Gensler half a decade ago, he continues to be a presence on a nearly daily basis, both in the expansive Gensler San Francisco studios and in his modest office which has a rolling door that has not been shut once in the last 14 years. As we walked through the expanse of occupied work areas, it struck me that not one of the many employees hid behind a monitor. On the contrary, they said “hi” with the manner one would use for an old friend. Clearly Art was still leader in the hearts and minds of those in this office.
In our profession of Architecture and in the AIA, scale is present in curious dimensions. National AIA surveys show that of the 12,000 or so firms that provide architectural services in our country, about a quarter are a single individual and about 2/3 are four or fewer people. While only 5 percent of offices are comprised of 50 people or more, about half of those employed in architecture work in firms of 50 or larger, and 2/3 are in firms of 20 or more. I’ve looked at these numbers as far back as the AIA has records, and they stay in a surprisingly narrow band, with expected bumps upward in single person firms in recessions when talented individuals may find themselves suddenly solo.
In other words, MOST architectural firms are very small – like mine – while MOST Architects work in mid to large sized firms. MOST AIA firm owners are at the helm of small enterprises; while MOST AIA members count on the support of large firms. In considering the challenges and opportunities faced by the profession, certainly many cross the “size line,” such as the challenges of our regulatory and business environments and the opportunities that emerging technology provides us. Other challenges and opportunities, though, trend toward one end of the size spectrum or the other. With both “Small Firm” and “Large Firm” focus areas, the AIA tries to maintain relevance across this size spectrum.
When I mentioned to Art the work I’m doing on encouraging the AIACC to take a more proactive role in supporting small firms’ software needs, I was a bit surprised to hear he faces challenges in that arena (at his mega firm) as well. While the details were of a different nature—as one might expect in moving from numbers in the single digits toward multiples of thousands – at the deepest level the issue was aligned: collaboration versus transaction.
When conversation shifted to areas in which Art was particularly passionate (such as his personal work in addressing the water crisis in California), it was clear he found his “Architect” skill set perfectly at home in this other landscape – using design smarts in finding patterns that can reallocate existing resources leveraged with sustainable technology that draws on such old but new notions as the water purification potential of salt tolerant plants. This served well to illustrate of how the power of design permeated the culture of Gensler, transcending whether an assignment was multi-billion dollars in scope or the label for a bottle of wine. In fact, this pattern transcends scale – relevant at a mega firm just as well as a solo office. Amazing!
In presenting Art officially, ceremoniously, with the AIACC Lifetime Achievement Award, I had a little fun in first noting the common driver that was behind everyone in the room, a driver that would be pushing most the next day, and the days after that. Success! As Architects, the notion of success has a variety of manifestations. Our publications are full of references to design awards, iconic projects, and big deals. When you look most closely at the essential element of success in architecture though, I would suggest there is something bigger behind the obvious metrics of number of awards, projects, clients or employees. The bigger driver to success through this lens is captured with the word trajectories: Life trajectories shifted for the better. How many have been inspired, mentored, cultivated, and enlightened? In this measure, Art’s success resonates far more deeply than what a simple total calculation of employees can account for.
I believe that this same core driver towards success is there for all Architects, no matter whether they are in traditional practice, working solo, or at the helm of a giant firm. Certainly in work, and more importantly in deed and demeanor, Art Gensler embodies this as well.
The size of an Architects’ drive to alter human trajectories for the good – that’s definitely a Size that Matters.