May 19, 2024

Square Feet | The 30-Minute Interview: A. Eugene Kohn

Q How is business these days?

A It’s been good despite the economy. Our decision to go into Europe and Asia back in the ’80s was key. The area of the world with the greatest population growth — Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore — has kept us busy for many years. China has been one of the great markets for us.

Across the globe, we’re working on about 100 projects at the moment. They’re in different stages: some are under construction, some in design, some in working drawings and studies.

Q What percentage of your work is overseas?

A If you asked me a year ago, I would have said 80 or 90 percent. But today it’s changing. I would say a greater percentage has picked up here in the last year. So now just in the states, it’s about 25 to 30 percent. Particularly in New York — more so than most places — things have picked up.

Q I know you’ve been busy, on and off, with Hudson Yards, which will include 12 million square feet of office towers, apartments, a hotel and a park over the 26-acre railyards.

A We’ve been on it for about three and a half years. The last year and the year before that we didn’t do a lot. But Steve Ross and Related, and Oxford Properties, are committed to build this soon and are convinced that by next year they’re going to be moving ahead quite well. Which tenant goes first is up in the air.

The first phase is this: three towers with offices and residences and big retail. It’s all over the railroad tracks, so a big platform has to be built. We’re going to build the platform on the east and west end. This should be completed in 2016, and the entire project in 2025. That sounds like a lot of time, but look at the World Trade Center.

Q Speaking of which, what are your thoughts about the rebuilding at ground zero?

A It’s sad that it’s taken this long. In 20 years Shanghai built a city, added eight million people.

I think the Port Authority and everybody has done a good job, but they’ve been up against a lot of issues.

Q You had hoped to have a major role in the design, hadn’t you?

A We did have a scheme, but unfortunately it got published in one of the magazines and we got disqualified.

Q KPF was supposed to build JPMorgan Chase’s headquarters at 5 World Trade Center.

A I think that’s dead.

We had just gotten approval from JPMorgan and from the Port Authority for the latest design, which never got published, when the crash came and JPMorgan ended up buying Bear Stearns. That decision killed the project, because they got a building as part of it, and it’s right next to their other building. So why not use it?

Q Let’s move on to some of your recent residential projects.

A Well, they’re all certainly very modern, but each one relates to its site. One Jackson Square, for example, changed that whole place. That building we’ve never done before — that particular form, shape. It was viewed almost as if it were flowing ribbons or rivers. It’s really made a contribution well beyond just being a building.

Q Did you always want to be an architect?

A I wanted to be a sportscaster, and when I was young my parents thought that was a ridiculous idea. They said, ‘You have to be a professional, preferably a doctor or lawyer.’ Architect came down the line. My mom was a great artist, had a show at the Guggenheim at age 100.

Q What has been your most memorable project?

A When we started the firm in ’76 — when the recession was pretty bad and unemployment for architects in the city was 60 percent — a wealthy friend said to me, ‘Your success will be measured by the work you turn down.’ I’m thinking, ‘We don’t have any work, and I have three kids going to school and no money.’ But my friend was absolutely right.

The first job offer comes from a bank in Iran asking us to do a new headquarters, just before the shah is booted out. We were offered, for the design, $1.3 million.

I had worked in Iran for 10 years, and I began to think about my experience there. My stomach was really sick turning down a job and that money. But if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have gotten a job from ABC converting an armory they bought on 66th to a soap opera studio. That was the start of all the great breaks.

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