Out of Office: Gene Schnair

The importance of being persistent, and other insights from a life in design.

Gene Schnair at the ballpark of his home team, the San Francisco Giants. Photo © SOM

For Gene Schnair, no task is too large or complicated. As a consulting partner in SOM’s San Francisco office, he’s led some of the most substantial government building projects in U.S. history, from the San Francisco Civic Center Complex — the largest design-build project ever undertaken by the State of California — to the U.S. Embassy Complex in Beijing. Schnair has also steered SOM’s practice in China, working to advance industry standards and becoming a leading expert on China’s real estate development market.

What made you want to become an architect?
Growing up in Chicago, at an early age I was surrounded by great buildings and beautiful lakefront parks. When I discovered in kindergarten that these places were designed by architects, I caught the bug.

What aspect do you enjoy the most about your job?
The group intelligence of our teams catalyzes so much creative energy. It’s always humbling to see what we can accomplish together.

If you hadn’t become an architect, what would you be doing?
I’d be a real estate developer.

What piece of advice do you have for students?
Study urban design.

What three books do you think anyone should read in their lifetime?
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro. How one man’s vision and power recreated New York City.

The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman. A remarkable early insight into how globalization has emerged as the social, political, and economic force of our millennial era.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. An important message of how the human footprint is altering the planet.

What’s your favorite app?
The New York Times news app. The best way for me to stay up to date on current news and Op-Ed commentaries.

Avid cyclist, environmental advocate: Gene’s colleagues recently presented him with the full complement of green cycling gear. Photo © SOM

What experiences are on your bucket list?
The one bucket list item that I will never be courageous enough to do is hang-gliding. I really like the idea of soaring.

You’re showing a visitor your city. Where’s the first place you take them?
To watch the hang gliders at the Fort Funston cliffs in San Francisco.

What keeps you up at night?
Phone calls from China.

When you think about the future, what excites you?
The demographics of urbanization around the globe represents the greatest make-work program ever for architects and planners.

What is most important in design right now?
Sustainable, resilient, and healthy environments.

The group intelligence of our teams catalyzes so much creative energy. It’s always humbling to see what we can accomplish together.

Who is someone you admire?
Thomas Friedman.

What is the most awe-inspiring space you’ve been in?
The Laurentian Library.

What is the most important quality for an architect to have?
“PEP” — meaning patience, empathy, and persistence.

Define good leadership…
The willingness to delegate authority and trust others to take on responsibility and to be accountable.

Define good design…
One step below great design. That said, good design should stimulate the senses in a positive way.

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