Faculty member Aaron Gensler is an architect, designer, activist, and educator based in Los Angeles. She founded GenslerClipp, an Architecture, Research and Design practice, and has previously held design positions at a diverse array of firms including Gensler, DS+R, and Active Social Architecture (ASA). She has exhibited as an artist, worked in the construction industry, and co-founded a theatre company. We recently caught up with Aaron to discuss how architects can build community through education and design.
I moved to New York when I graduated Middlebury, where I had majored in Theatre and Studio Art. I worked at a non-profit in the day, and by night, I was working in theatre and had joined a collective of women artists. I remember a moment, after a particularly hard day, when I looked up in the canyon of buildings and just realized that I had spent years attempting to avoid the “family profession” of architecture and in doing so had inadvertently denied myself the chance to pursue my passion for manifesting environments and spaces.
I was a director and specialized in set design, which ironically is arguably as close to architecture as theatre allows. In the end, I had tried to separate myself from my family’s work in architecture and ended up separating myself from my own passion for design. Attending Cornell was my way of acknowledging my divergence but more importantly, acknowledging my own hunger for architectural design.
Alvar Aalto famously said “Building art is a synthesis of life in materialized form. We should try to bring in under the same hat not a splintered way of thinking, but all in harmony together.” There is nothing more unproductive than an architect who hasn’t experienced life, for the same reason that a fletcher must understand the human practice of archery, not just the technical properties of wood and feathers. We create, orchestrate, allow and inhibit the great game of human life within the spaces we architects manifest. Understanding of human life is, I would argue, an irreplaceable facet of an architect’s education.
You are right to say I’ve worn many hats over the years prior to (and after) becoming an architect. Each of those experiences widens and deepens my understanding of, curiosity and empathy for those who will carry out their lives in the spaces I design.
My partner Stephen Clipp and I had talked about our dreams of starting a firm on our first date. We both worked at some really incredible firms in our careers but going out on our own wasn’t something we could ever shake off. For me personally, it was an opportunity to work directly with clients and to continue to discover my voice. It’s been important to us to also have a research side where we can explore ideas.
We have tried to remain open to opportunities and to be flexible. Many of our most exciting projects that will break ground this year are unfortunately confidential. That being said, we designed a farm extension that recently broke ground. We have a few ADU’s in different stages of design and construction and are designing what could be a truly spectacular private residence and vineyard expansion in northern California.
We also see our firm itself as one of our most critical “projects” right now, and are taking the opportunity to question the traditional makeup of an architectural practice while our firm is in its relative infancy. To that end, we are exploring ideas on how architects could have more agency of their work as we develop our own experimental project in the California High Desert. Additionally, we have partnered with firms to work on masterplans, high-speed rail and a renovation for a consulate – all of which explore alternative methods of the “role of an architect” in realizing design.
Architecture is so vast, I find generalizations can be difficult. This is a question discussed at length and there is truth to the narrowing liability we take on. That being said, I believe what architecture is and what architects can do is constantly expanding. We are trained at many things, but as the world around us changes and grows, our ability to navigate complex problems and bring parties together to find successful solutions will be our most valuable legacy. If you look in the field of practice, as the population of architects becomes more diverse, and our technical alchemy develops, we have the ability to tackle new issues and opportunities as they are presented.
Architects have always been futurists, partially because creating spaces takes time but also because architecture has always served as a mirror held to nations and civilizations and has perpetually been evolving, just as our human technology, human civilizations, and our ideologies have evolved. Very little of our world remains constant, and thus very little of our profession remains constant.
Any project at the beginning when it has endless potential or the last project I just finished where I can see the lines and ideas that had been in my head become spaces that people inhabit. It’s an experience impossible to describe, but incredibly rewarding. I have a soft spot for projects that use design to create a positive impact. And as the old saying goes, “My favorite project is the one I am about to start”.
Be tenacious and if you are interested in anything else, you should strongly consider another profession. But in all honestly, architecture is more of a calling- I think for many of us this was not a choice, it’s just what we are. If you don’t want to be an architect, nothing in this profession will satisfy you. If you DO want to be an architect, nothing outside this crazy practice will satisfy you. The important thing for students, I believe, is to do an honest accounting of which camp they fall into.
Making. Multifarious. Moving.