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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: A. Eugene Kohn

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-06

A. Eugene Kohn, one of the world's most celebrated architects whose firm's designs are being increasingly commissioned in dozens of countries seeking American expertise, is worried about the art of drawing.

"When I do my sketches, the drawing appears to flow from the brain, through my arm and on to the paper," Mr. Kohn said, demonstrating with one hand the course of his thought process from the head to his fingers.

"Perhaps I feel that way because I started painting early in life, influenced by my mother Hannah, who was an accomplished painter and fashion designer. I now worry that the art of drawing, in architecture at least, will some day be lost."

And why would that be?

"Computers," Mr. Kohn said. "Computers are playing a very important role in architecture in many ways - in allowing for the creation of unique forms more easily expressed in 3-D. Whether these forms are always appropriate is a different matter entirely. When I think of the great cathedrals and mosques and synagogues, or even the giant skyscrapers of yesteryear that are still admired, I think of the fact that they were built without computers. Great architecture is not necessarily the result of computers. It is still the human brain, human talent."

So Mr. Kohn continues to draw his designs, as do the senior partners at the 250-member New York office - plus 150 in London - which he chairs, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and which he founded nearly 30 years ago with William Pedersen and Sheldon Fox.

Those designs have been widely acclaimed, fetching Mr. Kohn and his company innumerable awards, handsome fees - and, of course, more commissions: his firm's work can be seen in 38 countries, in addition to America.

The designs include what will soon be the world's tallest building, Shanghai World Financial Center in China. In cooperation with the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, KPF recently completed the redesign of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He and his firm created New Songdo City, an entire city in Korea, and Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, one of the world's most ambitious urban renewal schemes that drew more than 37 million visitors last year.

KPF's iconic buildings include 333 Wacker Drive, which has achieved mythical status in Chicago; the World Bank's new headquarters in Washington; Gannett/USA Today's headquarters, McLean, Va.; and the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford, England.

Earlier this year, KPF earned the AIA Honor Award, bestowed by the National Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, for the design of the Gannett/USA Today buildings -- the sixth time the company has received the AIA's highest project design award. Other honored buildings include 333 Wacker Drive; the Procter & Gamble World Headquarters in Cincinnati; and the DG Bank Headquarters in Frankfurt.

So, the reporter asked, what does it take to be A. Eugene Kohn, architect?
Mr. Kohn smiled at the question.

"First, as an architect you must be able to visualize, to see in your mind's eye what the place and space is to be," he said. "You need to have the imagination, the ability to see what's going to be created. Most people see what is, not what can be.

"And perhaps most important is the fact that architecture is a team effort," he said. "Its reality is that many different sets of skills are required in addition to the team of architects made up of engineers, managers and technical personnel - such as engineers, lighting consultants and landscape architects, parking consultants etc. are also required. That's why the team leader's greatest skill needs to be the ability to bring a team together and generate creativity. Leadership is quite different from just being the boss."

"Architecture that works is architecture that inspires people," Mr. Kohn said. "Your real success as an architect is how people react to what you build, how do they feel about themselves in the place you created."

If those reactions have been overwhelmingly generous, that's because Mr. Kohn, his partners and staff makes it a point to spend considerable time in the cities where his work has been commissioned, in order to absorb local culture.

"The Chinese wouldn't hire us to build traditional Chinese buildings," Mr. Kohn said. "We mesh our creativity and expertise with the local culture. We produce buildings that are sensitive to their place through scale, color, texture and materials. We bring in American technology and an American can-do attitude."

So why would major powers such as China and Japan, which have talented indigenous architects, hire an American firm?

"These countries have outstanding architects, but a number of American architects have extensive experience with tall buildings," Mr. Kohn said. "They frequently see our presence as a learning opportunity for themselves. There's also the pride they take in establishing a skyline in their cities. A distinctive high rise skyline that's the result of unique buildings signals to the citizens of that country that the country is a major power - that they've arrived, that they have credibility. And of course, in the crowded cities of China and Japan, tall buildings are critical to solving for urban density."

He also credits developers, without whose vision, risk-taking and financing many architects would not be able ply their trade. Developers, Mr. Kohn said, are "far more knowledgeable about architecture these days than, say, 20 years ago."

"Everybody is interested in the bottom line, of course, in keeping costs down," Mr. Kohn said. "But more and more developers are inclined toward building better buildings. We value great clients. The opportunity to build is always exciting for an architect."

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Kohn credits the wellspring of his creativity to his mother, and his discipline to his father, William Bernard Kohn, who was trained as a physician. Medicine was something thrust on Mr. Kohn's father by his father. But William Kohn did not insist that Eugene Kohn follow his footsteps.

"What separates architecture from virtually every other profession is the fact that while a legal case, for instance, may fade away, buildings last a very long time," Mr. Kohn said. "You feel this great joy when you walk past a building that you helped create, look up, and then realize that you're forever part of it. Seeing your buildings is like seeing your own children. There's this great sense of reward that one gets."

Of all the scores of buildings he and his firm designed over the five decades that he's been an architect, which would be his favorites?

Mr. Kohn paused just briefly, and then named 333 Wacker Drive, Chicago; the DG Bank building, Frankfurt; the World Bank headquarters, Washington, D.C.; Roppongi Hills, Tokyo; the Goldman Sachs building in London; Gannett/USA Today Headquarters, Armonk; Rothermere American Institute, Oxford and a new building that's just going up at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

"One day before I retire, I'm going to take a trip around the world and visit every building with which I've been involved," Mr. Kohn said. "It would be a sort of farewell tour."

Then he paused again and seemingly thought better of it.

"But that would be a very long tour," he said. "There would be so much to see, so much for me to enjoy."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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