Studio visit

Better cities for all: a visit with Family New York

Oana Stanescu and Dong-Ping Wong have been hailed as the first internet architects. In part, this is because their Family New York office realises many of its projects using the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. But that’s not the only innovative aspect to Stanescu and Wong’s activities. Their seemingly boundless creativity is also invested in the stage design for rapper Kanye West’s current tour and a swimming pool that will float in New York’s East River. What’s more, most of their projects share a common objective: to make the city a more enjoyable place to live.

Felix Burrichter
Jeremy Liebman

Oana Stanescu and Dong-Ping Wong receive their guests in a glass conference room at NEW INC, a co-working space in the New Museum neighbourhood in downtown Manhattan. The two founders of Family New York moved into the premises two years ago and currently share the office space with other young entrepreneurs working in the fields of architecture, technology and design. Wong, who comes from California, and Stanescu, who grew up in Romania, launched Family New York in 2009. From their concept for the Gösta Serlachius Museum in Mänttä, Finland, to the stage design for Kanye West’s “Yeezus” tour, their work began making waves in the world of design and architecture soon after their foundation.

The work for which they made an international name for themselves is a pool in the shape of a plus sign, which will float in New York’s East River and use an integrated filtration system to clean river water so that guests can bathe in it. The +POOL was based on an original idea by Wong and Stanescu and financed entirely through Kickstarter. Today the project remains one of the biggest success stories in the history of the crowdfunding platform. The fact that the pool is now destined to be built, with an official opening planned for 2020, not only demonstrates the new possibilities available to architects via the internet, but also symbolises the unshakable optimism at the heart of every Family New York project.

“If we had waited for someone to commission us to build a swimming pool for the East River that filters river water, we would have been waiting a very long time.”

Oana Stanescu

Sustainability is a thread that runs through virtually every Family New York design. “If people invest a lot of money in a project and we spend a large part of our lives realising it, then it has to be worthwhile and bring benefits to the city – for as many people as possible,” says Dong-Ping Wong.

You describe your working relationship as symbiotic. What makes the partnership work so well?

Dong-Ping Wong: I’m not sure. We’ve been working together since 2000. We met at REX, an established firm of New York architects. Somehow it was immediately clear that we complemented each other pretty well. We worked together on various teams and spent days and nights in each other’s company.

Perhaps your very different career paths are what complement each other so well? Mr Wong, you come from California, you studied at Berkeley and Columbia University, where there is a culture of free and experimental thinking. And Ms Stanescu, you come from Romania and studied at the Polytechnic University of Timişoara. What was the focus of your studies?

Oana Stanescu: My course was very pragmatic and technical. They told us at the outset that after graduation we would mainly be designing typical one-family houses and dealing with very basic, standardised technical details. At the same time, the school had no real aesthetic agenda to back up the technical training. So that meant there were always opportunities to work with creative or experimental ideas.

Did you set up your own company, Family New York, immediately after getting to know each other at REX?

Wong: It wasn’t quite as simple as that. Oana first set off on a world tour. [laughs]
Stanescu: After my time at REX, I first returned to Romania to complete my degree. Then I worked at SANAA in Tokyo. On leaving university I wanted to put my training into practice. After SANAA, I went to South Africa to work for Architecture for Humanity. Then I spent some time with Herzog & de Meuron in Basel and OMA in New York. Only after that did we set up Family New York.
Wong: But we kept in contact throughout Oana’s travels around the world. The concept for +POOL began when Oana was still in South Africa. We stayed in touch via Skype and wrote a joint blog where we were constantly sharing new ideas and drawings with one another. That was before the advent of the iPhone, when BlogSpot was still the big thing. [laughs]
Stanescu: Actually we still work like that today. Usually we have little choice, since both of us travel a lot. It forces us to work in a way that is very direct and solution-oriented. I like it. Every so often, I moderate examinations at various schools. And I’m always struck by the difficulties some students have explaining their work. All too often they try to hide behind nebulous descriptions of things that are actually very simple to explain.

What do you think about people calling you the first internet architects?

Stanescu: It’s what they say, but to be honest I don’t really know why.

The Family New York offices are in premises in downtown Manhattan owned by start-up incubator NEW INC, where creative exchanges with other young entrepreneurs working in the fields of architecture, technology and design are all part of the daily routine.

Discussion of a new design at Family New York, the architectural office founded in 2009. As the name suggests, the working environment has a family feel to it.

Discussion of a new design at Family New York, the architectural office founded in 2009. As the name suggests, the working environment has a family feel to it.

There are various reasons for it. First, the way you work would not have been possible without the internet, whether BlogSpot or Skype, let alone email. And the way you introduce people to your ideas is unusual in the world of architecture. You present them to the public rather than relying solely on projects put out for tender by customers, where you would work on a bid in secrecy and reveal designs to the general public at a much later stage. At least that’s how you worked in the case of +POOL. And that meant you attracted attention from well beyond the architectural community. And perhaps the most significant reason of all is your use of Kickstarter, through which you crowdfunded +POOL almost entirely.

Stanescu: When you put it like that, the term makes sense.
Wong: The funny thing is that +POOL was our first and by far the biggest internet-driven project. But even so we wouldn’t see ourselves as media-obsessed.
Stanescu: I agree. As far as using social media is concerned, we’re actually pretty poor. At the end of the day, the internet is just a tool. When I used to work on the school newspaper back in Romania, the internet gave me a chance to engage with the big wide world. When we started the Kickstarter campaign for +POOL, we really didn’t know what we were doing at the outset. We asked our friends at the design agency PlayLab to create a website for us. Another friend of ours wrote a report on +POOL for his blog. In just two weeks we were getting massive media attention. Even Jay Z posted something early on about +POOL on the internet. Until that point, we hadn’t even thought that the web could be such an effective tool for us as a young architecture and design office. Kickstarter hadn’t been around online for all that long. And Gawker and Curbed – all those sites that are now really well established – were just gaining a foothold. So I guess we were in the right place at the right time.

Would you consider starting a new crowdfunding project?

Wong: Sure. Our first one was invaluable. But next time we would probably think more strategically in terms of funding. Now we have much more experience.
Stanescu: What makes it fun for us is the opportunity to play an active role ourselves. We have a chance to develop our own projects and then finance them independently – whether through crowdfunding or private backers. In any case, we don’t want to have to wait until someone gets in touch. If we had waited for someone to commission us to build a swimming pool for the East River that filters river water, we would have had to wait a very long time.

Are you currently working on other projects based entirely on your own initiative?

Stanescu: Yes, a few. As soon as you have clients, though, it’s difficult to find enough time for them. But that approach will always be important to us. Not just because of the success of +POOL. I think there’s something utopian about using your own resources to realise a design or vision.
Wong: Here at Family New York we think it’s very important to keep a balance and retain the freedom to realise our own projects so we’re not simply implementing the ideas of our clients.

Your designs often have an optimistic feel. Many of them seek to improve the quality of urban life. Would you agree with that?

Stanescu: Sure, that’s important to us. I guess it’s because we set up Family New York right after the financial crisis. If you look today at the architecture that was being built in Dubai or China before the crisis, it’s almost like it was from a different era. The structures they were planning and building then were really crazy. Architecture simply exploded. And then imploded with the crisis. When we started work with Family New York right after the crash, we put a great deal of emphasis on integrating a good cause into each of our designs. We wanted our work to demonstrate responsibility. Not least because of the debate surrounding climate change, which today has a much stronger public focus. As one of the biggest destroyers of energy and resources in the modern world, architecture has the potential to do a great deal of harm to the environment.
Wong: If people invest a lot of money in a project and we spend a large part of our lives realising it, then it has to be worthwhile and bring benefits to the city, the landscape or whatever context – for as many people as possible.

What made you decide to call your office Family?

Stanescu: To be honest, there’s no good explanation. We had lots of ideas for names. But none of them were any good. [laughs] Just before +POOL went online, we had to make a decision and somehow we came up with the name Family. Actually it fits perfectly, because it’s exactly how we work and run our office. We argue a lot, then at the end of the day we go out to eat together.

Maintaining a balance: although Family New York are widely seen as the first internet architects with their spectacularly successful Kickstarter campaign for +POOL, the books, drawings and materials for models that decorate their offices generate an analogue feel.