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This architect is quietly reshaping skylines, from New York to London

William Pedersen, cofounder of the prolific architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, shares the secrets of designing skyscrapers.

This architect is quietly reshaping skylines, from New York to London
52 Lime Street, also known as The Scalpel. [Photo: John Keeble/Getty Images]
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Since 1976, the architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) has been designing city skylines around the world. From supertall towers to thoughtful office buildings that neither jump out nor blend in, the firm is known for bringing sophisticated design to the world of corporate architecture.

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Over the decades, KPF has grown into an architectural juggernaut with more than 700 employees, nine offices around the world, and dozens of skyscrapers to its name. Notable projects include the 42-story Scalpel tower in London, the University of Michigan’s business school, as well as several of the tallest buildings in the world. With a primary focus on corporate clients, KPF regularly ranks as one of the top revenue-generating architecture firms in the United States.

William Pedersen [Photo: courtesy KPF]
In his new book Gesture and Response, KPF cofounder William Pedersen picks out 25 projects from the firm’s 45-year history to break down how the firm has managed to produce so much commercially driven architecture without tarnishing a city’s soul—or the firm’s reputation. But KPF hasn’t escaped controversy. Its towers in New York’s Hudson Yards, for instance, have caught flak for the project’s heavily subsidies and tax breaks.

Pedersen has been the firm’s primary design leader from the start. But as he explains, he never wanted there to be a singular designer of KPF projects, nor any characteristic style, as in firms like Gehry Partners or Bjarke Ingels Group. Now in his 80s and with a few years of distance from the everyday operations of the firm, Pedersen looks back at what guided KPF’s architecture and approach to the business of design.

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333 Wacker Drive (1982), Chicago; from Gesture and Response. [Photo: courtesy ORO Editions]
Fast Company: Skyscrapers and office buildings make up the bulk of KPF’s work. What role do you think these buildings play in cities?

William Pedersen: These buildings occupy a very large percentage of the urban environment. We need to treat these buildings as serious architectural possibilities, to find ways we could develop buildings to participate in the urban fabric in a positive way. Commercial clients take huge risks in developing these buildings, so we set out to work with them in such a way that we were able to find the basis of their aspirations and respond to the needs that they have as entrepreneurs. All of this led to the formation of the culture of our firm, which is really the essence of what we’ve done. I think more than any of our buildings, what we’ve created is a culture in the firm that views architecture, particularly urban architecture, as a connective participant in the place within which it’s built.

You write about a presentation early in your career when you brought your design solution to the table and it was brutally shot down. How did that affect your approach to working with clients?

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I really didn’t fully understand what the client’s aspirations were. I had a sense of my own aspirations, but for this to work, there has to be a relationship between the architect and the client in a way that both understand what they’re trying to get out of the process. So I started using a method by which I compare a whole series of options. And it was not intended to allow them to just pick one. The purpose was to understand what they were thinking, and frankly to understand what I was thinking, because the more you explore things, the more that’s revealed to you. And it worked so well that it became a means of working, and after 45 years it is the method of working that KPF uses on every design. And the advantage is that it enables a series of individuals to participate in the actual process of conception of the design.

[Photo: courtesy ORO Editions]
Your book’s title, Gesture and Response, encapsulates your design philosophy, and you write about buildings being able to talk to each other. How do you make that happen?

The site makes the gesture and the architecture makes the response. One looks to every positive aspect of that site. You have to be able to read the site in a way, to sense the gestures that it’s making. Some places are easier than others.

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Years ago, I believed that taking the fundamental characteristics of classicism offered the possibility for creating linkages. Buildings in the classical world met the ground in a certain way, met the sky in a certain way, set their boundaries in a certain way. Their windows were all bordered in a certain way. There was a language of parts that enabled one building to connect with another. For five years I tried to bring that into the design of tall buildings, but frankly I abandoned it. It was a little bit like floats in the Macy’s parade, one thing taken and enlarged to such an extent that it tends to become an absurdity. There wasn’t really an authenticity between the form of these tall buildings and their parts. So I started to work more in terms of the building’s ability to gesture and for buildings to try to talk to each other.

For instance, our First Hawaiian Bank Headquarters building in Honolulu, it faces the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. So it seemed natural to create the building out of two parts, one that would specifically address the mountains and the other to address the sea. The dynamic it created, the energy of the building was the way two were joined together. So that started me on a whole series of strategies of trying to create the tall commercial building that is more of a participant in its setting.

Shanghai World Financial Center (2008), Shanghai; from Gesture and Response. [Photo: courtesy ORO Editions]
For other projects, like the two towers you did for Hudson Yards in New York or the Shanghai World Financial Center in Pudong, these are huge new buildings popping up in areas that are themselves just popping up. How did you take on that challenge of engaging with the surroundings in a brand new district like Hudson Yards?

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I worked damn hard on it, and I really made every effort to try to find ways of connecting to the fabric around, because ours were the first buildings to be designed and built there, and they were very big. There’s no denying that, they’re bigger than anything around. And that’s one of the major challenges of dealing with commercial architecture. Buildings are getting bigger all the time, and I try to find as many ways as I possibly can to be able to make connections. Stephen Ross, our client, wanted iconic buildings, he wanted to mark that place. He also wanted them to be the most efficient buildings in New York, because they would be renting for less money than buildings in more desirable locations. We started with the basic premise that the building has an elevator core which basically steps back as it moves up, so that gave us the ability to slope one side of each building. So that initiated the tapered design of the towers. Tapering one looking at the city and the other looking toward the river gave the buildings a dynamic interaction. That was the point of departure. I know these buildings emerged at a politically sensitive time and they had a lot of issues, but they’ll survive the test of time. Rockefeller Center didn’t do too well in the first 10 years either.

Gannett/USA Today Headquarters (2001), McLean, VA; from Gesture and Response. [Photo: courtesy ORO Editions]
You’ve stepped back from the firm, handing over the reins to a new generation. How do you see KPF continuing on into the future?

[Cofounder] Gene [Kohn] and I wanted to create a firm that would outlive us. And I did not want to create a firm where I was designing every one of the buildings. I just didn’t want to be design director. And that meant that we had to be able to give opportunities to others. The fundamental responsibility from a design perspective was to grow an entire generation of designers. When we first started, most of it was through my direction, but over the years those people who worked for me as senior designers ultimately became partners and responsible for their own body of work. The intention was to provide what we thought at that particular time was a unique thing. We wanted people to have the potential to fulfill their career aspirations with us without having to leave us. Gene always used to think of our firm as a stage rocket. We were the first stage of the rocket and the next one has been launched.