Eugene Kohn, Architect of Skyscraping Ambitions, Dies at 92

Eugene Kohn, an architect who co-founded the firm Kohn Pedersen Fox in 1976 and whose ambitions led it to become, within a few years, a rival to long-established international architectural firms and one of the most prolific designers of skyscrapers in the world, died on Thursday at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 92.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his wife, Barbara Shattuck Kohn, said.

At last count, KPF, as the firm is known, had designed more than 250 skyscrapers around the globe, including some of the tallest. Among them are the World Financial Center in Shanghai; headquarters for Unilever and Amazon in London; the World Bank headquarters in Washington; the Abu Dhabi International Airport; the International Commerce Center in Hong Kong; the headquarters of Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati; Baruch College in Manhattan; the IBM headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.; and the Infinity Tower in São Paulo.

The firm also designed some of New York’s tallest new buildings, including One Vanderbilt, next door to Grand Central Terminal, as well as 30 Hudson Yards, 10 Hudson Yards and 55 Hudson Yards.

At Mr. Kohn’s death, KPF had grown from three partners in a borrowed office in Midtown Manhattan into an enterprise with 650 employees and offices on three continents, devoted to the production of designs that balanced the strong expression of an architectural idea with an equally strong pragmatism.

KPF has been known for being at the forefront of design and for giving its buildings a whiff of the cutting edge, but never so much of one as to alienate its corporate clients. Mr. Kohn knew how to speak a chief executive’s language, and if he proposed a building that was somewhat more daring than what his clients had expected, he was exceptionally good at convincing them that it would be in their interest to go along.

“It’s kind of ludicrous to say commercial architecture in itself is not worth our best efforts,” Mr. Kohn said in an interview for a 1987 monograph on the firm’s first decade of work, “because what, in fact, influences the life of the average person in our urban areas more than commercial architecture? Cities are made up of commercial buildings. Designing quality architecture for commercial buildings is the contribution we intend to make.”

The key to KPF’s success was the unusual partnership between Mr. Kohn, who was passionate about design but did not see himself as a creative innovator, and William Pedersen, a talented designer who had worked under I.M. Pei on the design of the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington and who, by the mid-1970s, was eager to take on new challenges.

Mr. Kohn was then in charge of the New York office of John Carl Warnecke, a prominent architect based in San Francisco, and he recruited Mr. Pedersen to join him there. Mr. Kohn had previously persuaded Sheldon Fox, an architecture school classmate from the University of Pennsylvania, to join him at Warnecke. There, the three men set about trying to expand the firm’s presence on the East Coast.

But a lot of the work Mr. Kohn had hoped to generate didn’t materialize, and he decided he would be better off on his own. He persuaded Mr. Pedersen to join him as a design partner and Mr. Fox to oversee the firm’s business affairs, and the three went into business as Kohn Pedersen Fox at the depth of New York’s economic troubles in the 1970s.

“It was a frightening time,” Mr. Pedersen recalled. “We had about enough money to survive for three months. We even worried about the long-distance phone charges for all of Gene’s calls trying to get work.”

Triumvirate at the Top

With the extroverted Mr. Kohn as impresario and the public face of the firm, the more reflective Mr. Pedersen at the drawing board, and Mr. Fox managing the business side, the three constituted an unusual but effective partnership between the commercial and the creative, and KPF prospered despite the challenging economy.

The firm’s first commission was the conversion of an armory on West 66th Street in Manhattan into studios for ABC Television, finished in 1977. That led to a second, entirely new building next door for ABC, which was completed two years later. When Capital Cities bought ABC in 1985, Mr. Kohn quickly established a relationship with the new owners, and before long the company was commissioning more buildings from KPF. Eventually the site grew to become an entire ABC campus of production studios as well as a new corporate headquarters, all designed by KPF.

From the beginning, Mr. Kohn’s aspirations went beyond Manhattan. Another early commission was in Philadelphia, the city where he was born, and where in 1983 the firm built the One Logan Square complex, with a low, sprawling wing sheathed in granite that contained the Four Seasons Hotel and a 30-story office tower of granite and glass behind it. The combination was an attempt to fit a commercial program into the classical, civic setting of Logan Square.

At the same time, KPF completed 333 Wacker Drive in Chicago, an elegant tower with a softly curving glass facade opposite a bend in the Chicago River — a sculptural form that made it an instant Chicago landmark and the firm’s first building to receive national acclaim.

The success of 333 Wacker Drive was followed by requests to design a headquarters for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, a large tower at 900 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, an office tower on Wilshire Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, and several more buildings in New York. At that point KPF was not yet a decade old, and it was winning commissions that a few years earlier would have gone to larger and better-known firms like Skidmore Owings & Merrill and I.M. Pei.

Mr. Kohn positioned the firm not only as business-friendly but also as committed to the new, and in KPF’s early years he encouraged Mr. Pedersen to explore the new style that was increasingly coming to be known as postmodernism.

KPF’s buildings soon became ornate, rich compositions of stone and glass, often with abstracted and simplified classical detailing. The firm’s towers almost never had flat tops; instead, they had pyramids or domes or lanterns or gables or, sometimes, a combination of them all. Mr. Kohn wanted clients to feel that in hiring KPF they were getting buildings that made a strong statement about the architecture of the moment, and they did.

KPF continued to be a barometer of architectural trends as the firm grew, but Mr. Kohn’s sympathy for postmodernism’s notion of new buildings as collages of historical elements dwindled; both he and Mr. Pedersen had come to find postmodernism fussy. “I must admit, a few of our buildings went too far,” he wrote in a memoir, “The World by Design,” written with Clifford Pearson and published in 2019.

Mr. Kohn decided, he wrote, that the future lay in “an updated modernism that was more sophisticated and complicated than the simple glass boxes of the 1960s and ’70s.” The notion of a building as a richly textured assemblage of different geometric shapes became the firm’s new signature, expressed in such projects as the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, finished in 1992, and the World Bank in Washington, a commission KPF won by beating Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and Arthur Erickson in an international competition.

As the firm continued to grow, Mr. Kohn turned his ambitions to the rest of the world. He wanted the firm to become global, and he set his sights first on London, where his enthusiasm for networking resulted in an invitation to Kensington Palace to meet with Prince Charles. Before long Mr. Kohn had gotten the commission to design a new European headquarters for Goldman Sachs, and the London practice was launched. (It also led to his meeting Barbara Shattuck, a Goldman banker, who became his third wife.)

Not long after, Mr. Kohn began to market KPF’s work in Europe and Asia, where he positioned the firm as a place that could satisfy the growing predilection for super-tall towers across Asia. The firm would design the tallest buildings in South Korea, Hong Kong and Indonesia, as well as the tallest towers in six Chinese cities: Beijing, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Suzhou, Guangzhou and Kunming. KPF also designed numerous skyscrapers in Shanghai, and the tallest buildings in Paris and Montreal.

Watercolors and Steel

Arthur Eugene Kohn — he used only his middle name throughout his life, but sometimes wrote his name as A. Eugene Kohn — was born on Dec. 12, 1930, the only child of William and Hannah Kohn. His father owned a medical supply company, and his mother was a dressmaker who loved to paint and would instill in her son a lifelong passion for making watercolors.

He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1953 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree, spent three years in the Navy, and then returned to Penn, where he studied under Louis Kahn and received a master’s degree in architecture.

He began his career in 1960 as a designer at the Philadelphia architecture firm of Vincent G. Kling. Five years later, he moved to New York to become the design director of Welton Becket Associates, a large commercial firm, where he remained until John Carl Warnecke recruited him to oversee his New York office. He started as the head designer there and soon became the firm’s president.

Although KPF’s success came quickly, the firm was not without its internal tensions. Mr. Kohn’s enthusiasm for growth was not always shared by his partners, and Mr. Pedersen and Mr. Fox tried at first to talk him out of opening an office in London. Years later, after the London office had become a major profit center for the firm, the partner who had left New York to run it, Lee Polisano, tried to secede from the rest of KPF and make London into a separate firm with himself in charge. Determined to quash the coup, Mr. Kohn, who by then was 78, moved to London for two years and ran the London office himself.

Although the firm would also open offices in Berlin, Shanghai, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and San Francisco, New York remained the “mother ship,” as James von Klemperer, now the president of KPF, put it. “The real design work is done in New York and London,” he said, because Mr. Kohn, who prided himself on his mentoring of younger architects, wanted to be involved in every project.

“Gene never wanted this to be a franchise operation, no matter how large it grew,” Mr. von Klemperer said. “He wanted every partner to know every other partner, and he wanted the firm to feel like a tight unit.”

Mr. Kohn eased away from day-to-day management of the firm in the early 2000s, but he remained its chairman until his death. He continued to oversee several projects himself, including one of KPF’s most unusual buildings, the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which he wrapped in a series of silver ribbons mounted over what he called “Ferrari red corrugated aluminum panels.” He wanted the design to “express the aerodynamics of wind whipping around a speeding car,” he said.

Mr. Kohn married Barbara Schwartz in 1954. That marriage ended in divorce, as did a subsequent marriage, to Diane Barnes. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children from his first marriage, Brian Kohn, Steven Kohn and Laurie Parkinson; his stepchildren, Alexandra, Charles and Melinda Dubow; seven grandchildren; and four step-grandchildren. He spent the winters in Montecito and the rest of the time at homes in Manhattan and Washington, Conn.

Until a few weeks ago, Mr. Kohn continued to meet with potential clients in the hope of persuading them to hire KPF, and he did not accept defeat. “If we don’t get the job after competing for a big project, I stay in contact with the client,” he wrote. “I cultivate relationships like some people do orchids or bonsai — carefully and with the long term in mind.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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