Meanwhile, in Detroit...
Meanwhile, in Detroit...

Gail Bernard von Staden '86 is building an urban renaissance

By Chelsea Edgar

Gail Bernard von Staden learned how to size up a room when she was a goalie for the ice and field hockey teams at Hotchkiss. Today, she uses the laser-focus and poise she honed in the net when she's at the table with clients of her firm, Von Staden Architects, which she co-owns with her husband, Tamas, in the suburbs of Detroit. One of her current commissions, the offices of the grand poohbahs of the Detroit Red Wings, has taken her back to her roots in more than one sense.

Von Staden, who's all of five feet tall, says that her hockey credentials usually command respect in a room full of men, a situation she finds herself in more often than not. "I can't name too many other female-owned firms in the city, and certainly none that are doing the kinds of projects we're doing," she says. And when one of the men in the room happens to be Ken Holland, general manager of the Red Wings, being able to talk shop can be particularly useful. (Incidentally, she's also a big fan of his team.)

The Red Wings headquarters will be located in Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, an $863-million stadium at the center of a major push to revitalize downtown Detroit. As part of von Staden's contract, she has to pick out furniture for all of the other offices in the arena, "which is exactly what I was hoping to avoid by getting an architecture degree," she says, laughing.

She first discovered architecture as an escape from a varsity-sports-induced burnout during her senior year at Hotchkiss, when she took a design class with Art Instructor Blanche Hoar. After graduating, she went to Rhode Island School of Design to study interior architecture, which focuses on redesigning spaces within existing buildings. It didn't take long for her to realize that she wanted to do more than "select fabrics and pick out furniture," so she switched to the architecture program. But 23 years later, as the lead architect for the corporate offices of an NHL franchise, von Staden has found herself back in the realm of fabric swatches.

Much of von Staden's work has involved designing offices in existing buildings. "One of the best strategies for sustainability is not to build anything new," she says. (A major exception: von Staden's firm has been commissioned to design the Little Caesars pizza company's corporate headquarters, the first new high-rise to be constructed in the city in two decades.) In Detroit, which has undergone a major, if uneven, urban renaissance over the past few years, there's no shortage of available space for new projects. But there's a big problem, von Staden says: a dearth of skilled labor.

"I feel this labor shortage acutely every single day," she laments. "It's a very interesting time in Detroit, because there's so much construction going on and not enough trade labor."

Gail von Staden with her husband, Tamas

Von Staden's work involves constant calculation — not only in terms of ensuring there's enough qualified labor to get each job done, but in the day-to-day challenges of designing for an urban environment. She approaches each project like a puzzle, weighing a client's needs against practical constraints.

"It's always a very interesting math problem," she says. "You're figuring out how many people fit into one space, what kind of amenities they need, looking at different work groups and how they work together, looking at the environment you're building in, putting all those pieces together."

And there's a dose of pragmatism in her work: von Staden has to create spaces that are flexible and adaptable enough to allow the company to sublease or sell off square footage if needed. One of her first major projects was designing a skyscraper for a tech company that employed 3,000 people in the early 2000s. Just a few years after outfitting them in fancy digs, von Staden had to help them pack their boxes.

But Von Staden says she didn't become an architect for the thrill of designing glamorous high-rises; instead, she finds satisfaction in the quieter, detail-oriented aspects of her job.

"I think a lot of people choose architecture because they like the idea of designing fabulous buildings, but not a lot of people are really passionate about the physical work of it — the writing and drawing and detailing — whereas I really like that aspect," she says.

Von Staden draws inspiration from the work of the Saarinens, a family of architects whose résumé includes the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and much of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where her husband earned his master's in architecture. "They created a culture and family of responsibility to making their environment beautiful and a better place than they left it," she says. That's the ethos around which she's built her career, and a mantra she hopes will fuel Detroit's resurgence as a vibrant cultural center.

This story appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.