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Celebrated architect Art Gensler ’58 dies at 85

Arthur “Art” Gensler Jr., B.Arch. ’58, who was celebrated as a global architect, astute entrepreneur and founder of a small practice that became one of the largest and most successful firms in the industry, died May 10 at age 85.

Throughout his 65-year career, Gensler was known for his ethos of putting people first, as well as his generosity and commitment to Cornell and the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP).

“Grounded yet optimistic, matter-of-fact yet prescient, Art Gensler always saw things not just as they were, but as they could be,” said J. Meejin Yoon, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of AAP.

Art Gensler

“For some, he was a titan and giant of the industry; for others he was a warm mentor and loyal champion – and to all, he demonstrated how to lead by investing in others,” Yoon said. “His unwavering commitment and generosity to AAP and to the education of architects, planners and artists came in many catalytic forms – from endowed positions and student scholarships to the Gensler Family AAP NYC Center. He leaves an enduring legacy for our college that will impact many generations to come.”

With his wife, Drucilla, and James Follett, Gensler co-founded M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates, Inc. in San Francisco in 1965. The firm now has offices in the U.S., the Middle East, Latin America, Europe and Asia. Gensler stepped down from the chairmanship of Gensler & Associates in 2010.

Gensler, the firm, was recently recognized for its designs for the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, UPCycle and Etsy’s Brooklyn-based headquarters. The projects received three of the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top 10 Awards in 2020. Additionally, the firm is committed to increasing access to the profession for the next generation, and has awarded nearly $300,000 in scholarships to students and graduates over the last 20 years.

Gensler was a fellow of both the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), a charter member of Interior Design Magazine’s Hall of Fame, and a recipient of IIDA’s Star Award. He was also a professional member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and a co-founder of the AIA’s National Interior Architecture Committee.

In 2005, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year program. As a licensed architect and industry leader, he was a visiting professor at Cornell, the University of California, Berkeley, and Arizona State University, and a frequent guest lecturer at other colleges and universities across the country. He also served as a trustee of the Buck Institute for the Aging and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and was chair of the board at the California College of Arts.

In 1999, Gensler and Drue founded the Gensler Family Foundation to support higher education, geriatric research and the arts. The foundation also helped establish and support AAP’s New York City-based program. Recent gifts directed to AAP NYC include support for the Gensler Family Sesquicentennial Executive Director of AAP NYC, held by Robert W. Balder, and a $10 million gift to AAP in 2020 to enable the college to sustain the New York City program in perpetuity as the Gensler Family AAP NYC Center.

Foundation endowments also include the Gensler Visiting Critic Fund, the Gensler Visiting Lecturer of Professional Practice, the Gensler Scholarship and AAP’s annual fund.

“Arthur Gensler embodies the values we want our Cornell AAP students to embrace, especially his commitment to design excellence, leadership and collaboration,” Balder said. “His generosity and willingness to share his knowledge with others are legendary, and the commitment he and his family have shown to our college make the Gensler Family AAP NYC Center an irreplaceable part of the Cornell AAP experience.”

Gensler was a member and member emeritus of the AAP Advisory Council, a member of the Cornell Buildings and Properties Committee of the Cornell Board of Trustees from 1998 to 2004, and was named a lifetime member of the Cornell University Council in 2002 after many years of service. He was also named Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year in 1995 and received a Frank H.T. Rhodes Exemplary Alumni Service Award, the highest award for alumni service.

Gensler was predeceased by his wife of nearly 60 years, Drucilla “Drue” Cortell Gensler. He is survived by his four sons and their families: David and his children Aaron, M.Arch. ’14, Thisbe, Dunia and Pales, with Alisoun; Robert and his wife, Gillian; Douglas, B.Arch. ’90, who leads the Gensler office in Boston, and his wife, Kinzie, and their children Cortie ’20, Cailin and Mamie; and Kenneth and his children Morgan, Jake, B.Arch. ’20, and Sam, with Jennifer, and their grandchild Charlotte.

Patti Witten is a writer for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

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Gillian Smith