Eliot Spitzer is a very busy man nowadays. He resigned as governor of New York State eight years ago, after an embarrassing sex scandal, and has since become a real estate magnate after inheriting his late father Bernard’s business a year ago. In a highly competitive market where glitz is as critical as floor space and finish, Spitzer is out to put his stamp on the scene with a $700-million Brooklyn residential complex of three towers and mostly luxury apartments. “The project will define the Brooklyn skyline,” he boasts.
For his showcase project, Spitzer chose Israeli architect Eran Chen, whose design looks like sculpted icebergs on the water.
Spitzer hopes to attract people with deep pockets from Manhattan; the project is scheduled to be completed in about two years. Spitzer says he chose Chen because – surprisingly, in a city chockablock with large residential structures – he says there are few architects who know how to plan large residential buildings properly. “Eran is talented, he has a good reputation in the industry, he understands the combination of aesthetics and functionalism – and he’s not a prima donna,” Spitzer explains.
Spitzer is by no means Chen’s only A-list client. Chen, 45, moved to New York from Israel in 2000. Today, he’s involved in the planning of about 50 buildings in the United States, most of them in New York. Fifteen have already been completed, about 20 are under construction and the rest in planning. His clients include large developers like the Simon Group, TF Cornerstone, JBG, Simon Dushinsky and Bruce Ratner. Chen also works with a number of Israeli developers who work in New York, including Yitzhak Tshuva, Ron Izaki and Gil Geva’s Tidhar Group.
Despite the attractions and money in the U.S. market, Chen continues to work with Israelis. “Israeli entrepreneurs won’t work with someone just because it’s comfortable,” Chen tells MarkerWeek. “But if someone meets expectations and does good work and is also Israeli, it’s a winning combination for them. The relations between a developer and an architect are very intimate, and in effect we build dreams together.”
Right now, Chen is working on buildings in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and London. In New York’s Bushwick neighborhood – an industrial area that has become a magnet for young artists – he’s planning a residential building with a huge park on the roof that’s big enough to include bike paths.
In Soho, meanwhile, he’s planning a building for Israeli developer Izaki, owner of the IGI Group. Chen has planned rooms that look like they jump out from the core building and are floating in the air. The residents get to enjoy a near-360 degree view while their roof serves as a garden – amenities that usually belong to penthouses. “I wanted to integrate an intimate style in an area that has an industrial character,” explains Chen. “The modular facade begins with two floors of garden apartments with large windows. Each window is in a deeply inset aluminum frame. The overall composition creates intimacy on the one hand, and the power of an industrial building on the other.”
According to Eldad Blaustein, who is in charge of IGI’s New York operations, “The squares that jump out of the building on upper floors take advantage of zoning rules that allow that. It’s creative and is a big bonus for the residents.”
Chen’s name made the headlines recently after he designed an apartment in the Trump World Tower (next to the UN building) that is considered exceptional even in terms of New York luxury. The apartment, which belongs to an unnamed financier, comprises two huge apartments of a combined 2,000 square meters (about 21,500 square feet) on the 89th and 90th floors. The owner bought them at the height of the 2008 financial crisis for about $53 million, after they had been on the market for five years, and invested $67 million over four years building the interiors.
The views capture nearly every inch of Manhattan. The library faces downtown and Wall Street, and from another room the panorama counts the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building. The floor is made of rare African wood and Italian marble. The apartment has a “dragon” shower with a flow of 500 gallons of water a minute.
Chen’s role in a property that was over the top even by New York standards generated a lot of criticism, but it doesn’t affect him. “Some of the world’s most beloved monuments were built by wealthy people and became a symbol of the period – for good and ill. My job as an architect is to express the client’s desires and find expression for it in contemporary culture, not fight it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the apartment some day becomes a museum for contemporary art.”
Another apartment designed by Chen also attracted attention – but this time because of its unique design rather than the price tag. The Neo-Romanesque-style building on a quiet street in Tribeca, previously used as a warehouse for liquor and pistachio nuts, belongs to a real estate mogul who purchased it on eBay from an artist. With a $3-million budget, Chen created a penthouse with an industrial patina, spread over three floors and 280 square meters.
“The building was constructed of wood 130 years ago,” says Chen. ‘We wanted to leave the original wood exposed, in order to create a unique and authentic look, but we had to take into account the stringent fire safety rules. We took apart the old wooden beams, treated them and reassembled them.”
McDonald’s changed his life
Chen was born in Be’er Sheva and grew up in Rehovot. The dramatic change in his life took place when he went to study architecture at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. “In professional terms, Bezalel changed my life and opened new horizons for me,” he says. During his third year, he met the McDonald’s franchisee in Israel. “They gave me an opportunity to plan a restaurant for them on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, and a love story began between us. When I finished studying, I designed 30 restaurants for them.”
Sixteen years ago, at age 30, he arrived in New York. “I wanted to do something new, and New York always amazed me,” he explains. “Everything happened much faster than I had thought. I joined Perkins Eastman, and the first building they asked me to help plan was in Israel, of all places – the Davidoff Cancer Center in Beilinson Hospital [in Petah Tikva].”
After five years Chen became a partner and, among other things, represented the firm to Israeli developers.
“As a young partner, I was looking for projects in Manhattan. It was during the real estate boom, when many Israeli developers entered the New York market. The first ones to give me a chance to plan a large building were Yitzhak Tshuva and Miki Naftali – The Grand Madison, a 12-story building on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. It was a project to convert it into a residential building and we had to work with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The project was successful, and slowly but surely I began to expand my ties with Israeli entrepreneurs.”
Eight years ago, Chen left Perkins Eastman and started his own firm, ODA (for Office for Design & Architecture): “The dream of every architect is to start an independent firm. Work in a large firm requires a lot of compromises in terms of design and quality, and I wanted to take my career in a new direction with a design orientation. In a way, the large architecture firms are like a big factory: They create high-quality buildings, but not necessarily with a statement or strong design message.”
Chen went solo just as the 2008 financial crisis exploded and there were days when he considered giving up. By 2010, though, business began to pick up and has been soaring since. “Today, I’m limiting how fast we grow,” says Chen. “There’s a limit to how much you can grow. I want to be personally involved in projects and to ensure that there’s a positive atmosphere in the firm.”
Like the Brooklyn project, Chen says the biggest opportunities now are to be found in the four New York boroughs outside of Manhattan. “Prices in the Williamsburg neighborhood [in Brooklyn] are already crazy, but in the distant neighborhoods you can find opportunities. Anything along a subway line has a potential for success. New York’s urban development depends on the subway lines – that’s how it is in Brooklyn, but also in Queens and The Bronx, too. There are distant areas that nobody talks about much, but they’re beginning to develop. We see the major developers buying land in The Bronx. The problem is that the banks aren’t eager to finance projects in those areas, because there are no precedents for large transactions in them and it’s hard to assess the value of the land.”
What do you think about the large number of huge, narrow towers they’re building in the city?
“It’s unavoidable. There are many rich people in the world, and for them New York is a safe place to put their money. And since an apartment on a high floor is considered a luxury, entrepreneurs will keep building towers.”
How does your Israeli background affect your work?
“My personal inspiration comes from my personal history. I’m proud of the fact that sometimes when I think about a building I want to plan, I imagine my childhood in Be’er Sheva or a village on Mount Gilboa. The real Israeli success is the building of cultural foundations that enable us to stand out not only in the field of technology, but also in the fields of construction, art, etc. We should all be proud of our culture. Israel has a social and cultural complexity that helps to consolidate a comprehensive view of life.”
Don’t you ever feel like becoming an entrepreneur?
“I was dragged into that once and I reached the conclusion that it’s better for me to stay in architecture.”
And what about projects in Israel?
“There’s talk all the time, but nothing comes of it. The truth is, I’m not looking simply to build in Israel. If I build in Israel – it has to be something special. I don’t want to jump at every opportunity that comes my way. So in the meantime there are only feelers.”
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