Q&A With Demetra Thornton: Architectural Visionary Shaping the Future of Sports Design at Gensler

The Gensler managing director spoke with CSQ’s David Wurth about how a goal to work on big projects led to managing teams at a renowned global architecture firm

In the world of architecture and design, Demetra Thornton stands as a beacon of innovation and leadership. A graduate of Hampton University with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture, Thornton embarked on a remarkable journey that eventually led her to a pivotal role at the prestigious global architecture, design, and planning firm, Gensler, in 2011.

What sets Thornton apart is not just her impressive educational background but also her unwavering commitment to excellence. Armed with a Master’s of Business Administration degree from UCLA, she now serves as the Managing Director at Gensler’s prominent Los Angeles office. Her expertise is keenly focused on the firm’s sports practice, where she tirelessly identifies current trends and analyzes how they shape the vision of each client’s sports facilities.

With over 15 years of architectural experience under her belt, Thornton brings a wealth of knowledge to her role. Her unique perspective as an architectural expert in the realm of professional venues and sports-related projects has been instrumental in reshaping Gensler’s approach to this burgeoning field.

But Thornton’s influence extends beyond the boardroom and into the heart of her community. As a dedicated board member of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber (GLAAACC), she actively contributes to the advancement of African American professionals and entrepreneurs in the region. Her commitment to diversity and inclusion in the architectural field is evident in both her professional endeavors and community engagement.

When Thornton initially delved into the world of sports design at Gensler, it was a relatively uncharted territory for the firm. However, her unwavering dedication and forward-thinking approach have paved the way for Gensler to explore new horizons within the sports industry. She continually seeks novel ways to integrate community engagement, sustainability, and future-oriented thinking into sports-related projects.

In a rapidly evolving world, Demetra Thornton’s leadership at Gensler exemplifies how architecture and design can adapt and thrive in the face of change. Her ability to blend architectural expertise with business acumen, combined with her commitment to social responsibility, makes her a trailblazer in the industry.

As she continues to steer Gensler’s sports practice into uncharted waters, one thing remains certain: Demetra Thornton’s vision and determination will leave an indelible mark on the world of sports design, shaping the future of architectural innovation for years to come.

Thornton’s projects include San Diego State University’s new 35,000-seat stadium, part of a strategic expansion of the school’s campus, and proposed renovations to BMO Stadium, home of Major League Soccer team LAFC

David Wurth: Tell us more about your story, and how you ended up at Gensler L.A.

Demetra Thornton: I grew up in Ohio, went to school in Hampton and knew after graduating architecture school, “I want to work on big projects.” I started working in Kansas City and ultimately migrated to LA.

Wurth: Kansas or Missouri?

Thornton: Kansas City, Missouri. So, I was there for about five years. Gensler was starting their sports practice. So for me, it was coming from a really established organization in Kansas City, learned a lot, and then it was this opportunity to kind of get in on the ground floor at Gensler doing sports. 

Gensler is the largest architecture firm in the world. So, it wasn’t that I was starting from scratch at a firm, but I was starting sports—which is where my background is—at the largest firm in the world, which was a super-exciting opportunity just to learn everything about business development, clients, managing the team of people, managing a studio, things like that. 

Wurth: Tell us about Gensler’s recent projects in the Los Angeles area that you are particularly proud of.

Thornton: Without a doubt, I would say LAFC, BMO Stadium, by far, is the project that I’m most proud of. It was the first large project that I led. It was local. It really built the Gensler brand in terms of what we can do for the MLS. It set the standard for MLS facilities. The team was awesome all around, so not just the design team, but the team itself, like the LAFC. The ownership team was fantastic, great to work with. 

Wurth: How has Gensler L.A. contributed to sustainability and environmental initiatives in the region?

Thornton: We have teams of people who are really focused on housing. Whether it’s homeless housing or permanent supportive housing, and those are slightly different in terms of how we look at them. But we have invested.

We are working quite a bit with local schools and engaging ideas from students on how we can solve these problems. 

Thonrton’s priority
is structuring a design team to provide clients with maximized project success, tapping into Gensler’s vast network of expertise

Wurth: As the managing director, what is your vision for Gensler L.A.’s future growth and impact on the local community?

Thornton: My Friend’s Place is another project. Located in the heart of DTLA, we strive to work on projects that directly impact our local community. We completed a Civil Rights space for the City of LA Civil, Human Rights and Equity Department. We have a studio that focuses on local permanent and supportive housing. 

Wurth: What is your vision for the next five years?

Thornton: Gensler has a Green Chemistry and Commerce Council 2030 goal of being net zero. That plays into the daily choices that I make as a designer because I know that’s our overall goal. 

I think sustainability is probably number one, and homelessness—it’s hard to separate those because especially when you see the homelessness problem not just being here, but other major cities. This is a very wealthy country, we have to be able to solve it.