Not long after Family New York’s Oana Stanescu and Dong-Ping Wong dialed into a recent Skype interview, it was clear why their partnership works.
“It’s a bit cheesy, but the firm is called ‘Family’ for a reason,” says Wong. It comes across. In answering questions on a wide range of topics—how they got their start, Kanye West (yes, the one and only), and what architects can do to step outside the bubbles of academia and the profession to engage with the wider world—they closed the loop on one another’s answers.
For Family, which has set itself apart with inventive, ecologically minded projects that engage with their surroundings, Stanescu’s and Wong’s strong partnership has been key.
The Californian-born Wong and Romanian-born Stanescu, who are in their early 30s, met as intern architects nearly ten years ago, at then-nascent REX, a New York City studio co-founded by a former partner at renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).
Working at REX was formative, Stanescu and Wong explain. “The firm was run in a very democratic way,” says Stanescu. “It didn’t matter where an idea came from, everyone was expected to be involved,” Wong adds, noting that as fresh-faced post-grads, the two were genuinely listened to. They’ve run their firm in a similar way, emphasizing a collaborative process that includes the entire studio and privileges holistic thinking about projects—from conception to development to construction.
That holistic thinking often leads the firm to develop work that is sustainability minded, like a housing development in San Diego and a cluster of residential buildings in Dallas, Texas, that will generate 100 percent of the energy it needs.
The firm is perhaps best known, though, for its involvement in a different eco-conscious project: +Pool. An unlikely feat of marine engineering, sustainable design, and civic planning, the plus-sign-shaped pool is a swimmable water-filtration system, floating in New York City’s notoriously polluted East River.
Designed in partnership with New York studio PlayLab, the scheme has attracted significant press attention. “+Pool couldn’t have happened in a different time or place,” Stanescu argues. “Today, because of the internet, architects are able to do so much more [than focus solely on structural issues].”
In addition to the opportunities for interdisciplinary inquiry and cross-cultural communication the internet provides, it also served as a means for raising funds for speculative projects like the pool: Between two Kickstarter campaigns, donor enthusiasm helped raise over $300,000.
In terms of the firm’s ability to garner attention for projects like +Pool, it doesn’t hurt that among their fans is world-famous musician, designer, and entrepreneur Kanye West. West and Family New York began collaborating several years ago, when Stanescu designed the monumental, 50-foot-tall volcano(and an accompanying moon-like disc) that appeared on stage for West’s 2013-14 Yeezus tour.
Was it intimidating to work with someone with such a high profile? “Well, of the people we work with, the best are the ones with a strong sense of their gut,” says Wong. “Kanye is that person,” Wong laughs. “He’ll look at things and say ‘that’s it.’” Stanescu jumps in: “Whomever you work with, design is an intimate process. It’s very important to be yourself.”
If Stanescu and Wong have heard the criticisms leveled at West for hedging into the world of architecture and design without formal training, it doesn’t seem to factor into their reception of his ideas or their working relationship with him. “He obviously trusts his own intuition and is able to pick up on things so quickly. He really zeroes in,” says Wong.
Another client of note is the multi-hyphenate clothing designer and creative director to Kanye West, Renaissance Man Virgil Abloh, for whom the firm finished work last year on a retail space in Hong Kong for Off-White, Abloh’s brand. The space fashioned as a sort of gallery for commerce. (Just this morning, Abloh posted a video Instagram from a meeting with the Family team on another Off-White shop.)
The Hong Kong space serves as a sales venue for Abloh’s clothing, but also as a sort of hybrid retail store and public conservatory: It’s filled to the brim with plants in a nod to Hong Kong’s subtropical climate and lush, green surroundings.
Because of Abloh’s travel schedule, large chunks of the design development process took place over text message. Add it to the list of ways Family is adjusting to a steadily digitizing, connected world. “We’re putting together a book about that process that’ll include some of the studies and sketches and model shots and a lot of the communication,” says Stanescu.
For Family, the future holds additional Off-White outposts, a city hall in an Israeli town (there, OMA’s Seattle Public Library was an inspiration), and the completion of +Pool, which is slated, as of now, for sometime in 2019. The duo shows no sign of slowing down. “Architecture inherently deals with the environment, city code, policy,” says Stanescu. “We’re having the most fun, and the work is most fulfilling, when we’re engaged with all of it.”