One Vanderbilt, soon to be New York City’s tallest office tower, is true to the legacy of KPF and … [+]
Mention the word “sales” in an architecture office and you might notice a grimace or two in the room. For the extent that the profession’s everyday existence relies on the vagaries of developers and complex financial instruments, negotiations and marketing, many architects rather talk about their work as an elegantly poetic or academic exercise. If more architects knew a thing or two about marketing, sales and branding, the “about” pages on their websites and proposal books might read less like Markov chains of theoretical jargon and fuzzy promises of sustainability and placemaking.
If you were to call A. Eugene “Gene” Kohn a salesman, however, he might take it as a badge of honor—for the man who built one of the largest and most successful firms of our time is as much an architect of buildings as of relationships. His ability to embed his architectural practice in the development of the current world order has led to a success that is difficult to grasp. Name any city that has seen explosive growth in the past century — Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur — and he’s had a hand in the making of its skyline. Name any “old world” financial metropolis — New York, London, Frankfurt — and he’s had a hand in designing its skyline too. From Canary Wharf to Hudson Yards to the Marina Bay Financial Centre —the work of Kohn Pedersen Fox, the firm he funded along with partners William Pedersen and Sheldon Fox in 1976 — is impossible to miss, distinguished as much by its shining corporatism as by its quality of design.
Gene Kohn’ story, therefore, is the story of a new global architecture — one in which massive architecture firms roam the Earth like giants — and reflective of the economy we live in: with all of its relentless desire for growth, glamor, and efficiency.
A. Eugene Kohn, Chairman of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates speaks during a press conference on China’s … [+]
“As of right now, we have designed four out of the ten tallest buildings in the world,” Kohn told me one afternoon, calling from what seemed like a natural environment for the man: the back of a cab on his way home from the airport. With sleepless enthusiasm, Kohn — now 88 years old — took some time to discuss the working life behind his memoir, A World By Design, published last fall by Rosetta Books.
“Architecture schools, films, and books peddle images of the heroic architect — the master builder, the genius who does everything alone.” He writes in the book. “It’s sexy and it sells. But it’s a myth.”
Kohn grew up in in Philadelphia, from where his mother ran a small dress shop out of his family’s two-story row house. “I was an only child growing up during the Depression,” Kohn says. “My father had lost his medical equipment business, but my mother would find a lot of success with her work. I learned a lot from her.”
After studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and early professional work in Philadelphia, Kohn’s career led him to New York City, where another financial downturn would majorly shape his life. During 1970’s recession and amidst a construction slump, Kohn — then president and partner at John Carl Warnecke and Associates — left the firm with vice-presidents William Pedersen and Sheldon Fox to establish a new outfit.
With few leads in hand, the firm was able to push through several difficult years by distinguishing itself in the design of corporate buildings, among them commissions for ABC and AT&T. With Pedersen in charge of design and Fox behind operations, Kohn steered the firm towards its future as rainmaker and strategic lead. All decisions were to be made unanimously, and the trio’s commitment to building a strong team of architects and an outsized portfolio of high-calibre work secured the firm’s future for the decades to come.
At least this is the message which Kohn — the last founder still turning in for work at the firm’s Manhattan office — wishes to convey in his final manifesto.
From left to right: Sheldon Fox, William Pedersen, and A. Eugene Kohn
Kohn Pedersen Fox
Kohn’s book is a memoir in the lightest sense of the word. It reads variously as a corporate-drama, a pitch-deck, and a well-aired rolodex of influential names — a welcome change of pace from your run-of-the-mill architectural monograph. Prince Charles, Michael Bloomberg, and the Shah of Iran all make appearances — but in retelling these stories, Kohn is less like a name-dropper than a wide-eyed child admiring the places where his profession has taken him. By doing so, he also traces a trajectory that has defined the built environment in the last half-century.
The accelerated growth that KPF saw in its 40 plus years of existence is also evident in the pacing of the book. Early on, key projects — such as 333 Wacker Drive in Chicago — are discussed in detail, broken down to their core themes and parts. They are the jobs from which the firm’s core ethos would emerge.
“We chose to work with commercial buildings because we felt that in a city, they are the buildings that most affect people’s lives,” Kohn says. “We felt strongly that most office structures needed to connect with their neighbors, as they create the literal shapes of streets streets and the background of our everyday lives. These buildings have an impact.”
333 Wacker Drive in Chicago before sunset, with its distinctive curve green glass façade.
This approach earned KPF the respect of many corporate partners, and differentiated them from architects that eschewed office projects in favor of more institutional or vanity commissions. As commercial as KPF’s origins were, the firm was somewhat revolutionary when it came to this embrace for corporate architecture.
“While some architects feel the need to stamp each of their projects with clearly identifiable marks of their genius, Bill couldn’t care less about developing a brand.” Kohn writes about his partner William Pedersen, the original head of design at KPF. “He’s happy to lose himself in a project and share authorship with the client, the engineers, other designers, and members of the project team. What’s most interesting to him is looking beyond himself and incorporating other people’s perspectives and intelligence. This makes each project different, fresh, better. It also means he won’t run out of ideas, because he is always tapping into other people’s minds.”
Kohn credits this ability to share authorship with clients, as well as teams of architects, as key to the success of the firm. This self-effacing quality, ironically, proved to be a brilliant exercise of branding — one which allowed the firm to grow rapidly in its early years.
KPF would achieve new heights of expression abroad, particularly in Asia, where Kohn was one of the first American architects to realize the potential for growth in Japan, Korea, and China. Through various visits and exploratory committees, he would succeed in carving out a place for KPF outside the United States — a move that would eventually ensure the preservation of the firm through domestic economic downturns. Today, KPF has 9 offices around the world, including in Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, Berlin and London, and employs over 650 architects and staff.
The JR Central Towers, part of the Nagoya Rail complex in central Japan, KPF’s first commission in … [+]
KPF’s first commission in Asia happened in 1989 with masterplan and design of the rail complex in Nagoya, Japan — a $2.5 billion project with fifteen floors of retail and hospitality built atop a busy transport hub. This would set a precedent for hundreds of massive-scale, mixed-use projects all across Asia, projects which appealed to the lightning-speed ambitions of recently flush governments and developers. “Unlike working in Europe or in the USA,” Kohn says. “You win an assignment in Asia and you don’t design one building, you design ten, you design a small city.”
A personal fascination with this work environment inspired Kohn to continue building relationships across the continent. “The Japanese contractors are so good, they make your buildings look better than you designed them,” he says. In his book, Kohn marvels at the Hong Kong government’s policy of selling the rights to build on top of mass transit stations to private companies, in order to subsidize public infrastructure and guide development.
“Now, 50% of our work is China,” Kohn claims. “We kept on making contacts from Japan, to Hong Kong, and then to Shanghai— and now we’ve built hundreds of buildings across Asia.”
The mixed use Victoria Dockside development in Hong Kong. The project is an international … [+]
Francis Chen, Vacuum Workshop, Supplied by Ronald Lu & Partners
The effort could be misinterpreted as colonial — an American firm literally shaping the identity of so many growing cities halfway across the globe — if it wasn’t for the fact that KPF and its foreign clients seem to have been perfectly aligned in their ambitions: the creation of vast corporate metropolises with sawtooth skylines and dense financial ecosystems. The cities which have emerged from these multinational collaborations and this period of growth, from Shanghai to Singapore, are uniquely representative of the hemisphere, showcasing a history of rapid change the world has had little time to parse.
When KPF presented their first design for the Shanghai World Financial Center in the 90’s (arguably the firm’s most iconic building) the Chinese public feared that the proposed circular opening at the skyscraper’s crown represented the Japanese flag — a sly attempt by the project’s backers, the Japanese Mori Building Company, to plant a symbolic stake on the Chinese mainland. To placate detractors, the design would morph into a trapezoidal opening after a meeting with the Deputy Mayor of Shanghai. But with towers such as the Shanghai World Financial Center, it wasn’t the Japanese that were taking over China, it was something else completely: a Western-inspired, but very much home-grown adulation of work, commerce, and marketplace power.
A picture of Shanghai’s skyline from above, with KPF’s Shanghai World Financial Center and its … [+]
In Asia, KPF became the readymade fashion house of corporate architecture, with a vision for replicable, steel-and-glass, mixed-use growth. It became so large and influential because it worked so well. Even as the firm has moved into institutional, educational, and civic commissions in the past few decades — the firm’s heart belongs to the office building, which it championed and brought to its best expression. Today KPF is representative of a contemporary innovation: glamorized utilitarianism, a natural conclusion to an internal monologue between modernism and postmodernism which consumed the office for decades.
“We’ve seen architecture change from classical, to modern, to postmodern and back to a new kind of modernism now,” says Kohn. “Now our focus is on an urbanist modernism, a continuation of the street-wall in cities, the creation of efficient spaces, great views, and energy efficiency.”
This high angle view from Hoboken, New Jersey shows the under construction Hudson Yards development. … [+]
With hundreds of projects across nearly every continent, KPF has accomplished so much at such a global scale that it won’t be associated in our collective memory with one or two well-designed buildings (of which there are many) but for the grand-scale projects it dared to engage, projects of a still-unknown level of ambition, much grander in geopolitical and economic terms than a single structure ever could be.
Among these projects are the smart city of Songdo in South Korea and Hudson Yards in New York City — foreshadowed before by the Nagoya rail complex, Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, and several grand undertakings in Hong Kong. KPF’s master plans for both embody the peak of our contemporary ambitions to build urban environments from scratch — using contemporary development models, the latest of infrastructural technologies, and the combined talents of multitudes of “starchitects.” Both have faced serious challenges and doubts, and accusations of artificiality and over-ambition. Perhaps it is because these urban environments’ demands for efficiency, order, utility, and glamor do not reflect the full character of the inhabitants of cities — fundamentally human, whether in Incheon or Manhattan.
The city of Songdo, South Korea, as seen from above. The masterplan was designed by Kohn Pedersen … [+]
Namgoong Sun, courtesy of Kohn Pedersen Fox
Despite the influence of his architectural practice, Kohn is plainspoken and direct—if anything in his personality ties him to the architect archetype, it’s his penchant for metaphors. He describes his employees as a baseball team, and tells stories about introducing architects in pitch meetings like batters to the podium. He describes his skyscrapers in New York and Hong Kong like actors in a theater, and their positioning as a blocking of stage elements, much like a director. This comparison reveals the real scale of his work, the vantage point from which he sees the world.
“Relationships are key,” he says. “Architecture is not being about being an ego, or showing-off, it’s about talking seriously with people about the work and the projects that matter to them.”