The interview with Aby Rosen took place on the island of Saint Barthélemy, where he was finishing his winter holidays with his family. In his living room, in his sort of Japanese wood house composed of various pavilions, we sat on large white canvas couches, surrounded by white windows, facing a beautiful beach on a turquoise sea.
Aby Rosen runs RFR, one of the largest real estate companies in the US, with his partner Michael Fuchs, like him a Jewish German from Frankfurt. “I have known him since nursery school,” says Aby. “He is my best friend.”
How old are you?
I am 53 years old. I was born in 1960 in Frankfurt. It has been a long run growing up in Frankfurt, being a Jew when only 1% of the population was Jewish. My father was Polish and was kept in Auschwitz until April 1945. My mother was born in Brussels in 1935 and in 1940 she was brought by my grandfather to a none Jewish family of farmers, very simple people, and lived with them until 1945. Later she became a painter, an art where she could express her fury.
How was it to grow up in Germany 15 years after the war ended?
We were too young to realise what had happened. It was later we realised what it meant, what had happened. It was hard to recognise such a hard environment. For myself I thought it was nice to be special, different. My father made money and we felt financially secure. I realised I was positive, friendly, outspoken, driven.
But how did you start your professional success?
My father had a heart attack and therefore retired from work when I was 18. I was in Law School then and I worked in my father’s real-estate business. He gave me the keys.
Why did you go to the States?
I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I always liked America: it was smart, new, innovative. New York is a town you choose, not because it is beautiful but because it suits you.
How old were you?
I was 27. I took a loan from my father. I wanted to be independent.
So what did you do?
I bought an empty building on the corner of 44th Street and Lexington Avenue, a fantastic location. I hired a very good architect and we did a very good job. I spent too much money, to turn the building into a great building. Normally, if you have a great location, you would not usually upgrade the building. But I was smart to make it aesthetically very nice and lease it to McDonald’s, and it became the nicest McDonald’s in the city. From then on I understood how much real-estate and architecture were connected. You also have a premium for great architecture.
Since then do you own some very significant buildings?
Yes. I own the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and then Philip Johnson. And Lever House. Built in 1954, it was the first glass building in the world. In one year I bought two of the best pieces of real-estate ever. I have built 15 buildings, renovated more than 30 and altogether I own 71 buildings.
All in New York City?
No, also in Miami and Las Vegas – and a big portfolio of real-estate in Germany.
You also have hotels?
Yes, the W South Beach in Miami, the Paramount in Time Square, the Gramercy Park Hotel.
Art has a lot to do with your work?
I realised that art and architecture have a strong relationship and I started to put art in all the buildings, plazas, rented apartments… We commissioned lots of artists’ work. We buy art for our spaces and also help our tenants to put together collections.
What kind of art?
Progressive artists as well as established ones.
You are yourself an art collector?
I have 8 to 900 paintings. From Warhol, Twombly, Basquiat, Koons, Ed Ruscha, Damien Hirst, Richard Prince… I love sculpture because it is a form, you can place it anywhere you want. With a painting it stays on the wall and doesn’t change the shape of the room. Sculpture is a form in the room.
Are you very close to Israel?
We had big ambitions to build in Israel but eighteen years later we have only built the W hotel in Tel Aviv – Jaffa. I was disappointed not to do much but it was too competitive. Israelis are very tough and not very internationally oriented. But the W hotel will be beautiful, in an historical building.
Now, after so much success and so many years, do you feel German or American?
100% American. I have an American wife, American children. I feel gratitude towards America, who enabled my success. I have to be appreciative, and it is my home.
And how do you feel when you go to Germany?
I feel like a visitor. I know that I am coming and leaving. Germany was my home for the first 27 years of my life but I don’t have a cultural relationship with the country. When you embrace the culture, that is when you decide this is your home.
Culture is also language. What is your language?
My language is English, even if I speak German to some of my old friends.
Are you sure that Germany had no impact on your culture?
It had a long, strong impact. I studied the classics in German and I still like some of the German books. Some German movies of the 60’s and 70’s are hysterically funny. We grew up only with the classical music of Brahms, Wagner, Beethoven, operas… Everything was German.
So what is the difference between Germany and the USA?
Americans and Germans are similar when it comes to being proud, nationalistic. To have pride, the desire to be precise, to be a leader, leadership is the same. Maybe the US is a continuation of what Germany was. The desire to succeed was huge in me. I don’t know if it was because I was a Jewish outsider or just a German who was looking forward.
And as a Jew how do you feel?
Not as religious as before. Religion was an important part of me because Jewish history is linked to their religion. I love the fact that my father used to say, “Maybe Auschwitz was God’s will.” It is a cheap excuse but helped him. America is the place where I was able to express myself. I enjoy life, I love it.
How is the real-estate business?
Real-estate is always good. As a business it gets better with low interest rates. If interest rates are high it’s bad for business. If they put up rates business will slow down. But everyone needs a home, a second home, an office. Housing is what we think about all the time, that is why it is always a business.
Are you sometimes afraid?
In 2008 I was really afraid, for two or three months. If everything failed it was very dangerous for the system.
Do you think art prices and real-estate prices are in a bubble?
No, art is demand and supply. The demand is gigantically strong. It has become a commodity, an asset like stocks and real-estate.
But what about art itself?
It is an asset and people want to buy, for investing, for pleasure, for documenting (like the museums). Art is the reflection of what is going on and by acquiring it you own your segment of the time, like a photograph. Today people who make money are more and more sophisticated. There is so much money! There are so many billionaires and millionaires everywhere.
What about your future?
I think that one has to have a conviction and a plan. Time is your enemy if you are not decisive. Time is also a healer when you make a mistake. My program is very similar and simple. I continue to do what I do: create good housing, good spaces and use art for longevity, for long term things. I would like to use great architects, work with landscapers. Landscape architects have to be recognised. I look for commercial success. I am a capitalist but if I can do it with good architects, good landscapers, good artists and create longevity this makes me happy. I would like to be remembered as someone who had a good eye. A good eye means a good judgement.
And what is the definition of your work?
I make good things better.
January 7th 2014.