Interviews

Buzz Talk with L. Stephen Hill and David West, Founding Partners at Hill West

Stephen Hill and David West reinvigorated their successful partnership with the recent rebranding of their firm as “Hill West.” This dynamic duo has been a major driving force in the reshaping of the New York City skyline with high profile projects like the renovation of the iconic The Plaza and downtown’s tallest residential building, One Seaport.

Hill’s family is from New York and he grew up with an appreciation for the artistry of the city’s famous skyline, and the buildings that make it up. A curious youth, Hill preferred to learn firsthand by sneaking into buildings rather than just read about them in a book.

West, on the other hand, came to New York via Berkeley, with a West Coast sense of design and space. Manhattan’s concrete jungle of high-rises made an impression and, in turn, inspired West to design them.

BuzzBuzzNews: Where did you attend college? How did your time there help shape your career?

Stephen Hill: I chose Pratt because it was in NYC. As a young kid in high school, I didn’t understand how you could go anywhere else other than NYC if you were interested in designing buildings. New York is the center of the world – we had all of these amazing buildings right at our fingertips as architecture students.

I was constantly sneaking into buildings that were under construction – back in the day you could walk into any office, hop on the elevator and get to walk around the buildings’ roof until you got caught. Bridges, office towers, old subway stations no longer used was an architecture student’s playground in college.

BBN: What brought you to NYC?

LSH: My family is also from New York and I’ve been here for a long time. I loved having physical access to buildings because I prefer to be in touch with actuality than theory. Seeing and experiencing things rather than read about it in a book was so much more impactful.

BBN: Where do you find inspiration for your designs? What about the NYC skyline continues to inspire you?

LSH: My inspirations are totally random and I’m continually surprised by where I find inspirations. It could be a tree, a boat that goes by, anything and everything. I have a vast visual bank and I keep multiple sketchbooks, photographs, print outs of magazines from where I’ve lived. There’s all sorts of information to refer back to — even from 10 years and further back.

The fact that the NYC skyline is not constant and ever-changing fascinates me. When you look at the historical map of NYC, north of Wall Street was just farmland. In my own recollection from childhood, I saw the World Trade Center under construction. There used to only be tall buildings downtown and tall buildings in midtown with valleys in between them.

Now that has completely changed, there are tall buildings in all areas of NYC, and construction and design has allowed it all to happen. Just the fact that the skyline changes from year to year, and that my partners and I had a part in the change over the last 20 years is an honor.

BBN: Has the company’s vision changed since rebranding the firm as Hill West?

LSH: Since rebranding, David and I are very concisely focused on the improving the design capabilities of our firm, and improving the design and intent of our towers. We have a renewed appreciation in the design process, from the ability to take a great conceptual idea and to turn into a real concrete building. If not different than before, I would say we’re more focused.

BBN: How have NYC design tastes evolved or changed since you first started?

LSH: The whole country is much more interested in design now than they were 10, 20, or more years ago. In the past, design was relegated to a very small group of people in the industry that were the tastemakers of what was happening at the time. Now design is more regarded, and held much higher in a way than ever before.

Everything you touch, from your iPhone to your door knob to how you access your home, is so much more advanced and appreciated from the architecture to industrial design perspective. There are so many people interested in design, which is fantastic.

Even on television, there are so many shows on design. Young people today have the world at their feet, and are more intentional about pursuing careers in design – from industrial designers to automotive designers. In the past, people fell into design professions, whether or not they realized it was industrial or automotive design. Now design is more exposed and accepted by the general public.

BBN: Stephen, how did you approach the renovation of an iconic landmark like The Plaza?

LSH: The Plaza is a touchpoint for all new Yorkers. Anyone that has lived in NYC for any period of time has some sort of a feeling about The Plaza Hotel – whether they’ve had drinks at the Oak Bar or gone to the Palm Court with their grandmother for tea. I knew that I was going to be a part of something that everyone has felt ownership of, and it was a pretty heavy responsibility.

Luckily, the owners that were behind the renovation also appreciated that. A lot of time and effort was put into making the building a better building than it was 100 years ago. The building has been continuously operating for a long time, repairs being made without really considering longevity. For example, some repairs were blocking views to the park with obstructions in the windows. One day when it was heavily raining, I saw that a stairway was full of water, leaking.

The whole construction process has brought back the building to the condition it hasn’t been for 100 years or more. Landmark spaces looked more beautiful. Palm Court, all the more beautiful. The Plaza Hotel is now where a whole new generation of people will have new experiences at the building that has been going on for at least a century. I am very lucky to be involved in such an important building in NYC.

BBN: David, did studying at Berkeley and being surrounded by the West Coast design scene prepare you for a career on the East Coast in NYC?

David West: West Coast design influence exposed me to passive solar design and a great appreciation for scale and materials, with an emphasis on designing for people and creating livable, usable spaces. It wasn’t until I first arrived in NYC that I developed an interested in highrises.

BBN: What was the process of working with Toll Brothers on The Sutton like?

DW: We developed a great relationship working with Toll Brothers. They’re interested in cutting-edge, high end design with a more casual approach than many NYC developers. The Sutton is a historical building on the Upper East Side, and Toll Brothers took a bespoke and thoughtfully curated approach to blend historical charm with a modern aesthetic.

BBN: One Seaport will be the tallest residential building in Downtown Manhattan. What’s special about the design? What unique design elements is it bringing to the area?

LSH: One Seaport is one of our best conceptual designs that came into reality. It’s a very special building because the original concept I came up with for the building kept true and is actually being built with concrete, glass and steel. So many buildings lose their concept throughout the design process for monetary or other reasons. Fortis Property Group really gave us the license to keep the building true to its original concept, which has been an incredible advantage, because the buyers are reacting to it and it’s selling very well.

BBN: What can you tell us about what’s on the horizon at Hill West? What are some of the highlights you’ll be working on over the next year?

LSH: David and I had never had the intention to run a 150-person office. It became a natural progression for the lifecycle of this firm; we’ve always been dedicated to supporting the architecture and the needs of our clients. We were focused on the work, and fortunate that the work we have has seen growth and sustained the life of our firm for nine years so far.

David and I feel fortunate and are enjoying every minute. We look forward to the work we have at our desk right now. So many talented people here are working on things every day of the week. The depth of the talent here and in the office is literally 150 super-talented people working in conjunction, which is what’s making it happen.

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