Q+A: Kenneth Drucker, Design Director for HOK in New York

Like a proud father, Kenneth Drucker, FAIA, notes that two of his New York team’s projects that began more than half a decade ago have opened in recent months: Harlem Hospital’s new Mural Pavilion and a replacement hospital for the University Medical Center at Princeton.

While keeping an eye on all of the projects coming out of HOK’s New York studio, Ken is also designing a headquarters for Korean energy company Samchully in Seoul and the Singapore Chancery infill building in Manhattan. He recently began design of a new ambulatory care center for New York-Presbyterian Hospital on a prominent Upper East Side site. Finally, he just returned from giving a presentation on the integration of academic buildings into campus and urban neighborhoods in Toronto and another presentation on tall buildings and biomimicry in Shanghai. Now in his 14th year as HOK’s design director in New York, Ken clearly is hitting his stride.

Tell me about the projects you have been working on.

KD: We won a design commission for the new pavilion at Harlem Hospital after several firms were asked to incorporate prominent WPA-era murals into the design. Our client asked us to prominently display the original WPA murals created by African American artists during the 1930s. These had never previously been placed on public display. To celebrate this artwork and life in Harlem, we used digital technology to turn the murals into the building’s primary façade directly facing Lenox Avenue. The mural by Vertis Hayes, “In Pursuit of Happiness,” speaks to the diaspora of African Americans in Harlem and connects the hospital to its community. It is a privilege to develop iconic civic architecture in such a historically significant community.

Harlem Hospital Mural Pavilion
New York, New York

We had the opportunity to design a new hospital for the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro on a 150-acre campus. The building’s gentle arc embraces the southern exposure and the beautiful views while bringing in daylight. Blending hospitality and healthcare, the public concourse invites people in and features views to the park and a clear wayfinding system. The horizontal and vertical organization is very strong.

University Medical Center of Princeton
Plainsboro, New Jersey

The Singapore Chancery is under construction here in New York. Our challenge was to create an iconic yet secure building at a townhouse scale. Five twisted glass blades in the main facade of the building represent the five attributes of the Singaporean government. A slot atrium separates the programmed spaces from the core spaces while drawing in daylight from the south.

Singapore Chancery
New York, New York

Last spring, we won a competition to design the new University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. We are beginning schematic design for this $375 million, 540,000-square-foot academic medical campus. This building will help revitalize downtown Buffalo and become a new iconic landmark for the city, which is a living museum of buildings designed by Wright, Kahn, Saarinen, Richardson, Sullivan and landscapes by Olmsted. The design is creating a memorable heart and soul for the medical school and a gateway to a future downtown campus for the University at Buffalo while responding to the context of the adjacent historic district of Allentown. The building will be constructed on top of an existing NFTA subway system and connect to other new buildings that will make up the new Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The project has aspirations for LEED Gold.

University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
Buffalo, New York

For the past three years, we have been master planning for New York-Presbyterian Hospital‘s downtown and uptown campuses. Now we are designing a nine-story, 540,000-square-foot ambulatory care center on the downtown campus at York Avenue and 68th Street. This building will become the hospital’s new front door and civic identity. We want it to relieve some of the pressure patients feel when they come to a healthcare setting on an urban site. The team is looking at daylighting and façade treatments that protect occupants while giving them views to the city and to the original historic campus on the East River.

Internationally, we are just completing the design development phase for a 200,000-square-foot headquarters building for Samchully, the Con Edison of Seoul. The site is a stone’s throw from the National Assembly on Yeouido Island. The design creates a series of four stacked boxes, three of which are cantilevered over the initial box and a “fifth” box defined by a civic-scaled trellis. The facades are sawtoothed in plan while the orientation of the sawtooth changes on each box. The overall impression is that of a stone building when looking at the building obliquely. Yet it gives the building the perception of being taller than it is — 380 feet — by accentuating the verticality of the sawtooth.

Samchully Headquarters
Seoul, South Korea

Why do you enjoy working on international projects?

Our New York studio has designed more than seven million square feet in Korea over the past five years. In addition to Korea, I have worked in China, India, Vietnam and Brazil. I love these projects, and so do my team members, because our clients allow us to incubate and test ideas about building materials and systems. We get to design everything from public spaces to tall buildings and we get to see the projects built in an amazingly fast timeframe.

It is important not to impose our Western values on international projects. We integrate the design into the local context and environment and look for ways for architecture to express each culture and that culture’s relationship to nature. Our international clients have a unique respect for HOK’s ideas and want our knowledge. That’s a rewarding feeling.

New Songdo City Blocks D22 (left) and D23 (right)
Incheon, South Korea

Take me through your design process.

Design should always be a highly collaborative process. The New York design studio is filled with an ensemble of exceptionally talented people, both on the technical and design side. We strive to produce a balance between the art and science of architecture. We encourage design conversations and collaboration with even the youngest designers. I want ideas to be generated from the entire team and try to guide, mentor and nurture our up-and-coming designers.

The design process is one of analysis, discovery, optimization, composition, placemaking and programmatic analysis before refining concepts to engage both the context and environment. We never begin the design process with a preconceived solution to the problem we are being asked to solve.

What is great architecture?

Great architecture responds to the client’s needs, the environment and its context. Great architecture pleases people. It uplifts the human spirit.

New Songdo City Sheraton Incheon Hotel
Incheon, South Korea

What inspires you?

Nature and its simplicity inspire me. Biology and the relationship between the natural and built world inspire me. The people I meet and work with inspire me. I try to lead and inspire them, too.

The underlying theme is that I want to improve the human condition and leave the world for my kids in a better place than it was left for me. The impact of global warming, as seen recently with Hurricane Sandy, deeply concerns me. I choose to live in New York City because I believe it is one of the most sustainable places to live in the US.

What is the next frontier for sustainable design?

The next frontier is net zero energy, net zero carbon emissions and beyond to net positive design, as well as biomimetic design.

We designed a project in Brazil that was inspired by biomimicry and the rainforest. Using biology for inspiration doesn’t mean that the building will function like a biological organism, but it allowed us to design a site-specific building that emulates the performance of the natural environment. I had romantic visions of the Amazon rainforest prior to my trip to Brazil and was saddened to see the impact of Sao Paolo’s 21 million residents on their indigenous habitat. We wanted our project to provide hope and reintroduce life’s principles to revitalize the building’s neighborhood and contribute to Sao Paolo.

Commercial Center
Sao Paolo, Brazil

What are your favorite places in New York City?

I like the interaction of the city with its parks and the water. Across the street from our office, Bryant Park is a harmonizing civic space filled with a variety of activity. It’s occupied almost 24 hours a day. Central Park is one of my favorite places. I live between Riverside Park and Central Park and appreciate the juxtaposition of the edges of these parks, the street walls and the parks themselves. The open spaces of the city are where we also get show off the great diversity of the city. I love the water’s edge around New York City and the reclamation of that edge from industrial to recreational uses.

We live near the Museum of Natural History, which has been an important place for us in terms of raising children in New York. We spend a lot of time in New York’s museums.

Is it difficult to raise children in the city?

It’s actually very easy. One reason my wife and I wanted to move here from Los Angeles in 1998 is that we were tired of the commuting and segregated life of Los Angeles.

New York has everything that any child would be interested in. Our kids are now 10, 16 and 20. My oldest son, who is studying to be an ornithologist, learned how to be a bird specialist in Central Park since the age of seven and volunteers in the bird specimen lab at the Museum of Natural History. My other son rows for an urban crew team on the East River and is studying Mandarin. My 10-year-old daughter is active in piano and swimming and can walk to school and all of her after-school activities. By growing up in New York, they are learning to communicate in a multicultural society and how to be global citizens in a diverse community.

Central Park, New York City
Image courtesy Flickr user Gane

What do you do when you aren’t working?

I swim when I am in the city and bike when I am in the country.

I designed a passive solar house on 12 acres in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, about 100 miles north of New York City. It is a south-facing glass barn with 37 operable windows that allow me to tune the building based on the four seasons. The house is a composition of four sloped roofs organized around the hearth and is nested in an area of rolling hills adjacent to hundreds of acres protected by the Massachusetts Trustees of Reservations. The design saves 60 percent of energy costs during the year.

The house gives us a perfect balance of living an urban existence during the week and in relative isolation on weekends. It has the Internet but no TV. We listen to NPR, work in the garden, cook, and reconnect as a family after our hectic week in the city.

Are you involved in any community organizations?

I am on the board of openhousenewyork, which introduces the architecture of New York City to citizens. I am active with the Municipal Art Society, the Forum for Urban Design, the Architectural League the AIA New York and New York New Visions, which contributed to the plan for rebuilding Lower Manhattan after 9/11. I am hoping I will get involved in the rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I also am involved with my children’s schools and am a class parent in my daughter’s fifth-grade class.

How did you decide to be an architect?

As a college freshman, I was pursuing a pre-med degree and working at a cancer research center. I was in a sculpture class as an elective with freshman architecture students and was introduced to architecture as a profession for the first time and was hooked. It was good that I did, because I was the one who fainted in biology class when we were asked to draw our own blood. I didn’t have the stomach for it.

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