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Hispanic Architect Ranked Top Designer of Residential Interiors

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By Scott Williams

March 2001 - Ismael Leyva could have played it safe and stayed in Mexico to build a career in architecture. Or he could have moved to an American city less intimidating than New York to learn English and pursue his dream of working on high-rise buildings.

But Mr. Leyva, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, the son of a barber and a housewife, found himself drawn to America’s largest city. “I thought New York was a place for architects, where things were happening, and I was interested in working on high-rise buildings,” he says.

Mr. Leyva’s desire eventually took him to CK Architects, known now as Costas Kondylis and Associates Architects, a New York architectural firm that specializes in designing interiors for high-rise buildings.

In his 15 years with CK, Mr. Leyva, 49, climbed the architectural ladder from draftsman to project architect to associate to senior associate and, finally, to partner. Along the way, he developed a reputation for designing elegant, functional, and highly salable residential interiors that endeared him to residents and developers alike – a reputation that followed him when he opened his own firm, Ismael Leyva Architects, in 1996.

“Ismael understands modern apartments, and his sense of space is extraordinary,” says David Wine, president of residential development for The Related Companies, the nation’s third-largest owner of residential properties. “His ability to plan apartments that are both efficient and marketable – places in which people enjoy living – is unique.”

The Related Companies, which has built more than 5,000 luxury residences in high-rise Manhattan buildings, chose Mr. Leyva to design, among others, the residential interiors for The Chatham, a 32-story luxury condominium project on Manhattan’s East 65th Street, and the Park Imperial, a residential/commercial development that will house Leyva-designed luxury condominiums on the 48th through 70th floors.

“I think Ismael is known as one of the top residential architects in the New York area,” says Mr. Wine, whose company recently chose Mr. Leyva to design residential interiors for the 600,000-square-foot residential component of the Time Warner Center in New York’s historic Columbus Circle. “Certainly people understand that Related, as one of most successful [developers], puts together the best team possible for any development, and Ismael being part of that team has gained him a certain level of notoriety.”

Mr. Wine says one of the keys to Mr. Leyva’s success is his knack for providing consumers with more usable (and therefore salable) space than other architects. “My job as a developer is to build value,” he says, and an architect plays in important role in building value by ensuring that a purchaser wants to buy or rent the product.

Mr. Leyva is equally popular with engineers and other consultants to his projects, says Jacob Grossman, a structural engineer and principal in the Manhattan engineering firm of Rossenwaser, Grossman Consulting. Mr. Grossman says one sign of a good architect is his ability to work with consultants to make a project both economical and practical to build.

Mr. Leyva, he says, is both a talented and a practical architect who incorporates structural requirements into his designs without sacrificing aesthetics or altering his initial vision. “Some architects have a set mind, and they aren’t open to changing anything,” says Mr. Grossman. “They’re not flexible in their layout.”

Scott Coopchik, director of development for Jones Lang LaSalle, with some 200 offices around the world, describes Mr. Leyva as one of the best designers of residential interiors in the country.

“Ismael is very good at looking at a site and determining how a building would fit on it, but more importantly how to maximize the land that you have and also how to maximize the tenant or owner spaces. In other words, he can figure out how that building should be designed so apartments have the best layouts [and] the most efficient floor plans. The user gets a great apartment, and the developer doesn’t waste any money.”

Mr. Leyva’s talent for designing high-rise residential interiors has led some to compare him with another immigrant architect, Rosario Candela, widely considered to be New York’s finest pre-war apartment designer. Nearly half the apartment buildings built between 1915 and the early 1930s were designed by Mr. Candela and another architect, J.E.R. Carpenter.

Mr. Leyva has heard the comparisons. “It’s flattering for me, because he was one of the best at what he did,” he says. But Mr. Leyva doesn’t want to become pigeonholed as an architect who specializes in residential interiors, and he has made moves in recent years to become known as a full-service architect capable of handling entire projects, inside and out. “I believe I can give a better service to my clients if I do the whole building myself rather than in association with someone else,” he says.

“My first commissions were associated with other architects,” Mr. Leyva continues, “and I think in the minds of some people, some developers, that’s what I do. I’m proud to be working with these famous architects [David M. Childs and Robert A.M. Stern, for example], but I also want to market myself as a full-service architect.”

Mr. Leyva’s firm, which employs 27 people, has taken on several independent projects in recent years, and has added schools, post offices, courthouses, and private homes to its portfolio. Among its most notable projects:

-- The Millennium Towers in Jersey City, New Jersey. These modern-looking twin towers house 523 luxury residential units along with a tower-top restaurant, a light rail station, parking, and a retail mall.

-- State Street Tower in Chicago. This 70-story tower includes a hotel with dining, conference, and recreational facilities and large luxury condominiums.

-- Time Warner Center in New York. This project, also known as the Columbus Circle redevelopment at 59th Street and Broadway, is a 2 million-square-foot mixed-use development overlooking Central Park. Mr. Leyva’s firm will design 203 condominiums within two 55-story towers.

-- The Chatham in New York. The floor plans Mr. Leyva created for the 95 units in this 32-story luxury condominium project on Manhattan’s East 65th Street have been compared by the New York Times to those of Mr. Candela.

-- The Park Imperial in New York. Mr. Leyva’s firm is designing luxury condominiums on the 48th through the 70th floors. Bertelsmann Random House will occupy new headquarters in the tower’s base.

-- Diamante House. This 8,000-square-foot, $2 million home, commissioned by a Virginia global trader and his wife, will sit atop a mountain in Costa Rica facing an opposing cliff and a 600-foot waterfall. The walls will be made of glass and the roof from tensile fiberglass.

-- Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment in New York. Mr. Leyva’s firm is leading the design team on the redevelopment of more than 1 million square feet of U.S. Postal Service administrative and mail-processing facilities.

-- 23rd Street and Tenth Avenue Development in New York. Mr. Leyva’s firm is principal-in-charge and designer for this 15-story, mixed-use development with more than 200 residential rental units and ground-floor commercial space.

Mr. Leyva hopes to market his services in the coming months and years throughout the United States and in other regions, such as Mexico, China, and South America. Although nearing 50, Mr. Leyva doesn’t consider himself a late bloomer. Most famous architects, he says, don’t become well known until their late 50s, having paid their dues before the general public begins to notice.

Mr. Leyva’s name may not yet be generally known to the public, but his work certainly has not gone unnoticed. Mr. Coopchik describes the condominiums Mr. Leyva designs as the kind of buildings people want to live in, and Mr. Wine says his residential designs are extremely popular with customers. The 95 units at The Chatham, for example, sold in about three months.

“There’s a certain elegance to them,” says Mr. Wine. “There’s a furnishability, meaning that they are livable, and they address the way people live today in terms of giving them the right amount of circulation space, wall space, and closet space. I would say Ismael understands the need to create a sense of drama and elegance in the apartments. He understands how to combine the need to market and the need to be efficient.”

Mr. Leyva says that’s because he never forgets a client’s needs, whether it’s the client who hired him or the one who will eventually decide whether to purchase one of his designs. “I try not to forget that I’m an architect not only for my client, but for the people who are going to use the building,” he says.

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