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Interview with Eugene A. Kohn, Founder and CEO of KPF

Interview with Eugene A. Kohn, Founder and CEO of KPF

September 2016

Chairman and Founder of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), A. Eugene Kohn is one of the most successful architects in the world. The firm was founded in 1976 by Kohn, William Pedersen, and Sheldon Fox who passed away in 2005. With 650 employees, 24 principals, and offices in New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Abu Dhabi, KPF is in 43 countries, engaged in major infrastructure projects, signature buildings, and boutique designs. KPF is the sole architect behind the Midfield Terminal, the massive expansion of the Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Recognised as a master architect, Kohn has received the Industry Recognition Award from the New York Building Congress (2015) and the Chairman’s Award from the National Building Museum (2014). An alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania for the Bachelor of Architecture and the Master of Architecture degrees, Kohn was awarded The University of Pennsylvania, PennDesign Dean’s Medal of Achievement, the Alumni Award of Merit – the highest university-wide award and the Wharton Real Estate Centre’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Since 2006, he has been teaching a course in creating value by design at the Harvard Business School. Since 2012, he has taught Global Leadership in Real Estate and Design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. As a visiting critic and guest lecturer, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and has lectured at more than 14 universities. He served as an officer during the Korean War.

You and co-founder Bill Pedersen received the prestigious Making New York History Award from The Skyscraper Museum in June. Your practice is headquartered in NY and recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. How important has New York City been to the development of KPF? 

New York has always been very special in that if you are really good, you can succeed no matter where you are from and/or what school you went to. It did not matter as long as you had talent and commitment. NY was, and continues to be, the financial centre of America as well as a major international city. With many companies and business leaders based in NY, access to meetings and clients was easily arranged, and NY has been a great city to work in.

KPF has designed and completed approximately 80 projects here, having a positive impact on our home city. In terms of getting outstanding staff, the most talented people come to NY. It’s a melting pot of wonderful, international talent for an interchange of ideas.

At Hudson Yards KPF has designed three buildings. Can you describe them briefly? 

The Hudson Yards project is the biggest private development in North American history. It’s divided into two parts of about 13 acres each. The east side is the first being developed and designated as 80 percent commercial/retail and 20 percent residential. The west side will be 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial.

KPFs towers are numbers 10, 30, and 55 Hudson Yards plus 7, a seven-storey retail podium.

Coach is the major tenant in 10 Hudson Yards and Time Warner in 30. The two major towers are almost fully leased and 55 Hudson Yards is about half leased.

Number 10 is a 60-storey office building, already occupied by two tenants and should be full by the end of the year. Number 30 is 90-storey and Number 55 is a 52-storey office tower; both will be completed in two years.

What percentage of KPFs work during 40 years has been in NYC? When did expansion beyond city, country, and continent begin?  

Our first project was in July 1976. We were selected by the America Broadcasting Company to redesign and expand the 66th Street Armory in Manhattan into a soap opera studio. This project turned out to be a real key to our success.

Over the next 15 years we were commissioned by ABC to take on 12 new projects, including its master plan for the upper west side. Due to our work with ABC, we were selected for one of our most important projects, 333 Wacker Drive in Chicago. We received enormous publicity for this project, which aided us to be selected for other projects.

At first, up to 35 percent of our work was in New York City. Now it averages from 15-20 percent each year, depending on the progress of our work in 42 other countries.

We started to be a global practice in the late 1980s, first in United Kingdom and Germany and then Japan, Hong Kong, China. Today about 50 percent or more of our projects are in Asia – primarily China.

Do you prefer designing super tall towers, infrastructure projects like Abu Dhabi Airport, or one-offs like The Petersen Automotive Museum? What are problems and rewards in each category? 

First, on the list of the 10 tallest buildings in the world, KPF has designed five of them. We enjoy designing tall buildings that become a major part of the city skyline although we also enjoy designing all building types.

The Abu Dhabi Airport is one of the most interesting infrastructure projects – complex and exciting. We won the competition 10 years ago. KPF did the entire design and construction drawings and is now supervising the construction of the airport. It is expected to open in 2017 with KPF as the sole architect; very few firms are capable of overseeing all phases of a project as complicated as this one. The Abu Dhabi Airport will be the third largest in the world and has been designed to provide a sense of local culture to the millions of people who will transit through.

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is a one-of-a-kind project. The requirement was to work with the existing building, creating an exciting image to represent the famous cars in the collection with stainless steel ribbons capturing the experience of motion, aerodynamics and elegance. The variety in these kinds of projects is what makes our practice truly interesting and rewarding. 

From the list of KPFs projects, it seems as if residential architecture isn’t significant for the firm. Was this decided long ago or developed over time, or is the assumption wrong?

Residential projects are significant today; however, in the 1970s and early 80s residential buildings, particularly in New York, were not appealing. They were brick boxes with punched windows lacking elegance and charm in part because the budget for the building and fees was very low. Our initial work was primarily office buildings, and eventually became retail, hotels and educational buildings. We have done a considerable amount of residential work in the last six years in the US, UK, and Asia.

In the mid-80s, KPF designed the very first, 4-mixed use tower in Chicago that included retail, office, hotel, and a residential component.

Currently we’re working on one of the largest affordable housing projects in New York. The Red Hook Houses (seriously damaged by Hurricane Sandy) is the second largest public housing project in NYC and the largest in Brooklyn. Although our effort at Red Hook is focused primarily on resiliency, our project is part of a larger NYC Housing Authority initiative to improve the overall quality, liveability and sustainability of its housing portfolio.

Recent discourse about architecture by Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena focuses on creating housing for migrants to rapidly expanding cities around the globe. His statements about housing that residents themselves can expand is in marked contrast to what Patrik Schumacher from Zaha Hadid Architects has said in defense of architecture that is expensive, extravagant, and extraordinary. Where do you stand in this discussion?

Architecture is a profession with many diverse components and serves a limited clientele, although it is experienced in its final form by a very large population over many years. Our aspirations have been to work with every building type and for each to create the most outstanding architecture within the constraints of program, budget, time schedule as well as building codes, construction issues, etc. to meet the client’s goals and desire for outstanding architecture.

Obviously we like when budgets are high, and we can have better materials and finishes and a more adventurous design, but, in fact, we are even more proud when we produce an excellent building under difficult constraints.

I believe the greatest achievement is designing a structure that meets all the requirements, including the budget, but also is a vision that adds art and beauty to the surrounding area.

After 40 years, how do you see the future for KPF?

The last 40 years have been a tremendous and rewarding experience with the ups and downs of the economy. I believe many of the buildings we have completed will be memorable because of how they relate to their context and how they are treasured by the users and the cities they are in.

We have gained enormous knowledge over the last 40 years. The talent, energy commitment of our staff, and leadership by outstanding partners mean our best years lie ahead.

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