David Leventhal. Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF). Interview and text by Vladimir Belogolovskiy

KPF is one more participant of an exposition of the Russian pavilion on XI Architectural biennial in Venice

author pht

Written by:
Vladimir Belogolovsky

28 July 2008
Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, KPF was founded in 1976 in New York. The firm employs over 500 architects in New
York, London and Shanghai with a diverse portfolio of super tall skyscrapers, museums, universities, banks, hotels,
convention centers and airports all over the world. David Leventhal jointed KPF in 1979. He is a partner-in-charge of design at the London office, which he founded in 1989 together with Lee Polisano, now the president of the firm. David designed award-winning projects at Oxford University, the London School of Economics, the Parliament House and the National Theatre in Cyprus and high-rises in North America, Europe and the Middle East. These projects incorporate low-energy design strategies and exemplify the firm’s commitment to sustainable architecture.
KPF is now working on three projects in Moscow. In 2006, the firm was invited to take part in new Administrative
Business Complex competition in St. Petersburg for Gazprom, Russian energy giant. David expressed his amazement and
disappointment with Gazprom’s decision to build a 400-meter tall skyscraper in close proximity to the historical city center. Being familiar with the horizontal and historically cohesive urban character of St. Petersburg, it became a moral issue for KPF partners to decline the challenge to design a skyscraper in a place where it does not belong. We met with David Leventhal at his company’s multistory office in the Economist building, the home of the famous namesake.

You went to Harvard art school but graduated from architecture. What determined your choice?

I’m originally from Boston and if you live in Boston you are expected to go to Harvard. In my undergraduate program, I specialized in fine arts and was debating whether to become a museum curator or an architect. When I finished the undergraduate program I still didn’t know, so I went to work – first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then for
Pietro Belluschi, a famous Italian-American architect. I learned what it is like to be an architect and was much more excited about architecture, so I went back to Harvard. For me the best professor there was Michael McKinnell, a fantastic teacher and the architect of the City Hall in Boston, which I think is the best example of 20th century architecture in Boston. I graduated in 1978.

How did you hear about KPF?

I came to New York right after Harvard and saw the new ABC Television Studio on West 67th Street. I found out that it was a building designed by a company called KPF, so I went there and was interviewed by two KPF founders, Eugene Kohn and William Pedersen. They liked my work and we shared a great passion for Alvar Aalto’s architecture. They were not hiring then and asked me to come back in the future. I started working for Cain, Farrell & Bell, the successors to the famous beaux-arts firm of McKim, Mead and White. They had original drawings by Charles McKim, which attracted me to their office in the first place. I worked there for about 9 months. One day a professor from Columbia University came
to the office because he found out about these drawings. He asked the partners if he could have them and they gave these
priceless drawings away, just like that. At that point, I knew I had to leave since the office was not very passionate about
architecture. I called KPF and almost 30 years later, I am still here.

Do you ever contemplate about having your own firm?

Absolutely not! What is so great about KPF is that from the very beginning I knew that I was with the people who share my
thoughts and passions. My voice was heard, my opinions respected and whenever I was with the clients by myself I could speak for the firm. I could always say – “we”.

Do skyscrapers remain the main focus of KPF’s workload?

They are one of our focuses. We continue to work on very tall and exciting projects, such as Shanghai World Financial Center, a 101-story tower. It’s primary form is an intersection of a square plan extruded and two sweeping arcs, which taper to a single line at the apex. The top is pierced by a square opening to relieve wind pressure. It is under construction now and is expected to become a new icon on the Shanghai skyline. However, for us the real focus is not just producing tall iconic buildings, but working in cities. Of course, skyscrapers are now a big part of working in cities. It is important how our urban projects contribute to city life and how it is for the people to work inside of these buildings.

Let’s talk about your projects in Russia.

We have three major projects in Moscow. Two projects are direct commissions and one we won through a competition. The first project is with the development firm called Horus Capital. The second project is Park-City. It is located right across the river from the White House and next to the Ukraine Hotel on 36 acres (15 hectares) site. There we are working on the master plan and the design of several new buildings. The third project is several office towers along Kutuzovsky prospect for Alpha Bank and ZAO Inteco.

What are these projects like?

The Horus project is right on the Garden Ring. At first, we designed a tall building that featured horizontal planes rising gradually into vertical planes. The design was inspired by Russian architecture of the 1920s and 30s. When we presented this scheme, we were told that our site was not reserved for a highrise, so we went back to the drawing board. The second proposal is very different. It has a very hard edge on the outside protecting a curving, oasis-like interior space to the rear. Straight rays coming from an imaginary point deep down within the earth and form the basis for the façade. Dynamically angled glass panels evoke the impression of a great burst of energy and excitement. The lobby is very open and accessible to the public for restaurants and retail. We are working  with designer Ron Arad on a very expressive sculptural piece that will unify many architectural elements within.
At Park-City we proposed two main organizing urban gestures – a new boulevard, parallel to Kutuzovsky Prospekt and the diagonal axis, which picks up the angle from the late 19th century Badaevsky Beer Brewery building. This axis runs straight, past the water’s edge over a highway and terminates in a very dramatic 35-meter cantilever. This dynamic structure will have a spectacular viewing platform, restaurants and outdoor spaces along the river. The office complex on Kutuzovsky
prospect, near Victory Park, is a composition of organic towers and lower terraced buildings that merge with the landscape,
creating a public space with an underground retail link to the Metro.

What other architects work with you on the Park-City project?

Rafael Vinoly is designing three residential towers along the river. Other buildings are designed by a Beirut architect Nabil Gholam and young London-based Brisac Gonzalez, who apprenticed at our London studio many years ago.

Many major projects in Russia are being designed by foreign architects. Do you feel you have the advantage over the Russian architects?

I can only tell you about KPF. We have a great passion for working in cities and we have a tremendous respect for local
culture. Most importantly, we know how to interpret a local condition from an international perspective. We have a very
diverse international portfolio of successful projects.

How frequently do you go to Russia?

I’m very involved with the Horus project and now we are beginning to collaborate on a couple of new projects with them. We have meetings every two weeks, alternating between London and Moscow. I go to Moscow at least once a month. I have been there ten times. Moscow is a difficult city to say that one knows it well, but I think I am beginning to understand it more and more. Each time we go, we try to visit a museum, a local site, a train station or a monument. Our client is very passionate about architecture so whenever we have an hour between meetings, we go see something.

Have you seen anything interesting built there recently?

There is a lot being built, but to be honest,  much of what one sees just passing by is not incredibly exciting. I suspect there are some interesting projects there, but they are not at the forefront of the city. What interests me more are buildings from the 1920’s and 30’s by the constructivists. The ones that I liked most are by Melnikov – his house and the clubs. They are done with a fantastic imagination and a great sense of taking a program and making something very special. Also, I’ve been several times to the recent exhibit of Richard Pare photographs at MoMA, so I made a list of buildings and every time I go to Moscow I try to visit something new.

Is it difficult to work in Russia?

What is special about Russia is that so many things are constantly changing. Even the building codes are changing. The
notion of a tall building is always being reconsidered. Atria in tall buildings are not clearly defined. The fire codes are very conservative because there are no precedents for many types of construction. Even with our international experience, we have great difficulties to prove that our solutions are safe and valid.

How would you compare working in Russia to China or the Middle East?

Each place is different and it has a lot to do with where each country stands in the cycle of development. In the Middle East,
in places like Abu Dhabi or Qatar they are far ahead of Russia. China is right behind the Middle East and Russia is behind China. Recently these countries reissued their building codes, so they have, for example, real high-rise codes. In Russia, we still run into so many uncertainties.

Do you see any particular shifts in the demands of your clients for innovative ideas?

Interestingly, some of the countries in the Middle East are the ones that are pushing for new ideas. For example, our client in Abu-Dhabi for the ADIA Headquarters pushed us to come up with the workspace that would be the best in the world and actually encourage people to work together. Each floor has an open plan, zones for interaction and meetings  within a central landscaped atrium and a series of sky gardens. There was also a desire to fit this new building into the local context. The curved form of the tower is related to fluid forces of the waterfront site. The office floors are connected with convenience stairs, expressed in elevation as a slim glass tower. It breaks the bulk of the building and proportionally mimics
many tall minarets in the city, but in a very suggestive, abstract way. The building is wrapped in ribbon-like surface of doubleglazed curtain wall with horizontal shading devices, which is both economical and beautiful.

Do you foresee any particular changes in the way tall and super tall buildings are going to be used in the future?

The world’s densest cities like New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong are also its most energy efficient. For sustainable reasons alone, we must live more densely. More and more, tall buildings are used for mixeduse programs such as hotel, residential, commercial and offices. It is a very economical way to occupy a particular site. This strategy leads to substantial energy savings because an excess heat load, for example from an office user could be used to heat an apartment. Tall structures create new important social spaces, such as elevator transfer floors or sky-gardens. Many cities in the Middle East are very spread out and tall buildings make them feel very exciting and urban. Tall buildings are identified with progress and prestige and people are willing to pay a very high price to live or to work in them.

In other words, cities will grow upwards and Moscow is no exception.

 Sure. Tall buildings make economic sense in many parts of the world. When skyscrapers are grouped together and are supported by developed infrastructure and especially public transportation, they form very exciting dense city centers that identify the greatest cities around the world today. That is why Moscow needs to build high, but obviously, each building should be sensitive to its surrounding. There is another important point. A skyscraper is defined by an aspiration, one that intends to link earth and sky, the new dimension of the cities of this new century.

28 July 2008

author pht

Written by:

Vladimir Belogolovsky
comments powered by HyperComments
Headlines now
​In Three Voices
The high-rise – 41 stories high – housing complex HIDE is being built on the bank of the Setun River, near the Poklonnaya Mountain. It consists of three towers of equal height, yet interpreted in three different ways. One of the towers, the most conspicuous one looks as if it was twisted in a spiral, composed of a multitude of golden bay windows.
​Dynamics of the Avenue
On Leningrad Avenue, not far away from the Sokol metro station, the construction of the A-Class business center Alcon II has been completed. ADM architects designed the main façade as three volumetric ribbons, as if the busy traffic of the avenue “shook” the matter sending large waves through it.
​Steamer at the Pier
An apartment hotel that looks like a ship with wide decks has been designed for a land plot on a lake shore in Moscow’s South Tushino. This “steamer” house, overlooking the lake and the river port, does indeed look as if it were ready to sail away.
The Magic of Rhythm or Ornament as a Theme
Designed by Sergey Tchoban, the housing complex Veren Place in St. Petersburg is the perfect example of inserting a new building into a historical city, and one the cases of implementing the strategy that the architect presented a few years ago in the book, which he coauthored with Vladimir Sedov, called “30:70. Architecture as a Balance of Forces”.
​Walking on Water
In the nearest future, the Marc Chagall Embankment will be turned into Moscow’s largest riverside park with green promenades, cycling and jogging trails, a spa center on water, a water garden, and sculptural pavilions designed in the spirit of the Russian avant-garde artists of the 1920, and, first of all, Chagall himself. In this issue, we are covering the second-stage project.
​Architectural Laboratory
A-Len has developed and patented the “Perfect Apartments” program, which totally eliminates “bad” apartment layouts. In this article, we are sharing how this program came around, what it is about, who can benefit from it, and how.
​“Architectural Archaeology of the Narkomfin Building”: the Recap
One of the most important events of 2020 has been the completion of the long-awaited restoration of the monument of Soviet avant-garde architecture – the Narkomfin Building, the progenitor of the typology of social housing in this country. The house retained its residential function as the main one, alongside with a number of artifacts and restoration clearances turned into living museum exhibits.
​LIFE on the Setun River
The area in the valley of the Setun River near the Vereiskaya Street got two new blocks of the “LIFE-Kutuzovsky” housing complex, designed by ADM architects. The two new blocks have a retail boulevard of their own, and a small riverside park.
​Celestial Tectonics
Three towers on a podium over the Ramenka River are the new dominant elements on the edge of a Soviet “microdistrict”. Their scale is quite modern: the height is 176 m – almost a skyscraper; the facades are made of glass and steel. Their graceful proportions are emphasized by a strict white grid, and the volumetric composition picks up the diagonal “grid of coordinates” that was once outlined in the southwest of Moscow by the architects of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Clouds over the Railroad
In the stead of former warehouses near “Lyubertsy-1” station, a new housing complex has been built, which peacefully coexists with the railroad, with the flyover bridge, and with the diverse surrounding scenery, not only dominating over the latter, but improving it.
​Towers in a Forest
The authors of the housing complex “In the Heart of Pushkino” were faced with a difficult task: to preserve the already existing urban forest, at the same time building on it a compound of rather high density. This is how three towers at the edge of the forest appeared with highly developed public spaces in their podiums and graceful “tucks” in the crowning part of the 18-story volumes.
​The Towers of “Sputnik”
Six towers, which make up a large housing complex standing on the bank of the Moskva River at the very start of the Novorizhskoe Highway, provide the answers to a whole number of marketing requirements and meets a whole number of restrictions, offering a simple rhythm and a laconic formula for the houses that the developer preferred to see as “flashy”.
​The Starting Point
In this article, we are reviewing two retro projects: one is 20 years old, the other is 25. One of them is Saint Petersburg’s first-ever townhouse complex; the other became the first example of a high-end residential complex on Krestovsky Island. Both were designed and built by Evgeny Gerasimov and Partners.
The Path to New Ornamentation
The high-end residential complex “Aristocrat” situated next to a pine park at the start of the Rublev Highway presents a new stage of development of Moscow’s decorative historicist architecture: expensively decorated, yet largely based on light-colored tones, and masterfully using the romantic veneer of majolica inserts.
​Renovation: the Far East Style
The competition project of renovating two central city blocks of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, developed by UNK project, won the nomination “Architectural and planning solutions of city construction”.
​The Contact
The Istituto Centrale per la Grafica in Rome presents Sergei Tchoban’s exhibition “Imprint of the future. Destiny of Piranesi’s City”. The exhibition includes four etchings, based on Roman architectural views of the XVIII century complemented by futuristic insertions, as well as a lot of drawings that investigate the same topic, at times quite expressively. The exhibition poses questions, but does not seem to give any answers. Since going to Rome is pretty problematic now, let’s at least examine the pictures.
​In Search of Visual Clarity
In this article, we are reviewing a discussion devoted to the question of designing city space elements, which is quite complicated for the Russian expanses of land. The discussion was organized by the Genplan Institute of Moscow at the ArchMoscow convention in Gostiny Dvor.
​The City of the Sun
Jointly designed by Sergey Tchoban and Vladimir Plotkin, the VTB Arena Park complex can arguably be considered the perfect experiment on solving the centuries-old controversy between traditional architecture and modernism. The framework of the design code, combined with the creative character of the plastique-based dialogue between the buildings, formed an all-but-perfect fragment of the city fabric.
​...The Other Was Just Railroad Gin*
In their project of the third stage of “Ligovsky City” housing complex, located in the industrial “gray” belt of Saint Petersburg, the KCAP & Orange Architects & A-Len consortium set before themselves a task of keeping up the genius loci by preserving the contours of the railroad and likening the volumes of residential buildings to railroad containers, stacked up at the goods unloading station.
​Lions on Glass
While reconstructing the facades of Building 4 of Moscow Hospital #23, SPEECH architects applied a technique, already known from Saint Petersburg projects by Sergey Tchoban – cassettes with elements of classical architecture printed on glass. The project was developed gratis, as a help to the hospital.
Park of Sentiments
The project of “Romantic Park Tuchkov Buyan”, which was developed by the consortium of Studio 44 and WEST 8, and has won an international competition, combines sculptural landscape design and wooden structures, variety of spatial features and an eventful agenda, designed for diverse audience, with a beautiful and complex passeist idea of a palace park, meant to evoke thoughts and feelings.
​Architecture as an Educational Tool
The concept of a charity school “Tochka Budushchego” (“Point of the Future”) in Irkutsk is based on cutting-edge educational programs, and is designed, among other things, for adapting orphaned children for independent life. An important role is played by the architecture of the building: its structure and different types of interconnected spaces.
​The Gallery Approach
In this article, we are covering the concept of a Central District Clinic for 240 patients, designed by Ginzburg Architects, which won at a competition organized by the Architects Union and the Healthcare Ministry.
Health Constructor
In this issue, we are publishing the concept of a standard clinic designed by UNK Project, which took second place in the competition organized by the Union of Architects of Russia in collaboration with the Healthcare Ministry.
From Foundation to Teaspoon
Based on the taste of their friendly clients, the architects Olga Budennaya and Roman Leonidov designed and built a house in the Moscow metropolitan area playing Art Nouveau. At the same time, they enriched the typology of a private house with modern functions of a garage loft and a children’s art studio.
Continuation and Development
The second “office” stage of Comcity, the most popular business park of the “New Moscow” area, continues the underground street of the already existing part of the complex, responding to its architectural identity.
​The Flying One
Expected to become an analogue of Moscow’s Skolkovo, the project of the High Park campus at Saint Petersburg’s ITMO University, designed by Studio 44, mesmerizes us with its sheer scale and the passion that the architects poured into it. Its core – the academic center – is interpreted as an avant-garde composition inspired by Piazza del Campo with a bell tower; the park is reminiscent of the “rays” of the main streets of Saint Petersburg, and, if watched from a birds-eye view, the whole complex looks like a motherboard with at least four processors on it. The design of the academic building even displays a few features of a sports arena. The project has a lot of meanings and allusions about it; all of them are united by plastique energy that the hadron collider itself could be jealous of.
​The Aperture Effect
For a housing complex built in the town of Pushkino in the Moscow metropolitan area, KPLN Architects designed facades that adjust the stream of light by using the wall geometry.
​A Comfortable City in Itself
The project that we are about to cover is seemingly impossible amidst human anthills, chaotically interspersed with old semi-neglected dachas. Meanwhile, the housing complex built on the Comcity business part does offer a comfortable environment of decent city: not excessively high-rise and moderately private as a version of the perfect modern urbanist solution.
Moving on the Edge
The housing complex “Litsa” (“Faces”) on Moscow’s Khodynka Field is one of the new grand-scale buildings that complement the construction around it. This particular building skillfully tackles the scale, subjugating it to the silhouette and the pattern; it also makes the most of the combination of a challenging land site and formidable square footage requirements, packing a whole number of features within one volume, so the house becomes an analogue of a city. And, to cap it all, it looks like a family that securely protects the children playing in the yard from... well, from everything, really.
Visual Stability Agent
A comparatively small house standing on the border of the Bolshevik Factory combines two diametrically opposite features: expensive materials and decorative character of Art Deco, and a wide-spaced, even somewhat brutal, facade grid that highlights a laminated attic.
The Faraday Cage
The project of the boutique apartment complex in the 1st Truzhenikov Lane is the architects’ attempt to squeeze a considerable volume into a tiny spot of land, at the same time making it look graceful and respectable. What came to their rescue was metal, stone, and curvilinear glass.
Color and Line
The new successful techniques developed by A.Len for designing a kindergarten under budget constraints: the mosaic of irregular windows and working with color.
The Union of Art and Technology
His interest for architecture of the 1930’s is pretty much the guiding star for Stepan Liphart. In his project of the “Amo” house on St. Petersburg’s Vasilyevsky Island, the architect based himself on Moscow Art Deco - aesthetically intricate and decorated in scratch-work technique. As a bonus, he developed the city block typology as an organic structure.
The Countdown
The project that Evgeniy Gerasimov and Partners developed for Moscow’s Leningrad Avenue: the tallest building in the company’s portfolio, continuing the tradition of Moscow’s Stalin architecture.
White Town
In the project that they developed for a southern region of Russia, OSA Architects use multilayered facades that create an image of seaside resort architecture, and, in the vein of the latest trends of today, mix up different social groups that the residents belong to.
​Just a Mirror for the Sun
The house that Sergey Skuratov designed in Nikolovorobinsky Alley is thought out down to the last detail. It adapts three historical facades, interprets a feeling of a complex city, is composed of many layers, and catches plenty of sunlight, from sunrises to sunsets. The architect himself believes that the main role of this house is creating a background for another nearby project of his, Art House in the Tessinsky Alley.
​Part of the Whole
On June 5, the winners of Moscow Architectural Award were announced. The winners list includes the project of a school in Troitsk for 2,100 students, with its own astronomy dome, IT testing ground, museum, and a greenhouse on the roof.
Pedagogical Architecture
Yet another project of a private school, in which Archimatika realizes the concept of aesthetic education and introduces a new tradition: combining Scandinavian and Soviet experience, turning to works of art, and implementing sustainable technologies.
​Rational Arrangement
In this article, we are examining a complex of buildings and interiors of the first stage of the project that has recently become extremely popular – the Kommunarka clinic.
​Parallel Universe
In the “Parallel House” residence that he designed in the Moscow metropolitan area, the architect Roman Leonidov created a dramatic sculptural composition from totally basic shapes – parallelepipeds, whose collision turned into an exciting show.
In the Istra district of Moscow metropolitan area, the tandem of 4izmerenie and ARS-ST designed a sports complex – a monovolume that has the shape of a chamfered parallelepiped with a pointed “nose” like a ship’s bow.
​Stairway to Heaven
The project of a hotel in the settlement of Yantarny is an example of a new recreational complex typology, and a new format that unites the hotel, the business, and the cultural functions. All of this is complemented by 100% integration with nature.