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Design and Cultural References 

The Songhu-Sanmen Rd Pedestrian Bridge, Shanghai. Image © Gensler

As I reflect back on my 25 years with Gensler and the 50th anniversary of our firm, I am both proud and humbled by our success. When I joined in 1991 I never would have imagined being where we are today – diverse and multi-cultural with a unique perspective of the world and design.

As we see evidence of increasing nationalism and more insular and protectionist cultures across the globe, our firm’s vision supports transparency, empowerment and collaboration. I believe strongly that this is why we are able to succeed in a world that is headed in the opposite direction. There are many reasons for this change, with poor regional economic conditions, lack of job growth, immigration and opportunities for the younger generation being at the top of the list. But there are more fundamental forces at play. There is a general belief that globalization will ultimately lead to a deterioration of local values. That somehow the essence of one’s culture will be lost.

Ultimately, I believe strongly that this viewpoint will lead to misunderstanding, stagnation and conflict.

In some ways we have begun to see those forces at work in our practice in China, where President Xi has spoken out against the influence of international architects on building design, encouraging municipalities to use more local firms. He believes that the work of international firms lacks a sensitivity to Chinese culture and is, therefore, contrived.

I can understand his perspective that simply being an international firm does not mean that the work is good– there are plenty of projects by international firms that prove this. Moreover, for years international design firms have reaped the benefits of working across Asia and China, but have invested little to build local design competency.

The Izu Velodrome in Tokyo. Image © Gensler

Our practice is fundamentally different from our competitors. We believe that building a practice locally is the most critical aspect of our success. This means recruiting locally, as well as hiring expats with international experience. Most importantly, moving other Gensler staff from around the world to help build the office. We have proven time and again that this is critical to our international success.

We are recognized for our commitment to investing in growing design professionals locally. Our clients and the government see us as being sensitive to their culture and values, while simultaneously bringing international expertise. We develop and invest in the community, while our local staff teaches the essence of their values and customs. The key ingredient of this is cultural empathy instead of arrogance.

And isn’t that the essence of design excellence? Our work is influenced by local culture and is grounded in a deeper meaning that is expressed in design, architecture and place.

This approach requires one to have a long view of building a practice-- one that requires a deeper understanding of history and design. It is organic growth, not acquisitions, that requires an investment and growth in people. I often say that it takes a decade to build the foundation for a local office. It seems like a long time, but it is simply a moment in time from a cultural perspective.

In the same regard, a successful office is one that is local in nature, including an underlying foundation of Gensler culture and values. This requires a constant mix of people from across our firm.

We want to be the world’s most influential design firm. There is no better way to achieve this than by staying true to our core values. We aspire to build a global practice based upon diversity and different viewpoints; a practice that is transparent, self-governing and self-sustaining. We will get there with an open mind to the opportunities and investment in our extraordinary staff and communities.

Dan Winey is a member of Gensler’s Board of Directors and the Regional Managing Principal of our Northwest region. Our offices in Shanghai and Beijing were launched under Dan’s purview, and he’s been a key member of our Shanghai Tower team from the initial project win through construction. Contact him at dan_winey@gensler.com.

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