Architect Gene Kaufman has spent nearly 30 years designing buildings that have become part of the New York City skyline.
But for someone who has literally helped shaped the appearance of the biggest city in the country, he’s remarkably modest.
“I don’t feel the need to have things identified with me personally, I just want people to be able to use and enjoy the building we’ve created,” Kaufman told Real Estate Weekly. “If it works for them, it works for me.”
Kaufman’s firm, Gene Kaufman Architects (GKA) has been ramping up its hotel game recently. The firm has designed more than 80 hotels since its first one in 1990 for hotel developer Sam Chang.
Currently, GKA is designing a 600-room Doubletree Hotel at 350 West 40th Street, which is well along in construction; a project that has an old church façade that will be saved on West 36th Street is in the early phases of construction; a small hotel just across the street on West 36th; and a Hilton Garden Inn on West 37th Street that is in construction.
“That’s an area that’s seeing a lot of development in general and really is transforming into a better neighborhood than it was seven or eight years ago,” said Kaufman of the Garment District.
“I think the market at one point, was almost non-existent, but we saw a lot of opportunity with it. I think it’s been a great thing for the city, it’s brought a lot of economic activity to the city, and for other businesses.”
In 2011, Kaufman became a principal of Gwathmey Siegel + Associates, the architecture practice of the late Charles Gwathmey, who died in 2009, and Robert Siegel.
He worked to help rejuvenate the newly-renamed firm Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects (GSKA), gaining new commissions for museums, residential high-rises, hotels, and institutional buildings.
Kaufman’s affinity for architecture started at an early age, when he was growing up in a middle-class home in Queens Village, Queens. His father was a mechanical engineer, and he was able to learn from him about how things worked.
He attended art school from the age of six, inside the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown, which at the time offered an art school. Every Saturday morning, Kaufman took lessons in the basement of the museum, and then went upstairs in the afternoon to look at art on the main floor.
“I knew everything in the museum at eight or nine years old,” he said.
As a 17-year-old high schooler, Kaufman attended a summer program at Cornell University. It was his first big exposure to the world of architecture, and it left an indelible impression.
“I decided this was what I wanted to do,” said Kaufman.
After high school, Kaufman went on to architecture school at Cornell, and after earning his degree, he worked for a year in Switzerland as Design Director at Buro Raeber-Sieber Architekten on a variety of projects, including multifamily residential, single-family homes, and a building for the post office.
Though he enjoyed living abroad and traveling, he realized there were valuable opportunities and benefits to living back in his hometown of New York City, and he decided to return home. He worked for two different architecture firms after returning to the states, as an associate for Rafael Vinoly’s firm, and a stint as Assistant State Architect of New Mexico.
By 28, Kaufman was building a successful career and was getting a lot of freelance work on the side. He always wanted to open up his own shop, and in 1986, he did.
“If I had realized at age 28 how much I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “Fortunately, I wasn’t aware of that.”
Diving into projects, Kaufman learned the most just by doing. Very soon after starting out, he won a competition and several commissions. His firm grew by focusing on commercial renovations, commercial interiors, and multi-family, condo and residential rental work.
A big milestone he recalls in his career was topping out a 50-story Holiday Inn — the tallest in the world – in Lower Manhattan, right near the Ground Zero site.
“It was a very good feeling to be building a building of that magnitude after what happened nearby,” said Kaufman. “I felt it was a good contribution to the rebirth of the city.”
But it’s not just with hotels that Kaufman has found success.
In the 1990’s, his firm expanded into new construction for the private market and on institutional work. He won competitions for major projects of the New York State and City University systems, receiving commissions from the city’s School Construction Authority to design three public schools. The jobs helped Kaufman develop an expertise in modular building and construction.
“Architecture, given how difficult and how much of a struggle it is, I feel especially fortunate we’ve been able to do so many buildings and give contributions to the city,” said Kaufman.
As for his eponymous firm, Kaufman said he always wanted to stay a boutique-sized firm, and is happy with the size that it is now, between 30 and 40 people on staff.
“We also like working in areas that are outside of Midtown Manhattan because I think it creates a great contribution for other neighborhoods,” said Kaufman, whose firm is also working on projects in Greenpoint and Bushwick in Brooklyn.
A lifelong fan of the arts, Kaufman spends his free time visiting museums and galleries, and collecting art. He is a big fan of classical music — his wife, Terry, is a classical pianist — and it is not unusual for him to attend several concerts a week.
“I love that it’s a creative act, you’re making something where there was nothing before,” said Kaufman of his passion for architecture. “It’s physical, material, you can touch and feel and people can sleep and work in it and so on. And it becomes part of the environment that we all live in. I think ultimately, building, if done wisely, makes our lives and our environments better. I think it’s a tremendous contribution.
“There’s a lot of work in this world about maintaining the status quo. But for me, I like this notion of creating something above and beyond that.”