Gene Kohn shaped the firm he co-founded into one of the most impactful architectural practices in the world through a strong belief that relationships are the foundation of success
Gene co-founded Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in 1976, along with partners William Pedersen and Sheldon Fox, and shaped it into one of the world’s most impactful architectural practices. With characteristic optimism, diplomacy, and unfailing good will, he brought together designers and engineers, clients and civic leaders to achieve significant projects that have changed our cities around the world for the better. His skill in understanding the relationship between architecture and commerce allowed him to find creative solutions, building consensus between designers and developers. Well known as a consummate communicator, Gene taught at Harvard and Columbia, and contributed his energies for over seven decades to his alma mater University of Pennsylvania.
“Gene was universally respected in the community for his ability to achieve consensus,” said James von Klemperer, KPF President. “His seemingly limitless interest in other human beings gave him powerful insights into the social aspect of building programs and larger urban agendas. Without his easy charm and focused intensity, such notable projects as Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, the World Bank in Washington DC, One Vanderbilt in New York, and the reinvigoration of Covent Garden in London would not have realized their full success.”
Gene was most proud of his family, and of the firm that he built. He was an active participant in his professional pursuits until the end. He believed passionately in the principle of teamwork, and encouraged all who worked with him to realize their dreams. He organized KPF as a collaborative collection of mutually supportive colleagues, all dedicated to excellence in design. Gene’s spirit will live on in the firm that he loved, and his commitment to design excellence, teamwork, and mentorship will continue to inform KPF’s values.
“Gene was known throughout the architectural world for his ability to promote the services of KPF,” said William Pedersen, KPF Co-Founder and Design Principal. “As valuable as that has been to the growth of our firm, his value within the firm, counseling our staff, has been even greater.”
Throughout his year-long fight with cancer, Gene never lost hope. Gene maintained his positive outlook and remained focused on the next challenge, a testament to his perspective on life. Gene is survived by his wife Barbara, his sons Steven and Brian, and his daughter Laurie, and nine grandchildren.
Gene’s legacy in the world of architecture will be enduring. Speaking about the early goals for KPF, he once stated the he, Bill, and Shelley “liked the idea of creating something bigger than the three of us that would live longer than any of us.” Though he’s gone, his vision holds true. The firm he started is more successful than he ever imagined, with the promise of continuing its great work around the world in his honor.
A package of images of Gene over the years and notable projects is available for download here.
Additional Biographical Information
Early Life and Influences
Gene was born in 1930 and raised in Philadelphia, where he received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. At UPenn, Gene was a student of Louis Kahn whose deep understanding of history and use of powerful geometries informed his view of architecture. Gene was the recipient of the Theophilus Parsons Chandler Architecture Fellowship for advanced study and travel abroad. He served in the US Navy on Active Duty for three years between his BA and MA degrees, for five years on Reserve Duty, and retired as a Lieutenant Commander.
Gene’s love of art and creative spirit can be attributed to his mother, Hannah Kohn, who he credits for his career as an architect. A dressmaker and entrepreneur in her own right, Hannah was also a talented artist. Her influence on Gene can be seen not only through the success of his firm, but his vast portfolio of watercolor paintings and appreciation of art in all forms.
Global Impact & Significant Projects
As KPF’s original President and Chairman, Gene shepherded the practice through many economic and cultural cycles over 40 years, leading its expansion into varied geographies and sectors. Under Gene’s leadership, KPF was the youngest practice to be recognized with the AIA Architecture Firm Award (1990) and designed such notable projects as 333 Wacker Drive in Chicago; the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; the Petersen Automotive Museum (Los Angeles); headquarters for Procter & Gamble (Cincinnati), the World Bank (Washington, DC), IBM (Armonk), Unilever (London), and DZ Bank (Frankfurt); six of the world’s twelve tallest towers, including the Shanghai World Financial Center and Hong Kong’s International Commerce Centre; airport terminals in Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Abu Dhabi; city-shaping projects including Hudson Yards and One Vanderbilt (New York), Covent Garden (London), and Roppongi Hills (Tokyo); and academic buildings on such campuses as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, and the University of Oxford.
Awards & Honors
Over his long and successful career, Gene received numerous commendations and awards including The National Building Museum Chairman’s Award; The Skyscraper Museum Award; The Soane Foundation Honors; and the Alumni Award of Merit by the University of Pennsylvania, the highest university-wide award presented to alumni. He was also recognized with the Wharton Real Estate Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award; the University of Pennsylvania – PennDesign Dean’s Medal of Achievement, the highest honor awarded by the institution; and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. In 2019, Gene received the Kanter Tritsch Medal for Excellence in Architecture and Environmental Design, which honors architects who have changed the course of design history. He was an Executive Fellow of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, the first architect to be awarded the title.
Earlier this year, Gene was awarded the Freedom of the City of London and gowned an Honorary Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects (WCCA), both in acknowledgment of his contribution to architecture. Gene was also named a Life Trustee of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the first architect to receive the honor. KPF established the annual A. Eugene Kohn/KPF Fellowship to fund research on low carbon design and other activities in the ULI Randall Lewis Center for Sustainability in Real Estate. He was especially proud of these recognitions.
Participation & Contribution
A registered architect in 26 states, Gene was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and served as president of the AIA New York City Chapter. He was also a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Japan Institute of Architects, and an honorary member of the Fellows of the Philippine Institute.
An Emeritus Board Member of the Council on Tall Buildings and the Urban Habitat, Gene taught at Harvard Business School for over ten years and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for four years. He also served as a Trustee for the University of Pennsylvania, was an Overseer for its School of Design, and a Member of the Wharton Real Estate Center Advisory Board.
He was an Emeritus Trustee of the National Building Museum and the Urban Land Institute, as well as Chairman of the Board of Publicolor, a nonprofit youth development organization that uses design-based programs to engage at-risk students in education leading to college and a career.
The World by Design
In 2019, Gene published his memoir, The World by Design: The Story of a Global Architecture Firm, written with Clifford Pearson. The book explains how Gene helped build one of the most successful architecture firms in the world, offering inspiring lessons on business leadership and design innovation that can be applied to many fields.
Download the full release here.