The Closing: Eran Chen

The designer of the Denizen and 420 Kent talks about getting his start designing McDonald’s restaurants, mastering the “Flying Dormer” and helping Derek Jeter sleep late

Eran Chen (Photos by Axel Dupeux)
Eran Chen (Photos by Axel Dupeux)

If Eran Chen cultivates the image of the cool New York architect, so do his buildings. He’s playful with shape and has an affinity for structures that teeter right on the edge of pedestrians’ nerves below. 

Of course, they don’t physically teeter. Chen has mastered this particular game of mega-Jenga. 

But architecture is more than a game. Chen navigates New York City’s complex zoning code with a nimbleness mirrored in the cantilevered structures he designs. He designed the largest project in artsy Bushwick, partnering with a then-relatively unknown developer, Yoel Goldman. The result was the Denizen, a building that would be as much at home in tech-centric Tel Aviv as it is in Brooklyn. On the Williamsburg waterfront, Eliot Spitzer tapped him to design 420 Kent Avenue, a trio of disjointed glass-box condo towers that were the former governor’s largest project since taking over his family’s business in 2014.

The Denizen and 420 Kent put Chen on the map. He’s now working on megaprojects like Larry Silverstein’s  planned 2.7 million-square-foot development in Queens. Another sign that Chen has leveled up: He is designing a tower on Manhattan’s Billionaires’ Row, the ultimate status symbol for designers and developers looking to leave their mark on the skyline. 

But his ascent has not been without controversy. Critics decry Chen’s focus on luxury housing amid staggering inequality in the city, a claim he counters by noting that his firm, ODA Architecture, has designed over 15,000 units of market-rate and affordable housing across the country. An architect, he said, should not be a politician, but one who can “make people’s life in cities better, whoever they are.”

Born: August 22, 1970
Hometown: Tel Aviv, Israel
Lives: Tribeca
Family: Married, three children

What were you like as a kid?

I had a very interesting childhood because my parents got divorced when I was very young. And through that, we moved a lot. I can’t even count the amount of apartments we moved and the cities that we’ve explored. 

Growing up in Israel at that time was a unique experience. Both of my parents are the children of Holocaust survivors. From both sides. They are what we call the first-generation survivors. Of people who in a miraculous fashion managed to escape the Nazis and ended up in Israel where nobody in their family remained, nobody. There was a full generation of us, people that kind of grew into that reality. 

How do you think that molded you?

When you are growing up in that context, your parents, and I think unconsciously, were always trying to prove to the world that it was worthwhile. That it was not for nothing that their parents made all this sacrifice. To come to Israel and to create a new generation that would count for something.

And so I hope that I’m living that dream partially, by making something that matters.

You mentioned your dad. You said he was in the Air Force.

He was an experimental test pilot for the air force industry. Which is the most dangerous thing to do. You are on airplanes, you don’t know if they’re going to take off or land.  

One of your first jobs was designing McDonald’s locations.

I was still a student, and in a supermarket I met a guy who brought McDonald’s to Israel. So we were in line. And I don’t know how we got to this, because it was a long line apparently. And he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m studying architecture. What do you do?” And he’s like, “I brought McDonald’s to Israel.” And he said, “Oh, that’s so cool that you’re a student. Why don’t you come and design restaurants for us?” And I think he was partially joking.

But later on, I learned that they were trying to bring this idea of designing and engineering the restaurants in-house. And I took that very seriously and thought, here’s an opportunity. We set up to meet and he said, “You know what? You look like a serious guy. I’ll let you design the first restaurant, let’s see how it goes.” So I moved to Tel Aviv, and I used to ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on a motorcycle every morning to school and come back so I could spend the late afternoon designing restaurants. By the time I graduated, I designed and built about 55 locations.

What was your first job in New York?

I came in December 1999. It wasn’t a great time for architects to find a job, especially very young ones that … I didn’t even know how to write my résumé appropriately. 

I looked for a job through New York Times posts. I was kind of desperate. So there was one post in New Jersey. And I didn’t realize how big New Jersey is. I set up an interview and I took a cab, and that cab ride was an hour and a half into New Jersey and cost me more money than I had. But the guy who interviewed me was a very funny guy. He said, “Look, you seem to be extremely talented, but I don’t think your place is here. Let me call a friend of mine. His name is Brad Perkins and he owns a very large company in New York called Perkins Eastman.” So I started working for Brad Perkins, and that led to seven years of working at that company, becoming the youngest principal.

How did you rise so quickly there?

They discovered that I can design very well and very quickly. And what they did was assign me to do design competitions for firms around the world. I would essentially do that almost full-time job around the clock, literally sleeping at the office. And when we started winning those very big and interesting competitions, they realized this guy has some value.

I started reaching out to potential clients. One of the first people I ever reached out to was Miki Naftali of Naftali Group. He used to be at the Elad Properties at that time. An Israeli connection helped a little bit to create the introduction, and I said to Miki, “Listen, I can do a better job for you than anybody else. Take a chance on me.” And he did. 

What was it like starting your firm close to the recession?

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I opened a tiny office in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side. And I had one big commission that came from a previous client, Yitzchak Tessler, who bought, with Joe Chetrit [see related story on page 28], the Toy Building on Madison Square Park. And they gave me the commission to do the conversion and addition on that project. And it was huge, like 450,000 square feet.

And then the recession came. The first one was stopped because the building was financed by Lehman Brothers. And at that point I probably had about 15 employees because it was a big commission … And we found ourselves struggling like everybody else, with almost no work at all. And then one day a guy comes to our office. His name was Chinh Chu. He was then a senior partner at Blackstone.

He apparently bought a penthouse at the Trump World Tower on the East Side next to the UN. It was a 20,000-square-foot apartment. He interviewed about 40 world-renowned architects, including Richard Meier and other big names, and nothing clicked. Somebody told him about me, and he said, “I give you a week to come up with a design suggestion for me. Would you want to do that?”

So we scrambled and we created a full set of drawings, including three-dimensional renderings around the theme of his life as a successful immigrant, because he grew up in Vietnam. And that was the theme of the entire apartment. And the journey within that unit was a symbol of his journey from nothing to his financial success. 

Derek Jeter also lived in that building. I heard you had some interaction with him and his mom.

He lived in the apartment right underneath us. They were complaining to Mr. Trump and the board of the building that the construction is disturbing his schedule because he needs to sleep late before game days. Chinh asked me to step in. I went to see Derek’s mother, and we sat down and I said, “Listen, this guy that I work for, he is not going to budge on not working a half day. … And Derek needs to sleep. So how about we rent an apartment for Derek? There’s one available five floors below. And on game days he can sleep there.” And that’s how the issue was resolved.

Where did you look to grow your firm next?

I got a phone call from Ofer Yardeni, who owns Stonehenge. And he said, “I’ve got this building in Chelsea on 15th Street, and I’m looking for an architect. I’ve heard really great things about you, but do you have the capacity?” I said, “Of course I do.” He said, “Okay, I’m going to come with my entire team and my brokers to visit your office on Monday” — it was Thursday — “and let’s see how your operation works.” At this point, we were like five people. So during the weekend I called everybody I knew, including family members and friends. I collected 25 people to pretend as if they work at the office, which was then empty because of the recession. And we got the job. And that was really our first major job after the recession that brought us back. 

How did you develop a relationship with Eliot Spitzer?

Eliot didn’t know much about me, and I did not know him personally. But he had a unique opportunity and a challenge, because he bought the site at 420 Kent, with a deadline for [the tax break] 421a back then, which was like six months, and he was looking for an architect that could get him 421a on time. He came to the office and he said, “I love your work, but tell me, can you get this approved in six months?” And I said, one, “I can and I will.” And two, “If I do, would you raise your construction budget from $400 a square foot to $450 so we can actually build something amazing?” And he shook my hand and said, “Yes, we have a deal.” And we started the next day.

One of the projects that put you on the map was the Denizen in Bushwick, for Yoel Goldman.

Not your typical developer. With a very, very untypical assignment and a very challenging one. He bought the land of what used to be the Rheingold property from a different developer who did the rezoning prior to Goldman and overpromised things that nobody can ever deliver. Including at that time 30 percent affordability, which now seems more in tune, but back then was not. And senior housing and all kinds of stuff that he never intended and they were not buying. When Goldman bought the property, he didn’t intend to do any of this. He just intended to do what he had to, which was still 20 percent affordable housing. But there was major resentment by the community board. It was a complex project. It involved 1,100 apartments and a very complex site. And so he came to me.

About two years ago, Larry Silverstein was looking for an architect to design his master plan at Queens, known as Innovation QNS. And they had similar challenges. It’s a very large and very complex project. It’s very political in terms of its community engagement. Larry asked to see Denizen and, literally, I met him at the gate and he walked with me for about two and a half hours, every nook and every inch. And when we finished, he shook my hand and said, “We’re going to give you that master plan.”

Do you have any regrets?

I don’t have regrets unless there’s anybody that I’ve hurt personally in my life, otherwise I don’t have regrets. I think that every journey that one is taking is full of obstacles and turns, and I embrace those turns along the way. 

You are known for mastering zoning codes to develop Jenga-style buildings. How did you develop that skill?

I decided a long time ago that we need to be creative on that front as well. And to be creative, you need to become an expert. And so I became an expert, and I think it is 4,632 pages of the zoning code. Not because it’s fascinating, but because it allows us to really understand the rules so we can be creative with them.

There are many things that we are very proud of. One of them we call the “Flying Dormer,” where there’s a zoning regulation that has to do with setbacks … Within that setback, there is an allowable area called the dormer, which is calculated as a triangular shape. In many old buildings in New York, you see this kind of triangular stepping at the front. But what we’ve recognized is that while the triangle format allows you to calculate the area, the building doesn’t have to stay triangle. This area could be distributed freely around the entire facade. That allowed for a new typology of these kinds of cubistic volumes that are organized about the setback line.

What do you do outside of work?

I don’t do much outside of designing crazy things, to be honest. It’s not work for me, it’s my life, but I would tell you that in my second life my dream is to be a farmer. I love the idea of being close to the earth. And so, because I don’t have time to be a full-time farmer, I’m enjoying gardening a lot. 

How do you think people would describe you as a boss?

Oh my God. You’d have to ask them. I think I’m extremely demanding. I put very high standards for people and myself, and sometimes that could be obnoxious or irritating. But at the same time, I think I lead by example, and I feel that people respect that.