by: AIA New York
As the 2021 President of AIA New York, Kenneth A. Lewis, AIA, was charged with leading the organization with optimism and pride through one of the AEC industry’s most challenging periods in recent history. During his leadership, the Chapter in collaboration with nycoba|NOMA launched the AIANY 2030 Fund, which provides both debt relief and mentorship support during the licensing process for young BIPOC architects.
Having joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1986, Lewis is now a Partner at the firm. His more than 35-year career includes One World Trade Center and its neighbor, 7 World Trade Center, the first to rise at the site after 9/11 and the first LEED Gold skyscraper. His recent construction includes 35 Hudson Yards, an undulating residential and office tower, and Manhattan West, a 7-million square-foot mixed-use master planned development built above active railroad tracks. Lewis is also at the forefront of another transformation, the sustained focus on climate change, the need for equity in the community and the profession. At SOM, he directed resources to work for affordable housing at NJPAC and the Lower East Side Girls Club annex. He currently serves on the Boards of Directors for AIA New York, AIA Architecture Foundation, and Urban Green Council.
Q: What is influencing your work the most right now?
A: Equity and climate change. We have reached an inflection point in our profession and need to transform the “project delivery” model. Rather than the current cycle—where we are engaged by our client, develop a program, design and deliver documents, and then oversee construction—we should be developing a life-cycle, data-driven process that allows us to look farther back and further forward. This means expanding—beyond design excellence, meeting safety codes, and fulfilling program needs—to examining the life of the building, its carbon loop, the well-being of its occupants, and looking well beyond our immediate presence on this planet. Equity and resiliency need to be foregrounded in all of our work.
Q: How/why did you decide to pursue architecture?
A: When I was 10 or 11, an architect, Norman Paul, moved in across the street. He was an iconoclast and rebel, who saw a world well beyond our tiny block in Philadelphia. He was worldly, a grandmaster, card-counting, keeper of cool cars (Peugots, Fiats), owner of an Alcoa extruded aluminum chess set, and an art-school grad. Just plain cool. Norman and Charlotte, an art curator, transformed their tiny “twin” house using a modern design language. He hated our city’s elites and the patriarchal, racist, and boorish (his words) AIA; he even helped found a chapter of the alternative ASA. He urged my mother to convert our mostly unused cellar into a space for my siblings’ and our friends’ excessive energy, creativity and joyful play, with fold-up drawing/experiment tables, walls for freeform graffiti, and resilient flooring. He also said I should pursue industrial design because being an architect would break your heart, wallet, and spirit day after day after day. He went to RISD, and I followed him there.
Q: What are some of your favorite recent projects that you’ve worked on?
A: While not a “project” in the design sense, the AIANY 2030 Fund was a great project to bring to fruition. We worked with nycoba|NOMA to create the fund, inspired by the NOMA 2030 challenge to double the number of black architects. The fund is set up to provide both debt relief and support through the licensing process for young BIPOC colleagues. The bulk of the funds came from the AIANY President’s fund, which usually supports an exhibit or event at the Center for Architecture. COVID closed the Center and offered an opportunity. Beyond that, I would say two projects stand out: The Lever House restoration, and the Lower East Side Girls Club annex. The former is an SOM legacy project that we are revisiting to bring up to today’s sustainable building standards, while restoring the landmarked plaza, terraces, and lobby. It is both a science and visioning project, energized and led by two great clients: Brookfield and Clark Waterman. The LES Girls Club annex is an adaptive reuse of a drug store, a pro-bono project led by an all-female team (with one exception). The new space provides flexible spaces, exercise rooms, a broadcast area, and places of respite: expanding an amazing program, in an underserved area. It has been one of the most rewarding and client-appreciated projects I have had the honor to be part of.
Q: Do you have a favorite building? Why?
A: There are far too many to name but I’ll start by naming Maison de Verre in Paris for its extraordinary detailing and revolutionary modernity, the PSFS Building (now Loews Hotel) in Philadelphia which was the first International Style skyscraper, and Chandigarh for its holistic approach to city planning. Of the buildings I’ve worked on, I’d have to say 7 World Trade Center is my favorite. Its parts are clear, its surface is luminous, and it was really the first to start to bring Lower Manhattan back after 9/11. In addition, it set a new standard for sustainability and life safety in the city, and is now the home of our new offices!
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges, or opportunities, facing cities today?
A: Equity, resiliency, infrastructure, climate change. Great strides have been made in making cities more livable and sustainable while simultaneously becoming centers, not just of capital intensive energy, but also of creativity, innovation, and rich ground for a range of endeavors and provocations. In order for the city as an experiment to be positive, we need to stay focused on expanding a high quality public realm, breaking down the walls that have kept us so woefully behind in affordable housing, and know in our hearts that climate change has and will continue to disproportionately impact people of lesser means, exacerbating equity problems. Beyond these we need plans, big and small, that will help us recover the ability to undertake big infrastructure projects in timely and cost effective ways.
Q: What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
A: My incredibly talented colleagues at SOM, our leadership at AIANY and CFA, and most importantly my spouse, Jennifer Orkin Lewis, an artist and illustrator. She is an amazing font of creativity and belief in our humanistic endeavor and she is fearless, doing the hard work of putting paint/ink/gouache to canvas/paper/notebook day after day after day…