Melitonov delivered this quote during a lecture he gave in Cosentino’s Manhattan showroom as the winner of AIANY’s New Practices competition. An architect in the audience challenged that architecture should be many different things, to which Melitonov responded: “But you need the artistic weirdos on the fringe. There is no architecture without art. Otherwise it’s just spec’ing.”
Born and raised in New York City’s Flatiron neighborhood, having completed an apprenticeship in Genova, Italy, and with projects like NYC’s Whitney Museum of American Art and a Mayan museum in Guatemala on his resume, Melitonov believes that design should be whimsical and
serious at the same time.
“At our firm, everyone has an equal say. We’ve got team members from New York, South America, the Midwest. For a tile project in South America, we wanted a fresh, tropical atmosphere, so we just worked with the ‘local dude’,” he said. “I don’t claim all my work as art or important, but it’s about that mentality. If a client approached me to design a McDonald’s, I’d approach it in the same way.”
“Architecture is an art form, not a service provider.”
—Gregory Melitonov, partner at Taller KEN
Melitonov co-founded the studio Taller KEN in 2013 with Ines Guzman, a Guatemalan architect he met in Italy. The firm is likewise based in both New York and Guatemala. “In New York, everything can be strict and structured, but in developing countries around the world, there’s more freedom. It’s wide open,” he said. “And with a firm that splits time between two locations, we find that we’ve always got an insider and outsider, which gives us a unique perspective. We can be experts and learners.”
Both of the firm’s partners try to take one or two trips around the world per year, as a way to continually research the industry and find inspiration. Melitonov recently ventured to China, Central America, and Scandinavia.
“When there is a variety of cultures and experiences coming together—whether that’s from around or the world, or just the difference between principals and interns—that’s real collaboration and experimentation,” he said. “Everyone at our firm has the same wage regardless of experience. Everyone has input and a seat at the table.”
That includes stakeholders. And with Melitonov’s self-proclaimed weird, whimsical style, he’s surprised to have the same contribution and collaboration with executives. “It’s amazing when you have buy-in from higher-ups,” he said. “Who would’ve thought people would be onboard to slice up cars and stick them out of a building?”
Melitonov said this in reference to his Saúl Bistro project in Guatemala City's Plaza Madero. But similar strangeness can be found in the Concepción shopping center, which uses a subversive approach to create eye-catching art pieces, and house-shaped containers cantilevered past the constraints of the site, resulting in an extraordinary departure from the context.
Similarly, the Majadas café is open-air with no glass, connecting the project to the pedestrian walkways, because its exterior consists only of custom operable folding shutters comprised of steel panels inter-woven with dowels. It skins the existing commercial center’s facade to create a greater impression of a unified whole when seen from all three free sides.
“Bringing the outside in” is a popular architectural concept right now, but Taller KEN embodied it in an unorthodox way on the Zona 14 Canopy. Whereas some firms accomplish the strategy with glass, transparency, and views outside, Melitonov almost literally brought the outside in using 1,000 pounds of thread hanging from the steel structure, allowing the canopy to act as both solar shade and sound-absorbent surface, making the space cool, intimate, and natural.
More touches from the natural world are found on the Alessa jewelry store project. Pastel tones are contrasted with organic textures and natural materials such as plywood, linen, and rope. Jewelry is displayed in custom wood furniture and with mirrors and textile curtains. The natural softness contrasts with the golden, geometric elements.
It’s this blending of worlds that made Melitonov and his firm a perfect subject for our People + Places issue.
“As a native New Yorker, I find I can sometimes be cynical about things happening here,” he said. “But in spending time around the world, it opens things up. It’s very much about inspiration, experimentation, and widening your perspective.”
And that’s what makes him a true mover and shaker.