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An Interview With: Diane J. Hoskins, AIA

Washington, D.C.
An Interview With: Diane J. Hoskins, AIA

An Interview With: Diane J. Hoskins, AIA

Diane Hoskins, executive director and southeast region managing principal of Gensler, one of the world’s leading architecture and design firms, swears she doesn’t have a dream project. That wouldn’t be any fun, she says. “The problem-solving process, to me, is just as important as any other part because it challenges your creativity, your intellect,” says Hoskins, who, though based on K Street in DC, is part of the three-person team leading the entire 2,300-person, 28-city Gensler organization.

A graduate of M.IT.’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning and UCLA’S John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management, Diane has worked on well-known area projects such as Discovery Communications, Gaylord National Harbor Convention Center and Hotel, Washington Gas, Northrop Grumman and the United States Patent and Trademark Office. “My story is like so many architects’ stories,” Hoskins says. “I wanted to be an artist out of the gate – from when I was four years old. My mom worked for McGraw-Hill and would bring home Architecture Record. By the time I was about 9, I had decided I wanted to make buildings like the ones I saw in Architecture Record.”

Today, Hoskins and her husband, Victor Hoskins, Maryland’s secretary of Housing and Community Development, split their time between DC and Baltimore. “I believe in cities and I’m excited by so much potential,” Hoskins says. “We’re living in a great renaissance in DC right now. Cities only go through this kind of reclaiming once every 20 or 30 years.”

Mary Westbrook for Bisnow on Business recently talked to Hoskins about the business side of design, why no one is too good to design parking lots and the “wallpaper” buildings DC needs to get rid of.

Mary Westbrook for Bisnow on Business: Business school is an unusual track for an architect. Why did you get your MBA?
After college, I worked for SOM in Chicago. That was in the ‘80s, and the economy was expanding – the first building I worked on was a 40-story tower. It became a real fascination to me to understand how businesses are run and how corporations use buildings. Real estate developers seemed to be the key decision makers when it came to what got built, and I wanted that kind of greater influence. After I got my MBA, I went to work for Olympia & York.

And, when did you move back into design?
In 1990, after the real estate crash of the late ’80s – you gotta earn a living. I started working for A. Epstein and Sons in Los Angeles. Because of my management and real estate background, I took on a role as project manager. I hadn’t ever done that before. In 1992, I was made head of the office. I got very hands-on experience and was able to put into practice management ideas that I had thought a lot about, but had never had the opportunity to try.

How has business school affected your career as an architect? Did it help you form a management philosophy?
It was a life-changing experience. My baseline philosophy focuses on people and excellence. Some people think numbers drive the business. I think people do, and that numbers are a product of their success. But, I also believe in focusing on excellence, a very aggressive and visionary idea of excellence, one that motivates people to reach and really strive toward greatness.

How do you keep people motivated in the midst of the day-to-day grind?
You have to be clear about the level of excellence that you believe can be achieved. If you set the goal high, you reinforce that they have permission to go for it and, in fact, that you expect them to do it. It’s not just about one moment in time or the major effort. It’s all the little things.

What do you do when someone isn’t performing up to standard?
You have to be open about their performance, without casting aspersions on their person. You have to deal with the specific outcomes – what was correct and what was incorrect. You’ve got to deal with problems. They won’t go away on their own.

What’s the worst thing a manager can do in that kind of situation?
Managers cannot hold grudges. You have to be willing to let people out of the penalty box if they correct their mistake. Depersonalize the situation so that people can take hold, fix the problem and move on.

Why did you leave the West Coast for DC?
My husband and I decided we had a taste for something new. He got a job offer in Baltimore, and neither of us had lived in the mid-Atlantic before. I had worked for Gensler during my early years – a very short stint – but it was a great experience, so I joined the firm in Washington and was asked to lead the office in 1995. We had about 45 people at the time, but we grew the office to 250 by 1999.

How else has the DC office changed in the last decade?
When I came here, the office was doing mainly interior architecture. I was really very interested in building a more multi-disciplinary practice because that was the kind of background I had, and on the West Coast, Gensler was multi-disciplinary.

What do the majority of the people in the DC office concentrate on?
The breakdown is: Forty percent architecture, including office buildings, hospitality, education and master planning. Forty percent design, including law firms, associations, corporate headquarters. Twenty percent retail, entertainment and branding and graphics.

What is your daily work like?
Broad! I’d say about half of my time is spent on issues related to the overall direction and leadership of the firm. The other half is dedicated to staff, clients, business development – any of the above. Each day is kind of a week to me. I had a speaking engagement today, so all day yesterday was spent preparing for that. This afternoon, later, I’ll be dealing with some operational issues. Tomorrow evening, I’ve got a dinner meeting with clients.

Do you spend much time designing?
It’s not part of my day-to-day. When I came back into the design profession in 1990, I really took a path that was more toward the development of strategy and management. I don’t often get into the detail of design, although I still have strong opinions. I get more into the strategic issues, the sites and the ramifications as they relate to the city. We have teams that execute the design, and that is very effective.

Do you ever miss being a "worker bee"?
I don’t want to ever lose contact with the clients. I want to always have a few hands-on projects going on. But, I don’t have any illusions -- being a worker bee is hard work. My job now is hard; my job then was hard. They’re just different.

How so?
I have the opportunity now to help create and sustain an organization that attracts talented young people and gives them the tools and resources they need – and that’s something that was not on my mind when I was younger.

Do you have tips on how to work with and talk to clients?
To me, the people that are successful in designing are firms that listen and are curious. You have to design for the client’s particular needs. It’s critical to really listen. Don’t come into a meeting with preconceived notions. If you didn’t understand something, go back and ask. The cheapest time to make changes is at the beginning.

Have you ever been in a situation where a client wanted something much different than you expected? Where really listening was key?
In the early ‘90s there was a call center project for Amtrak in Riverside, Calif. One might have thought it would just be rows and rows of desks and telephones. But when we really sat down and mapped out the day to day needs of the employees, understood what the pressures were, who would be on the other end of the phone, we started to empathize. How could we create the best work environment? That was exciting. In the end, we designed a call center unlike any other call center. It won international awards.

Do you have a favorite recent project?
A project that is certainly our most significant in the region is the Gaylord Hotel, a major hotel and convention center in Prince Georges County.

Why is it so significant?
It’s an important project because it will dramatically impact the view towards the Potomac. The design is centered around a large atrium space oriented to the Potomac. It will be a landmark building and beacon that will be seen from a distance.

What kinds of buildings make you cringe?
Sometimes in Washington, we can be more comfortable with background or “wallpaper” buildings than is appropriate for a city of this importance. We need to embrace Modernism more comfortably. I’m not suggesting that we need to import ideas about Modernism from other places, but we need to figure out what Modernism is for Washington.

It almost disrespects the past to over interpret it. The past was modern in its day. It embraced future in its day. We need to take responsibility for our future.

Are there buildings that do Modernism in DC effectively?
There are buildings that are stepping out and looking at ways to express the modern building. I don’t want to point to a particular building, but I do think you’re seeing some interesting ideas in some of the residential buildings; some of the ones on P Street are good examples.

What advice do you give young architects?
Sometimes if you’re stuck with a task that you feel is mundane, you start to think, “I didn’t go to architecture school to do this.” You may try to get out of those situations, but the thing that you’re doing right now, learn to do it well. Every project, every task is a learning opportunity. Strive for excellence. The idea that you will have another chance to revisit it is a function of being young. Hard assignments and difficult people made all the difference in my career.

How do you stay updated on trends?
I’m listening all the time. I talk to people. I read. I go to seminars. We have speakers come into our firm who present really forward-looking trends.

Has being a female architect ever helped or hurt you?
I grew up in a family with four girls and one boy, and we were all encouraged to have professions and to go to good schools. We were all treated equally. I always had good examples and role models, and I’ve found the guys in this profession to be very fair. It’s not about gender. Most women in this profession tend to be very strong-minded. You have to be.

[This interview conducted by Mary Westbrook for Bisnow on Business.]