Architect went from the ground floor to the top


The gig: Principal and co-managing director of the Santa Monica office of international architecture firm Gensler. An expert at translating elaborate designs into steel-and-concrete reality, Jernigan has been the hands-on “project principal” architect of such high-profile developments as the new 2000 Ave. of the Stars office building in Century City and the William Morris Agency headquarters under construction in Beverly Hills.

Background: Jernigan’s speech is a gumbo of Southern accents. He was born in 1955 in Chattanooga, Tenn., raised in Atlanta and spent the initial years of his career in Houston. His calling to architecture came early. He started building plastic models of airplanes as a young child and grew into more challenging model making, finally crafting elaborate wooden ships that took years to complete.

Breakthrough: By the time he was in high school, Jernigan was walking up to construction sites with his tool bag and getting work framing houses, a practice he continued into college. He loved carpentry but saw its limitations as a career path one day while doing the heavy lifting for some older craftsmen. “I realized that manual labor in your 60s is really hard. I didn’t want to be that old making homes.”


Education: Thus inspired, Jernigan nailed down a degree in architecture at the University of Tennessee.

Career path: His first big job with architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill was building a 72-story office tower in Houston. It was a challenge that kept his mind churning around the clock. “By the time we got to the 71st floor, I kind of had it figured out. I can still tell you some of the dimensions of that building.”

When the oil bust hit Texas in the late 1980s, Jernigan and other architects were transferred to still-booming Los Angeles. Some of them split off in 1990 to form Keating Mann Jernigan Rottet, which was bought by DMJM four years later. In 1998 he moved to Gensler.

On training managers: Talent isn’t the same as preparation and no substitute for experience, he said. “Some people have innate skill sets like communication, but if they try to progress too rapidly, they don’t get enough trench time and don’t understand the nuances of what it takes” to be a manager.

Among Jernigan’s crucibles were construction sites where he was called upon to make decisions quickly. “One of the great lessons of being in a job trailer is to hit problems head on. Guys will come in screaming, ‘I gotta have an answer!’ You learn that conflicts are not bad, just part of life.”

Downside of management: Not enough time in the middle of the action. There are many days when Jernigan would rather be at a concrete pour than a conference. “I’m no longer on the court,” he said, using a basketball analogy. “I don’t play; I am more the coach.”

Why project architects rule: “If the first five decisions you make are correct, you will have a successful project. If not, you will fight those decisions the rest of the way.” He is mindful of his role, however. “There are people better at design than I am,” he said. “You don’t want me picking the colors.”

Idea of fun: Jernigan personally, endlessly, works on his three-story home in Pacific Palisades, where he lives with his wife and three children. Over the last 15 years, “I physically rebuilt my whole house,” he said. Taking every room back to the studs or even farther, he reframed, rewired and replumbed the place while redoing every window and door.

Understatement: “I love building.”