Sunday July 4 1976, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the culmination of the celebrations marking the Bicentenary, was an auspicious day.
As the great American Birthday Party got under way and a fleet of tall ships sailed up the Hudson River, three architects met for lunch at the Rye Hilton in Westchester to outline the goals for the firm they were about to start. A. Eugene Kohn, William Pedersen and Sheldon Fox signed their own declaration of intent and shook hands. Despite the fact that they were launching the practice in the depths of a major recession the three were confident they could make it work.
The roots of the association went back to the days when Shelley and Gene studied together at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, they both went off to the Korean War: Shelly to the Army and Gene to the Navy, where he served on active duty for three years before taking up a place at graduate school at Penn where he studied under Louis Kahn, Romaldo Giurgola, and Robert Venturi.
In 1967 Gene joined the recently opened New York office of the California-based architect John Carl Warnecke. Warnecke had been a favored architect of the Kennedy administration and selected by Mrs. Kennedy to design the tomb of the assassinated President. Gene brought Shelly into the firm in 1972.
“At that point I wasn’t thinking of starting my own firm,” says Gene. “I felt I was lucky to have a job. I had the responsibility initially of running the New York office,and then the whole firm when I became its president. I was really interested in building up Warnecke as a great design group.I had heard about Bill Pedersen while Bill was working on the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington with I. M. Pei.
"I remember someone telling me that Bill would become one of the great designers, period, and what a nice human being he was, so I made up my mind to pursue him.”
“Jim Nash, who I worked with at Pei’s office, had gone to Warnecke’s office and suggested that I meet with Gene,” Bill continues. “The first time he suggested the idea, we were in the middle of the National Gallery project, but a year later, that was pretty well under control; I could see there weren’t the opportunities in Pei’s organization for me to be able to achieve what I hoped to achieve in architecture, but when I interviewed with Gene I could see that here was an opportunity to design more independently.”
Bill joined Warnecke as the head designer in the firm but it was not an easy time. The recession of 1973 had a major impact on workloads and there was a staggering 60% unemployment among architects.
“Warnecke at that time began to make cuts to his staff without giving a lot of thought to the future and the return to a better economy,” says Gene. “I realized I didn’t have long term future working in that climate. I had built up a good relationship with Bill and Shelly and we were good friends. Shelly and I were very different. Shelly was like my father. Very conservative, very strict, precise, disciplined, always on time, always looked like he just got out of the shower. He never looked tired. He was a marvelously organized guy. A decent human being and a very good manager. And it occurred to me that the three of us would make a very good team.”
They had a go at proposing a deal with Warnecke where they stayed on as partners, but that didn’t work out.
“Warnecke turned us down,” Gene continues. “And that led to us thinking about moving on. But the problem was the state of the economy. There seemed to be no work. Bill was thinking of going back to Minnesota and doing some houses there. My parents thought I was crazy wanting to leave Warnecke’s. We all had families and it was a big move. But with Bill’s talent and Shelly’s abilities, I knew we could do it.”
It is the dynamic of that partnership that has powered the practice of KPF to its leading role in contemporary architecture. Gene became the new firm's president and principal in charge of projects; Bill was the designer; and Shelly oversaw administration and finance. Bill often compares the founding principals to the integrated and unique parts of a sailboat.
“There are the three constituent parts, you have a keel, you have a hull and you have the sails. I’ve always felt that Shelly undoubtedly took the role of the keel. Gene is the sail; he was the driving force. That relationship of the individuals, and the way we work together in respect of each other’s roles—each other’s boundaries—is very much related to the way we design, and the way we design is based on the specific condition we find ourselves in.”
“The way we work closely with clients comes out of our personalities. That’s the way we are."
"When our clients have issues which are of great concern to them, we find a way of solving them. This is the DNA of the firm. Our role is that of essentially commercial architects. I don’t use that in any pejorative sense. Our opportunities came to us early on through Gene’s relationships and connections, and those led us to design those buildings that are largely the buildings that cities are built with: the office building. It is a humble type, but it is the building type that makes the backdrop of the modern city, and we made it our aim to help these buildings contribute to the city in way they hadn’t contributed before.”
The chemistry between the three worked. Clients told Gene how good it was to work with KPF because the principals enjoyed and respected each other. They had fun together, and did great things together.
Each of the partners remained active as architects, while also handling other aspects of the firm, whether it was marketing, staffing, or contracts.
The three partners’ skills were totally complementary.
“Shelly had great management skills, bookkeeping,” says Gene. “He was very organized. Bill is a great designer, no question. And myself, I think I had a foot in each camp. I designed, I liked business, my skills developed with the marketing. I had the contacts to go out and get the work too. When times were hard we called on a lot of people we knew who had worked with us at Pei and Warnecke’s.”
“One of our key aims was to build the firm to last longer and beyond our active days,” says Gene.
“So we wanted to bring in young people: work with them, motivate them, and teach them so that one day, they would become partners and take over. That was our goal."
We always felt that we wanted to bring on people who were as good—or better—than ourselves to be the future leaders (as opposed to people we were better than) because you can’t have a great firm unless you have talent that replaces you.”
“I think that comes out of the basic nature of the personalities that are involved,” adds Bill.
“Gene is an enormously supportive person,” Bill shares. “He is always encouraging, he is always building other people up; Gene is making them feel good. And that supportive role has been responsible for the growth and dynamism of the firm. The young people that are leading the firm now are terrific individuals. They have abilities that—in many cases—exceed our abilities.”
Despite the economic situation, by the end of the year the firm had 25 employees and was expanding so rapidly that it needed new office space.
Other Warnecke alumni soon joined KPF, among them Arthur May and William Louie as design partners, and Robert Cioppa as a management partner. Gene wrote to developers, offered feasibility studies and development advice, as well as design services. The AT&T office complex in Oakton, Virginia, came as a result of Gene’s association with AT&T in Warnecke’s office.
“That was a pretty good building, but it took three to four years before we really had our feet on the ground,” according to Bill. “Because we were starting with big projects, with almost no staff, projects were coming in over the transom, and we had no one to do them. It was not like the organization we have today, and it was an extremely, extremely difficult period, but we got ourselves through it.”
“The building that brought us to notice was 333 Wacker Drive. That was a wonderful opportunity. It was the point at which we started to gain our confidence,” remembers Bill.
“333 Wacker Drive without question put us on the map,” says Gene. Yet, it was another project that proved to be more significant.
“The interview we did with Procter and Gamble, beating I.M. Pei and SOM, was a real turning point,” recalls Gene. “The day we learned that we had won is still one of the most exciting days of my career.”
Procter and Gamble had the longest interview process; it took a year or more.
Gene and Bill learned that P&G, “finally narrowed it down to three, had the interviews and decided to pick us. But, they still required the approval of CEO John Smale (who later became head of General Motors) and Brad Butler who was the chairman.” Next Gene says, “Bill and I were asked to fly to Cincinnati and meet them.”
“We were both in blue suits and white shirts,” Gene continues. “We presented. Bill did a great job talking about design. We didn’t know how we had done because they kept a very straight face. We were going down the escalator to the street to take a taxi to the airport when Brad Butler comes running up and says, ‘Look, I want you to have a good weekend and a good flight home. You’ve been selected.’ Bill and I flew home without the plane! It was a really exciting moment. It was major job—an 800,000 square-foot new headquarters building, and we had just beaten two great firms.”
Bill recalls that they were fortunate not only to get the job, but two people—Smale and Butler—were not only inspirational individuals, but they worked with the architects in a very focused way.
“When we would have a meeting with them, they would not accept a phone call from their secretaries or anyone,” Bill recalls. “They were totally focused on what we were doing and talking about. That dynamic produced a good building. The method by which we developed our design process and the manner in which we introduced it to clients was tremendously important. It had its genesis back in the Warnecke days when Gene and I were working on a project up at City College.
"I came in after having been at I.M. Pei’s and I thought, ‘I’ll do my great design and sell it to them.”
“Well, I did my great design and I didn’t sell it to them at all,” says Bill. He realized that, “We had to find a different way of working. So we started this process that I dubbed the ‘comparative method,’ where we look at a series of different possibilities. Not with the intention of introducing a long menu and asking the client which one do you want. The idea is to be able to compare one design against the other, so that one can logically explain why one design seems to work for a particular client. And that seemed to work.”
“We brought four designs to John Smale, and John said, ‘Now that I see these, I can understand what I really want to accomplish. Frankly, I don’t think any of the four you presented, while they are interesting, is exactly what I want to do.’ He went on to say how he wanted to join the old building and the new building together to create a unified whole. From that comment, which was totally fundamental to the nature of the design, we went back and designed the L-shaped structure that turned out to be a very good building for its particular type and won a National AIA Award. That, to me, is the essence of the way we practice architecture. We hope to get our client involved in such a way that they can make a contribution on the level of understanding their project that we can capitalize on, and that’s the way we’ve worked all along, and I think that particular success with John Smale was the most dramatic evidence of the validity of this comparative process.”
“It wasn’t about just saying ‘That’s the most exciting,’” adds Gene. “It was giving them all the issues such as cost, function, delivery, master plan and its relationship with the city. It made them think.”
Gene recounts, “We had very creative presentations. We always thought about what clients were looking for, what was special about them and what might appeal to them. We did our research, sometimes to the extreme. On one job, a long time ago, we had pictures of the houses the clients lived in, the cars they drove, how they looked when they dressed, so we could judge their taste level and how to appeal to them. We sometimes misjudged things. We thought that Lutherans didn’t drink and so when we had lunch we had no wine. The first thing they asked for was the wine!”
In the early days there was no PowerPoint, and Bill and Gene would do creative slide shows with two projectors. One slide might show a project and the other would show several details relating to that image.
“You could create stories. We always had stories about what we were proposing and why,” says Gene.
“That was the beautiful thing. Clients would tell me that our reaction to each other was quite natural. We reinforced each other. We didn’t battle or argue. Clients felt that we were a team and the clients were getting the best of the firm and of us. We used humor a lot and were responsive to each other.”
Gene continues, “We weren’t arrogant. I think they liked us. If clients like you and respect you, and then you do a creative presentation that deals with the issues they are most concerned with, then you will win.”
“Very few of our presentations did not begin without a few slides of Gene pitching and me hitting for the softball team,” recalls Bill.
“It was a very important part of our office. We were architectural league champions for five years in a row. People were coming to work with us because they were not only good architects but also because they played good softball! Gene was a very crafty pitcher and I was a pretty good hitter.”
When Bill and Gene started an interview in Cleveland, Ohio, Bill remembers that, “We showed our slides of our softball team; what we didn’t know—we hadn’t done the research—was that the person who was interviewing us was the owner of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. He really took to us, so we got the job. Harry Cobb of I.M. Pei’s office also interviewed for the job. I had a party at my home after we had been awarded the job. Harry asked how the interview went and I told him about the softball team and he looked at me aghast and said, ‘That’s unethical!’”
“He was furious!” Gene chuckles.
Teams Instead of Departments
Unlike many large firms, which are organized by departments with a design department, production department and construction department, KPF operates as teams: the team that starts the job finishes the job.
“That allows the process to be a very continuous one where design can be improved as it moves along,” says Gene. “It means we don’t have to deal with a production group that ignores what the designer may have wanted. It is a much more unifying approach and it allows for the design partners to be participating all the way through, right to the last piece of glass, to the last brick.”
KPF buildings continually evolve during the design processes. There is a tremendous transition from the first initial idea to its realization.
“We have built up a team of people that are not only exceptionally capable in their own right, but also focused on trying to make contributions at every step of the game to the building as it evolves,” says Bill. “That’s a key responsibility of anyone who is leading the design process to encourage that sort of contribution from individuals on the team. Because that collective, collaborative process is where a building is really made. I think that this is the reason why we’ve been successful in executing our buildings with a high level of resolution. They are really well put together; the materials and details are very well considered.”
“In 1985 I attended a conference where an economist was addressing an audience of bankers and developers, some architects, and saying that if they weren’t global by 1990, half would be out of business.” Gene explains.
“I was convinced he was talking directly to me. I spoke to Shelly and Bill and convinced them of what we needed to do. You have to remember that at the end of the 80’s there was a terrible crash—in the whole of the 1990’s only one office block was built in New York! So if we had depended on New York for our livelihood back in the 1990’s we would have had no work at all.”
Gene knew, “going global was important.” As he recounts, “The first step was to go to England where we had won the job to build the Goldman Sachs Headquarters on Fleet Street. Then we won the DG Bank competition and at the same time we were asked by Taisei, a Japanese firm that we had worked with in Chicago, to go to Tokyo and do a competition with them. That didn’t happen, but we got selected with their help for the Nagoya Station project which was a five million square-foot project and that opened the door to Asia, because once we got to Japan, then we’d go on to Hong Kong—on the same ticket so to speak! We soon got work in Hong Kong. Today we have worked in over 35 countries, with a staff of people that come from at least 40 countries. So we are truly global.”
“Wanting to go global and succeeding globally are two different things,”
Bill adds. “One of the reasons we were successful with our early work in Japan was that we offered a method of working that was so different from anything the clients encountered over there. They found that they were actually able to participate in the process, in contrast to working with many Japanese architects who didn’t allow their clients into the process, in the same way.”
This collaborative approach is something the partners keep returning to as a key differentiator.
“You still have architects today who come in and say ‘This is the scheme,’ mentions Gene. “But, we don’t work that way.”
“Allowing the client to participate in the process makes them really a part of it and excited by it. As a result they become much easier to convince of the things that you want because the logic is going to be there. Sometimes, as a result of that process, the client comes up with an idea better than we might have. We’re happy about that. We don’t say that we have to be the author of every little thing. If the project ends up great because of the teamwork between us and the client, then that’s the best. For European and Asian clients that was really unique.”
Globalization has played a significant role in creating strength in depth in the practice, because many emissaries have to be sent out into the world and those emissaries have to be able to handle the job. The partners can’t be in every country all of the time.
“When we formed in ‘76 we wanted the firm to succeed beyond our years and it was important to have transition and to find the kind of people who could become the future leaders,” says Gene.
Design depends on talent, and Gene and Bill aim to attract, encourage and recognize the most creative talents in the office, to ensure the firm maintains its position in the global market.
“You have to rely on other people to do it,” says Bill. “We discovered some extraordinary talents, some extraordinary entrepreneurship in people like Paul Katz and Jamie von Klemperer. They went out there and attacked it as an opportunity for themselves. Had we been confined to this little pool in the United States and tried to create a firm that would transition, we’d be tripping over ourselves all the time because you can’t offer enough opportunities. Globalism changed all of that for us, and we were very encouraging of people being able to take advantage of these opportunities. They built up constituencies in the office which has led to a natural evolution of leadership here.
“We now have 23 principals total,” Gene says. “They’re in three groups: The elders (myself, Bill, Bill Louie), the key leaders (such as Jamie), and a group of younger partners who are on their way up.”
Gene adds, “In Jamie we have an outstanding architect. I’m confident he will do a great job in leading the firm. Opening a lot of offices can be expensive. We have enjoyed the fact that we haven’t had too many offices to manage. We are at a good size at the moment.”
“The quality of architecture in the world today is increasing exponentially,” Bill concludes. “There are so many firms that are doing really extraordinary work. Firms that are contributing to the collective dynamic of architecture in a way that you cannot compare to the 1970’s when we started out and there was nothing going on at all. It was really dead. Now the world is just humming with creative potential, and with an acknowledgement of the role of cities and what they can do from a sustainability perspective and a social dynamic. All of this is changing so dramatically. Much of it has to do with the rise of Asia and the region’s tremendous inventiveness and dynamism. We have to make sure that the people who lead us in this incredibly competitive marketplace are people of exceptional talent. Growing those people and enabling them to flourish is something that we think about a lot. It’s all going to develop into the future as a result of their energies and capabilities.”