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In 1986, Kenneth Lewis began his career architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) as a mere junior designer. Now fast forward to present day and Lewis can be found at the front-lines of the globally recognized company serving as a partner. Over his 30-year tenure with SOM, Lewis has been in involved in the realization of game-changing developments like the Time Warner Center, 7 and One World Trade Center, 250 West 55th Street, and the Manhattan West Development.
Promoting SOM’s work in sustainable design has also been a longtime passion for Lewis who serves, too, as the principal of the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology, or CASE, a research collaboration between SOM and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. CASE focuses on the development of sustainable new technologies in material science, building systems, and construction.

In many ways, Lewis' work goes beyond simply building; it speaks to the way people live and work and the elements that foster health and happiness. Ahead, CityRealty speaks to the architect about his career, and how he and his team at SOM approach designing in a storied but dynamic metropolis that often poses unique challenges.

You started your career at SOM as a designer in 1986. How has your role evolved over the years?

Lewis: I originally thought I was going to be an academic and was preparing for that life. I was teaching and working in the Boston area, but this amazing woman—who is now my wife —drew me down to New York, and I took a job as a junior designer at SOM. From the very beginning, every project was so interesting and challenging. I never felt like I was pigeonholed, except, perhaps, to the extent that many of my projects were in New York. That remains true today and is something that I’m very grateful for because I have an expertise in this amazing market, and my career has involved relatively little travel compared to my peers.
I’ve worked on all different typologies, from a master plan for the west side, the adaptive reuse of the old Gimbels department store, to a hospital in Brooklyn and the super tall One World Trade Center. The other through lines in these projects are an interest in sustainability and a constant challenge to improve the way that our buildings function. They are places that enhance how people work and how they perceive themselves and represent themselves. These iconic buildings are not just about being the biggest building or the one with the most glass or anything like that; it’s about understanding context and client aspirations. We are always trying to speak in a timeless way.
I, as much as anyone, am amazed that 30 years later, I am still at SOM and now a partner. It is a testament to the extraordinary opportunities this firm affords architects
One World Trade Center. Image by James Ewing, courtesy of SOM

You’ve worked on some very high profile projects in New York City including Time Warner Center, 7 World Trade Center, and One World Trade Center, along with more current projects such as the Manhattan West Development. Which would you say was the most challenging and why?

Lewis: It may seem like a rote answer, but the fact is that every project comes with its own unique challenges. The challenge at Manhattan West was building over an active railroad. Working with great clients, we had to come up with philosophies and methodologies so that the buildings could go up without interfering with what is probably the busiest train switch in the Northeast. For the World Trade Center, there was obviously an enormous emotional challenge, in addition to the basic complexity of the site and the fact that the world’s eyes were on us. With Tower One, the challenges were having multiple stakeholders, such as the Performing Arts Center, the Memorial, the Hub, and 10 or 11 agencies—plus the incredible sense of responsibility we all felt building on that sacred land.
Time Warner Center. Images by Esto, courtesy of SOM

It would be interesting to know what the most important lessons SOM pulled from the design and planning of Time Warner Center, as it is considered by many to be a precedent for urban revitalization through mixed-use. Moreover, how did SOM apply some of those ideas to the World Trade Center and the Hudson Yards project?

Lewis: Time Warner Center pulled together three distinct neighborhoods, Hell’s Kitchen (Clinton), Midtown, and the Upper West Side at a fulcrum point, Columbus Circle. We brought ideas that came from each of those areas and borrowed the geometry of Broadway by setting the towers at the angle of this thoroughfare. We proposed reestablishing the east-west grid of 59th Street/Central Park South by extending it through the middle of the building. The large cable stayed glass wall that forms the main entrance aligns with 59th Street, so as you walk into the main atrium, it is as if the street is carried into the building. The use of stone and masonry material at the base of the building contrasts with the towers and relates to the scale of Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West Side. The towers speak to the whole city. They turn towards the park and speak with iconic majesty, with luminous spires at the crown of each tower that mark the southwest corner of the park. So on the exterior, even though SOM designed the entire base building, there is this incredible variety of scales and gestures that make the building responsive to different urban conditions and internally to different program elements. This is probably the most important lesson that can be applied to the World Trade Center and Manhattan West—the ability to provide New York with the variety and texture it demands architecturally.


How do you meld sustainability with towering, all-glass buildings, which are arguably not very green. What are the biggest challenges there?

Lewis: This is a misconception. There’s been this push from some corners of the sustainability community to say buildings shouldn’t be all glass because they cannot be green. I think we first must acknowledge that the glass we’re using is different. It has a low-e coating, which we challenged the industry to mass-produce for 7 World Trade Center. There’s a next generation of glass technology that may eliminate the reflective quality of the glass, so glass would have the same characteristics as a brick wall in terms of the ability to reflect the heat component of light. Buildings generate a lot of heat inside having to do with computers, people, and the systems that run things. The energy that’s required to keep the office cool is the greatest energy load. The highest heat component of the daytime is sunlight coming through the building. But, as we know, sunlight also gives people a sense of wellness; one feels better. For 7 World Trade Center, we wanted to maximize the daylight of the space, so that sunlight would touch every person on the floor. We were able to get sunlight to 90 percent of the floor, and it is documented that people feel better when they have access to sunlight. We also know that people use their artificial lighting less when the space is daylit. Because we believe so strongly in the importance of daylight to enhance the quality of a space, we took the penalty on the amount of glass that we were using and looked to other means to reduce the energy load, such as tenant metering and the addition of ceramic fritter on the upper portions of the glass to create shade and reduce heat gain. We also used a coating that reflects the heat component of light, which is incredibly transparent when you’re inside. This next generation glass has something like 90 percent transparency so that when you’re inside looking out, there’s no reflection. It gives people a sense of light and sky.
Images courtesy of SOM

SOM's international projects are much more dynamic than their New York counterparts, which one could attribute to cost and bureaucracy. You’ve designed high-rises all over the world, from Rio to Berlin. What could our city learn from others to facilitate more innovative high-rises? In your opinion, what are some of the factors that hold skyscraper design in New York City back?

Lewis: There’s nothing that holds you back except, perhaps, that the cost of building in New York is so high, the risk that people the willing to take is less. There are two issues: one the design and the other the systems/technology. Most clients really just want a building that will stand the test of time, from both standpoints. In terms of systems, SOM has an incredible partnership with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—called CASE (the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology). SOM gives CASE a framework and testbeds for next-generation technologies, and then we are industrializing these new technologies by finding a manufacturer to turn it into a product that’s affordable and usable. We try to use this partnership to help our clients feel more comfortable investing in state-of-the-art technologies.
Images courtesy of CASE

Do you foresee exterior envelopes of skyscrapers becoming more energy conscious, or will many of New York’s office towers continue to use all glass facades? Or will we start seeing more composite skins that are also more responsive to solar orientation?

Lewis: Well, energy consciousness is in fact mandated by code now, so yes it is happening. One of the technologies that CASE is working on is called Graphene. It’s changing the nature of the glass at the atomic level. What’s amazing about our colleagues at CASE is that they’re not just looking for a singular solution to a problem. They’re looking for solutions that have multiple effects.
There’s also AMPS, which is the Active Modular Phytoremediation System that we put in at PSAC II, NYC’s Public Safety Answering Center in the Bronx. Within it is technology that uses the rhizomes (root systems) of plants to clean airborne toxins. It also cools the air a couple of degrees using minimal mechanical ventilation, so it’s reducing energy demands from normal fan systems that use a lot of energy.
Another one is modular indoor microclimates. In large buildings, there are massive systems that don’t take into account the microclimates of a particular building. So if I’m in the south-facing portion of the building, there’s a different climate than the north-facing part of the building. In super high rises, there can be as much as a five or 10 degree differential from the base of the building to the top, yet the mechanical systems are designed the same way no matter where they are.
With microclimates, and also microdistribution of heat or electricity, the idea is to come up with a cheap enough way so every single office can have a small device that can manage the temperature of the room.
This is cool stuff, and we think there will be even more of it in the future. There is a lot to look forward to!
Contributing Writer Jillian Blume Jillian Blume is a New York City based writer who has published articles widely in magazines, newspapers, and online. Publications include the New York Observer, Marie Claire, Self, MSN Living, Ocean Home, and Ladies Home Journal. Jillian received a master's degree in Creative Writing from New York University and teaches writing, critical reading, and literature at Berkeley College.
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