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NYC Architect Dissolves Firm, Launches New One January 13, 2010
"Competing Visions" Lead to Demise of Costas Kondylis and Partners
By C. J. Hughes
Costas Kondylis, designer of Donald Trump towers, has broken up his longtime firm and formed a new one.
Architect Costas Kondylis, AIA, who is perhaps best known for the New York high-rises designed for Donald Trump, has broken up his longtime firm and formed a new one.
In December, Kondylis announced the launch of Costas Kondylis Design, a New York-based practice emphasizing projects that aspire to certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (LEED). His former firm, Costas Kondylis and Partners, founded in 1989, was dissolved in August.
Indeed, 90 percent of the new firm’s projects will be “green,” versus 50 percent before, he says. But in an unusual arrangement that acknowledges market stresses, Kondylis’s new practice has partnered with investment firm Lynx Finances Group for a financial cushion, he explains. It could also generate leads; Lynx, based in Luxembourg, controls a stake in CP-Solar, a major solar-panel manufacturer.
Kondylis, who designed the 72-story Trump World Tower near the United Nations, New York’s tallest completed residential building, says he is working on master plans in Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Algeria, among other projects, but he wouldn’t give specifics. He adds that his new firm, with 20 employees, allows greater creative control than his old one, which at its peak had 175 employees. “I was the conductor of the symphony orchestra,” he says. “Now I can play the piano myself.”
While Kondylis and his former partners agree their split was amicable, Stephen Hill, AIA, who subsequently founded Goldstein, Hill & West Architects, attributes it to competing visions. Kondylis wanted more international work, while Hill sought to focus on New York towers, like the pair they’re now designing on Manhattan’s West Side for Extell Development.
Kostas' overseas commissions were too costly to produce, Hill explains, "and when we were no longer willing to support that effort, we had a pretty big issue on our hands."
One of the most sought-after residential architects in New York City, Costas Kondylis has done more to shape the cityscape of New York than any other designer of his generation. With more than 60 current and completed high-rise residential towers, mid-rise apartment buildings, hotels, dormitories and urban mixed-use residential projects to his credit, Mr. Kondylis has gained unparalleled experience in the design and technical development of residential projects and related building types during his thirty-year career as an architect. That career was capped with the founding of his own firm in 1989. In 2001, Costas Kondylis & Associates, PC became Costas Kondylis & Partners LLP.
Mr. Kondylis started the firm to provide residential building developers with the comprehensive urban planning, architecture and interior design services needed to create projects that are both budget sensitive and of high architectural merit. He later added Kondylis Interiors as a division of Costas Kondylis & Partners LLP, to offer clients comprehensive interior design services for residential development projects as well as for exclusive, private residences.
Prior to forming the firm, Mr. Kondylis was a senior partner of Philip Birnbaum & Associates for nine years. From 1967 to 1979, Mr. Kondylis worked for Davis Brody & Associates as an architect in New York and as a Director of Housing and Urban Design in the firm’s joint venture office.
Mr. Kondylis’s contributions to New York’s architecture and real estate industries have been recognized with numerous awards. His recent honors include: Lifetime Achievement Award for Design Excellence, New York Society of Architects (1997); Leader of Industry Award, the Concrete Industry Board (1997); and the Service Award, ORT (1995). Mr. Kondylis has lectured and participated as a panelist and visiting critic at the Columbia University School of Architecture and New York University Masters Degree in Real Estate Program.
Mr. Kondylis received a Masters in Architecture from the University of Geneva School of Architecture in Switzerland and a Masters in Architecture/Urban Design from Columbia University in New York. He was recently honored with a Doctorate degree from the University of Ioannina’s Department of Science and Building Technology in Greece.
The Architect in Winter
By Staff 1/19/10
In the black bookshelves of architect Costas Kondylis’ all-black office sit stacks of sleek, coffee-table tomes. Titles with a larger font on the spine stick out against the rest and offer a random sampling: Gerhard Richter: A Retrospective, Indonesia: Design and Culture, Skyscrapers: Structure and Design, Earth From Above.
Only the top few shelves and their contents are visible. Covering the lower shelves are large prints of architectural studies and renderings. Members of Mr. Kondylis’ recently pared firm-there have been layoffs, and his partners recently split from him-mill about the former textile factory on West 27th Street, mostly young men bound by a uniform of well-coiffed hair, dark designer denim and subtly checked shirts tucked into distressed leather belts. The office is immaculately organized and decorated, fusing the boudoir chic of the Hotel Costes-high-backed banquet love seats line the foyer-with the brute charm of stripped industrial finish, like the raw, sanded wood flooring. And while Mr. Kondylis himself moves with a soft, deliberate shuffle, there is no doubt that the 69-year-old has blazed the trails of high-rise residential architecture.
Known for his realistic deadlines and ability to finish within budget, Mr. Kondylis has over the past 20 years stealthily secured a significant swath of the city skyline, with more than 70 buildings to his name.
“I was the experiment,” he told The Observer earlier this month. He wore a tweed jacket, a blue dress shirt and an espresso-colored cashmere tie, as well as brown suede loafers without socks, his recently tanned ankles-he had returned the night before from a St. Martin vacation-peeking out from under his European pant break. “I was the architect who went out there and worked with developers, and every architect friend said I was going to go out there and get killed by them.”
Mr. Kondylis now worries that other, younger architects will never have such opportunities for pioneering. “I’m very, very sorry for this happening,” he said of the recession, “because I think it will destroy the profession. I think most architects are going to find other jobs. They are being laid off now, and I think it will be difficult to find architects later.”
He has worked with most of the city’s leading developers, including Stephen Ross, Mort Zuckerman and Bruce Ratner. But it’s his association with Donald Trump that has secured him the most street cred in his industry-his industry being business, not architecture.
Gazing at a map of Manhattan with red dots marking the locations of Kondylis buildings is similar to viewing the Duane Reade ads showing a pharmacy on every corner. His work’s omnipresence in a city of eight million is impressive, but a New Yorker could walk by at least two of his buildings daily and likely never notice. “Costas is a traditional architect for developers who want traditional buildings in New York,” Richard Meier once told The New York Times.
Mr. Kondylis, for his part, balks at the cookie-cutter rap. “I think that’s totally unfair. I mean, we’ve done some simple projects, but I’m trying to design every building to stand on its own.”
BORN TO GREEK PARENTS in the Belgian Congo, Mr. Kondylis grew up in Jesuit boarding schools. “There was a tradition in Belgium that noble families would send one child to convent to become a nun or a priest and some of these princes or barons went to Africa. They drove nice cars, they used Montblanc pens. They used to tell me at Christmastime, ‘Get your parents to buy you a Montblanc pen,’ and then I came back to school with my pen and they showed me how to take care of it. I earned an appreciation for quality and craft from the Jesuit priests.”
He interrupts himself. “Do I talk too quick? I have so much to tell you and not enough time. I’m always in a hurry, that’s the problem; I’m always doing three things at once.”
His family returned to Greece when he was a teenager, and Mr. Kondylis trekked to Switzerland to study architecture in college. After earning his master’s, he moved to New York, got a second master’s in architecture with a focus on urban design at Columbia and was hired by Davis, Brody and Associates on the spot. “I showed [Lewis Davis] some of my models. He made a joke about one of my models, a crooked cardboard building. In fact,” he said, smiling slyly, “I was anticipating Frank Gehry.”
He started work immediately. “I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves and started making clay models for the Osaka Pavilion. We won the competition for it and I was part of the team. I’ll always remember what I was wearing that day; I was overdressed: I had on a gray herringbone suit with a white shirt and gray tie.”
He worked for Davis, Brody and Associates for 10 years before moving to Philip Birnbaum and Associates. In 1989, he launched his own firm, Costas Kondylis and Partners. It spent the early years designing buildings like 1049 Fifth Avenue and the Monterey on East 96th Street, but it wasn’t until Mr. Trump hired him in 1998 that the ball really started rolling. Their collaboration on the Trump International Hotel & Tower off Columbus Circle would be the beginning of a career-launching partnership. The next decade saw the firm’s continued growth through over 70 buildings in New York alone.
“I’ve been through four recessions, never as deep as this one,” he said. “This is not a recession; this is a depression, a major depression. … I don’t know what is going to happen to the profession after this.”
The economic crisis has affected the stream of Mr. Kondylis’ work, as it has almost every other architect’s. He sighed wistfully. “I don’t know. It’s a good pause, I think, to think about what we have done in the past. That is the silver lining of this catastrophe. We were a little too friendly for a while, a little too out of hand. But then, this recession has gotten out of hand as well.”
So far out of hand that Mr. Kondylis split from his longtime partners in August. “My partners and I, we grew in a different direction because I was always the conceptual designer of the firm. And they were more executive architects. They thought I was doing too much abroad, and they were right.”
Since the split, three of the partners, Alan Goldstein, David West and Steven Hill, have formed their own firm, Goldstein, Hill and West Architects. Mr. Kondylis was quick to say that, post-split, he left all ongoing projects to them.
“We had a different vision of where to go with the firm,” Mr. West said, echoing his ex-partner’s explanation for the split. “Costas was interested in international and large-scale work, and we were more focused on New York City residential architecture.” Asked whether the two firms were currently working on any projects together, or planning to, Mr. West hesitated. He later called back, reporting methodically, “The two firms are working cooperatively toward successfully concluding ongoing business.”
Mr. Kondylis, whose firm has 20 employees, compared to the old one with more than 150, is optimistic regarding his firm’s future. He currently has at least 20 projects overseas, though almost all are dormant due to the recession. “We have a small office in Qatar that is run by my friend who is a Lebanese architect.
“And I’ve been invited to Hanoi in two weeks. I was invited by the government,” he said with a subtle flush of pride, “so I am going soon.”
Locally, Mr. Kondylis is working on a building in White Plains. “And I have another friend who is giving us a project in Chelsea; any day we should have the go-ahead. So it’s coming back slowly.”
Meanwhile, the architect will turn 70 in April. “It’s my fourth chapter, professionally speaking. I hope it’s going to be a 15-year chapter, I hope to work until I’m 85 and maybe longer. I’d like to be like Philip Johnson-he passed away when he was 92-but he still had his wits. In terms of architectural judgment, I think I’m at the top of my-of my time.” After a pause, he added, almost to himself, “I see so clearly now.”