Aby Rosen, co-founder and principal, RFR Holding.

Aby Rosen, co-founder and principal, RFR Holding.

Interview by Spencer Bailey   |   Portrait by Ungano & Agriodimas

Aby Rosen doesn’t mince his words. The German-born, New York–based real estate developer speaks what he thinks, directly and with conviction. Perhaps that’s because Rosen, 54, has built quite a powerful platform to stand on: His company, RFR, which he co-founded in 1991 and runs with his business partner, Michael Fuchs, holds more than 70 buildings worldwide, including Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois’s Lever House and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. RFR is the largest office landlord in Stamford, Connecticut, a major banking hub. It operates four hotels, including the W South Beach in Miami and New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel, with a fifth on the way, in Israel. (RFR is also planning a hotel in New York’s Soho neighborhood.) Earlier this year, in an effort to boost New York’s nightlife scene, Rosen reopened the legendary Diamond Horseshoe club at the Paramount Hotel. And with developer Jared Kushner, the company recently acquired 1.2 million square feet of space it plans to develop in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood. Rosen is also one of the leading U.S. collectors of contemporary art, with works by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat in his holdings; at Lever House earlier this year, he presented a show of 26 works by Urs Fischer. Surface recently met with the developer at his company’s headquarters to discuss his European upbringing, his appreciation for well-built and thoughtfully designed architecture, and how he uses his personal taste as a commodity.

You grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, the son of two Holocaust survivors. Your parents made it through several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Do you think that informed the way you developed personally and professionally?

Only later in my youth did I realize that I grew up the son of Holocaust survivors. I had a good childhood with caring parents, but they weren’t always on the ball. I realize they had their own issues to deal with. I was born in 1960, which was only 15 years after the Holocaust. Back then it seemed like a long time had passed since it happened. But today, if you put it back in history, 15 years after every war, atrocity, or disaster like that, there isn’t much distance. Look at the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda—that was only 21 years ago. Look at Bosnia-Herzegovina—that was only 22 years ago. It’s still fresh in our minds. I never realized how close to the war I was actually born.

My parents were loving, but it was a strange environment: It was postwar Germany; there were few Jewish kids in the schools. I was the token Jew for a lot of people. Everybody had a couple of token Jews if they wanted to touch or feel a Jew. Anti-Semitism in Germany was still dramatically present.

In the ’60s and ’70s, everybody said, “Oh, the Jews are so rich.” Only a few Jews were actually rich. The rich Jews were in the real estate business, and luckily, my father was one of those. We grew up in a beautiful, simplistic way. We were religious, but not super religious. We were respectful of the heritage, but weren’t drilled on it. It was a light version of Judaism.

How has the idea of your parents’ survival impacted your approach to life and business?

With survivors, no matter what type of survivor you are, you know how to deal with things better. If you’ve taken drugs and get out of it, you know what the low looks like and appreciate the high much more. If you’ve somehow made a mistake and messed up, you find a way to reinvent yourself—or someone gives you a second chance—and that makes you more able to deal with life’s challenges. Survival instincts I’ve inherited from my mother and father must have done something to me and made me the person I am today.

You studied law. Did you always think you would get into your father’s business?

I studied law because I didn’t want to do business administration—which was, for me, too methodical. I wanted to understand rules and regulations. I was very politically motivated early on in my life. In my mid-teens, I joined certain movements and think tanks. Germany in the ’60s and ’70s was politically charged: There were a lot of left-wing movements in the schools. I care very much about human rights and equality. I never wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t like the profession. I appreciate it now more than I did then, but I never wanted to practice it. I studied law because I thought it would be a good base for my education. It gave me a place to socialize, enjoy myself, and run my father’s business, which he gave to me when I was very young. It was the right field of study for me, but when I was done, I was done.

What caused you to move to New York from Germany?

I always loved New York. I took off in ’85. My parents allowed us from the age of 14 to travel every second weekend with two or three friends to a city in Europe. We were going to Brussels, to Paris, to London, to Stockholm. After doing this for six months, I wanted to go to New York. We had a friend who owned a travel agency, and he gave us tickets to go to New York for free. I then started going to New York every few weeks. When I was 16, 17, I indulged in this, and I continued that idea in ’85. I took off six months from law school, went to Brazil for three months, then traveled to America and lived here for three months. That’s when I decided to move here. I went back to Germany, finished my two years of law school, packed up, and came here in ’87.

I wanted a bigger environment. Frankfurt got small for me. The family business wasn’t enough of a challenge; it was too small. I dreamt bigger, I dreamt higher, I dreamt wider. I had very strong ambitions to become a successful businessman. Even though I did well in Germany, I couldn’t achieve success in Europe because of the limited size and magnitude of the deals. Now you can—things have changed over the last 15, 20 years—and that’s another reason why after I came here, I went back to Germany in 2003 and revived our Frankfurt office, which had been kept on a low burner.

You started in New York as a real estate adviser, but you also ran a few restaurants.

Yes, I came here in ’85, met Eric Goode, who’s an old friend of mine and invested with him in clubs, restaurants, and bars. I liked nightlife. I wanted to be out. I had a couple million bucks. When I moved here in ’87, I worked for the real estate company Jones Lang Wootton, and became an investment associate helping sell U.S. real estate to German pension funds and high-net-worth individuals. I realized nightclubs and restaurants were fun, but running them wasn’t what I wanted to do. After two years at that firm, I decided enough was enough and went out on my own. The market was a disaster in 1989. In ’91, I formed RFR with my partner, Michael Fuchs, and we went on a shopping spree. Since then, things have been pretty good.

Your relationship with Michael began when you were kids.

We met in nursery school when we were two and a half years old. We’ve been friends and working together forever. When we were 11, 12 years old, we were trading things. We started a brokerage business in London when we were 20. Michael and I have a long-lasting friendship. He’s like my surrogate brother. He does what he wants to do, I do what I want to do, but there’s nothing that comes between us. We don’t argue too much. Over the last 30 years of business, we’ve maybe had three or four arguments and they were just because I thought he was too slow in doing something, because I do things really fast.

So you’re both under the RFR umbrella, but each operating in your own way?

Yes. He takes care of Germany right now and does some of the European investments. I do America and all of the operational business. But working together here, we strategize every three months during a meeting. We have a plan. We move along fast. American markets are crazy. They go up fast and down fast, and you’ve gotta be agile enough to do that. Between Germany and America we exchange capital sources and partnerships. I go to Frankfurt one or two days a year—that’s enough for me. I go there to look at the business, say hi to the people in the office, eat German food I like, and fly back.

You two worked very closely in the ’90s.

We still do. But we also don’t forget that this is a friendship. We also deal with issues of kids and wives together.

In the 1990s, you were one of the first to bring star architects—Michael Graves and Robert A.M. Stern, for example—into the high-end residential real estate market. How did you come to understand the potential of that?

When we hit America, we realized we needed to differentiate ourselves. We undertsood high-quality construction and German manufacturing, from window walls to steel and concrete. To get good craftsmanship going, we realized, you need good design, good documentation, good architecture. To go with some anonymous guy and fix it later—you can’t have that approach if you want quality. We realized that if we wanted to bring German ingenuity or craftsmanship to this country, it had to be with a better architect.
When we did something nice, units just moved faster and rented faster. That was our luck and our desire. Then we added in art, and suddenly we had the mix that defines our company today. When we started to work with Ian Schrager on some projects, that further helped us in bringing in another batch of architects.
We do timeless things that are a little bit more architecturally challenging, and the cost to produce them isn’t much higher than the cost of less challenging architecture. The rewards you get from producing something with a better architectural vision are huge. Take Robert A.M. Stern: He’s an educated, smart guy. He did a lot of stupid work for Disney because he was on the board, but that’s just because he knows how to make money for himself. If you look at Stern as the educated architect he is, it was a smart move for us to work with him. We built the first building with him on Second Avenue, and suddenly he did other great stuff with the developer William Zeckendorf Jr.

You acquired Lever House in 1998. What made you go after this building?

We owned a building right next door, 400 Park Avenue, and my office looked out to Lever House. I always said to myself, “My god, when will I ever be able to buy this building?” And one day in ’98, I got a phone call saying, “Aby, you can take over Lever House.” Within three days we signed it up and did it. We renegotiated a new ground lease, took it over, and restored it. It was everybody’s dream.

The building was dilapidated and run-down because the previous owners didn’t take care of it, but this is not a criticism of them. Because it was built in 1954 and was the first glass building in the world, there wasn’t the technology to produce something that lasted 50, 60 years. We jumped at the opportunity, took it over, and restored it. Our desire for architecture has really turned into being convinced that buildings like this can be saved, repositioned, and kept relevant. When you own structures like Lever House and the Seagram Building, you’re a custodian for a period of time. You need to make sure you maintain this for yourself and as a business, but also for the next generations. That’s a civic obligation you have as an owner of a landmark: to become a supporter of the preservation movement.

Lever House topped off our company. If you look at an art collection, there are always one or two paintings you need to have. For us to own Lever and the Seagram Building was a pinnacle of our careers. People now say, “Oh, Aby, the guy who owns the Seagram Building.” I’m now synonymous with the Seagram Building. Nobody says, “Aby’s a philanthropist or fantastic builder.” You get associated with something. If I had a great Michelangelo sculpture, people would say, “This is the guy who owns the Michelangelo sculpture.” 

Now you’re developing 610 Lexington Avenue, which is designed by Norman Foster and on a site located next to the Seagram Building.

Yes, we bought the site about six, seven years ago—not necessarily because we were going after it. It was sold to somebody else, and the neighbor had the first right of refusal. We bought it back because the site’s owner was a schlocky operator and we were afraid someone would build something next to the Seagram Building to destroy the view, the integrity, the quality of what we had.

I immediately hired Norman to design it. Norman’s a friend, so I called him up and said, “Come check it out. I want you to look at this thing.” He came over, took out his sketchbook, and 10 minutes later, he had drawn up the building. We turned in a set of plans, ran it by the City Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, because we needed to get approval. The Planning Commission wanted it to be taller than the Seagram Building, so we got extra height out of it. 

We believe that this should fit into the Seagram, but almost like a backdrop. It needed to be taller. We needed something clear and bright and white. The anodized bronze of the Seagram Building will be the front and the white Norman Foster building will be the back. The buildings will play very harmoniously.
We’re finally out of the ground. It’s gonna be a 61-story residential building with a 710-foot height; on the lower floors, there will be retail shops and a restaurant. We’re also going to redo the Four Seasons Restaurant at the Seagram Building, so when all is done in 2016 or 2017, you’ll see a new corner of New York. The high-end residential market is on fire right now, and I think those units in the Foster building will fly off the shelves. We’re not building gigantic units. We’re building one- and two-bedroom pied-à-terres. They’re not going to be cheap, but at least you won’t have to spend $50 million. If you have a 1,500- or 1,800-square-foot apartment, you’re spending $5,000 a square foot for it, so that’s $8 or $9 million. It’s a bit more practical.

You tried to do a project with Norman Foster previously, on Madison Avenue.

Yes, it was an interesting dance for me. I had a lot of community issues. Tom Wolfe’s op-ed in The New York Times didn’t help much. I still think he’s a buffoon, but that’s my opinion. I don’t even think he’s a good writer, but I’m not a literary critic anyhow. He didn’t have much going on, so he picked his head up, looked out the window, and did one of these NIMBY—not in my backyard—type of things. He associated himself with a movement against it. 

We didn’t get the tower approved. We went back and drew a nine-story building—a six-story addition to the existing building—and got that approved. But we then decided not to build it, at least for now. We lease the building to tenants including the Gagosian Gallery, and it’s doing fantastic. It’s a building I spent millions on that didn’t get built, but I’ll build it one day. Or my kids will. Who cares. It was a really good experience, because I learned how to deal with confrontation. I now really understand how community boards work. I also learned how to deal with landmarks in a smart, innovative, but also respectful way. It was good to see defeat. It was unfortunate because I thought it would have been a really fantastic building. It would have really changed the way the Upper East Side is looked at. I think Norman Foster is a genius. Look at what he did with the Hearst Building: He brought new into the old, let it bleed in, and there’s a great harmony. He did it at the Reichstag in Berlin, too. Other architects I like—John Pawson, Tadao Ando—have also done it with success. In the 21st century, we need to blend the old and the new. I’m not a big fan of ripping things down.
If you look at what I do, I take buildings, restore them, and add timeless interiors to them. We just restored two buildings on Madison Avenue. One of them is 285 Madison, the headquarters of Young & Rubicam. [Editor’s note: The other building is 350 Madison.] Rather than shredding and recladding 285 Madison, we made a conscious decision to do what you do in Paris or Barcelona or Madrid: You take an old building, gut it on the inside, modernize it, put great quality windows in, and restore the facade. You deal with beautiful setbacks and gargoyles. I’m a big believer in that. I like new construction high-rises, but I equally like restoration projects.

If you look at what developers have built around this town the last seven, eight years, they’ve had too much freedom and created stuff that’s really, in my opinion, not in conjunction with the neighborhood. They had the freedom to do what they wanted because there isn’t an architecture review board. You can build whatever the hell you want here as long as you fit into the zoning envelope. If the quality isn’t there and the developer isn’t strong enough to push back the architect, suddenly you’ve got a wimpy developer with an overbearing architect who will run the guy over and build something that’s ugly, doesn’t maintain longevity, and doesn’t sell in the end. Even though you hire a perceived great architect to create something, you might miss the market.

What do you look for in an architect?

I look for conviction. I look for a trend. I look for a style. I sometimes wonder how one architect can do 10 different styles. There are good architects who do that, but they’re more interior guys, like Peter Marino, who have retail clients like Louis Vuitton and Cartier. If you look at Robert A.M. Stern or Norman Foster, there’s a repetition to what they do. I want you to be able to recognize the architect. With architecture that’s so different, new, and out of the box, sometimes you wonder: “Where’s the conviction?”

If you look at Peter Zumthor or Herzog & de Meuron, there’s 20, 30, 40 years of progression. I like that about an architect. I also like an architect who, when you push back, doesn’t turn into a prima donna and go, “I’m not doing that!” You can have conviction and style, but in the end, you need to serve your client. It cannot be your my-way-or-the-highway dream. In New York, eyesores are sticking out because of this.
If you build a high-rise—50, 60, 70 stories—you have a civic obligation to build something with high quality that will last, because those buildings aren’t coming down for the next 100 years. 157 West 57th Street, that ugly monster, is an atrocity, in my opinion. If you see the one that Harry Macklowe is building at 432 Park Avenue, it’s of equal size, but far more nimble and elegant and timeless. 

For more of the interview with Aby Rosen, order your copy of the June/July issue here.