Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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One On 1: Architect Costas Kondylis

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of a man whose work you've probably seen, even if you don't recognize the name; the architect who designed many of the Trump buildings in the city, Costas Kondylis.

Walk around Manhattan with architect Costas Kondylis and you can see a lot of his work. But he prefers the view from up high - very high.

“I can think of many prettier cities in the world than New York,” he says. “At street level, Paris and London are much more pleasant for pedestrians. But the value of New York is the height of the buildings, the canyons and the vistas."

The irony is that this man, who is known for designing some of the largest high-rise apartment buildings in the city, lives on the seventh floor of a pre-war building.

"I'm of European background, and I used to live in one and two and three-story buildings. To make the transition to a 90-floor [building] would be asking too much,” says Kondylis.

And forget walking around the city to see Costas Kondylis's work - you need to drive. His firm has completed or is working on almost 70 projects all over Manhattan, including the Trump International Hotel and Tower at One Central Park West, the Caroline on West 23rd Street, and the Westport on West 56th Street.

“I like the idea of having a social impact, creating neighborhoods, and since I have an urban design background, the assembly of buildings and what kind of space the buildings create and the activity at street level,” he says. “The life of the community is an exciting thing for me."

Of course, building new buildings is not always so popular with the neighboring communities. There was opposition when Donald Trump built the Trump World Tower - at 90 stories, the largest residential building in New York.

Kondylis is also the architect for many of the buildings at Trump Place near the West Side Highway. Some nearby residents there went to court to fight that project because they were going to lose their views of the Hudson River.

Does the disenchantment from other people about projects enter in his thinking at all?

“Of course,” he says. “When we design a building the first think I'm very interested in is making sure the building fits well in neighborhood, and will be complimentary to the neighborhood. There are situations where you have to block some windows, but it's not a choice I can make."

In fact, he says his seventh-floor apartment was affected by some new high-rises in his own neighborhood.

“I lost the morning sun in my breakfast room and I'm very sorry about it,” he says. “Every time I have breakfast in my room I miss the early morning sun rays.

So at that moment, is he thinking, “Who are these people building high-rises?”

“Of course, of course. It's unavoidable," he says.

Kondylis and his firm handle many clients, but he is best known for one of them.

"Donald [Trump] is a very challenging individual,” he says. “I happen to know Donald for 20 years. He's a real visionary."

Can he kid around with him? Can he say, “Donald, you're fired?”

“No. But when I meet with Donald privately, I will raise issues,” he says. “I will say, ÎI agree 100 percent with that, but I disagree with that.’ That's one of the things clients appreciate with me is that I will listen to them carefully, but I will also have the courage to tell them, ÎThis is not going to work.’”

Many of Kondylis's projects are admittedly high-end, but he says one project included 20 percent low and moderate-income housing. The firm has also designed university and hospital housing.

No matter what type of project, Kondylis says his work is not intended to be cutting-edge.

“If somebody else is willing to experiment, we love to see if the experiment is going to work, and the next thing you know we will adopt the idea to our projects,” he says. “You cannot take chances with very large projects. We welcome innovation because we all learn from innovation, but we don't want to be the ones to make a mistake and then say, ÎWell, it was a good idea but it didn't work out.’"

Costas Kondylis grew up in a place, safe to say, without too many high-rises; the Belgian Congo. His father was an entrepreneur who ran coffee plantations and a chain of general stores, and young Costas traveled all over Africa.

“My first visit to Egypt, and the pyramids and flying over the Nile, these are memories of sunset that will always be lasting,” he says. “For an architect it’s always very important to be exposed to different cultures and different countries. It’s all about widening your mind."

The family eventually returned to Greece when Costas was a teenager, and that move left another imprint.

“I lived in Europe and traveled in Europe extensively, so I had a lot of classical architecture in mind - Rome, Athens, the Parthenon,” he says. “You accumulate knowledge and images that get printed in your mind."

Kondylis went to Geneva to study architecture, and then came to Columbia University in New York in 1967 to earn a masters degree in architecture and urban design. He never left New York.

“What I enjoyed doing in New York was planning a building and a year later going and seeing the building coming out of the ground,” he says. “In Europe it will take five or 10 years before the building was completed."

Kondylis may have loved New York, but the fiscal crisis of the mid 70's meant little work for New York architects. So Kondylis and his colleagues headed to, of all places, Teheran, to try to get some work from the Shah of Iran.

“The focus of the New York architectural scene was Teheran,” he says. “Everybody wad from New York — I.M. Pei, Jack Robertson, everybody was involved with projects in Iran. We used to come back at 10:00, 11:00 at night back to the hotel, which at the time was a Hilton hotel, and it looked like a convention of architects. You’d walk into the lobby and you’d run into all the architects from New York."

I don't think there are that many people in the world who have worked for both the Shah of Iran and Donald Trump. How do they compare?

“Both are very ambitious people, both people with great vision,” he says. “The Shah of Iran may have been a bit ahead of his time, and Donald is a great visionary."

There’s no need for Kondylis to look for work outside of New York anymore; it's all around him, with projects all over Manhattan. His firm employs more than 100 people, including his daughter Alexia.

“We agree on form and function, but details are different for both of us, so there are a lot of heated discussions about, ÎWhat color should it be?’” she says. “But we usually agree on the general look."

An architect gets reviewed by both the aficionado and the pedestrian. Kondylis says he doesn't design for other architects, and the basic theme of his work has not changed with the times.

“One of my principles is to design buildings that are timeless,” he says. “The best compliment I can hear is from someone saying, ÎWe just drove by the building we did in 1980 and it still looks good today. It has to have a life, it has to have a spirit itself, it has to be emotion, and it has to be inspiring."

- Budd Mishkin

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