13 minute read

Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates P.C. Business Information, Profile, and History

111 West 57th Street
New York, New York 10019

Company Perspectives:

KPF is driven by design intent, not a predetermined design style, and strives to create structures that are intimately connected to function and context, and that achieve a degree of craft and detail that elevates them to the highest level of both beauty and practicality.

History of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates P.C.

Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates P.C. is an architectural firm that in a relatively short period of time had achieved both commercial success and professional recognition. KPF's postmodern urban buildings have been acclaimed for evoking the spirit of the romantic office towers of the 1920s and early 1930s without copying them, employing a style of abstracted classicism. Since the end of the1980s New York City-based KPF has greatly increased its activities abroad, and its principal designer, William Pedersen, has abandoned postmodernism in favor of fragmented structures that combine a multiplicity of complex shapes.

Starting Out in the 1970s

The firm was launched on July 4, 1976--the nation's bicentennial--by A. Eugene Kohn, William Pedersen, and Sheldon Fox. Kohn had been president and a partner of John Carl Warnecke and Associates, while Pedersen and Fox were both vice-presidents in the firm. Kohn became the new firm's president and, usually, partner-in-charge of projects; Pedersen was the designer; and Fox oversaw administration and finance. Architecture was in the midst of a decade-long slump, but by the end of the year the firm had 25 employees and was expanding so rapidly that it needed new office space. Other Warnecke alumni soon joined KPF, among them Arthur May and William Louie as design partners and Robert Cioppa as a management partner.

Kohn attributed his firm's unusually successful debut to its ability to support clients in all aspects of building, not just design work. This support included financial planning, site selection, and a number of other necessary considerations, "from economics and marketing to image and esthetics," he told Paul Goldberger of the New York Times in 1977. "We would rather tell a client that he shouldn't build a certain building at all if it isn't going to be viable." KPF was quick to assemble a real-estate consultant, a construction manager, and other experts: personnel who usually reported directly to the client.

Interviewed many years later by Laura Heery for Architectural Record, Kohn observed that "Nobody called us on day one. Starting out we had a most positive and confident attitude. That is important. We were not completely new kids on the block. We had been practicing in major firms for some 20 years and had designed or managed the design and construction of major buildings and dealt with significant clients. We had no work, but we had access to people--facilities managers, developers, corporate presidents--we could call and get advice from, and that is what we did." Kohn added that "I wrote developers and marketed them aggressively. We made cold calls, wrote letters, and used the media. As articles were written about KPF, we made sure that clients and potential clients received copies." In what a staffer later called the firm's "tower an hour" days, they took on feasibility studies for anyone who would pay, even for dubious ideas like shoehorning buildings over untouchable Manhattan landmarks--designs that Goldberger later observed "the partners are probably now grateful were never built."

Among Kohn Pedersen Fox's early work were designs for an office tower in Lexington, Kentucky, an American Telephone and Telegraph Co. office complex in Oakton, Virginia, and a 36-story American Oil Co. high-rise in Denver. Of greater importance was the start of the firm's long-lasting relationship with the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC). Kohn Pedersen Fox read in the New York Times that ABC had just purchased an armory on Manhattan's West 66th/67th Street. According to Kohn, KPF was the only firm that contacted ABC to say it would be interested in talking about plans for the building. It was commissioned to study how to renovate the armory without any particular function in mind, such as office or studio space, and therefore it analyzed the feasibility of several uses, finally presenting to the network their choice of designs both for a studio building and for an office complex with a central atrium. Two buildings were erected in 1979 on West 67th Street from the firm's designs. By 1990 KPF had completed a dozen projects for ABC and its owner, Capital Cities/ABC Inc.

KPF's Postmodern Buildings of the 1980s and Early 1990s

One of Kohn Pedersen Fox's early, and most admired, buildings was 333 Wacker Drive in Chicago. Completed in 1983 on a triangular site at a bend in the Chicago River, this office building presented itself on the river side with a sweeping curved wall of green glass that evoked the river's own bend. The shorter two sides of the triangle faced Chicago's Loop and related to its grid pattern. Pedersen's design for a limestone extension of Procter & Gamble Co.'s headquarters in Cincinnati, completed in 1985, recalled skyscrapers of the 1920s, featuring twin octagonal towers with pyramidal roofs over an L-shaped base. KPF received national honor awards for both these buildings from the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

The building for AT&T, fashioned in trendy postmodern style, was described as a spectacular structure in a 1982 Interior Design article. For Philadelphia's Logan Square the firm designed a hotel on the southeast corner, with a high office building behind it. Both were clad in granite hung over the concrete structures. In a 1985 Architectural Record article, Darl Rastorfer cited KPF as "an innovative leader in the use of stone. ... Rather than treating stone like flat tiles that are monotonously applied, Kohn Pedersen Fox acknowledges the sculptural character of the material." Photos displayed three examples: the Procter & Gamble building; the Wilmington, Delaware, headquarters of Hercules, Inc., a glass-walled building above a granite base; and 70 East 55th Street in New York, a brick office building with a stone facade. Other KPF-designed buildings of this period included Pedersen's Buffalo Savings Bank headquarters, topped by a Beaux-Arts dome, and Eight Penn Center in Philadelphia, by Arthur May, the design principal, essentially a concrete-and-glass box but with an assortment of curved corners.

Kohn Pedersen Fox's startling 34-story granite tower at the northwest corner of East 57th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan faced the corner not in a straight line but in a great concave sweep rising to the top of the tower. A 55-story Seattle office tower--the city's most prominent downtown building--was, in Goldberger's words, "at once active and serene ... [bespeaking] a desire to combine the formal imagery of classicism and the energizing aura of modernity." But no city skyline seemed as transformed by KPF's presence as that of Chicago. By the fall of 1990 brand-new skyscrapers designed by the firm nuzzled the city's two tallest buildings, the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center, joining two others by the river on South Wacker Drive. "Most of the KPF buildings," wrote Goldberger, "are visually active both on the street level and on the skyline, with multiple towers of cupolas to create a lively intersection with the sky."

Kohn Pedersen Fox also had a penchant for the ornamentation eschewed by modernist architecture but revived by postmodernism. A 1990 Architectural Record article cited the firm for the two painted-aluminum spires atop recently completed 225 West Wacker Drive in Chicago; the stainless-steel and bronze entrances of 101 Federal Street in Boston; the satin-finish stainless-steel and bronze railing, trim, details, and light fixtures in the lobby of One O'Hare Center, Rosemont, Illinois; and the bronze, brass, and stainless-steel ornamental details of the six-story retail mall within mixed-use 900 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Established in 1984, the firm's interiors subsidiary, Kohn Pedersen Fox Conway Associates, led by Patricia Conway, who joined the firm almost from the outset, also received recognition for meticulous craftsmanship and imaginative detail. Maintaining a close relationship with the parent firm, KPFC handled big jobs such as furnishing the 800,000-square-foot interior of the Procter & Gamble building, but the majority of its work was independent and ranged from an ark for a New York synagogue to apartment furnishings for muppeteer Jim Henson. Conway received the 1986 Designer of the Year award from Interiors; her firm had 80 employees and grossed $8.5 million the following year.

In a 1986 New York Times Magazine article, Goldberger credited Kohn Pedersen Fox's rise to prominence to Kohn's salesmanship as well as the firm's designers. Kohn, he wrote, was "perhaps the most persuasive salesman in the architecture business. His silver tongue could sell almost anything." What he had to sell, Goldberger added, was work that "has gotten better every year. Indeed, no body of large-scale commercial work being produced in this country right now is better or more consistent."

In 1987 Kohn attended a conference where an economist told the audience that unless their firms were working internationally by 1990, half would be out of business in five years. After designing the British headquarters of Goldman Sachs & Co. and the city's Canary Wharf Tower, Kohn Pedersen Fox opened a London office in 1988. Commissions followed in Glasgow and Hamburg, and in 1990 the firm won three Japanese commissions. By 1993 the firm was active in 19 countries but, like other architectural firms, it was still suffering the aftereffects of the 1990-91 U.S. recession. The staff had been reduced from 360 to 240, the partners had taken pay cuts, and the firm was looking for professionals who could act as entrepreneurs, managers, and marketers, as well as designers and technicians. Kohn told Yvonne Gault of Crain's New York Business, "We don't need caretakers. We need to be total architects in order to compete globally."

To win more commissions, KPF formed joint ventures and ad hoc partnerships. Its projects abroad included the Deutsche Genossenschaftbank in Frankfurt, Germany, the Chifley Tower in Sydney, Australia, and the $2.5 billion Nagoya Station project in Japan, which combined a department store, railroad station, and sky streets, as well as an office tower and a hotel. A Tokyo office was opened in 1995. Under construction in the United States were the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse in lower Manhattan; a Newport Harbor, California, art museum; University of Pennsylvania housing units; and the refurbishing of Philadelphia's Market Street Station. Also by this time, five new buildings had been completed and one renovated along West 66th and 67th streets in Manhattan for Capital Cities/ABC.

Beyond Postmodernism in the Late 1980s and 1990s

Designed by William Louie in 1991, Kohn Pedersen Fox's last postmodern building was the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse. During a vacation in India in 1986 Pedersen had decided that the postmodern style no longer suited his aesthetic aspirations. Buildings based on traditional European urbanism, although appropriate, he felt, for such big Eastern cities as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and perhaps even Chicago, were unsuitable for sprawling Western cities like Los Angeles and Honolulu and also for Asian cities, where he contended that lack of compactness required a new aesthetic. Ironically, Pedersen first worked out this idea in a European city--Frankfurt--but its historical buildings had been demolished by bombing in World War II. His 1987 design for the Westendstrasse L/DG bank headquarters broke the building into parts that corresponded to the differing heights and characters of surrounding buildings. The shaft rose not from a conventional base but from a variety of low-rise structures, clad in granite and marble to contrast with the steel-and-green-glass tower. The firm won its third AIA National Honor Award for this building, in 1994.

Pedersen continued to design fragmented high-rise structures that combined a multiplicity of complex shapes, wryly conceding to Andrea Rothman of Business Week in 1991 that "our buildings aren't as 'nice' as they used to be." His design for Rockefeller Plaza West, a 57-story office tower in midtown Manhattan that was not realized because of the client's financial difficulties, "used the building as a 'skewer' and hung from it a variety of visually discrete layers that spiral up to a decorative crown," wrote Carter Wiseman for New York. "It is certainly the fullest flowering yet of Pedersen's rapidly evolving abstract-classic aesthetic." For IBM, he designed a low-lying, Z-shaped, stainless-steel, glass, and stone headquarters on the same Armonk, New York, site as the old one. A symbol of IBM's downsizing, it was smaller than the old one and held fewer employees but gave almost everyone cubicles facing the surrounding landscape and hid from view the once prominent parking spaces. Horizontality also prevailed in Pedersen's addition to the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., which placed the two new office blocks around the existing two structures. This building won the firm a fourth AIA National Honor Award in 1998. As Karrie Jacobs of New York observed, KPF was "designing buildings that look as if the postmodern period never happened."

By 1997 Kohn Pedersen Fox's fortunes had revived considerably, especially in the United States, where the firm completed five major buildings that year, including the IBM headquarters. The New York office was working on about 50 projects with a construction value estimated at about $7.8 billion. Among these was the Pedersen-designed huge new Vertical Campus for Baruch College, completed in 2001 to occupy almost the entire block on Lexington Avenue between East 24th and 25th streets in Manhattan. In New York, Joseph Giovannini hailed "The building's daring beauty. ... The architects cleverly bypassed luxury materials in favor of the greater luxury of abundant light and open space ... proving that a public college need not give its students bargain-basement design." KPF received its fifth National AIA Honor Award for the Baruch College Vertical Campus in 2003.

International projects included plans to build the world's tallest building in Shanghai. A vertical steel-and-glass shaft with a round hole near the top, it resembled, in drawings, nothing so much as a giant bottle opener. Ground was broken for this project, the Shanghai World Financial Center, in 1997. It was subsequently put on hold, and construction recommenced in 2003. The firm completed work in 2003 on a Tokyo complex with a central tower that was one of the highest in Japan. Paul Katz was the architect in charge of both projects. KPF was also working on a Hong Kong skyscraper that was to be almost as tall as the one in Shanghai.

Kohn Pedersen Fox provided the design for the 1997 high-rise federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, which at more than 340 feet high and 602,000 square feet in bulk dominated the city's government district. In 2000 it designed a 34-story glass-walled hotel, said to be the largest private development underway on the East Coast, for the Mohegan Sun gaming complex in Connecticut. The London office, led by Lee Polisano, designed one of the most technically advanced office buildings in Europe for Endesa, S.A., a large Spanish electricity producer. Located near Madrid, it featured a central atrium designed without air conditioning that acted as a thermal buffer between outdoor and indoor temperatures. An array of roof solar panels was the largest of its kind in Europe.

Although Kohn and Pedersen remained the nucleus of the firm, there were numerous personnel changes in the "post-postmodern" era of the firm. May had left KPF by 1990, and Conway was gone by 1993. Fox retired in 1995 and his role was filled by Cioppa. Polisano became a partner in 1986 and senior partner of the new London office, Kohn Pedersen Fox International, in 1989. He became president of the parent firm in 2003. David Leventhal was named design partner for the London office in 1989. Kohn Pedersen Fox was employing 91 architects and a staff of 105 in 2002. It was engaged in 75 projects that year, of which 39 were overseas. The worldwide construction volume of its projects came to $2 billion.

Principal Competitors: Emery Roth & Partners LLC.; Foster and Partners Ltd.; Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects LLC; Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum Inc.; Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners; Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects LLP; Polshek Partnership Architects; Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP.


  • Key Dates:
  • 1976: Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) is founded by three executives from John Carl Warnecke and Associates.
  • 1984: KPF wins its first National American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honors Award.
  • 1989: KPF opens its first office abroad, in London.
  • 1993: Kohn Pedersen Fox is now active in 19 countries.
  • 1994: KPF wins its third AIA national honors award for a post-postmodern building in Frankfurt.
  • 1998: Post-postmodernism prevails in KPF's award-winning addition to the World Bank headquarters in Washington.
  • 2002: KPF is working on 75 projects, of which 39 are abroad.
  • 2003: The firm wins its fifth AIA national honors award for Baruch College's Vertical Campus.

Additional topics

Company HistoryArchitects, Architectural Firms

This web site and associated pages are not associated with, endorsed by, or sponsored by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates P.C. and has no official or unofficial affiliation with Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates P.C..