Crossing The Threshold Of Hospitality - Eran Chen - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 157

Dan: Today's guest has a reputation for mold breaking designs and will deliver a better urban future. He believes in constantly challenging the status quo. Since starting his own firm in 2007, he's completed over 60 buildings. He's an adjunct professor of architecture, teaching at both Columbia and NYU. He's the founder, founder and owner and design director of ODA.

Ladies and gentlemen, Aaron Chen. Welcome, Aaron.

Eran: Thank you. Thank you, Dan. So great to be here.

Dan: It's good to be here and it's so awesome to be able to do this in person and experience the hospitality that you gave me coming into your office here in downtown

Eran: Yeah, I totally agree. I think in the world of podcasts and zooms and stuff to meet in person is much more engaging. So welcome to our office. Welcome to ODA.

Dan: for having here and just looking at all the models and all the projects that you're working on. I mean, they just, and just knowing your, your resume of what, of the projects you've worked on, they're skyline redefining. And, um, it's just good to be here and good to see your team and receive your hospitality.

So thank you.

Eran: You're

Dan: Um, as we get into the conversation or before we get into it, I just want to ask like, what does hospitality mean to you or how do you define it?

Eran: Well, I think in the traditional way, hospitality is the way by which people are greeted and welcomed when they come to a new place. And, um, the access and quality and the ease by which they could, uh, reconnect or connect, uh, in their journey, regardless if it's pleasure or business. I think, you know, hospitality in a very interesting way throughout history have reflected the culture.

I mean, if you look at ancient cultures, Arabic cultures, you know, by way of greeting new people, or if you think of the culture of Greece or ancient, or Roman times, the way that people are greeted is an expression of who they are as a culture and what they believe in. And to me, that's fascinating as an architect, because what we try to do constantly is adopt our culture.

buildings to, to be an expression, true expression of our culture. So our culture is morphing and changing as we all know on a constant basis. So hospitality today, more than anything has changed, um, and involved now a sense of authenticity. If traditional, In the past 20, 30 years, it was home away from home that led into the big chains of, uh, of hospitality from Hilton to, to others, uh, where people felt more comfortable to see the same thing, to be the same environment as they travel around the world.

That changed into the boutique environment where Uh, hospitality meant really a unique experience that is different than other places. So there's a sort of a one type, one kind of an experience into today, which is really about authenticity. How do I connect to the place I am in the fastest and the most authentic way?

So I feel not necessarily at home, but I feel the way that other people feel in that particular location.

Thank you

Dan: for answering that so thoughtfully. And I mentioned in the beginning that you started your. Practice in 2007. So that was just before the financial crisis. Okay. So a lot of the listeners of this are also entrepreneurs. And to think about, I'm really fascinated with that because for me, I tend to, I started my first company two weeks before September 11th.

I was in California, but it was furnishing hotels. Everything just shut down. It was, it was close. So my, I have a two part question is one, How did you get the courage to take that first step on your entrepreneurial journey? Like what pushed you? And number two, how did you endure really just

Eran: just, like Give

Dan: a year before the financial crisis, really?

So like, you got a double whammy there.

Eran: Right. I think, um, going on your own, regardless if it's on design field or anything else, require a lot of guts and because you're walking towards the unknown. And quite often people are looking at what they have to lose more than what they have to gain.

You know, people always talk about the risks that are involved in opening your own business. Look, I have this, I have that, I have a safe location, I have, you know, I have a salary, I have a position that might grow. I'm going to lose all of that. And that's daunting. Where, for me, it's always been about what are the opportunities?

What the future might bring? And I'm very tempted towards the unknown. It's just a matter of I don't know how to explain it. That was always fascinating, right? Which explained a lot of things in my life, right? Um, you know, leaving my, my home country, moving to another country altogether. Uh, the adaptation into new scenarios is something that I was always tempted by.

So at some point in my career, and I was a very well positioned as a principal, uh, at a company called Perkins Eastman, very respected. And, you know, if you look at it from our perspective of our field, that was doing quite well. Um, but there was a growing urge for me to experience other things that I couldn't do within the company.

And then I remember one day I was sitting with my wife, uh, reading the, the New York Times because we never really discussed the serious move. And I was reading an article about, um, a young architect, um, that actually opened. His own practice and, uh, kind of succeeded against all odds. And I was really inspired.

I said, why am I not doing this? There's no real reason. And the next, uh, week, the whole thing started. So it's one of those moments when you jump from the cliff to the water and you're hoping that it's going to be exciting. Uh, the timing was terrible. Couldn't be worse.

Dan: But you also said, just as I asked the question, you said you had nothing to lose. But I imagine married, having a great job on a career path, did you have kids at the

Eran: Yep, two kids.

Dan: I didn't when I started mine, so I really had nothing to lose. It's really interesting how you actually had so much to lose. You got hit in the face with the financial crisis and how did you soldier on?

Eran: Yeah, there's so many stories that are kind of summarized by the way in our first book called Unboxing New York. It's sort of a diary of our first 10 years of experiences at ODA, um, where I tell those stories because they're, they're really important. They're more It's important that the work itself in some ways for for young architects, like they want to see how how the whole thing unfolded.

We were extremely nimble and I always took an approach in architecture to say yes. And I'm saying that because quite often I see my colleagues and a lot of people in our profession Especially young ones saying no to many things because it's not exactly what they've envisioned for themselves. For example, let's say you open your own practice and you envision that you're going to work on fancy private homes or whatever.

And what you get is some, uh, low end apartments in, you know, in, in, in other locations. There's a temptations to say no to things like that, because you want to position yourself in, you know, where you envision yourself position. I always took a very different approach. I say yes. And then whatever assignment I get, I try to do, make the best of it because there's design in every aspect of our lives.

And so throughout my career, I just said yes. And what that led to is a very nimble. type of company. Even when we were very young, we've done architecture, done interiors. We've dealt with existing building and, and landmarks, uh, additions. We've done ground up and conversions, um, small schools, kindergartens, whatever was thrown at us. We just tried to, to do better. The story unfolded to a point where 2008, we were about 14. 14 of us working on two or three projects. The big one that led us to open the practice, uh, was in Medicine Square Park. It was actually quite substantial conversion and addition for a developer. Uh, that stopped. It was financed by the Lehman Brothers and stopped right there and then.

So we lost our biggest commission. And then a week or two after that, every other project that we had has basically stopped to a point where we had zero work. Um, We've scrambled, and I remember one day sitting at the office with, you know, all of us, and kind of biting our nails and saying, what should we do?

Maybe we should create courses for Housewife about interior design, or maybe we should open a bagel shop at the street corner, because we have to survive somehow. Eventually, there were a few miracles that happened. One of them was that, um, a friend of a friend told us And that was the end of 2008. We are literally no income whatsoever.

We're not paying our rent. Um, and a friend of a friend came in and said, there's this guy who's a young billionaire who's looking to, uh, he bought a penthouse in New York City. It's about 40, 000 square foot. Incredible. property and is looking for an interior design to design it. And he reached out to 40 world renowned architects and interior designers, and he narrowed it down to 10.

Of course, we were not the least. And the friend said, um, of course, and the friend said, listen, I think that I can somehow sneak you in, in the pres in the, uh, interview process, if you're willing, in the matter of a week. designing the whole place and present almost a complete product. And of course there's no risk involved for us cause we had nothing else to do.

So we basically sat down and I've learned a lot about that client. I've read about his history, how he came to be. And it was very interesting cause he was a, uh, his family, were immigrants from, uh, um, from Vietnam during the war. He grew up in Queens and then somehow it was a prodigy and somehow got into Blackstone and became like the biggest, uh, whatever producer making hundreds of millions of dollars at the age of 38 and not bad, right?

Dan: No.

Eran: And so when we came into, we snuck into this interview. He was sitting at his apartment with about 15 people, uh, consultants and otherwise, his, uh, helpers. I don't even know. And I presented the story of his life through the architecture. And I said, you came from Queens and, you know, surprisingly, your penthouse is overlooking your, the home that you grew up in. And we're going to, the apartment is going to be about connection of the past and the present. The life, the western life and the eastern life and it's going to be connected through a reflecting pond. By the way, this is on the 90th floor of a tower with a huge waterfall. And we're going to tie these things together and the apartment is going to symbolize your journey.

And he fell in love with that story the minute that I told him I knew that we got the job. That job held us, can you imagine, for a young office that has nothing else to do, held us throughout the first recession almost single handedly designing that penthouse.

Dan: Wow. And I'm glad you mentioned Unbox in New York because now you just launched or released your second book, um, which we'll talk about in a minute. But as you've grown your practice and worked on So many marquee projects and won awards and accolades. And it's really awesome to see what you've built here.

As I look around, I wish I could turn the camera and show, I'm intrigued by the always say yes. Cause are you still always saying yes, or now are you more selective because now that you've kind of hit your stride,

Eran: it's, uh, sometimes,

Dan: to where we are now?

Eran: Well, it's always much easier to look back at the points that creates the trace line to where you are today and try to understand it yourself. Because as we go along, as I said, we don't know where we're going and we love that. The idea of coming into an office where we have a journey but it's unknown is something that we always embraced.

Uh, and that led us collectively to do amazing work and now internationally, et cetera. But when I trace those dots back, uh, I find that in every assignment that we've taken on, almost every assignment we've taken on, we found a way to express our belief in design and, uh, in architecture. And it came about in different ways.

So we never lost ourselves within the assignment. In fact We have honed our belief in architecture. What allowed me 10 years later to write Unboxing New York and today to talk about what is my philosophy and belief in architecture are those looking back at all these kind of little diverse projects that we've done before and connecting the dots and looking back and say, why we've done what we've done.

What, what was the genesis of our motivation? Now, to be realistic, when you run a firm of 100 people and you work internationally, you don't say yes to anybody who comes in your door. But we've got a few very interesting thresholds to what we say yes to and what we say no to. Number one, what we've learned through the years is the relationship between our clients and us is pivotal and it's essential in the success of every work that we do.

And the reason I'm pointing that out is We see ourselves as collaborators and partners to our clients, but it goes both ways. There's a mutual respect. There's a sense of creating something together. Everybody brings what they can bring from their expertise or their, their, their perspective. And we have to make sure that our clients respect who we are, came here for a reason, which is to go through a process of discovery in order to create something.

And in that sense, we're not just service providers and we're not really. Slaves of our trades to our clients. And, and, and that's very, it was always very important to me. So I would say absolutely no, even to the biggest commission out there, if I feel that the client is looking at the architects and designers as purely executors or service providers and not as process of discovery.

That by itself is a huge threshold then. Right? Because it makes sure that regardless of the size, the scale, location of the project, there's going to be something good that comes out of it.

Dan: I

Eran: anything good that comes out from designing a chair to a master plan of a city is an amazing step in the right direction for us because we're improving the built environment through ideas that are unique.

And secondly, I would say that we have to make sure that

Dan: the logic.

Eran: the assignment we take on, uh, are worth our time at the end, um, because we don't have B projects and C projects and A projects. We don't have B teams and C teams and whatever teams. This is only one. and we treat every project in the same attention and love.

And our intention is for each one of those to be a great building that serves the community that it's in, in the best way. Right.

Dan: and scores and scores of journaling years and years ago. Because, you know, I furnish hotels. I sell furniture to hotels. But that's just what I do. And then,

Eran: And it's set

Dan: but that wasn't really what drove me. What drove me was the why.

And the why is making sure that the people that I'm working with are well cared for and taken care of along the way. And then what lights me up more than anything, and I say it on the podcast all the time, I hate, now I'm

Eran: members

Dan: hate hearing it myself say it, but it's to shorten other people's

journeys. And that's why. through these relationships and these conversations and just all the learnings that I'm so curious about to be able to take your experience and share it with the listeners and shorten their journey or, or kind of maybe impact them to have them take a step forward. It's incredible, but it all comes down to that relationship.

It's that space between that hospitality, the ember that's burning between us, even as we're talking between us as a neighborhood, but between people, and that's really. what drives me. And, and it was staring me in the face for ever. And I just couldn't figure it out. It took an outside coach to just say, you don't see it.

I said, see what I just don't see it. I'm like making a, like a us open or tournament tree of like all the things that are important to me and why I love what I do. And, and I had them all fight. And it all came down to the, at the end, it was like the journey and caring for others really impacting people through that.

Eran: Yeah, it's incredible. It's incredible. I think what I love about what you said is, first of all, we're all seeking, reasoning, and also we're all sick. I think we're all seeking definitions. It's such a noisy world and there's so many of us out there and there's so many designers and architects, so many buildings, and how do you define yourself?

How do you make a place in the world for who you are? You first have to find out who you are authentically, like what really drives you and what makes you different. And then you have to find a way to execute on that. And, and these, this is one of the, I think one of the toughest, toughest things for.

creative people, uh, to do. And I, and I'm glad that this kind of conversations that we have in a way serve as an inspiration or they're telling to some degree to people who are seeking, you know, their, their own journey. I want to mention one more thing, Dan, cause you said the gap or the space between you and I, between people.

I love that. And if, if anybody knows a little bit about my journey, I quite often speak about the threshold. And I find that the threshold is the most exciting place in architecture. And now the threshold, as we know it, is, let's say, the thickness of the wall between the inside and out. Those spaces of transition between one type of place to another type of place.

Those places of transition are the gap between things. Those gaps is where the magic happens. Distention. Between where we are now and in the future, the tension of between you and I right now, the gaps or what the, you know, famously was quoted, the space between the notes in music, the most important elements, the tension, right?

Now, the threshold in architecture translates into our work because we always try to. study the connection between the indoor and outdoor, the building as a transformation point between, you know, one condition to another condition. And we take that threshold, the thickness of the wall, the relationship between the building and the outside, the gaps between the buildings on every scale.

And we investigate that. As the meaning of, uh, our building, what we call the, sort of the, the threshold between, uh, those spaces. I

Dan: I really like that because again, it is that tension that creates

Eran: The only thing to do

Dan: separation, but also curiosity. Right? And.

Eran: ask, yes, it's palpable to me, but

Dan: In fact, that's what I, I don't get to do many of these in person, but I find that when I do speak to someone in person doing these recordings, I feel like there's like this energy or hearth right between us in that threshold between us.

And it, I don't know, it's, it's palpable to me. And it's also exciting to be here and talking about that. And then as you were talking, I learned, do you know where threshold came from? Like the word. So, in the, like you have a door jam, and then the threshold is at the bottom of the door, and usually it's a bump out.

It's because they would have hay, or other kind of covering, or thresh, on the floor, and it would keep it from going from room to room. But I really,

Eran: didn't think about that.

Dan: I hadn't thought about that since, maybe I

Eran: I don't know what it means. I have to think about it more.

Dan: yeah. Maybe you could just, if you don't want to cross through the threshold, you could just lie down and be comfortable on the, on the hay.

Um, so you've written two books, correct? And you're going to sign this one for me after we're done here, but how did you, so you did your first one, Unboxing New York, with all the different stories of how you came to be and starting and the stories of your origin, if you will. What prompted you to write the second book and why?

Eran: First of all, I really, it's two separate books, but in a way I feel like they're one. The first one was, think about a young firm, uh, after 10 years of practice. Not only telling the story of how we came to be a survivor and where the ideas come from and how we dealt with different situation, let's say in the, in the real estate world of New York city, where a client comes to you and how do you handle different situations?

It was a, it wasn't a book of theory, but it was a book of sharing ideas as they emerge. That led us to the designs that we've designed. And it's, it's full of diagrams and drawings and ideas about building envelope and other things, but they always tie into a certain ideology as we experiment with it. So there's something very green about that book.

It's fresh, it's authentic, and it comes right from the hot press, right? Whatever we felt, I wrote.

Dan: Not just any hot

Eran: www.

Dan: very, it's a very, very hot press. It's like, that's really, congratulations, but keep going.

Eran: no, the second book has much more pictures because the second book is the outcome of the first book and Many of the diagrams that you'll see on the first book are actual buildings that are being photographed on the second book And so in a way it's it's the beginning and the end if you will the journey of those buildings from their inception to their completion And the writing, there's much less writing on the second book.

It's just a beautiful expression of those ideas. But the writing is the development of where I am today in my understanding of my practice, but also the context of the urban scale. How do we fit within that? And a lot of these writings are, you know, on themes, basically three themes, if you'd like. One of them is what I call, uh, uh, fractal porosity.

I know it sounds like a ma major world Ality is the, is the theory, um, of repetition in nature over different scales.

Dan: chaos, and there's patterns

Eran: Those patterns,

Dan: So it's not necessarily chaotic, but

Eran: it's not chaotic, but it's, it's the patterns that repeats themselves. You know, like the, I don't know, the delta of rivers. So as you zoom out from a split of water, riverway.

These arms that split are similar in pattern. They're just bigger and bigger as you go up, right? Or the, the Italian cauliflower, which has these tiny, tiny flowers that then becomes bigger flowers and bigger and bigger and bigger. The entire cauliflower is the same form as the generic one. So that repetition is a phenomenon in physics, in mathematics.

It's not so much an architectural idea, although Frank Lloyd Wright back in the days have used that in some of his buildings. You look at those. Patterns, uh, that he used in the floor tiles, and how they repeat as the structure of the building, and how they repeat vertically, and then the roof shape, and all of this kind of affects the balcony's shape.

A lot of his buildings are fractal by nature. I use the term, not so much from a formal point of view, but the idea that there are, I think, in architecture, Very important moments, which I call porosity. Porosity is the premiable of a material, right? How much light and water can go into a rock? That's the nature of porosity of a rock, right?

That in cities, across different scales, porosity is the key architectural element that makes cities great. I'll give you an example. Let's say on a building facade. When we do, when we design a porous facade building, we have ins and outs and we create all these terraces. Those pockets of space around those terraces are an extension of the life inside.

They're very valuable because they are not just a place where we can step outside, but they're extending our vision between inside and out to expand the threshold. They grow in a courtyard of a building. That courtyard is also a porous idea. It's the void that creates around a building. And it's true in a neighborhood.

For example, what do you do in a city block in Europe when you cross between different alleys to find your place in a secret courtyard? So that idea, which is, you know, you have to read through it a little more, is what I'm very proud of. interested in right now. And I think that ties into our very, very first project, uh, 15 Union Square West, which is a building on Union Square.

It's the old Tiffany building and all the way to our massive plans and bigger buildings that we do today.

Dan: it also goes down to that idea of the space between, it's those interesting nooks and crannies, if you will, that life happens, energy happens.

Eran: In the gap between.

Dan: Yeah. And, and, uh, Yeah, I find the gap between, like you said earlier, much better than I can, but that tension, there's such tremendous power in that.

Eran: Absolutely. And architecture is not about things. I keep on saying architecture is about the space between things. It's the space between the walls and the floor and the ceiling. It's not about so much the wall. The wall has no meaning unless it has openings in it. And when a wall has an opening in it, now it has meaning.

It has depth. So, you know, when you think about this, at the end of the day, we play a role. in creation of in between spaces. And when you define, I think, architecture or cities or quality or hospitality or even relationships, not as the objects, but as the gaps, I think there's a lot interesting stuff that can be discovered.

Dan: I agree. And this is actually making me think with the books and just the fractal porosity. At what point did you decide to become a professor or an adjunct professor, at NYU and up at Columbia? Was that after you had started your company or were you doing it before?

Eran: No, no, it's way after, way after. I, uh, you know, I, I think I don't want to overphrase it. I think that interaction with our profession across different generation is so essential to our growth as people. And while I do it every day in my office, because our office is like a studio at Columbia University or Harvard Graduate School of Architecture.

Why? Because we have teams that work on projects, or individuals, and we go back and forth, you know, where I'm kind of the professor, if you will, of my own office, but we, it's their projects. So we collaborate in this office between me and my employees, almost in the same fashion that a student will work with a good professor in the university.

There's, there's a dialogue, there's a thematic idea which we're trying to achieve. And then there's like give and take everybody's contributing. But I felt like the, that needs to expand. And if I have the luxury of doing that, I think it's super important. And I get a lot from it also because it's not my projects anymore and I'm not attached to them perhaps the way I would be otherwise, but I'm, I'm the, I'm the bouncing back.

I'm, I'm the person who can, I don't know if just teach them, but, but give them the right feedback that I think is so valuable.

Dan: And having started your firm in 2007 and then becoming a professor, how did becoming a professor change your leadership style for your company?

Eran: I don't know if it did. Uh, it's a good question. I never thought of it. Dan, that's a nice one. Uh, I don't know to answer this. I think that it's a good reflection for me about where we stand with our own stuff, because I feel that. The level of interaction that is intellectual or otherwise creative with groups of people that are outside of our office is always then in somewhat comparisons to what we do here. And we thrive to have the same level of discourse that you'd have in a university. I mean, a lot of people would. While we are a very pragmatic office. And, you know, people look at ODA and say, Oh, you guys are so cool. prolific and you know, you build so much and, and we proud of that because we are a very pragmatic office.

We don't just talk about ideas. We're trying to implement them. Um, but perhaps you would say when, if you do that, you lose the theoretical thresh, uh, threshold, the theoretical thread, uh, that puts universities dialogue where they should be. And I think that that comparison for me is important because it always kind of balance you back and say, are we doing enough of that?

Um, I'm doing a change with it. I'm running

Dan: A couple of minutes ago, you said something again that resonated with me.

Eran: where I'm from.

Dan: As you became a professor, it engaging with, I don't know exactly how you said it, but like

different generations from yourself. And I have to say one of the, you know, we moved from Manhattan up to Connecticut and you know, we love it.

The kids are doing really well. One of the things I really miss is neighbors who were 80 and neighbors who were 20. And I'm around a lot of people who are of a similar age with kids and interacting with them, which is all well and good. But I miss the older and I miss the younger that I would get on a daily basis.

So I have, I, I make up for that in other ways. But I, I would think that. Walking into a university when you're teaching must be very invigorating. Yeah,

Eran: inherited problems of cities, we keep on flocking back to cities.

And I think at the core of that, I mean, it used to be said that it's all opportunistic. It's just cities is where work is. And it's true to some degree, but nowadays we know that it's not necessarily the case, right? I think that the, uh, this interaction that is not single layered, but it's multi layered, with people of different generations, different backgrounds, different, you know, that, this is so exciting.

That's what we love about cities. And then you move to suburbia. And I'm not taking anything away from it, and you're much more, you know, within your type, within your people. The neighborhood, you know, consists of the same typology of people, socio economical age. Uh, where here, you stepped out to the street, and you've got everything.

So, that's the beauty of city living. Um, and, um, in universities, it's quite similar. Listen, you interact, I'm, You know, I'm a full generation above my students, but I'm also a full generation above most of my employees.

Dan: and then people are really what make everything tick, especially in a business, right? And you were saying A team, you're not, you don't have an A, B and C team, you have an A team, like you're all on the same team. Um, has being a professor helped with your recruiting? And have you found any superstars from as students who've matriculated on into ODA?

Or do you, or do you try and keep a separation?

Eran: No, I mean, I have no agenda on that regard. I think sometimes students would reach out with resumes, and sometimes that would be great. I don't see it as a source of anything, to be honest. Sometimes. You know, I also teach, I think it's important to, to note in Columbia University, I teach both architects and real estate students.

And that's very important because the reason I do that is I feel like the private sector, the developers of the world, people are going to deal with real estate on the business side. need to have a better, and architects, need to have a much better and seamless dialogue if we're going to make our cities better.

Because they are the biggest force of influence in our cities today, for better and for worse, that we can discuss if it's good or bad. But if you look, if you look around, everything is being built by the private sector these days. There's very few buildings who are not. If architects, especially good ones, are going to resent the private sector and vice versa, then we're not going to make better cities.

So it was very important to me to engage with these students, the real estate students, very early in the game and have that dialogue and open their minds and to the fact that, you know, good design is good business.

Dan: Say, I love that you're creating a dovetail between those two factions because there is both have their own realities and both dialogues can breed success. But I, I, I think the larger thing plaguing cities and just countries is zoning. So I know you're saying like everything is, most everything is built by the private sector, but there's a huge clutch or governor. Preventing a lot of development and good development, which is zoning. And so I think I feel like we have, and I haven't really heard a lot of people talk. I mean, I hear some people talking about it, but I feel like we have a zoning crisis going on right now, and it's really holding back what I think it could be a really cool Star Trek future.

Eran: Perhaps, I mean, there's no doubt that zoning is not only restrictive, but it's old.

Dan: Yeah.

Eran: And the pace by which cities are updating their zoning definitely doesn't catch up with the change of our communities, the change of our needs, or anything

Dan: And oftentimes, it's harder to change zoning than it is laws, right? I mean, there are laws, but as a subset of laws, they, they're so calcified and intractable. There's

Eran: They're cemented in the reality of cities because they're tied not only into design, they're tied into real estate values and taxes and many other very monumental things. And that's why when you change a zoning rule, you change the whole matrix of evaluation of cities and opportunities.

So that's why it's so hard to change them. And you can imagine, let's say you're a building owner, and you bought a building in a particular site with a particular zoning, and now the zoning has changed, for good and for worse. All of a sudden, you might lose or, or value, or gain a huge, uh, value. So that's why it's very political, and more than it should be, and that's why it's so difficult to change.

And we're still working based on 1968, you know, there's some updates to the zonings through the years. But I can tell you, because we've become experts in zoning. That they definitely don't address the concerns that we have in our culture right now. Neither ideas of climate change or energy, but also social and use and the way we want to live our lives is not reflected in the zoning regulations.

So that's a challenge.

However, and I must say that we have to live with that challenge and make the best out of it. And when we say we, I mean architects, designers, developers, everybody.

Dan: Mm. I

Eran: to say, that 90 percent of the built buildings in New York City right now are a pure reflection of the zoning book.

Dan: 100 percent agree. Yeah.

Eran: the rest is just the facade

Dan: Yeah.

Eran: Well, that's pretty sad. Yeah. That means that our creativity is limited to a book with, you know, whatever, 50 diagrams and that's all we're doing. So we didn't accept that at ODA and part of unboxing New York as the name kind of, you know, uh, points to is we wanted to unbox this boxed formulation and the only way to do it is really understand the zoning regulations and find the ways to be creative even.

on those points in order to open the eyes of many others that this is possible. We could be creative even within the existing zoning book.

Dan: What's an example of a project where you really pushed the limits there and came up with something that maybe on paper didn't have a real ROI but you knew your vision was this space and what's gonna happen in it is going to have a halo effect on the valuation of this building neighborhood community?

Eran: There's a very famous, uh, that, uh, also is articulated in our, in our first book, which is called the evolution of the dormer rules. Now the dormer, we know what a dormer is, is this kind of thing that sticks out from a gable roof and originally was designed to bring light into the attic, but also to allow people to stand, to kind of make a space within an attic, right?

The dormer rule has translated into New York City zoning in a very interesting way, where a building requires to have a setback from the street line. I don't want to get too technical there. I hope I'm

Dan: No, I'm, no, I, I'm with you. Start talking about

Eran: Yeah, it's good. No, no, no, no, it's, it's, it's not that complicated. All right. Let's, let's try to follow.

The building needs to stand on the street wall, but then all of New York City's building, almost all New York City buildings needs to set back. And the idea was let's bring more light into the streets. The dormer rule allows you to keep a portion of the building. Continuous at the facade and not set back based on a formula that it looks like a triangle. And that formulation led into many buildings and I encourage people to go out to New York and look up that has those kind of triangular shaped top at the setback.

Dan: Okay.

Eran: With that area. And this way we looked at that and I was like, I was puzzled by this whole thing. Because the outcome of that is that you have this area that seems like amazing opportunity for architectural flexibility and design.

Beyond the setback, but it's very much formed into this triangular shape. And we have created what we call the Flying Dormer.

Dan: Okay.

Eran: The Flying Dormer. which we discovered good 10 years ago, was that in fact, while the zoning resolution requires you to measure the amount of area that stays on the building line within a triangle, it doesn't hold you to keep that area within the triangle.

Dan: Really?

Eran: So nobody really thought about this. It doesn't say anything about where you're going to put that area. It just says when you calculate it, it needs to fit within a triangle. And surprise, nobody ever thought that maybe we should step out of the box

Dan: So what did you do with it?

Eran: So we've taken that area.

Dan: the, I'm going to take a picture or I'll get images from you and put it in the,

Eran: Absolutely not. So if you, if you know any of our residential buildings that were built in the past, whatever, 10 years. And they're in the book or otherwise, you'll see that we've shuffled those areas across the building to create that level of porosity throughout the entire facade that has these gaps between them and the gaps became more terraces for people, much more outdoor space, because they are overlapping those, the dormers, so you'd have much more outdoor space, you have freedom to design them.

The apartments, almost like private homes, are much, you know, much more freedom than otherwise would, would do, and that's a totally different

Dan: So I've seen that pattern in your buildings just from looking at the picture. I didn't, I didn't

Eran: didn't

Dan: I didn't realize. And now when I walk down the street, I'm going to

Eran: Yes, and now I gotta tell you, when I drive with my kids, sometimes in a car out of the city and we're coming back, they say, oh my god, they did an ODA, they did an ODA, ODA. And what I'm so proud of, that there's so many architects right now who are using the Flying Dormer rule that we've actually came up with and implementing that, uh, in their buildings, which really changed some of the skyline, uh, typology in New York, and definitely, I think, changed the value of these units.

Dan: That's amazing. Okay. So now I'm going to pay attention more as I go and look at your books again and as I walk down the street I'm going to just

Eran: I will even show you here on the models. We have the original model that we've done for the Flying Dormer for a building called 50 and Renwick.

Dan: Okay. Is

Eran: in the history of New York City, based on the Commissioner at that time, because I had to go to the Commissioner,

Dan: that right over here?

Eran: it's not that far,

Dan: It's like just above Canal

Eran: Hudson Square, above Canal.

I had to go to the Commissioner back then, the Chief Commissioner of the Department of Building and explain why I believe that what is, the fact that what I'm doing is based on the zoning code. And I did. And he was convinced. And he said it was never done before, but now I accept this. And then we're probably opening the door to many others to come.


Dan: architects really, I hope they're pushing the envelope to try and figure out how to do that, because I find going into certain cities, it over, okay, they're magnificent and they're incredible, but once you live in them and you're experiencing them, they're also, they get a bit monotonous sometimes.

Yeah, and repetitive. Yeah.

Eran: it's a call for all architects, wherever they are. Don't be discouraged by the limitations of regulations, but you must know the rules if you want to break them. And it's a tool. It's just another tool that we have to play by and we need to master in order to be creative.

Not only in New York City, in many cities, by the way.

Dan: It's interesting is, um, I don't remember 2006, eight, somewhere in there, they started putting, uh, anti dumping duties on wooden bedroom furniture coming from China in particular. It's a whole long story, but I actually, I hired a lawyer to petition the department of commerce. I found this really cool material as a wheat board instead of like MDF, it was made of wheat or grass.

So it wasn't, it wasn't, um, a wood product that was ground up. So I petitioned the Department of Commerce, went through and I said, well, more than 90 percent of the weight then will be grass and resin. So it's not wooden bedroom and got denied.

But that, I think that would have actually changed potentially how furniture is made.

I was also a little nervous if I was using a new product in this as a substrate, how it would perform over the long term, but it's trying to. Plead a case for New York City Department of Buildings is one thing. And then when you're doing it with the federal government, it's a whole other level, but both are equally challenging in Byzantine in their own way of how they look at the world because they need control.

Eran: It needs to

Dan: need things to be stable, but oftentimes it's,

Eran: I can see the other side of it because what you probably don't want is to live in cities where there are no rules for architectural design and you've got like endless typologies of crazy architects, uh, illustrations of what they dream about and there's no consistency, there's no coherency.

So there's gotta be a balance act between them, but definitely, Zoning regulations right now are the major limitation, limiting factor. And I'll just throw another element here because not too long ago, I was invited by the D. C. Mayor's Office and the, uh, uh, Economic Development Forum in D. C. with a challenge.

They said, listen, the Golden Triangle in downtown D. C. They consist of about 80 percent of office buildings. The vast majority of them are old. And the vast majority of them right now are empty because people didn't come back to, uh, to the office after COVID. A lot of the city agencies, government, the state agencies, uh, people are just not willing to come back to the office.

And now the heart of DC, the Golden Triangle and downtown DC, two minutes walk north of the White House and the mall are sitting vacant. There's a huge problem. Both. You know, from an urban standpoint of view, retail are being closed, you know, restaurants are not working, streets are empty. There's also a major financial impact to that because the valuation of the building is coming down, so the commercial real estate taxes are now super low.

Dan: the banks aren't able to collect.

Eran: nobody can collect. The city is losing billions of dollars every year. It's a major, major problem. Okay, so they said, you're a creative guy, can you come up with some ideas? And speak to us as a keynote speaker at our forum, what we can do. And I came up with a plan that I call DC Greenways. And it's also, you know, it's a, it's a video that basically, um, tells the story of how I see a renaissance at Central DC.

And it really, from the ground up, it's about the idea of activation of the ground floor by, uh, innovative programs that are going to replace the decayed, uh, and, and deep and empty retail. And using the heart of the DC block. From a sequence of private alleyways into a public courtyards, public green courtyards that are purely pedestrian.

And the combination of the open space at the middle of the D. C. city block, landscape beautiful, and the activation of the ground floor. with elements that are not connected to the market value, but there are universities and museums and otherwise, you know, uh, community facilities are going to create the excitement at the ground floor.

And in return, the FAR is going to move to the top of the building where there's more value for the developer and incentive to do that.

Dan: And it's not necessarily the street level, it is, but also internal. As you're, as you're talking about, I'm envisioning like a flyover of Barcelona and kind of seeing like what's going

Eran: Correct, correct. So it's sort of the, you know, I talk a lot about courtyards because I think it's a magical place of gathering, especially in a world without cars, because courtyard is a gathering space in an urban environment that is not linear, it's not a sidewalk, and it's not a park. It has huge value. So creating those courtyards inside, you have to incentivize developers to build them, to maintain them, et cetera, et cetera, and the incentives is, you're going to allow them to build another floor or two at the penthouse, where they have huge value. And of course, the biggest problem in D.

C. is the height limitation. Well,

Dan: it's the height limitation and also

Eran: also, excuse

Dan: just the street layout as well. And who is L'Enfant? He was the French urban planner that planned it. It was designed in a way to disorient invading armies. Right? I think the only one was 1812 when the British came in and then they left.

Eran: right. Well, I mean, I,

Dan: okay,

Eran: for me and for many in my plan was that you can't change the zoning rules about the height of buildings in dc Okay. So now we're getting into the th the really p critical and pivotal element where government needs to be more nimble and flexible in order to create.

Modern CDs. And that's where it gets stuck, unfortunately, quite often.

Dan: I'm hearing there's this stuck if cities are unwilling to change, but things always change. I'm hearing about how You've created these flying dormers and other, I don't know, other ideas that have helped kind of push the limits of that. Um, so I am seeing progress, just from what you're saying. Um, as you look forward, whether just globally, city, or company, or just whatever you're, when I say as you look into the future, what's exciting you most as you look out there?


Eran: people wants to leave away from the city with the challenges that we're facing right now in cities. There's no doubt in my mind that cities are the future of our global society. First of all, we can't continue and conquer every green, you know, area on our globe.

Leave nothing else to nature. and free ourselves from the occupation of every piece of land. We have to consolidate. That's what I feel, and that's the most sustainable thing to do. We have to consolidate ourselves into more dense cities and allow for a much more open, green, natural world. And that balance is going to give us wellness.

But we have to do that in a way that would be extremely pleasant, that would allow us to, people to breathe, that would really connect us to one another, and to, to, to, to nature, even within the cities. And how do we do that? How do we continue and build vertically and still maintain the kind of life that people loved in city where they're smaller and, you know, a little lower and less densified? I am a true believer that we're going to find ways to do that. In fact, the majority of our projects are dealing with that exact problem. And while we're Marching along with these ideas and facing urban limitations and zoning regulations, eventually, we're gonna, I think, live in a super exciting, walkable cities that have much more than one core.

They're gonna have multiple cores. We're gonna be able to walk, to work, play, you know, uh, consume, shop, uh, you know, walk in distance. Thanks. It would be much more insect and green and biophilia and it would improve our quality of life in general. So I'm very optimistic about the future.

Dan: I'm a huge fan of density and I miss it a lot and I'm always happy when I come into the city to work or just visit and eat. Um, so the Iran that I'm talking to right now, if you were to magically appear in front of 2007 Iran, what advice would you have for yourself as you were starting out your company?

Eran: Yeah, it's a great thought. I often think about that. And I think of what kind of advice I'll give myself, you know, now that I did. And I think I did pretty well in many ways. Um, but I think that A lot of things take time to process and to dare to step out of your shell and, you know, and take another step that is different.

And there's a lot of things that I feel I could do a little sooner. I'll give you an example. I think that right now we're, well, we're blessed with, blessed with a diverse portfolio and we're doing a lot of work in different countries across different scales. We have yet, we're just now doing the first building for a university campus in Bard College.

We have yet to design, uh, cultural institutions.

Dan: Is that up in Great Barrington, Bard?

Eran: Bard

Dan: Yeah.

Eran: It's next, yeah, it's

Dan: like up in,

Eran: Hudson, up on the Hudson, yeah. So, you know, it takes time to, I'm saying from a professional point of view, regardless of how good you are, it takes time to bridge into other sectors and to be able to influence them. And the sooner you start, the sooner you'll get there.

And, um, so that, that's a little bit of a challenge that we're facing today. We're, we're starting to work with agencies like the OBO, which is the national agency who builds, uh, all of the embassies, the American embassies across the world. That's a very exciting thing. It took about three years. to get into their list and, you know, go through the competitions, et cetera, et cetera.

So there's a lot of things that I would start sooner.

Dan: Yeah. Inertia is the, uh, can be the killer sometimes, right? The mind

Eran: creativity. Inertia is the killer of creativity.

Dan: is, but you know, sometimes things get comfortable. I was talking about this last week and, um, If I go back to all the times where I was held back by inertia and I haven't done it yet, but and just look at them and journal about them and explore it. I think I'd see some pretty interesting patterns and be able to recognize it because sometimes you don't notice it.

It's like quicksand. Um, I think I would be able to notice it and create an awareness around it and take action on it sooner.

Eran: Yeah, but you know, inertia is such, it's a, it's a physical fact. And the fact that it's rooted in physics means something about how comfortable we are within it. It's the comfort zone is within inertia. Just do nothing. We'll stay where, stay the, stay the route. And stepping out of that is always difficult.

Dan: I a hundred percent agree. And you know, and just doing this recording in person, starting a business, hiring people, teaching, it's all getting out of your comfort zone. Starting a new, I started a newsletter. Um, you're going to be automatically subscribed to it by the way. Um, but it's, um, it's just a way to keep changing and grow.


Eran: Yeah, and I think it's required for creative people and we have to overcome our fears and we have to do it sooner than later. There's always a way to come back, which maybe ties us to the beginning of our conversation where we talked about what risks did I take and why is it a big risk or a small risk to leave my position and try my own practice?

And I'd say, how difficult would it have been if after a year or two years of. recognize that my path of having my own practice did not work and carved my way back into the inertia. That wouldn't be too difficult, would it? You can always find a job in a big office. They'll take me and, um, and therefore there's no real risk.

So the stepping away is much scarier than it really is because you have to also acknowledge sometimes you step out your comfort zone, you try something else and it doesn't work. And you go back, and that happens every day in our office.

Dan: Yeah, I agree. But it's always worth taking that first step. So.

Eran: Absolutely.

Dan: Um, this has been wonderful. If people wanted to learn more about you, ODA, I'll put the links to the books in the liner notes. But what's the best way for them to learn more about what you've got going on here?

Eran: Well, I think our website is quite telling, uh, ODAarchitecture. com We are exposing a lot of our new work that is not on our website, uh, in social media. So you can look up both ODA and the Ranch and Architect as well as ODA Interior. So we've got three of those and, uh, obviously by the books and I recommend, although I think the unboxing New York is almost sold out.

If I understand it right, we'll have to republish it cause it's sold out,

Dan: Okay.

Eran: but it would be very interesting to look at the old one and the new one together. Oh,

Dan: going to definitely do that. Um, a wholehearted thank you for inviting me into your office, your home away from home. Um, this has been just so enjoyable in the space between us.

Eran: was wonderful. I mean, I felt at some point it felt like we're having dinner and just chatting about life and profession. So that's the best way to do that.

Dan: But you know, what's better about podcasts than dinner? No one's coming to ask you if you want sparkling or still. Or have you made a decision? It's like, it's a weird way to communicate with each other because there's no interruption.

Eran: Yes,

Dan: It's really focusing on that space between us.

Eran: And we're sober too.

Dan: Yeah, well that too. I haven't done one after a couple drinks, but you know, maybe that'll be, that'll be growth in the future. But thank you, Iran. This has been wonderful.

Eran: you for having me. It

was a pleasure.

Creators and Guests

Dan Ryan
Dan Ryan
Host of Defining Hospitality
Crossing The Threshold Of Hospitality - Eran Chen - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 157
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