Gensler Architect boss: CityCenter ‘changes the game’

M. Arthur Gensler Jr. stands nearly 6 feet 5 inches tall, so he towers over most people. He looms even larger as chairman of Gensler — the world’s biggest architecture firm with 2,300 employees in 32 offices across the globe.

The 45-year-old San Francisco-based company does 4,000 projects annually and recorded $683 million in revenue in 2008.

Gensler’s award-winning designs include the Dubai International Financial Center, the JetBlue terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, and the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham, England. Its 128-story Shanghai Tower will become the world’s second-tallest skyscraper upon completion in 2014.

Gensler also serves as executive architect on CityCenter, an $8.5 billion mixed-use development on the Strip that is being touted as largest privately financed project in United States history. It is the firm’s biggest project to date.

Gensler oversees a small of army of designers, architects and engineers responsible for crafting an 18 million-square-foot complex of hotels, residences, and entertainment space. The company opened a Las Vegas office in 2004.

At 74, "Art" Gensler has the restless energy and enthusiasm of a teenager. He is friendly, soft-spoken and unassuming, as well as thoughtful and inquisitive. Business Press recently spoke with Mr. Gensler about Las Vegas, CityCenter, and the future of architecture in Southern Nevada.

What were your thoughts about Las Vegas before coming here?

We felt that Las Vegas wasn’t looking to do sophisticated design. But MGM Mirage was focusing on a different kind of image, not a themed design, but a collection of world class designs. CityCenter is unique among developments as one property with so many world-famous designers working together, doing individual but integrated work. That was part of the mission that (CityCenter President and CEO) Bobby Baldwin gave us: work together as a team and support each other. The group has worked extremely well together. I’m not sure everyone thought that was going to happen. But it has.

What makes CityCenter special?

Normally, large projects have one design firm. In this case, we have eight design firms, plus another hundred boutique designers working together on the same site. MGM Mirage wanted the best of each of the design firms. There was no sense of compromise or backing down.

How many people did you have on site at CityCenter?

We had 50 people, off and on.

How did you get everyone to work together?

We had a unique client that was hands-on and supportive. MGM Mirage believes in customer service, friendliness and quality. Everyone bought into the concept that this had to be a collaborative project requiring you to listen and do your best work. This project has a lot of pieces to it. It’s not just a series of pretty buildings; it’s a series of integrated designs. It is truly a reflection of what they call it — CityCenter. It has everything. It’s very, very special.

What surprised you the most about CityCenter?

For 45 years, I have had an opportunity to work with businesspeople all over the world and learn about their businesses and how they operate. I have never dealt with a more professional, knowledgeable, quality group of professionals as I have in Las Vegas. And that was a big surprise. This as a real bunch of pros about everything they do down to the last little detail.

How does this CityCenter differ from your other projects?

First, it’s the largest project in the world. Although we have some large ones going in China and the Middle East, they’re nowhere near the size of CityCenter. There are a lot financial troubles in the world, but MGM Mirage never faltered once. The company had a mission; it had a goal; it was going to open this project on time. The company never bent the rules for quality, design, and respect for fellow workers. When you see it, you’ll see the materials, finishes, details and ideas. Everyone did their damnedest to make this the most remarkable customer experience in the world.

Will this project change how Las Vegas approaches design?

Yes. Las Vegas serves a very broad spectrum of people. Some people are more comfortable in one environment over another. MGM Mirage tried to create something that is fresh and new that isn’t trendy or themed. That really hasn’t really been done much. I think CityCenter will attract a very sophisticated and smart crowd. I think they changed the game. That said, though, you can’t be all things to all people.

Could a project like CityCenter ever happen again given the current global economic crisis?

One of things that is hard to do in the current financial world is to assemble this much money in one place to risk. I think those days are pretty much behind us in this country. There are projects in the Middle East and China where they are assembling great gigantic projects. … I think it was an era; it will take a while to come back. And it will come back differently. I think Las Vegas will come back fine. It’s an amazing place where people still want to come.

Contact reporter Tony Illia at 702-303-5699 or tonyillia@aol.com.

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