Michael Easson


Paul Katz – A Towering Legacy

Sydney Morning Herald, 23 December 2014
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Paul Katz (1957-2014), who suddenly died on November 20 following a brief battle with cancer, was one of the world’s great architects. In his 57 years Katz moved from his native South Africa and studies in Israel and the United States to become the global leader of architects Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), overseeing some of the most exciting and innovative designs of any firm anywhere, realising many of the world’s tallest buildings and most significant urban renewal projects.

Enduring legacies include the Shanghai World Financial Centre and the International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong.

Born Pescach Katz on September 27, 1957 in Cape Town to parents Walter and Esther, who both worked in a family construction business, Katz attended Herzlia school, notable for the incomparable beauty of the campus, including Table Mountain backdrop, and excelled in academic studies and school rugby, also captaining the unbeaten chess team. Studies in architecture, started at the University of Cape Town, interrupted by army service, were completed at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. At university he met fellow South African Ziva Freiman, who later became an architectural writer and historian, and they married in Israel, where his folks made Aliyah in 1979, both graduating with a degree in architecture and town planning in 1982. Post graduate studies followed with a Masters at Princeton University in 1984, the same year he joined as a design architect KPF, a firm then in its infancy.

A tall, thin man with a strong, mellifluous voice, Katz cut an imposing, charismatic figure – marked by intelligence, humour, optimism, curiosity, and an absolute determination to lunge forward.

In the late 1980s and 1990s he had an impact on KPF to grow globally. He was the finger in the back that pointed others forward and was never afraid to lead. He relentlessly circled the globe for collaborative partners, remarkable individuals, and fresh ideas. He put people and projects together.

After becoming a principal in 1997, he led KPF’s international business and was appointed President in 2008, responsible for a team nearly 700 strong.

With colleagues at KPF, he aimed that buildings be bold, harmonious and beautifully functional.

In Australia, a single design, the 42 storey Chifley Tower, built between 1989 and 1992, located at 2 Chifley Square, Sydney, is KPF’s work, along with Travis McEwen. Designed to sit in harmony with its surroundings, the curvature of the lower levels mirrors the curtain wall of 1 Chifley Place, opposite. The use of distinctive cream and pink marble, easy access to three streets, vibrant food court areas, which later inspired the redesign of the lower MLC building, and the location quickly established the building’s iconic reputation.

On visits to Sydney in September and October this year, he recalled Alan Bond wooing the firm for the Chifley project and countless flights in Bond’s private jet to and from New York.

Katz hoped to do another project in Sydney, a city he loved and which, through the Chifley commission, had been important to the firm in its formative years. In early October he spoke at a seminar sponsored by Ridley & Co. on ‘Shaping Sydney’s Future’.

Katz seemed proudest of Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, a huge complex of 622,000 m² in building area over 11 acres, encompassing an office tower, apartments, shops and restaurants, movie theatres, a museum, a hotel, a television studio, parks, and an outdoor amphitheatre, on which he worked for 14 years. Completed in 2004, the project led directly to the commission of what would become the tallest building in China, the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Centre, completed in 2008. Shaped like a square prism – the symbol used by the ancient Chinese to represent the earth – the building is intersected by two cosmic arcs, representing the heavens, as the tower ascends to the sky.

The 118-story International Commerce Centre tower in Hong Kong came next, the winning entry in an international design competition, the centrepiece of the Union Square reclamation project. Completed in 2011, KPF worked with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to develop the ‘Energy Optimiser’ air-conditioning system, which has a central intelligent control, energy consumption monitors, and collects data and analyses it for day-and-night and seasonal variations to provide a baseline for energy-saving adjustments.

In London, he was a central figure in the ongoing redevelopment of Earls Court as well as, earlier, the refurbishment and expansion of Covent Garden. 7 buildings were designed at Canary Wharf.

In New York, he played an instrumental role in the master plan for the 1.2 million m² Hudson Yards project in western Manhattan, between 31st and 37th streets, now under construction by Related Properties and Oxford Properties. This aims at dramatically transforming a vast desolate space into a distinctive community characterised by world-leading sustainability, affordable housing, new parks, and diverse architectural styles. Its streets will be lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, arts, and culture.

Throughout his career, Katz focused on high rise structures as the building type of the century, seeking innovative, practical solutions and mindful that the new should pay respect to its context and seamlessly connect with its surroundings. He focused as much on the smallest item as on the wider urban picture. His mentor, Gene Kohn, observed that Katz sweated the detail, from the thickness of pipes and the shower heads in hotel rooms to stacking four or five uses around an elevator core in a skyscraper that integrated with the local transportation systems.

He once advised a young architect: “start with the parking bays. Why not? They are part of the foundation of every building.” This represented his thinking that if you want to think major, start minor.

A competitive chess player for most of his life, an ebullient moment mid-year came when he played in an exhibition match with the now world champion Magnus Carlsen. Katz quickly lost. But what fun!
In business, in design, in chess, he knew every pawn had inherent significance.
When a tumour was discovered in late October, he did not want to worry anyone too much, thinking he would have at least a few years ahead to battle this. Hardly anyone knew. Only when the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York discovered that the cancer had spread to the liver were his university student children told. He urged his family not to worry even as he sensed the odds. Ziva said that he never showed fear, never said “why me?” or cursed his fate which more quickly than could be imagined engulfed him. He died of septic shock.

For many, he was one of the most interesting, erudite and humble people ever met. His driven, mentoring, challenging mind personally inspired hundreds of architects, planners and engineers across the world. It is hard to imagine that such a luminous presence is suddenly no longer with us. He is survived by his parents, wife, children Jonathan and Hannah, and brother Shmuel. Jamie von Klemperer, a class mate at Princeton and subsequent colleague, succeeds him as KPF President.