He Changed The Skyline. Now, He's Changing

If William Pedersen felt like showing off, he could take you on his own special tour of Manhattan: Within a 10-block radius of the architect's midtown office are a number of notable buildings he designed. Among them: a 34-story tower on 57th and Lexington with a curious concave facade and a new 50-story giant squeezed in behind the landmark Rizzoli building on Fifth Avenue. But, truth be told, he's not terribly interested in them anymore. Says Pedersen: "The only buildings that are really important are the ones you're working on, the ones you're excited about."

Besides, looking back is depressing for architects these days. The 1980s were boom years for the profession, and no firm shot up faster than Pedersen's. In that decade, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates grew from infancy to vie with the likes of Philip Johnson, Cesar Pelli, and Kevin Roche in the fiercely competitive business of building skyscrapers. But the recession has hit hard. The building of commercial structures, which comprise the bulk of KPF's business, has slowed to a crawl and is unlikely to pick up for perhaps five years, figures partner Eugene Kohn. Already, 25% of KPF's projects have been put on hold, and others could follow. After grossing around $30 million in both 1989 and 1990, KPF is bracing for a $5 million drop.

So Pedersen, the firm's 53-year-old lead architect, is shifting gears--pushing to expand the range of structures the firm designs and to win more work overseas. Pedersen himself has been through something of an artistic upheaval as well. In the mid-1980s, he won renown as a beacon of the so-called post-modernist movement, which featured classically inspired towers that recall the skyscrapers of the 1920s. But with that style becoming passe, the former I. M. Pei disciple is off on a new tack.

QUIRKY. The DG Bank Tower going up in Frankfurt, Germany, is a prime example. Vastly different from Pedersen's symmetrical stone and glass towers, it juxtaposes facades of granite and marble with a tower of steel and green glass. It looks like two or three buildings stuck together and is as quirky as Pedersen's earlier buildings are regular. Rockefeller Plaza West, now rising in New York, shares a similar spirit, with a giant glittering piece of glass on one side that mimics Times Square's neon signs to the south.

Traditionalists may not care for the new style. "Our buildings aren't as `nice' as they used to be," concedes Pedersen. But the change is turning some critics into admirers. "In my personal view, post-modernism is not losing popularity fast enough," says George M. White, in charge of architecture at the nation's Capitol and a supporter of Pedersen's winning design in last year's competition to build the new World Bank headquarters.

Pedersen says a 1986 trip to India prompted his change. There for three weeks, he reflected on his career. Daughter Kia recalls his fascination with a Hindu idea: "We talked about how in the first 25 years of your life you are someone being taken care of," she says. "From 25 to 50, you're caretakers. After 50, you wander."

The shift in approach has "completely transformed the spirit of this office," Pedersen says. But spirit will only get you so far in a recession. With this in mind, KPF is looking outside the U. S. The firm was already far along with its Canary Wharf buildings and Goldman Sachs U. K. headquarters in London when, last spring, it opened a 30-person office there. The intent was to provide a better base from which to seek work on the Continent, where it had little. The firm has since won commissions in Glasgow and Hamburg. Japan is also fast becoming a hot market for American architects, and KPF has lined up three jobs there in the past four months.

Meanwhile, Pedersen is turning to institutional and residential work as well. He recently finished his first residential job--a house in Vermont for retired Goldman Sachs partner William Stutt. Proving that he could design something other than a commercial tower helped him win new commissions for the Newport Harbor Art Museum and a University of Pennsylvania student center.

DESIGNER GENES. Pedersen undoubtedly has architecture in his blood. His grandfather, a St. Paul (Minn.) land surveyor, began designing and building houses on spec. After World War II, he and Pedersen's father put together a catalog of simple plans for suburban houses, which they sent to lumber dealers. Returning servicemen building their own homes could order blueprints for $15.

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Pedersen got a master's degree in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His big break came at 28, when he captured the coveted Rome Prize in Architecture. The prize was two years of study in Italy, but the competition also brought a job offer from I. M. Pei, a juror for the contest. Pedersen spent five years under Pei, three working on an addition to the National Gallery. But the master's firm hand left little room for the ambitious architect to develop independently. He left to join John Carl Warnecke, and in 1976 joined ex-Warnecke architects Kohn and Sheldon Fox to form KPF.

Kohn sells, Pedersen designs, and Fox manages the finances. "I decided that Bill was the best designer I knew," says Kohn. "I felt Bill should be the lead designer; I would act in a coordinating and critiquing way." Kohn is widely recognized as one of the most aggressive salesmen in the business and is credited with getting KPF in the door with many clients when the firm was young.

Pedersen is extremely articulate but soft-spoken, with a delivery that ranges from dreamy to quietly intense. In a profession rife with powerful egos and hot tempers, he is known for never letting either run out of control. Says Ming Wu, a former KPF associate partner: "No matter how taxing things might become, Bill sees that as all the more reason to keep one's head."

Yet Pedersen loves competition. He played varsity hockey in college and, until a recent shoulder injury, was a star on KPF's softball team, batting it to five straight years of architects' league championships. Music is another passion. He plays the piano, and his wife and two daughters all play instruments. Daughter Kia, now at the Yale school of architecture, remembers her father as so eager for her to excel at the cello that he practiced along with her every day.

The central tenet of Pedersen's design philosophy, and a main idea behind post-modernism, is the idea of "context." Unlike many so-called modern buildings, which stand as stark abstractions in public spaces, Pedersen intends his buildings to "relate" to the city around them.

That principle informs all his structures, whether identified as post-modern or not. One of Pedersen's earliest works, 333 Wacker Drive in Chicago, is set on a triangular site at a bend in the Chicago River and is said to be in a modern style. Yet it clearly responds to its surroundings--and in a starkly different way on each side of the property. On the city side, the 36-story building fits into the street grid with a stepped entry and formal facade. But the river side presents a stunning convex wall of green glass.

Pedersen first became identified with post-modernism after Procter & Gamble Co.'s Cincinnati headquarters went up in 1985. Designed in 1982, the twin octagonal towers with pyramidal roofs are best described as abstracted classicist. The style set the course for Pedersen and KPF's other designers for the next six years. One example followed another as the firm lined up heavyweight corporate clients, including ABC and Shearson Lehman Brothers, and developers JMB Realty Corp. and Olympia & York. Some rivals called Pedersen's works "designer-label buildings."

Some of the griping was valid. Pedersen concedes that many of his buildings became too "scenographic"--too encumbered with design flourishes. But there was also an element of jealousy. An extremely young firm by architectural standards, KPF snapped up job after job. It went from a handful of architects in 1976 to over 215 in 1990.

Fortunately for KPF, the firm anticipated the current slowdown two years ago. Instead of staffing up for new projects, it started using freelance architects on a job-by-job basis. Still, it had to lay off 10 people last year, and more could follow if the economy worsens. That puts a lot of pressure on Pedersen and his new designs. "I'm nervously optimistic," he says. These days, that's about the best an architect can expect.


Some Pedersen projects in design or construction:

NEW YORK Rockefeller Plaza West, 1.2 million sq. ft.

WASHINGTON World Bank headquarters, 2 million sq. ft.

MONTREAL 1.2 million sq. ft. of office space

LONDON Two office buildings at Canary Wharf, totaling 1.3 million sq. ft. Also, Goldman Sachs U.K. headquarters

GLASGOW Broomielaw Development, 1.2 million sq. ft.

FRANKFURT DG Bank Tower, 850,000 sq. ft.

HAMBURG 1 million sq. ft. of office and hotel space

NAGOYA, JAPAN 5 million sq. ft. mixed-use project

TOKYO Corporate headquarters building outside Tokyo; office and retail space in Tokyo, clients as yet unannounced