Emperor of the skyline
By Roland Li
The Trump World Tower rises like a column of black ice on the east side of Manhattan, surpassing even the venerable United Nations Secretariat in height. Clad in glass and dark bronze, the tower has been called a “black obelisk.”
The sleek building serves as an exclamation mark for the most prolific architect in the city, Costas Kondylis. His is a quintessential New York tale: the triumph of an immigrant with a vision and, crucially, the will to transform the skyline, with 86 local projects to date.
Just as he transformed the physical city, Kondylis has changed the real estate industry, thrusting the name of the architect into the spotlight for new developments. At the same time, he has become quintessential developers’ architect, with a reputation for designing for sales as much as aesthetics. His clients are a list of the city’s real estate elite: the Related Companies, Extell Development Co., Silverstein Properties, Vornado Realty Trust, Forest City Ratner, Glenwood Management, and dozens more.
And then there is Donald Trump, whose name has become synonymous with a brand, and Kondylis has been one of its progenitors.
“He’s willing to do exciting things,” said Kondylis of Trump. “He’s daring.”
If Trump was a fashion house, the Trump World Tower at 845 United Nations Plaza would be its leggy star. At 861 feet, it is currently the ninth tallest building in the city, notable not merely for its height, but its slim frame. The Trump World Tower embodies Kondylis’ reputation for sleek modernism with a worldly flair, built to sell.
Completed in 2001, the narrow footprint of the tower maximizes tenants’ views, while new technology enabled it to sustain wind pressure. Ceiling heights in the tower are taller than the 10-foot standard, and the developer sometimes refers to it as a 90-story building, although there are, in reality, only 72 stories.
Marta Rudzka, a former partner of the now dissolved Costas Kondylis & Partners, is credited with the primary design. As Kondylis told the Times, he was able to convince Donald Trump to use dark bronze, rather than gold.
The project was controversial. Despite its slender form, neighbors, including CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, anticipated blocked views and protested the project, but Trump secured air rights from adjacent developments, allowing him to build as-of-right after winning approval from the Board of Standards & Appeals.
Kondylis has a name for such large projects: “prima donna buildings,” which suggests a sort of showiness, but also artistic significance. While he may be known for glassy totems, his interests are eclectic.
Kondylis, who is 71, is looking beyond the city. He is currently working on a master plan for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, inspired by the wide boulevards in Paris, particularly the Champs-Élysées. The complex has 13 parcels, with a building on each, to be developed piece-by-piece. There are efforts to avoid “dead walls” by having street-level retail in the buildings, and light will dance on a planned reflecting pool. In total, the project would have 6 million s/f, but financing is uncertain, and the project has no construction schedule.
“It’s better to do tall buildings,” said Kondylis. He cites the efficient use of land and environmental advantages of building compact. The Santa Domingo plan also includes solar panels. Kondylis is pursuing other master plans in Moscow, Istanbul and Tang Jeong Asan, South Korea.
His experience in urban planning dates back to graduate studies at Columbia University. One proposal imagines midtown east connected by a lattice of walkways, spanning the upper floors of separate buildings. As the view rises, the walkways form an urban spider web. Diagrams of traffic flow, two levels of trains and underground retail are also depicted – the sketches were done by an associate – forming what Kondylis describes as an “ecological diagram.”
Although the plan was never implemented, Kondylis has applied similar principles of planning to his buildings. He sees each project as a part of the fabric of the city, seeking contextuality through both preservation and contrast. “There has to be a good balance,” said Kondylis. “If you don’t have new buildings, a city dies.”Among his favorites is 279 Central Park West, his first design in New York under his own firm, built in 1988 for Sutton East Associates. It is within the boundaries of a historic district, and radiates old world classicism. The building’s limestone base is topped off with an asymmetrical ziggurat. The structure is no accident – the zoning in the area requires setbacks above the 15th floor.
The challenge for Kondylis in designing high-density buildings is surpassing the box mentality. “All-glass towers are not contextual,” he said. “They’re anonymous.”
He seeks rounded edges, setbacks, or irregular shapes. Beginning as sketches, buildings are rendered in modeling foam and computer renderings, before eventually emerging as steel, glass and concrete. Some of his models are shaped like boomerangs, others like interlocking letters of the alphabet.
He strives to create with design in mind, but his projects are grounded by the entwined concerns of economic feasibility and the support of a developer – factors that are especially critical in New York.
Rick Bell, executive director of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, praises Kondylis’ attention to detail and an approach to design that considers limits of budget and zoning, while maximizing value for the developer.
“That’s such a rare skill,” said Bell. “It requires a balancing act that I think Costas is a master of.”
“Experimentation is a virtue. But so is getting something built that captures the spirit of the market, but not in an arrogant way,” he added. “I think he does that.”
Constantine Alexander Kondylis was born on April 17, 1940 in the Belgian Congo. The family later returned to Greece when he was 13.
At 17, he wanted to design automobiles, but when his family was building a home in Athens, they discovered his natural talent for architectural design. He attended college in Switzerland and moved to New York in 1969 to study urban design at Columbia.
Kondylis said that the early exposure to various cultures made him think globally. The growth of Paris and London, as well as the works of modernist patriarch Le Corbusier, sparked his interest in urban growth, and he admires contemporaries such as I.M. Pei and Caesar Pelli.
He lives on the seventh floor of a pre-war building on an Upper East Side, far removed from the peaks of a skyscraper. “I’m a European guy,” he said. “I was born near the ground.”
Another residence is a converted potato barn in Long Island, which Kondylis renovated with his daughter, Alexia, who also runs his design studio. Kondylis’ wife, Lori, was also an interior designer. She passed away in 1997 from breast cancer, and Kondylis is on the board of the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation.
The converted barn houses his cars – among his favorites are those of Italian make, including a Ferrari. Before the recession, he had 12 cars, but now he is down to three.
For Kondylis, the automobile and the apartment building are not that dissimilar – they are both public works of art, with façades that face the world, and interiors that are designed for occupancy. They incorporate design and commerce in equal measure, with neither building nor car being constructed without artistic vision or, more practically, financing. And perhaps no architect has such a grasp of both elements as Kondylis.
In the 1980s, Kondylis worked at Philip Birnbaum & Associates, but left to start his own firm, Costas Kondylis & Partners, in 1989.
While at Birnbaum, he began meeting developers, and began gaining work from the relationships after striking on his own. For Glenwood Management, Kondylis has designed the Lucerne at 350 East 79th Street, the Brittany at 1775 York Avenue, and the Grand Tier, one of Glenwood’s most successful properties, which commands a view adjacent to Lincoln Center.
Perhaps his most distinct design for Glenwood is the Barclay Tower, a blue-and-tan neighbor of the emerald-crowned Woolworth Building.
“There’s a lot of attention to what the client is looking for,” said Gary Jacob, executive vice president of Glenwood, of Kondylis’ design. “They’ve been amazingly received.”
Other developers are also quick to offer praise.
“Costas, we find, is the most talented to blend all the elements that you need to develop a creative, elegant and efficient product,” said Evan Stein, president of J.D. Carlisle Development, a developer and construction manager. “They’re always beautiful from the outside. They’re always practical on the inside.”
Kondylis designed J.D. Carlisle’s One Morton Square, which sold out before opening in 2004. He also worked on the Atelier – meaning “workshop” or “studio” – which J.D. Carlisle built and later sold to Joseph Moinian.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Kondylis’ firm grew in bounds, eventually exceeding 100 employees. But in August 2009, he disbanded the company.
“I was very unhappy,” he said. Instead of focusing on design, he was primarily running the business, serving as a head of a quasi-corporation. By downsizing to a handful of people, he feels he is now able to focus on the buildings, partnering with Perkins Eastman for larger projects, as needed.
Some of the senior partners of the old firm, Alan Goldstein, L. Stephen Hill and David West, reformed as Goldstein Hill & West Architects, LLP, which has around 20 employees.
“They have different goals than me,” said Kondylis. “I wish them well.”
“He seemed to want to focus more on international work,” said Goldstein, a partner of the new firm, which concentrates on New York and the northeast. “I wish him well on his endeavor.”
Goldstein noted that clients such as Extell and Silverstein Properties hired Goldstein Hill & West to complete work on buildings that were in the midst of development at the time of the break, although Kondylis was also involved in completing the buildings and remains closely associated with them. Current Goldstein, Hill and West architects were the primary designers for projects that include Silver Towers, the Aldyn, the Ashley and the Continental, said Goldstein.
The firm was also retained by Extell to navigate the land use approval of Riverside Center, a massive five-building proposal will fill the final empty parcel on the former railyards of the Upper West Side. Kondylis’ firm designed the vast northern parcels, composed fourteen buildings and known as Trump Place. Goldstein, Hill and West is also working on the Liberty Green, the last two new buildings in Battery Park City.
Goldstein also emphasized the idea of designing with function and finances in mind. “We understand that this is a building that the developer is building,” said Goldstein. “It’s not a piece of art in the city.”
The new buildings are seeing strong activity, undoubtedly boosted by what some call the lure of the “starchitect.”
“I would say that a name-brand architect does increase our interest in a project. It builds a level of anticipation among the readership,” said Joey Arak, a former editor of the real estate blog Curbed.
He compared a rendering of a new building to a movie trailer, inevitably boasted by a director with stature, like Stephen Spielberg. “Although since we’re talking about Costas Kondylis, maybe Michael Bay would be a better comparison,” said Arak.
Silver Towers’ 934 market-rate apartments were fully leased after 20 months, said Cliff Finn, director of new development marketing at Citi Habitats. The Ashley’s 209 units are 95% leased, while its sister building, the Aldyn, is 45% leased – it also has condo units on the upper floors, marketed by Corcoran Sunshine.
The Continental, at 885 Sixth Avenue, is over 50% leased after coming on the market in January. Its 338 units were developed by Atlantic Realty Development.
“I find them extremely easy to work with. They’ve very open to collaboration,” said Cliff Finn of Kondylis’ firm. “He just has a very, very good eye for massing, and how a building should really read.”
Silver Towers, the azure twins that dominate views of midtown west, were originally one building. But Kondylis deemed its bulk “forbidding,” and sliced it into two hours.
“That probably has to be one of the best examples of massing of a high rise,” said Finn. “It really maximizes the views.”
One April afternoon in Kondylis’ Flatiron office, Maro Mavri, a senior designer at the new firm, now known simply as Kondylis Architecture, P.C., was examining layouts for an addition to a residential addition. It had six units, and the architects were seeking to extend the building to include additional floors. However, the building is within a historic district, and requires approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission before any exterior alterations.
As Mavri went through a particular floor plan, Kondylis peered over and pointed at one of the doors, a tiny black line on the page. He said it should be covered.
“He can see the mistake a kilometer away,” said Mavri, smiling.
Indeed, while Kondylis considers the next two decades as his fourth act – he told the Observer he hopes to work until 85, and hopes to retire to Rome – the architect shows no sign of relenting. He considers his mind as sharp as ever, and a fount of ideas continues to gush forth.
Judging from his past projects, he should see plenty of work.
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