Something that I found fascinating throughout my conversation with prolific New York-based architect Eran Chen is that he thinks about his work everywhere he goes, though not in the way you might expect. Ever since he was a child, Eran has been fascinated by the way things are designed, even analyzing how his dining room looked in relation to his kitchen. Artistic-minded people who become businessmen often forget about their passion for their craft. But Eran speaks spiritedly about his work, and it is clear that his mind immediately analyzes everything from an architectural and artistic perspective. Even if you don’t know the first thing about architecture, you can understand why he is successful in his field.
After close to a decade in the industry, Eran grew his company, ODA, into one of the most popular firms in New York and around the country. He and his team have designed projects in locations such as Dubai, Taipei, Seoul, the Netherlands, Moscow, Mexico and many more places around the world.
Known for creating buildings that focus on the human element first, Eran has received several prestigious awards in the past few years alone, including multiple awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and NYCxDESIGN Awards in 2022.
ODA is a one-stop shop, offering everything from architecture, interior design and landscape design to construction plans.
Eran’s road to success was not straightforward, but the difficulties and obstacles he faced along the way helped him develop his resilient nature. We discussed the idea of taking advantage of opportunities (even when they seem too difficult), as well as his opinion on remote work, the potential of AI in the architecture industry, and some interesting tips for ways to incorporate Eran’s method of design into your daily living. Enjoy!
Both of my parents were born in Israel to Holocaust survivors who were the only surviving members of their families. Three of my grandparents came from Warsaw, and one came from Bulgaria. My father’s parents escaped Warsaw and met on a boat that was taking Jewish refugees to the shores of Israel.
“My paternal grandfather passed away at a relatively young age from a heart attack, but I still got to know him and my grandmother, who passed away around 15 years ago. All of my grandparents spoke Yiddish and Hebrew, and their homes were filled with typical Polish food. They had been religious before the war.
“The experience of the survivors who ended up in Israel was very different from the ones who ended up in the United States. The survivors who came to Israel arrived right before the War of Independence. There was a lot of pressure to leave one’s past behind and start fresh. My grandfather’s last name used to be Choinazki, which was of course a very Polish name. They changed it to Chen, which means grace in Hebrew.
“My father joined the Israeli Air Force when he turned 18. After he and my mother got married, they moved to Beer Sheva, where I was born. When he finished his service, my father joined the Air Force’s manufacturing facility in Israel, where he worked as a test pilot for new airplanes made in Israel. He was the one who would test them out before they were approved for official use.
“I was an only child, and my parents got divorced when I was six. They both remarried and had more children with their new spouses. I lived with my mother after the divorce, and later I moved in with my father. When I was in the army, I moved out to live on my own.
“I learned the value of resiliency from my grandparents, and their living lessons have kept me going throughout my life. They went through so much, and they came out the other side to build a family and a life in Israel. I admired them greatly. Going through my parents’ divorce as a young child was not easy, especially because it was not a pleasant divorce. I harbored a lot of resentment at the time, but looking back, I can see that I developed a strong resiliency that helped me in life. Part of who I am today is because of my family history.
“I grew up on the Air Force base where my father was a pilot. We stayed in Beer Sheva because my parents were going to school and working there. We were lower middle class and lived a simple life. When I lived with my mother after the divorce, we lived in a subsidized housing project for hospital workers.
“I was a happy child, and I have strong memories of my childhood and my neighborhood in Beer Sheva. Our neighborhood was built around three row houses, six stories each, that were organized around the courtyard. Every day after school, I would come home with my friends and we would play in the courtyard for hours. Around 5:00 p.m., my mother would come home and cook dinner. She would come to the balcony to call me inside. But instead of calling my name, she would whistle. All my friends’ families had their own type of whistle, and around 6:00 p.m., the courtyard would be filled with a symphony of whistles signifying that the day was over.
“That is my earliest architectural memory: this idea of the consolidation of communal life around a courtyard that is multi-generational and intimate, where people can call to each other from their balconies. That type of interaction formed a lot of my point of view about cities and architecture.
“As far as religion, we were a secular Jewish family but still traditional. We would go to shul on the High Holidays, and we celebrated most of the festivals. Most of the families around us did the same.
“Growing up, I went to the local school in Beer Sheva. I was a smart kid, but I hated studying. I was into music and acting, and I was always combining art and business. For example, when I was 15, I created a small business that I called Misgerot Chen. Misgerot means ‘picture frames’ in Hebrew, and I made custom frames myself. I started it as a hobby, making frames for myself and my family because it was expensive to get something framed in the store. Eventually, I began doing it for my friends and their parents, and then it grew into a business that I did throughout high school.
“I have always been an artist at heart, drawing, painting and sculpting. My attraction to the built form of architecture started at a young age. I looked at things from an architectural view, even ordinary things in my own home. For example, when I was six years old, I would draw our apartment from different angles. What would the living room look like from a different perspective? If we arranged the furniture differently, how would it look then? I was interested in how the built environment framed nature, and how we are situated within our homes. I didn’t know I wanted to be an architect until much later in life, though.
“When I turned 18, I joined the Special Forces unit of the IDF; I served for four years. I was in a combat unit specializing in mines and explosives. Our base was in the Golan Heights, and we would join Special Forces units across the borders in Lebanon and Syria on joint missions.
“Like many Israelis, I traveled around the world when I finished my army service. After trips to South America and Asia, living on a dollar a day, I applied to Betzalel, an architecture and art school in Jerusalem. I was surprised when I was accepted.
“I felt drawn to architecture because of the way I analyzed my personal life experiences based on the built environments that surrounded me. I became sensitive to how space, design and connection to natural light and outdoor spaces impacted my mood. I felt strongly that architecture could change people’s feelings, actions and the way they communicate with each other. I was good at math and physics as well as being artistic, so I felt that I was a good fit for the industry.
“I was in architecture school from the age of 22 until I was 27. In my second year, one of my professors asked me to work for him. His name was David Guggenheim and he had a practice in Jerusalem. I am very pragmatic, and I like to get things done. I knew I had to go to school, but I also wanted to work on real projects already.
“In Israel, when you start university, you’re not a kid anymore. You have already been through the army. I was an officer; I led people into battle. That heavy responsibility changes you. So now, at 23 years old, I felt capable of juggling both my studies and working for David.
“I was quite helpful in his office and helped realize projects. I was probably the youngest contributor working as part of a team there. It was part-time work, and I stayed for two years. I knew when I entered school that I would have to work at some point to support myself through school, so I was glad to have the opportunity.
“One day in my fourth year, I was standing in a long line at the supermarket, and I started chatting with the guy behind me. I told him I was studying architecture at Betzalel, and he told me that he was bringing a chain of restaurants to Israel with plans to open several locations. I asked him all sorts of questions about it, and he said, ‘Why don’t you design one for me?’ The only issue was that he lived in Tel Aviv, and I was in school in Jerusalem.
“I did the first restaurant, and he loved it. They actually built what I designed. Then he made me an interesting offer. He asked me to move to Tel Aviv and work full-time for his company. I had a few qualms: I was still in school, and I thought it was funny for an architect student with big ideas to design restaurants. But it was one of those opportunities in life that Hashem throws at you. I accepted his offer and moved to Tel Aviv. I bought a motorcycle so I could drive back and forth from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem twice a day, attending classes and working. By the time I graduated, I had finished about 35 of these restaurants in Israel.
“After I graduated, I decided to move to New York and try my luck there as an architect. It seemed like the best place in the world for architecture, and it had long been a major dream of mine. My mother had moved to the US a few years earlier to work as a biochemistry professor at the University of Washington, so I was able to get a visa. I was approved for my green card after graduation, and I immediately moved to New York.
“This was December 1999. I stayed with a friend in the Upper West Side, renting his couch while I looked for a job. I didn’t even know how to write a proper resume. I spent two months applying for jobs without getting a single response. It was tough.
“One Sunday, I saw an ad in The New York Times. Someone in New Jersey was looking for an architect. I was desperate, so I called a cab and drove for an hour and a half into the depths of New Jersey. I didn’t even know New Jersey was so big! I could barely pay the taxi driver because it was so expensive. I got out at a small office and spoke with the owner, showed him my work with the restaurants and my pieces from school. He said, ‘I think you’re extremely talented, but how much do you want to make?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe $50,000 a year?’ He said, ‘We don’t pay that kind of money here, but you really are talented. Let me call my friend. His name is Brad Perkins and he owns a huge architectural practice in New York. Let’s see if he can get you a job.’
“He called Brad and had a whole conversation with him about me as I stood there. I went straight to New York and headed for Brad’s office. His assistant said to me, ‘Do you know who Brad Perkins is? He’s the head of a 1,000-person firm. He is not going to meet you.’ But I didn’t give up. I waited there at the office until Brad came out. I gave him the whole spiel, and he told me to come back the following morning. That is how I got my job at Perkins Eastman. They are still a huge company in New York today.
“Perkins Eastman put me on a team that was working on a project for Beilinson Hospital in Israel because I knew Hebrew and they wanted me to deal with the Israelis. I did sketches for the hospital’s cancer center, donated by the Davidoff family from Mexico. When the firm’s design partner saw my sketches, he made me the lead designer on the project. After that, he started assigning me to design competitions. When it comes to large projects, architecture firms will compete against each other for the chance to design the project. The client usually gives all the competing firms a month to design the building, and then they choose the best design. I was winning eight out of ten competitions, and I gained prominence at Perkins Eastman.
“I was able to come up with a full conceptual vision and translate it for a technical team that would coordinate with the engineers. Not only did we win competitions, it was also very profitable for the firm, which is why they kept promoting me. Four years later, they made me a principal (partner). I was the youngest principal in the office—and the strangest, because of my relatively young age and heavy Israeli accent. Eventually, Perkins Eastman allowed me to create my own studio within the company. I had 30 employees working with me, and we were very successful.
“I was the lead designer, which meant that I was the person who started the ideas by doing sketches of what the final buildings might look like. Back then, we were working with AutoCAD software with a lot of hand sketching.
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