Last week the newest installment of New York Public Television's popular film series, Treasures of New York, made its debut. Entitled Building Stories, the film traces the life and career of Costas Kondylis, 'an architect who has arguably done more to influence the New York skyline than any person currently active in New York City, business tycoons, developers and mayors included'. The film follows Kondylis's 40-plus year career designing mostly residential towers illustrating the constant battle between artistic expression and the bottom line and what it takes to design a building and gain its approval in the high-powered world of New York City real estate.
What it takes, we learn, is great compromise and no one does it better than Kondylis. Born in Africa to Greek parents, Kondylis set out be like Mies van der Rohe, his architectural hero. But rather than adopt van der Rohe's uncompromising attention to the minutest of details, Kondylis chose to become a developer's architect - to design buildings that are more 'mainstream' than revolutionary, more lackluster than blockbuster - buildings that have been value engineered to the nth degree and that show it; a fact that is not lost on most New Yorkers who consider many of Kondylis's buildings to be 'dull blots on the skyline', as the New York Times arts writer Robin Pogebrin called the residential towers he designed for Trump on the Far West Side.
While designing a record 86 towers in New York seems on the surface to be a major accomplishment, especially given the tough development climate in New York, this achievement is somewhat tempered by the fact that hardly any of Kondylis's buildings are memorable and only one of them, Trump World Tower, has received critical praise.
It's tragic, really, that with all the great architecture, past and present, the city has to offer and all the great building stories there are to tell, that the producers of this film, the New York real estate news outlet The Real Deal, chose to focus on one of New York's least memorable architectural moments - when, at the height of the building boon and the developers came calling with ideas that ran the gamut from flights of fancy to the ridiculous, Kondylis was there, primed to serve when other architects of greater substance and talent turned their backs on such projects.
As we learn in the film, Kondylis has gotten little praise for his work from other architects and his work has been largely ignored by the critics. One exception is Trump World Tower, a building near the United Nations that was roughly modeled on the Seagram's building. It won high praise from the New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp and also from architect Terance Riley, who at that time it was built was the Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. In Muschamp's review, Riley says of the building: "It's a Trump building, were not supposed to like it. But it works urbanistically and the glass curtain wall is the best New York has seen in a long time."
This would have been a great ending for the film and for Kondlysis career, had it been his last building. But sadly it wasn't. He went on to design some residential towers for Trump on the Far West Side that were an utter failure architecturally and urbanistically. In spite of it all, Kondylis is content being a developer's architect, designing within the parameters dictated by his clients. In 2010, he left his practice of over 150 employees to strike out on his own again. His new firm, Costas Kondylis Design, which had 20 employees when he started, is focused on green design.
A lot has changed in the years since the construction of Trump World Tower. A second development boon post 9/11 has brought about a very different kind of tower in New York - ones forged at the hands of signature designers that are also sustainable. Not all of them are winners but as a group of buildings they far outshine the towers produced in the last three decades.
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