Sky-high design: The Israeli architect who conquered Manhattan
Architect Eran Chen has long since become a household name in New York, and his firm is a partner in some very impressive projects including the highest private apartment in the city at Trump Towers, a giant affordable housing project in Queens, and the luxury residential conversion of a 19th century Manhattan commercial building. That’s how it’s done in America.
By Natalie Cohen – June 8, 2014 09:22
Affordable housing has been a hot topic in Israel of late: Is it possible, and where, and how. The people demanded social justice, precious little of which has thus far been forthcoming. There is in fact an architect who’s already been there and done that but, alas, not in Israel. Meet Bezalel graduate Eran Chen, 43, today among the most successful architects in New York.
While still a student in Israel, Chen began designing branches for McDonald’s, which had just broken into the local market. By the time he graduated and left for New York, Chen had designed some 30 McDonald’s branches all over Israel as well as the McDonald’s Israel headquarters at Gaash. He talked with mako living about the path to success, the cost of living in New York versus in Tel Aviv, and the major projects he has planned and designed, including New York City’s largest-ever affordable housing project and the tallest apartment in the city on the 90th floor of the Trump World Tower.
A hot dog and fries in the park
Chen made the move to the United States in December 1999. “I wanted to try working at a different scale,” he says now. “I had a green card because my mother has American citizenship.” His big break came when he started working as a junior associate at Perkins Eastman, a firm with some 600 architects at the time. “The first project I worked on was the Davidoff Center, a cancer treatment facility at the Rabin Medical Center. I very quickly became a principal designer, and within three years a junior partner in the company. In 2007 I left and opened my own firm, ODA (Office for Design and Architecture), which today employs 35 architects from all over the world.”
Chen lives in the city with his Israeli wife and their three children. He began with a modest, simple dream: “I just wanted to work in a big firm in Manhattan and go down to the park at lunchtime for a hot dog and fries,” he says, “but the beauty of New York is that it’s a city of immigrants and anything is possible. The amazing success that our firm has achieved still surprises me.”
Chen says that being Israeli afforded him more than a few advantages, including a penchant for creative thinking, high motivation, Israeli chutzpah and the will to succeed. Still, the Israeli mentality has its downsides: “New York is an international city, and you have to learn the rules before you jump in. At first I tended to think of us as the smartest guys around, until we began to understand the way things work in New York. But when you’re willing to do the learning, the advantages are considerable.”
Most of Chen’s projects are in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. “We have one project in London and another in Boston, but the bulk of our work is in Manhattan,” he says. “We do mainly residential work: planning the buildings, designing the interiors. We also do hotels and private homes and apartments for very wealthy clients. Currently in Manhattan we have 15 buildings under construction and another 17 in the planning stages.”
In New York City, dreaming of Tel Aviv
Since founding ODA, Chen has not yet had a chance to do a project in Israel. “I really want to,” he says. “I know a lot of other Israeli developers are working in Manhattan, but when the right opportunity comes along, I’ll be happy to contribute something to the housing in Israel, especially on a large scale. We had an entry in the competition for the National Library in Jerusalem and got an honorable mention.”
Chen believes that New York and Tel Aviv have a lot in common. “If we compare New York City and Tel Aviv, I think the challenges are similar. Both are very expensive cities in terms of housing costs and the cost of living, and they’re both relatively crowded, especially for families with children. The lifestyle is fairly similar. Of course New York is bigger and its public space is huge, although Tel Aviv also has wonderful public spaces with the sea, the parks, and the boulevards. The main problem is housing cost, and in that respect the two cities are similar.”
Chen notes that there are considerable logistical challenges in planning and building in a densely populated city like New York. “They’re projecting another four million residents here by 2020. Over the years the city has become increasingly open and a lot of people want to move to New York with their families. This poses a major challenge for architects looking to design for a high quality of life in small spaces. One of our areas of expertise is designing buildings in which the apartment is only part of what the resident is buying. The building itself has lifestyle amenities that provide an excellent quality of life despite the limited size of the apartments. This is a rapidly developing specialty here and has arrived in Israel too, but not yet to the same degree as New York. What’s beautiful is that, despite relatively small rooms, you have places to go, right there: the landscaped gardens, the gym, the children’s playroom, a therapeutic garden, a doggie park—and even spaces where residents can plant their own gardens. It’s about making maximum use of smart approaches that afford large activity areas for people living in small apartments in the range of 430 to 650 square feet. In New York, though, the apartments are still larger than apartments in Israel, and so are the rooms.”
Donald and me
One notable thing that makes Chen’s firm different is that, while working on impressive luxury projects in Manhattan for the wealthiest clients, he is also planning large-scale affordable housing projects in cooperation with city government.
Among ODAs luxury projects was the tallest apartment in the city, at the Trump Towers. “It was a very tough job logistically to plan that residence, since the building was already occupied and we were renovating the penthouse, so all the work was being done right on top of the neighbors in the floor below,” explains Chen. “Derek Jeter, the baseball star, lives under the apartment we were renovating, and we had to coordinate very carefully with him and also with his mother, who organizes his schedule, so that he could sleep late on the days when he was playing. It wasn’t easy.”
The size of the apartment and its height were also challenging. “The apartment is 21,500 square feet, and we had to bring up all the building materials, including steel, stone and concrete, in huge quantities, using the building’s elevator. Because we were creating a 36-foot waterfall with a reflecting pool in an apartment on the 90th floor, we had to construct rust-free steel insulation in four layers to insure that there would be no leaks, and reinforce the superstructure to handle the weight. What was most amazing was that we persuaded the tenants committee and Donald Trump himself that it could be done. We also incorporated all the most current smart technologies dealing with lighting, odors, and so forth. Making it all happen on the 90th floor was tough.”
The apartment encompasses some 20 distinct spaces, including eight bedrooms and 12 bathrooms, a Zen garden at the entrance, a waterfall and a reflecting pool, a living room with a 40-foot ceiling, three seating areas, a smoking room, a music room, a theater, a wine cellar which of course is not in a basement, a library, and a spa.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
“Charles Lewis Tiffany opened his first store in Manhattan in the 19th century. Tiffany’s was better known back then for lighting and glass, and less for jewelry,” says Chen. “They made the highest quality chandeliers in America and built with cast iron, notably at Union Square where the building itself resembled a jewel. About fifty years later, a piece of the façade fell and hit someone in the head, because the cast iron was anchored with screws. Subsequently Tiffany moved elsewhere. The building was stripped of its signature ornamentation, leaving just the basic structure and the arches. The addition of a façade of white brick made the place look quite forlorn. When we came into the picture, it housed a bank. We were hired to build a new building there, at 15 Union Square West. The idea was to demolish the bank and start over, but as we researched it, we learned the story of its prior incarnation and wanted to know what was underneath the bricks. We discovered that part of the old building was still there and decided not to tear it down but to expose the historic structure, renovate it, and encase it in glass, because we had to add another six stories on top. It became very much a New York story. The New York Times described it as a jewel of a commercial structure that became a bank that became a residential building, which five years ago was the most expensive building in the southern part of Manhattan and today has 36 private residential apartments.”
And the winner is: the Middle Class
Chen’s firm is currently right in the middle of the largest affordable housing project built in Manhattan in the last 50 years. “The City decided to develop a piece of land in the Long Island City area of Queens on the East River overlooking Manhattan, across from the United Nations headquarters,” relates Chen. “They decided that the city would donate the land to whichever team (an architect and a developer) submitted the winning plan, and they would build the project on the land provided free by the city.”
Chen’s firm, as you’ve already guessed, won the competition. This was at the end of 2013, and is currently one of 17 projects the firm has in various stages of planning. “We are now working with the City of New York and the developer to finalize the plans. In another eight months, the construction on the project will commence, and it will require about a year and a half to complete,” says Chen. “There will be 1,200 units, from studios to four-bedroom apartments. Seventy percent of them will be designated for average and low income families, with the prices to be set in accordance with city- appraised prices for middle class housing. Prices of the other 30 percent of the apartments will be allowed to increase.” Israel, are you listening?