Goldstein, Hill & West: How New York’s Most Anonymous Architects Have Taken Over the Skyline

Wary of Gehry? Call every developer's favorite architect.

Not since McKim, Mead & White were at the height of their prewar powers have three architects played such a remarkable role in reshaping the city’s architectural landscape. The only thing more remarkable is how unremarkable many of these buildings are.

“We work with very conservative clients sometimes,” Stephen Hill said during a recent interview in a bright conference room inside the firm’s offices. “They want a building that works, a building they know they can sell. Those designer buildings are good for some people, but not everyone. We create buildings for everyone.”

“It’s not all about style,” David West concurred, “and I think there’s been a lot of that lately. It’s a trap. This shouldn’t all be about the ego of the creator.”

In a field with no shortage of egotism—call it the edifice complex—these three architects may be the least vainglorious guys in the business. They could even be called subservient, though proudly so, eagerly doing the work developers demand of them, rather than making demands of their clients. This is not haute couture but a custom-made suit from a reasonable tailor in some second-story Madison Avenue hole-in-the-wall. The buyer gets exactly what they want, no muss, no fuss, no commotion. It looks good, but it won’t turn any heads.

Indeed, you probably walk by at least one of Goldstein Hill & West’s buildings a week without even realizing it. Maybe a dozen, if you live uptown.

When the partners decided to split off from their mentor three years ago, there was some serious anxiety about whether they could keep the business afloat. For years, Mr. Kondylis had been chasing outsize projects, with limited return, in places like Shanghai and Dubai. “He had a real desire to make himself internationally famous,” Mr. Hill said. “It wasn’t sustainable. It became apparent the firm wasn’t going to survive.” (Mr. Kondylis did not return requests for comment.)

The partners bridled at the fact that their ongoing work in New York was essentially subsidizing a jet-setting lifestyle for the man whose name was on the front door. When Lehman Brothers collapsed, the real estate industry went into free-fall. No sector was harder hit than architecture, which lost more jobs in the U.S. than any other in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. All in all, it was not a great time to start an architecture firm.

“We knew a percentage of our clients would stick with us and give us new work,” Mr. Hill said. “When word got around, 100 percent of our clients are with us.” On a summer day three years ago, the three partners informed Mr. Kondylis of their decision to leave. When the separation was completed in August, they packed up and moved into a space a few floors down in the same building, at an engineering firm they had worked with previously.

“We came into work on Monday almost as though nothing had changed,” Mr. Goldstein said.