Level Playing Field

Architect and developer Michael Kirchmann avoids judging his buyers by the size of their wallets.

Michael Kirchmann standing in the snow outside the Global Design Strategies office in New York City.

Do you know who St. Barnabas was?

I don’t.

I had to look him up, too. One of Jesus’s lesser-known disciples. The way he was martyred was particularly brutal: dragged by his neck and burned.


Exactly. I asked because your firm, Global Design Strategies, has a project named after him.

Yes. It’s low-income housing with medical facilities in the Bronx.

In addition to developing buildings, your firm also designs them, among other things. What are some examples?

We designed the branding for two Porsches that raced in the GT3 Middle East Cup. Both were totaled in the race.

Sorry to hear that.

We’ve also designed skateboards, custom motorcycles, and the branding for a private jet. And then there’s the architectural scale art we create.

Which is what?

Any sculpture or installation that typically would need several contractors involved to be constructed.

Where have you built them?

They’re mostly created to promote a project, to make it richer. Sometimes it’s to beautify a site because it’s in a bad state of decay. We’ve done them for an airport in Bahrain and on the High Line.


Photos: (Left to right) A meeting space. Artwork by Shantell Martin in the office.

You have a remarkably protean company. What’s your background?

I was born and raised in South Africa. My parents own a development company in Johannesburg. I grew up there and went to college in Cape Town where I studied architecture. I came over to the U.S. in 1997 and spent 10 years in the New York office of SOM, where I developed a design group focused on office buildings. My team did some things in the Middle East and eventually concentrated on New York. At the end of 2007, I started GDS working primarily on development.

Historically, a not-so-great time to go into real estate business.

2008 didn’t pan out very well in the global markets, so it was nice to have the architecture to fall back on. Our first project was a condo on West 28th Street.

Did you poach any projects from SOM after you left?

No. I left saying I would not do that.

You’re a saint. You just combined two buildings into a luxury residence in Manhattan. Tell me about 25 Mercer.

We bought these buildings in 2014. They’re cast iron from the 1860s in Soho. This is the first project for which we’ve used all our departments: architecture, design, branding, and art. There’s a built-in history of art in the neighborhood and in the buildings themselves. We did a series of art installations inside them before the interiors were demolished.

Your portfolio also has many low-income projects, including St. Barnabas and another complex in a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Are the luxury condos a means to some altruistic end?

I think it’s a very good balance. The low-income housing projects bring us a different kind of satisfaction. The budgets are low, so when we come up with solutions it’s a great feeling. I love doing low-income housing.

Does your approach change between luxury condos and low-income?

We treat everyone equally. We don’t see a distinction between rich people and low-income families. The key is to design housing projects as if we were designing them for ourselves. We’re building them for sophisticated people. People with pride. That’s why we use different materials and we don’t paint them like dorms. No bright colors.

What advice would you give to ambitious young architect-slash-developers?

You need to persevere and develop relationships to be successful. Having smart partners is also a key component, as is working seven days a week, especially at the beginning.

A New York real estate developer was elected U.S. president. Could you foresee being the first of your kind to be beatified by the Pope?

I think there are things that would preclude me from getting that distinction.

St. Barnabas’s slate wasn’t so clean, I’m sure. How would you like to be martyred?

Buried alive in the concrete of one of my foundations. Do it the old-fashioned way.

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