The Real Deal New York

Frank Williams: Architect turns to building his name

November 21, 2007 11:16AM
By Lauren Elkies

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Frank Williams is the most famous New York-based architect the public has never heard of.

That may be surprising, because his curriculum vitae includes work on 15 major New York City buildings such as the iconic 515 Park Avenue (2000); the Four Seasons Hotel New York (1994), the city’s tallest hotel; and Trump Palace, the tallest residential building on the Upper East Side (1992).

“He’s a very talented architect who doesn’t like bragging about his work even though he should,” Donald Trump said. “His detailing is superb, and just as he did on Trump Palace, his design is well-respected by everybody and his buildings become successful.” Williams designed the Palace condominium four years after converting the Barbizon Plaza Hotel into the condominium, Trump Parc (1988).

He flies under the radar, Williams said, because of bad PR. “I don’t spend enough time on it.”

Williams’ staff is trying to get him the credit he thinks he deserves.

Maria Alloin, a managing director at Williams’ firm, Frank Williams & Partners Architects, took a reporter to lunch at the grand Four Seasons Hotel restaurant, L’Atelier de Jo l Robuchon. Williams collaborated with world-renowned architect I. M. Pei on the hotel’s design.

But it’s I. M. Pei, a recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, who is publicly associated with the hotel. Perhaps I. M. Pei’s fame overshadowed Williams’ affiliation with the project.

Williams, 70, has 25 employees at his firm, half of whom are architects. He opened up his own outfit in 1969 after a couple of years working for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in San Francisco and New York.

Sitting with a reporter in his offices at 3 West 57th Street recently, Williams talked about his personal life and work. He unconsciously illustrated points with sketches in a felt-tip red pen.

The pages in his daily planner are covered in similar markings in red, black and blue ink. He said he particularly enjoys drawing arrows. Alloin wants to submit pages from Williams’ daybook for the not-yet-published book, “Frank Williams — Architect,” documenting his body of work. Williams is writing the preface.

“I can’t spell, but I can write,” Williams said.

He has authored two books. He wrote the preface for “The Architecture of Frank Williams” (Michael Crosbie, 1997) and co-authored “Urban Design Manhattan” in 1969, with Rai Okamoto.

His current projects consist of four towers in New York City, plus buildings in Moscow, Dubai, Hong Kong and Seoul, South Korea.

Williams spoke effusively about one of the Moscow projects — Mercury City Tower — even pressing the point a number of times during and after the interview that he would appreciate it if The Real Deal would include images of the building in the profile.

His reasons were threefold: he was preparing to present plans for a local project to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and he wants to show the agency that he has “a major presence in the world,” because “if you’re getting things out like this, they leave you alone a little more”; he’s proud of the building; and he has not “had a chance to get it out in the air in New York.”

He has more notoriety in Moscow than in New York City because of the scope of the Mercury City Tower project. “I’m sort of famous in Moscow,” he said.

Mercury City Tower is slated to be a 70-story building and part of a 44-million-square-foot mixed-use complex, Moskva-City. At 1,246 square feet, Mercury City Tower will be just 208 feet shy of the Empire State Building. His goal, Williams said, is to create a building that will be consistent with the appearance of other buildings in Moscow.

“We try to respond to each country,” Williams said. “We’re not trying to stamp a distinct style.” Besides, he noted, no architect really has a “distinct style.”

Michael Maybaum, executive vice president of Cosentini Associates, the mechanical engineer for Mercury City Tower, described Williams as a “very creative architect,” adding, “I think he’s been very innovative with creating sustainable design.”

Williams says that Mercury City Tower will be the first environmentally conscious “green” building in Moscow. Maybaum is working on securing its LEED certification. LEED, or the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, is a voluntary “green” rating and certification system, which is applied worldwide.

Williams said he was interested in Moscow because it is “all like virgin land,” with an ample supply of oil and natural gas.

“The city’s going through a renaissance,” he said. For one thing, “it’s never had an office market.”

He zips to and from Russia about once a month, sometimes making a pit stop in Dubai to visit other project sites. He travels with an interpreter since he does not speak Russian, and he has not purchased an apartment in the country because he would rather stay in a hotel. His regulars there are Le Royal Meridien National and Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow.

“I like hotels. I like room service. I like hot chocolate at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Williams said. He and his wife, Veronica, 44, married in the Plaza Hotel in 1990.

Williams does not come from a family in the real estate business but he knew at age seven or eight that he wanted to be an architect. On a family vacation in New York City, he saw “these great buildings and it changed my life,” he said. “From that point on, there has never been any doubt.”

His son David, 34, also is an architect. He owns the 7th Art, a New York-based marketing firm that specializes in high-end development. Williams said David, who has two children, ages 4 and 7, will be hired to work on Mercury City Tower.

A Los Angeles native, Williams received undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley and then Harvard University.

While his projects lead him around the world, the company’s home base has been on East 57th Street for 29 years, the last four of which have been at the current location west of Fifth Avenue.

Over the years, he has had lunch at the same restaurant almost every day. He either dines in or has food delivered from Trattoria Dell’Arte, a northern Italian restaurant across from Carnegie Hall.

Williams is six feet tall and slender, and likes to use the word “hot” to describe real estate projects.

A spry septuagenarian, he has jogged around the reservoir in Central Park for the last 27 years and is still an avid tennis player, hitting the courts a couple of times a month. He also works out with a trainer, because “I need upper body work,” he said.

He said he still has a lot of energy and “never really noticed my age until I hit 70.”

His restless spirit extends to his own home. Williams and his wife, an architect-cum-jewelry designer, recently sold their apartment in the Park Belvedere, a building Williams designed at 101 East 79th Street.

“I was just in the mood to sell,” said Williams, who has been in New York City for three decades.

The couple now lives in a rental unit on 76th Street and Central Park West while contemplating where to buy. They also have a home in Sun Valley, Idaho.

“I think Central Park West is the most beautiful street in the city,” he said. And he’s a good judge.

“He’s a great architect with a wonderful sense of design and an amazing feel for New York City,” Trump said.

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