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How Architect Gene Kaufman Wins Over Hotel Developers

Left to right, renderings for 125 West 28th Street and 30 West 46th Street, two Kaufman projects.

Last December, the architect Gene Kaufman sent out his annual Christmas card. An image of the Hotel Chelsea, the venerable 130-year-old brick building that Kaufman had been renovating, was displayed prominently. But the project, a collaboration with the enigmatic developer Joseph Chetrit, had already gone sour. Although primarily known as a hotel, the Hotel Chelsea was home to an entrenched group of full-time residents, and Chetrit battled with the tenants over construction issues and alleged faulty repairs. In November, Chetrit sold his majority stake to boutique hotel developer King & Grove, which had been a passive investor in the project. King & Grove subsequently replaced Kaufman with Marvel Architects and vowed a change in tenant relations.

It was one of few recent setbacks for the prolific Kaufman, who has become the most active New York hotel designer in the past decade. He has also become perhaps the most reviled, with one commentator calling him "the face of architectural evil." But the hate has done little to stop Kaufman's flood of work. As of a few weeks ago, Kaufman had already partnered again with Chetrit on a new hotel and retail building at 245 West 34th Street. On top of his vast Manhattan portfolio, he also has projects in the works for Jersey City and Bushwick.

Kaufman, who declined to comment for this story, holds an unusual place in the architecture world, in that he seems to regularly and consistently enrage people. Famous Pritzker-winnnig "starchitects" like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have their own haters. But architects at Kaufman's level—his firm has a few dozen employees—rarely induce such violent reactions.

One quality that marks Kaufman—and other hated architects like Robert Scarano and Karl Fischer—is that they tend to work in rapidly changing neighborhoods like Chelsea and Greenwich Village, where virtually any new development is going to be greeted with some unease, if not outright rejection. Kaufman's specialty, hotels, have a particularly alien quality in general, because they are targeted to churn through temporary visitors rather than cater to existing residents.

Kaufman's notoriety is perhaps also a symptom of the new digital reality. Renderings emerge so early in the design process that everyone has become a critic, even if they never experience a building in person. The proliferation of renderings has caused some unease in the industry, because they are intended primarily as promotional tools and will never fully capture a building's real presence. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger has written that he doesn't generally comment on unbuilt projects, "since you can tell only so much from drawings and plans." Kaufman's projects are often reviled at the rendering stage, and some, indeed, never come to fruition. One notorious example is the design for a new hotel at 347 Bowery, which featured "glowing red tumors" in an early design. The site's owner, Louzon Hotel Group, has since sold the property, and now residential apartments are planned.

Gene Kaufman was born in New York in 1958. He went to college at Cornell University and worked for the Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly and in New Mexico and Switzerland, according to his website. He founded Gene Kaufman Architect PC in 1986, and his big break came in the 1990s, when he met Sam Chang, the aggressive developer of mid-budget hotels, who bought a property that Kaufman was working on. "Don't worry, this is going to be the best thing that happened to you," Chang told Kaufman, according to the Times.

That chance encounter led to dozens of new hotels from the two men, rising from side streets and vacant lots. Chang's strategy was to buy cheaper land zoned for manufacturing, which allows hotel use but not residential. He then crammed as many rooms into the parcel as air rights allowed. "Room count is the key to the financial success of the project, so from the owner's point of view we should, and do, fit in as many rooms as possible. That is how we make our clients rich and successful," Kaufman told Hotels Magazine in 2008.

Kaufman said that he seeks to integrate his designs with the fabric of the city. "Responding to a neighborhood is a way of giving a project an identity," he told Hotels. "Unlike some less complex places there is no single New York City style, image, or context. But there is no one way of looking at a single neighborhood either, which is good, because in Chelsea, for instance, we have nine hotel projects."

Because Chang's properties were predominantly built as-of-right and outside historic districts, there were no restrictions on design beyond the zoning regulations and budget. No matter what public objections existed, the projects generally rose without any obstacles. The emphasis was not on daring new architecture, but practical matters: cost, zoning and profits.

Kaufman's work is more notable for its sheer volume than individual projects being particularly architecturally distinct. Even his project at 99 Washington Street, touted as the tallest Holiday Inn in the world at 50 stories, resembles much of his other designs. "Hotels are limiting in many ways, because we're providing the same type of room over and over again," Kaufman told the Times. But the duo innovated by adding larger fitness areas and building on smaller parcels that other developers overlooked. Kaufman and Chang's timing was impeccable, coinciding with a boom in New York tourism, which has risen to a record 54.3 million visitors in 2013. And while luxury housing has dominated new residential development, the middle of the market—think Holiday Inn and Hilton Garden—has been the big winner in the hospitality sector.

Kaufman soon became renowned for his particular skill set. "Gene's a very gifted architect who has the ability to quickly conceptualize how projects will fit and layout on sites," William Obeid, CEO of developer Gemini Real Estate Advisors, told Curbed. "I think Gene has a very good balance of commercial practicality with design elements that are appropriate for each one of his clients and projects." Kaufman and Atelier & Co. designed Gemini's Jade Hotel near Union Square, which opened in February 2013. He also recently completed Gemini's Crowne Plaza hotel near John F. Kennedy airport, which involved the renovation of a building built in the 1950s. Gemini has purchased two other Kaufman-designed hotels from Chang. "Gene's always been very willing to listen to what I need and adapt plans," said Obeid.

Kaufman's client now include some of the city's biggest developers, including Starwood Capital and Joseph Sitt's Thor Equities. And Chang, who has said he is near retirement, has at least one more hotel under development with Kaufman at 326 West 37th Street. "He works hard. His feeling is he gets business because the developer says 'I need three more inches to make this nicer sink fit,' and he is like, 'I will get it done.'" says one industry source who has written about Kaufman.

[A rendering of Kaufman's design for the Crowne Plaza hotel.]

After the recession hit, Kaufman was seeking to diversify his practice, and he sought a partnership with the venerable firm Gwathmey Siegel, which formed in 1967. Co-founder Charles Gwathmey, a modernist icon, designed the expansion wing at Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum. More recently, Gwathmey attracted his own critics with a glassy residential tower at once-gritty Astor Place.

Gwathmey passed away from cancer in 2009, and the firm, led by co-founder Robert Siegel, downsized from 65 to 20 employees because of lack of work. "After 43 years of having a very productive partnership, half of us was missing. We continued to operate, and we had some interesting projects, but we weren't generating enough work, at least in terms of what I thought the office should be doing," Siegel told Architectural Record in 2011.

Kaufman emailed Siegel and the two met to discuss a possible partnership. Kaufman was in a much stronger economic position, and with the economy still shaky, the veteran Siegel had to consider a merger. "I was interested in talking with Gene because he has cultivated a very successful practice with private developers. It was an opportunity to radically increase our outreach to a new client base, which was attractive to me because in this economy, opportunities for new work are thin," Siegel told Architectural Record. In 2011, Kaufman announced his acquisition of a majority stake in the firm, which was renamed Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects LLC. The new company included 20 employees from Gwathmey Siegel and 30 from Kaufman's office. Kaufman also maintains his individual practice.

Although Kaufman is still focused on the New York region, the new partnership may lead to more opportunities in Europe, Asia, and beyond. And it's a testament that dominating a specialty like hotel designs trumps popularity in an uncertain time for architects. By partnering with such a renowned firm and doing more ambitious projects, Kaufman may also gain something that has eluded him in the eyes of the general public: respect.
—Roland Li

· Gene Kaufman coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]
· Hotels Week 2014 [Curbed]