The sun was setting over New York harbor, and behind it, the coast of New Jersey. From the 17th floor of 11 Broadway, through the not-floor-to-ceiling, turn-of-the-last-century office windows, the Statue of Liberty was plainly visible. She appeared to be waving through the late-summer haze. Milling about and sipping champagne were some of the city’s biggest developers and their employees, names emblazoned upon apartment towers from this end of Manhattan to the other and beyond.
Silverstein, Ratner, Extell, Elad, Milstein, Glenwood, Trump. All the big firms were there, along with many other machers and dealmakers. It could have been a convention of The No Nonsense Apartment Builders Association of the Greater Five Boroughs. Instead it was the third anniversary party for Goldstein, Hill & West and the unveiling of their new downtown offices.
The foyer is painted a slick graphite gray, with a globular chandelier overhead, but beyond that, the designer pretense fades away. There are no amoebic benches, no plywood bookcases, no 3D printer for producing models of unusually torqued and cantilevered buildings. Little hangs on the walls besides drafting templates and zoning handbooks. It is this simplicity of design, aesthetic and attitude that draws the city’s biggest developers to the firm.
“I like them, they’re good guys, they’re rational, they understand the business” Extell founder Gary Barnett told The Observer recently. “They know how to get a project done, the know it has to make sense. You can’t just build any crazy old thing.”
Slideshow: The Works of Goldstein, Hill & West >>
It typically takes decades for an architect to reach any level of success, let alone work with the biggest names in New York City real estate. So how has an upstart firm managed to storm the city in just three years?
The designers have been doing it for decades, actually, albeit in the shadow of another architect who received the most of credit while Alan Goldstein, Stephen Hill and David West did the work. Before New York knew Richard Meier and Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Christian de Portzemparc, Neil DeNari and Bjark Ingels, Herzog & de Meuron, the condo king was Costas Kondylis.
Born in Greece and trained in Switzerland, Mr. Kondylis came to New York four decades ago, and in that span of time he developed the pre-eminent residential architecture firm in the city. His most famous client is Donald Trump, for whom he designed one of his most recognizable buildings, the black obelisk looming over the U.N. known as Trump World Tower. For more than a decade it was the city’s tallest apartment building, and one of its most sought-after. Derek Jeter was among those calling it home. But The Trump World Tower, designed with Mr, Hill, is just one of the more than 70 projects Costas Kondylis & Partners created in New York in 21 years.
Nearly half of those are now Goldstein, Hill & West’s, or at least the partners lay claim to them, since they did the work while Mr. Kondylis was, they say, gallivanting around the globe. When his three partners decided to dissolve the old firm and start their own, it fell to them, not Mr. Kondylis, to finish the buildings, along with another 40 or so new projects they had since accumulated.
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.
In many ways, it hasn’t.
Arrayed behind the three partners in the conference room were two dozen poster boards printed with the firm’s latest projects, a fantasy skyline of glass, steel and brick that was taking shape quickly on the streets outside. That they have so much work while the real estate industry has barely recovered is astounding, but when you are the most amicable—and affordable—firm in town, the surprise begins to fade. It is the speed, the intelligence and the reliability that the city’s biggest builders have long relied on these three men for.
“They try to sense your needs,” Larry Silverstein said. “They are very cooperative, they are very helpful, and their participation is full.” Translation: they are not obstinate or ostentatious, like the starchitects who have come to dominate the city over the past decade, if less in actuality than in perception and press clips. (Mr. Meier, a New Yorker, has three buildings. Mr. Gehry and Mr. Nouvel each have two. Messrs. Herzog & de Meuron have one.) Even Mr. Silverstein has fallen under the spell, hiring Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki, all Pritzker Prize winners, to design his three World Trade Center office buildings along Greenwich Street.
Mr. Silverstein’s work is typical of what many developers have turned to these three architects for over the decades. He hired Mr. West back in his Kondylis & Partners days to design Riverwalk, a pair of 40-story brick rental towers on 42nd Street and 12th Avenue that opened in 1999. In an out of the way location, but with impressive views of the river and the West Side all the same, Mr. Goldstein came up with two stout crescents, offset just so to maximize visibility. Mr. Silverstein was ready to finish the project on the other half of the block when tragedy struck at what would become Ground Zero and he did not return the to the project until 2006.
In the meantime, glass was in while masonry, a mainstay in New York though little changed since the pyramids, was out. This was thanks in large part to Richard Meier’s sleek Perry Street lofts that opened in the Village in 2001. Mr. West was not enthralled with the style, but like all his partners, he was happy to oblige. “We are all susceptible to fashion,” he admitted. “Glass buildings may not be the most efficient or appropriate in New York, but we design what our clients want and what the market demands.”
The result is two 60-story towers, at once slender and gigantic, containing more than 2,000 apartments stretching across more than 1.2 million square feet. Mr. Silverstein was never going to rebuild the Twin Towers, so this is as close as New York will get.
Mr. Silverstein admits that with the few remaining parcels he controls in the area, he might turn to a flashier firm for his future projects, but he is also content to work with Goldstein Hill & West again. “They will shape it with you, and they will shape it for you, and they are very flexible,” he said. “With these guys, you always know what you’re gonna get, and you always get exactly what you want.”
In the world of New York City development, that can be an important thing. This is the most expensive city in the nation in which to build by a wide margin—many developers peg the price at twice what it would cost to build in Minneapolis, Tuscon, even Philly or Boston—because of land values and construction costs, be it materials or union contracts. The wonkier your building is, the more it is going to cost, and unless you think buyers will pay a considerable premium for some Pritzker poo, it is probably not worth it.
That is why from Riverside South to the Apthorp to the Plaza Hotel, up and down First, Second, Third avenues, Tribeca, both Villages, Brooklyn, even Jamaica, Queens, Goldstein Hill & West is there.
Many developers approach the firm even before they are ready to build or even buy a property. “David West is an architect, but he’s also probably the best zoning attorney in the city, one of the two or three best,” one developer who has called on the firm multiple times said. Mr. West analyzes every angle, every facet, every possible shape of a site in order to determine the biggest possible building that can rise on it. This can create a sense of gigantism, of bursting at the seams, but at 40 stories, in the home of the Empire State Building, who really notices?
“The truth is, many of these forms are not that flexible because there are so many constraints,” Mr. West said of building regulations and construction constraints—the more complex a building, the skilled the labor, the more it costs.
“Some architects have these randomized openings and windows, because it looks cool on the outside,” Mr. Goldstein pointed out. “You know what? You live inside the building.”
“Irrespective of style, there are certain things every building has to have,” Mr. Hill added. “Underneath it all, it’s the same basic structure there, and that’s what they rely on us for. Otherwise it’s just a show piece.”
After Mr. West sets the parameters for the buildings, it falls to Messrs. Goldstein and Hill to design the skin and conceive of the interior layouts that encase Mr. West’s bounteous boxes. They are expert at arranging kitchens to make a galley feel like a chefs. A soffet here or a dropped living room there suddenly makes a home feel twice as big. “Even the right tread size for an emergency stair can make all the difference in a building, Mr. Goldstein said. “Five feet every fight, over the course of 40 stories, that can really add up.”
“It’s like the recipe to McDonald’s special sauce,” he added.
“It’s a special instinct,” Mr. Hill said. “We’ve been doing this long enough, we just know what works.”
The deferential approach may lead to plenty of commissions, but the awards, the press, the plaudits are less forthcoming. When The Observer mentioned the firm to one of the city’s mid-career hotshot designers, he responded, “Who?” We explained the Kondylis connection. “Oh, those guys. That stuff is just the worst.” In a word, boring.
But their clients do not see it that way. “Most architects, frankly, are assholes,” one developer said. “They couldn’t make your life more difficult. That is why we work with Goldstein Hill & West whenever we can.”
Even developers who have worked both sides of the field, like Mr. Silverstein or Izak Senbahar, president of Alexico Group, appreciate the Goldstein, Hill & West approach. Mr. Senbahar employed Richard Meier to build a third Perry Street-style tower at 165 Charles Street and hired French designer Jacque Grange for the Mark Hotel. But more often than not, he has worked with Mr. West on his residential buildings, including the Grand Beekman, the Elektra and the Laurel.
“They’re a developer’s architect, as we call them,” Mr. Senbahar said. “They understand it’s difficult to building in Manhattan, there are serious money concerns and they are very proactive.” Mr. Senbahar even tapped the firm to help Herzog & de Meuron make their ambitious 57-story Tribeca tower work.
It is perhaps the perfect revenge for designers who have been ignored by the public that they are now playing savior to the starchitects, called in by developers to fix their long-suffering projects.
At 200 Chambers, Lord Norman Foster grew weary of pressure from the community board, so Mr. Hill was brought in to finish the condo for the Resnick family. Should Bruce Ratner decide to ditch modular construction at Atlantic Yards, SHoP will still design the façade, but the interiors will be Goldstein, Hill & West’s. That is already the case at Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard Street.
And in perhaps the firm’s greatest coup, the city’s biggest and grandest, apartment tower (for the moment), One57, is also a Goldstein, Hill & West production, according to two separate sources. French Pritzker Prize winner Christian de Portzamparc had been working on the building, but like so many other developers, Mr. Barnett turned the designs over to Mr. Hill to make them work.
When Kondylis & Partners dissolved, Mr. Barnett, and more specifically his bankers, were anxious about leaving Extell’s biggest project to date in the hands of an untested firm, no matter how experienced the partners. Mr. de Portzamparc was brought back on to reconceptualize the 1,005-foot tower, and he has gotten all the credit ever since. When asked about the switch, Mr. Hill said he still sees his design, its familiar bends and curves. “I feel like Christian put his skin over the building that we formed and shaped,” Mr. Hill said.
Mr. Barnett bristled at the assertion. “They were doing some work on it for a time, and we decided to go in a different direction,” he said. “Everything—the layouts, the plans—is different. That is an ugly thing for anybody to have said. It is untrue.”
Still, it would not be the first—or probably the last—time Goldstein, Hill & West is brought on to pinch hit. “These are very expensive projects; they have to work,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Star architects, it’s not for the style. It’s merely a name—it’s marketing.” Well, it works, as One57 just sold that $90 million apartment, and more may be on the way.
Still, New York is a big city, with millions of people, but only so many billionaires to house. “I think we’re starting to get away from that,” Mr. Goldstein said of the starchitect craze.
“A couple of the developers have told me,” Mr. Hill interjected, “if I just pronounced my name Stefan, maybe changed my last name to something French or added an ‘e’ onto the end, we would get all the work in the world.”