The Architect in Winter

danielmweissc2009 0000772 The Architect in Winter

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.

And then.

“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.”