Gensler is a global firm, but when it comes to projects emanating from each of their 49 offices, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each location takes context, climate, and culture into consideration during the design process. In Arizona, the Gensler Phoenix office is responsive to the desert surroundings and weather when it comes to creating buildings and interiors that suit the state.
“There are certain principles that are universal for Gensler,” explains Diana Vasquez, Design Director of Architecture for the Phoenix office. “We always look at the inside/outside connection, the link to nature and how people move through space. That is particularly important for our location.”
Benjamin Ayers, AIA, agrees and also notes that no matter the location, contextualism is a primary driver of design. “You have to understand the place,” says the Gensler Phoenix Design Director and Studio Director. “Contextualism drives and informs everything we create, inside and out. Paying attention to that lets you design successfully.”
Being authentic is another universal design principle at Gensler, says Colleen Cunningham, NCIDQ, the Phoenix office’s Interior Design Director. “Here, the Southwest and its history definitely influence,” she says, “but the Southwest is not a character or a cartoon. It’s about an honest expression of place, without going over the top.”
The three design directors all agree, however, that there are factors that figure prominently in their Arizona projects.
“We can spend most of the year outdoors here,” says Ayers, “so why not create spaces and buildings that allow you to easily go from inside to out?” Many of the firm’s recent local projects include the addition of outdoor spaces that are easily accessed from the indoors. The renovation of a stark warehouse in Tempe brought the bland building to life with the addition of a bright red canopy that created space for landscaped patios, accessible through glass garage doors. For a communications facility in Mesa, new zigzagging patios with shade and benches between buildings offer places for informal outdoor meetings and conversations.
“To make these indoor/outdoor spaces work, we walk materials from the outside in,” says Vasquez. “This migration of materials makes for a cohesive experience.”
Explains Cunningham, “We do spend a lot of time detailing things like floor finishes from outdoors to in, making the transition seamless.” She also says that choosing indoor and outdoor furniture that is complementary is important, particularly if there is a visual link through windows or doorways. “If the interior seems relaxed and comfortable, it’s jarring to have hot-looking or sterile outdoor furniture on a patio. The color palette should be continued.”
Let There Be Light
“The light in the Southwest is different,” admits Vasquez. “We have so few overcast days.” With the right orientation and the addition of large expanses of glass and light wells in building cores, natural daylight comes into play in every Gensler project. For an office created out of a former restaurant in Phoenix, the addition of floor-to-ceiling windows and doorways and freshly painted white walls helps bounce daylight deep into the space.
“With all the technology available today in glass, you can have a lot of transparency with buildings and still be environmentally responsible,” says Vasquez. “You can vary the size and kinds of glass around the building and tailor mechanical systems, too.”
When it comes to furniture and sunlight, Cunningham notes that—particularly in outdoor situations—fabrics need to be a high performance to resist fading, while darker colors and some materials must be used judiciously to create comfort. Says Cunningham, “You always have to ask yourself, will this be too hot to touch or sit on?”
Arizona’s plentiful sunshine is welcome, but so is shade. “You need to protect people from the sun here,” says Vasquez, “and we look for opportunities to provide dappled light through patterns and use shade structures to create those interstitial spaces between buildings.”
At the Gensler-renovated Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix, a white, laser-cut patterned canopy is a grand entry gesture and connects visitors between two parts of the complex. ASU’s College Avenue Commons, another Gensler design, features several shading strategies. “At ground level, a metal structure with perforated panels creates a patio area and provides shade,” explains Ayers. “It also protects the envelope of the building from the sun and heat gain. On the second level, recessing a corner of the building creates another shaded place, this time for a cafe patio.”
For the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, a grand metal shade structure wraps the building just above street level, creating not only a sheltering streetscape element for pedestrians but a branding element for the hotel and outdoor space for the hotel’s restaurants.
Solar control with window coverings is another strategy used by the Gensler Phoenix office. “Of course, proper orientation of a building is the best way to work with the sun here,” says Ayers. “You want to make the right choices from the beginning, but often we are working with existing buildings.” In that situation, says Cunningham, shades are a good option. “We often employ shades with sensors,” she says. “They raise or lower automatically to mitigate the sun and help with energy savings.”
The Nature of Things
Surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, Gensler Phoenix makes the most of nature in many of its designs. “By planting a desert landscape, you can create views from inside a building,” says Ayers, “and thoughtfully placed trees provide shade for windows.” At the Gensler-designed ViaSat headquarters in Tempe, a courtyard between the building’s wings is planted with palo verde trees that provide sculptural green forms year-round and a bower of yellow blossoms in the spring, all visible from carefully placed windows.
“Biophilia is represented in many ways in our designs,” says Vasquez. “Often, we can take advantage of our natural surroundings and focus building views on mountains.” Indeed, at the new quarters of Gensler Phoenix, the north-facing window walls frame the landmark form of Piestewa Peak, a short distance away.
Biophilic design also finds its way into Gensler’s decorative patterns, points out Vasquez. The laser-cut patterns on a gateway element for the Melrose neighborhood of Phoenix feature an abstraction of spiky desert plants, while the canopy at the Arizona Center is reminiscent of the lacy forms of a skeletal prickly pear pad.
While many building materials can be used in any geographical zone, certain ones make sense for this desert setting. “We use a lot of corten steel and concrete in our projects here,” Vasquez points out. “They are locally available and perform well in our arid climate.” Indeed, that steel is the material for the Melrose neighborhood gateway and was intentionally left untreated. “That corten steel is true to its materiality,” says Ayers, “and it will weather beautifully, changing over time.”
Gensler does make a point of sourcing local materials whenever possible, adding to the sustainability of a building. At ASU’s College Avenue Commons, Arizona sandstone cladding—both ribbed and left natural—creates a pattern, amplified by shadows at certain times of the day. “It’s all about what works in this climate,” says Ayers.
And, Sometimes, Monsoons
Although two summers of drought have virtually erased the memory of monsoon season from most locals, this annual rainy season is a factor for Cunningham when designing an outdoor space. “The question always is, will this blow away in a storm?” says the designer. “That’s how we choose furniture and accessories for the outdoors.” She has employed strategies like using Velcro to secure seat cushions, choosing colors that will still look good after a dust storm, and suggesting architectural interventions, such as permanent shade structures, in lieu of umbrellas, which can become lethal weapons if caught up in a dust devil or propelled by storm downdrafts.
What is most important in the designs done by Gensler Phoenix? Community, emphasizes Vasquez. “Whether we’re doing a design for Phoenix or for Tucson, it’s always more than just creating a desert-appropriate building, putting in a piece of local art, or using local materials,” says Vasquez. “It’s about community. It’s understanding how to connect to the surrounding area, understanding what matters there and how our designs can impact people.”