Ever since he was a child playing with building blocks, Andy Cohen, the son of a dairy store owner on Manhattan's lower east side, knew he wanted to be an architect. With his lifelong love of design and keen business sense, Cohen has ascended the ranks of Gensler, the world's largest architecture firm. Today, he runs the firm's southwest region out of Santa Monica and is one of three executive directors who report directly to founder Art Gensler. Among the many commissions he has had a hand in are L.A. Live, the massive mixed-use project under construction in downtown Los Angeles, and the 2000 Avenue of the Stars building in Century City, which houses the 240,000-square-foot offices of the Creative Artists Agency. But his focus extends far beyond Southern California. Cohen is overseeing the design of buildings in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere overseas. Closer to home, he likes to bike ride and spends time at his home in Manhattan Beach, where his wife a former corporate attorney at Gensler is in line to be mayor. Cohen recently sat down with the Business Journal to discuss his work, family and other issues.

Question: How long have you been interested in architecture?

Answer: My mother tells me I played with Lincoln Logs all the time and I was always creating different structures even in elementary school, I was involved in different building projects. Building architectural models out of sugar cubes or balsa wood, I was always building models and involved in 3-D problems. I knew probably by the age of 10 that I wanted to be an architect.

Q: How did you end up at Pratt?

A: The decision was a personal one. My dad got really ill he got cancer so I wanted to be close to my dad's store, because I (ended up running) it when I was in college. I actually had gotten accepted at other schools, but Pratt was close to Manhattan. My dad passed away my junior year of college.

Q: Did the professional world live up to your expectations?

A: It didn't come to fruition until I joined Gensler. I felt when I joined Gensler the world opened up for me. I saw that architecture could really make an impact on people and the world. The experience at Gensler really broadened my horizons. It was our entrepreneurial spirit, the business focus, the client focus.

Q: What have you done there?

A: I started as a junior designer and have been involved in pretty much every different practice area that the firm is involved with. I became a studio leader, then from a studio leader became the L.A. office leader, and two years ago became executive director of Gensler.

Q: As executive director, what do you do?

A: I get involved at the beginning of the project, developing the big idea and the innovative approaches at the very beginning of the project. And I stay close to the project during all different stages. But specifically, I get involved up front on drawing and sketching ideas with different clients and our people to develop those ideas.

Q: So you still do sketching?

A: We have 400 people in this office and in the firm we have 3,200 people, so a lot of times I'm sketching quick ideas and working hand in glove with the team on concepts. We have this phenomenal team of designers in the firm.

Q: What are your other responsibilities?

A: I probably split my time about 50 percent working with wonderful clients on very important projects, and working on strategies for the firm on people growth, on motivating and inspiring people every day and strategies for firm growth. It's structured where I have my feet to the ground working daily with key clients, and also working on motivating and inspiring people.

Q: Then what might be an average day for you?

A: I usually get up at 5:30 and I'll ride my bike I'm an avid biker. I'll then jump on e-mail at home and do e-mail for about half an hour. On my way into work I'm usually talking on the phone internationally because it's the end of the day in the Middle East and London. When I get to the office I usually have conference calls with the other offices on what's happening within their markets. We'll usually then be involved with some strategy meetings in this office, and in the afternoon I'm usually working with clients on specific projects. I usually go home around 7:30 or so. But with the Internet, I'm constantly on my BlackBerry. I would say it's a nonstop working day for me.

Q: How does that leave any energy for creative work?

A: We live a 24-hour lifestyle, so creative work happens on my dining room table on weekends or in the shower in the morning. I'm thinking creatively all the time; it's not just in an eight-hour day. It's a nonstop focus on creation and energy.

Q: What do you think it takes to be successful in this type of position?

A: You need a lot of passion, a lot of energy. It's all about working with people people skills, motivating and inspiring people, having great communication skills to not only sell your ideas but to create a long-term relationship with people and clients. Obviously it takes a hell of a lot of talent, in this complex world, to be able to distill it down to its simple form.

Q: How did you develop your people skills?

A: I feel like I've always been a people person. I worked in my dad's store in the lower east side of Manhattan growing up he owned a dairy store and I've had to work with all different types of people. I think being able to work with people and have empathy for what their desires and wants are has really helped me as I have moved into the business world. I find it always comes back down to the personal relationship and the long-term relationship and trust factor that you can create with someone.

Q: What advice would you give to an early career architect who wants to rise to a position like yours?

A: Get as many experiences as possible, varied experiences. When I joined the firm, I started working on an office building design and then I quickly moved and worked on interiors for a big corporation, and then I worked on a hotel and then I became an expert in designing airports. That varied experience really helped me understand different sides of the business and different types of clients.

Q: What are some recent projects?

A: We just finished 2000 Aveue of the Stars in Century City where Creative Artists Agency is. On that one I was involved early on in sketching ideas for the master plan of that property. Right now, we're under construction on the Ritz-Carlton residences and hotel at L.A. Live downtown. Early on I was sketching big ideas on that concept.

Q: The CAA headquarters with its marble lobby staircase and futuristic meeting rooms is known as the Death Star by Hollywood competitors. Did Gensler do that?

A: Yes we did. The CAA client wanted the space to be representative of their brand of being the top cutting-edge talent agency in the world. So we created open, interactive environments.

Q: What is on tap to be the next big Gensler project?

A: We were awarded a mixed-use tower a 620-meter tower in Shanghai that is going to be the new icon for Asia and China. It is a combination of many different uses and it's for the government of China. It's starting construction in December.

Q: Wow. At more than 2,000 feet in height, would it be one of the tallest buildings in the world?

A: The exact height is still undetermined, but it's slated to be the tallest in Asia.

Q: How did you get selected to design it?

A: It was a worldwide design competition and we were just thrilled to win it. It's going to be one of the icon towers recognized throughout the world and we're very excited about it.

Q: How do you lead a project like this from so far away?

A: My role is just to provide overall leadership and make sure we are bringing in our best people to the project. For example, at the base of the building there is a very large retail component, so teams from San Francisco and Los Angeles are involved in the retail. There's a huge hospitality/hotel component, so teams from Houston and L.A. and San Francisco are involved on the hotel component. So my role is to garner the best of our expertise from around the firm and deliver it to the project.

Q: You say Art Gensler, who founded the firm and is still the chairman, is one of the main influences in your life. Why is that?

A: Art started our firm 43 years ago. He's an incredible entrepreneur and innovative thinker. That's one of the reasons I've stayed with the firm for 28 years. He always inspired me to reach for whatever I wanted to accomplish, to really make a difference in the world and to create a different type of firm a firm that would be innovative and a global firm.

Q: When it comes to international architecture, what styles are your personal favorites?

A: Certainly the new frontiers in the world, whether it's China or the Middle East or India. The emerging economies are very exciting right now. The amount of innovative projects and the scale of the projects are truly remarkable.

Q: Does all this traveling affect your philosophy of architecture?

A: It informs it a great deal. At the firm, we don't come to projects with preconceived notions and preconceived designs; we design from place to place. We are constantly being informed by the design of that location. The designs are absolutely embedded in the local culture.

Q: Who is your favorite architect?

A: Probably Le Corbusier. He is an architect from earlier in the century. His designs were so innovative and thought-provoking the forms and shapes and how he related the insides of the buildings to the exterior. It was holistic design.

Q: Let's talk about your home life. What is it like being married to a politician?

A: She has always been involved in the community. She loves being part of the community and representing the community. She is a really special woman because she really listens to people. She's very much about green strategies and environmental strategies. She's really working hard in Manhattan Beach to push those strategies forward. I spend time with her, supporting her efforts in political life.

Q: How do you support her?

A: Our lives are so symbiotic, the circles of friends and people we know overlap so much. I'm dealing with political people all the time.

Q: How did you two meet?

A: She actually was one of our corporate attorneys within Gensler. We were introduced through other board members in our New York office; she worked in New York. We had a long-distance relationship, and we were in love and Portia and I got married.

Q: Are you an environmentalist like her?

A: Sustainability is very, very important to me, but sustainability as it manifests itself in the built environments. Forty percent of all energy goes into buildings. The firm's focused on innovative solutions to save energy through building design. My wife is focused on green strategies in Manhattan Beach, like not having plastic bags in grocery stores.

Q: Any big sustainable projects at Gensler?

A: We are the master architect for the largest sustainable project in the world: MGM's CityCenter in Las Vegas. It is 20 million square feet all being built at one time and it has incredible sustainable practices built in. The world is watching that project in Las Vegas because it is a model for incremental tax savings and for large-scale energy efficiency in design.

Q: What else consumes your personal life?

A: I have two wonderful children who are both now going into college. I just love being with my wife, doing different activities. We love biking, we love skiing, we love traveling. When I'm not working I love to travel.

Q: As an architect, you must have had a hand in designing your own home.

A: I've been so busy with traveling and helping to run the firm that I've never had time to design my own home. One day I'd like to when I have the time. Time is just so valuable. We purchased a home in Manhattan Beach which was already under construction. One day I'd love to design my own home, but frankly, our practice is involved in large commercial buildings, so

Q: You don't have the expertise? I'm sure you could figure it out .

A: Maybe when I retire.

Andy Cohen

Title: Executive Director

Company: Gensler

Born: 1955; Bronx, New York

Education: Bachelor of Architecture, Pratt Institute

Career Turning Point: Joining Gensler in 1980: "I've been at Gensler more than half my life. Gensler has been my life."

Most Influential People: His father, Jerry Cohen; Gensler Chairman Art Gensler; former Gensler Chief Executive Ed Friedrichs

Personal: Lives in Manhattan Beach with his wife, Portia; has two children in college

Hobbies: Bike riding, skiing, traveling

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