In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Howard Roarke, a brilliant architect, watches as developers destroy his outstanding design by adding balconies. He also falls victim to a bunch of media hacks and critics who go on a verbal rampage to destroy him. So he blows up his own building in protest.
Craig Nassi, a dynamic, young developer, picked Daniel Libeskind to design the Aura in Sacramento, California, his most daring and forward-looking project to date. It’s a mixed-use condominium tower that revivifies the state capital. Libeskind—his was the inspired design for the Freedom Tower to replace the World Trade Center—knows the Roarke feeling and has no such qualms when working on his new project for Nassi. An unusually sophisticated yet simple design, sheer elegance is a good way to describe it.
Nassi’s Denver-based company, BCN Development, with a combined real estate portfolio valued at more than $500 million, is enjoying its bar mitzvah year by celebrating Libeskind’s Aura. Rising over 400 feet above the city center, it is 38 stories of luxurious residences that will have state-of-the-art technology and cutting-edge contemporary style. The Aura’s 265 apartments range in price from $386,000 to $1.3 million. The exterior of the building is a bluish-gray glass that covers 100% of the skin. Every home will have glass railed terraces with panoramic views of the wide sky and the horizons of Sacramento. Libeskind calls it “a sculpture that changes with light and the season.”
The stunning illustrations feature a building with trademark Libeskind twists—those textured surfaces that cause you to pause and try to figure out exactly how his buildings make their statements. From the hand-rendered illustrations, it is difficult to figure out how the building can be so translucent, yet so three-dimensional. And then you realize, it’s all about the balconies.
Nassi, a native Brooklynite, is in New York to present the project to a number of high-powered potential investors. He doesn’t pick a conference room or some mundane and tired place, instead, he picks New York’s newest hot spot, Buddakan—the most talked about restaurant in town. Tucked into the old Nabisco factory on 9th Avenue, it has cachet and grace, and the setting suits the developer and project perfectly.
In the faux library, its four walls lined in beige leather tooled with gold leaf and a hint of Chinese red—lines, square edges and clean lights, softened by the sensuous flow of Chinese grand graphics on the concrete wall—Nassi presents the Aura to New York.
When Nassi appears in the library with a PR posse, it is difficult to know what to expect, but almost instantly you realize he is not one of those all-about-me types. He was raised by his single mom, the Israeli-born daughter of a Polish father who just barely escaped the Holocaust in 1938. The rest of the family was wiped out.
When Nassi, 37, was 12, his mother remarried and the new family moved to Denver, where he attended high school, Colorado State University, and graduate school at the University of Northern Colorado, earning his masters degree in education. He always wanted to be a schoolteacher and taught social studies and coached football and basketball for three years in the Cherry Creek school system. Annual salary: $28,000 for a 75-hour week.
Becoming a schoolteacher shows character that most people don’t have. But as a career choice for an ambitious young man, it seemed hardly practical. Why did he make that decision?
“People who are motivated and inspired by teachers want to be teachers. In high school I had a few good teachers and coaches in football and track. I thought they were very noble people, working for $30,000 a year, to dedicate their lives to kids. It’s not a job where you come in at 10 and leave at 5. It’s a full-time job. But, for me, who went in every year wanting to make a difference and found myself rewriting and rearranging lesson plans from the year before, it became boring and was no longer a challenge. “When that final June rolled around, I couldn’t do it for another year and quit. I had no job, my mom said I was crazy, but she understood. Then friends suggested I get a real estate license, which introduced me to the field.“I sold for a couple of months and didn’t like that, so I got into construction and became a general contractor. I learned the sticks and bricks side of the business, building away.”He laughs when asked if he built one-family suburban Spanish villas and ranches. “Yes that kind of stuff. You get to understand that it really is all about the sheetrock and the taping, about the tiny details. That’s the essence of this business. If you don’t have a feel for that, you shouldn’t be in it because you will never figure out how to get things done under budget. It’s part of the art of this business.
“Donald Trump is very successful because he worked and lived with his father, a general contractor who understood you can use this screw for half a penny, or this screw for three quarters of a penny, and you will be using 2,000,000 screws over the next six months—so think about it. You have to know value. You can’t just jump into this at the top end and think you’re going to make it work. When we designed this building, we had to make sure it worked because if it didn’t, we wouldn’t build it.”
His first year in the business he made $200,000. “I realized that teaching is like slave labor, and because it is there is something drastically wrong with society. For me now, all of a sudden I was enjoying my life.”
When he was 25, he also went into the antiques business in Denver at Metropolitan Antiques Gallery. “I’ve always had a love of geography and history and art,” he told one local reporter in Denver, and often travels the world looking for the right object d’art to make the correct statement. “I just had an idea of mixing antiques with development.” He once bought an antique 20-foot-tall embassy gate in Argentina that he used in one of his projects.
His tastes, while eclectic, tend toward the European. It might be because of his Polish genes. When told that there were more than a few Polish Holocaust survivors who were real estate developers that started out as he did, Nassi laughed.
“Maybe that’s why I have an admiration for Daniel so much—for his Polish background. He was one of the first Jewish babies born in Poland after the Holocaust. He’s a wonderful guy and it was fun going from single-family homes to building this kind of building and working with someone incredibly exciting and talented like him.”
The feelings are mutual, says Libeskind. “It’s a pleasure to be working with someone who has Craig’s great vision, who saw something beyond square footage in the center of such a beautiful city. He wanted to contribute something architecturally. The structure is iconic, and it celebrates the city, giving the residents an art experience that will lift living into something that goes beyond the functional.”
Nassi grew up in the Denver Jewish community of 50,000. He was bar mitzvahed in Israel, is a strong contributor to the Jewish National Fund, and goes to Israel at least once or twice a year. Though not observant, he’s a proud cultural Jew and not ashamed to be the first to say so, especially if challenged.
As part of his social involvement, Nassi sits on the board of a number of organizations and social agencies that are part of his local community and seeks to help make it a better place for everyone to live in. Beyond that, he has come upon an idea he’d like to pursue, if the government can be convinced to come on board.
As a former teacher, he feels that society has an excellent opportunity to restructure the way we parent our children. There’s a 30% high school dropout rate in America, and increasingly, children across the board are less educated and caring than they used to be.
“It’s not really the schools,” he says. “It’s the parents who don’t know how to parent. When you have 20 or even 40 kids in a class and some get straight As and go to Harvard and others get to the 11th grade and drop out to sell and do drugs and hang out in nightclubs—for those who succeed it’s almost always because of the parents. It’s one of the reasons I think Judaism is such a successful culture, in that it is central in holding family together. You keep a family by spending time, loving each other, talking with each other, doing things together, following tradition. It’s not your fifth-grade teacher who yelled at you or PS 197, where they didn’t have enough books for everyone in the classroom.
“So my idea would be to offer every pregnant woman who wants the local hospital to pay for her delivery to take a four-month course in parenting (with the father, if possible), pass some tests, and take it seriously. I think that would be a great national program and that we should convince our government to do it. It would benefit everyone and make a huge difference to our children.”
The conversation is interrupted. The PR posse tells him it’s time to present the Aura to the crowd that has gathered. Daniel Libeskind says a few words, exchange greetings, scope each other out, and check out the meticulously built model.
Without ever referring to The Fountainhead, Nassi and Libeskind are told, “No one is blowing this one up.” And Nassi immediately replies, “Hats off to Daniel for the balconies.”
They both got it right.