Family NYC: Novel Environments For Normal-Ass People

Drinks with Dong-Ping Wong of the Architecture Firm Family NYC

  • Interview: Adam Wray
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Dong-Ping Wong / Family NYC

Dong-Ping Wong asks a lot of questions. I don’t think he expects them all to be answered, but they’re not quite rhetorical, either. They represent a thinking-through process turned inside out, a form of Socratic echolocation used to feel out the contours of a proposition. It’s a generous mode of thinking, one that actively involves whoever he might be speaking to, whether an interviewer or his colleagues at Family NYC, the architectural practice he co-founded that describes itself as a “designer of environments.” We’re chatting in the lobby bar of the Public Hotel in New York City’s East Village, and as the room fills with an after-work crowd, our conversation turns toward the role of trendy hotels in the city.

“I guarantee 90% of these people aren’t staying here,” Wong says. “It’s basically the new living room for the city. How far can you push the hotel into being part of the civic world? Can you push it to the point that it becomes just a community center? Do you even need the hotel part? If this wasn’t a hotel, would it be as cool? Or would it just feel like a big bar?”

Wong founded Family with Oana Stanescu in 2013. The two met while working at REX, a firm that was formerly the NYC division of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA. To call their portfolio varied would be an understatement. Since starting Family, Wong and Stanescu have, among other things, assisted Kanye West with the set design for his 2013 Yeezus Tour, become Virgil Abloh’s primary design collaborators on his Off-White stores, and designed a public swimming pool in the East River that also serves as a massive water filtration device. That last one, called +Pool, perhaps best encapsulates their approach to design, wherein a simple gesture meets a definite need to produce something unexpected, ameliorative, and joyful.

As far as architects go, Family are uncommonly unprecious about their methods, focused squarely on accessibility. In a field typified by slick precision, Family’s ethos is captured by their fondness for the rough, back-of-the-napkin sketches. “Shit is going to be ugly when you first put it on the table, and you have to put that ugly shit on the table if you want something beautiful,” explains Wong. “It’s about making sure you understand the basic idea first, and then we can build on that. We’ll get to the sophistication later.”

In keeping with this practice, I asked Wong to sketch out our conversation. He also sent me a selection of drawings that emerged from a meeting between himself, Kanye, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Virgil, and Spike Jonze. “The greatest meeting I've ever been invited to,” says Wong. “No idea who said what or what these were even about. Pretty sure that was the peak of my career.” I suspect he, Stanescu, and their team at Family are still climbing.

Adam Wray

Dong-Ping Wong

What does the word 'environment' mean to you?

At Berkeley, where I did my undergrad, the school was called the College of Environmental Design, but only relatively recently did I start thinking about architecture in that way. You’re designing environments, but not necessarily in an ecological sense. Everything around you, whether it’s the four walls you’re in, the air temperature, how many plants you put in your place—all those things are an atmosphere you’re creating. You’re designing a component of a much larger environment, which made us realize that we have a bigger responsibility. The environment you grow up in or live in affects how you view the world, what your priorities are, how often you see your friends, how healthy you are or aren’t.

You’re from San Diego—did you grow up in the suburbs?

Yeah. It was a very classic, Americana, middle-income neighborhood. I grew up in a cul de sac. All my best friends were, like, four doors down. It’s still a neighborhood that has no real standout identity. It has a good community, but I couldn’t even really describe it.

How did growing up in that environment shape your work?

It had a huge influence on who I think our architecture should be for: people that live in normal-ass places. I love the idea of architecture and design for places that aren’t special, that get overlooked. Not even overlooked—it doesn’t feel like they’re neglected by any means, but they’re just there. It’s just a neighborhood. There’s nothing really special or unspecial about it. It’s not necessarily that I want our work to resonate with the people there, but I’d like to be able to at least describe what we do to my old neighbors. Design-wise, we try to make stuff really understandable, and simple, and blunt but in a friendly way. That’s shaped the aesthetic of what we do, and even our concept of what a city is supposed to do for you.

The ocean plays a big part in that vibe that I’m always trying to hit—what it’s like to be in the ocean. I can picture the exact spot in the ocean that I try to make every project feel like. When you’re surfing, you’re basically sitting and waiting for a wave. There are always moments where there are no waves, and it’s a super flat, huge horizon, and ideally you don’t see anybody else. There’s that early morning mist, and the sky and the ocean bleed into each other. That moment is kind of surreal. It’s incredibly calm, but also really big feeling. It’s meditative. You know there’s land behind you, you know you can paddle or swim in, you’re not worried, but you’re floating, not seeing anything, no reference points. I want every project to hit that moment, even for a split second. A lot of the stuff we end up doing, I always start with something really flat, and I feel like that’s just me drawing the horizon over and over again.

“I can picture the exact spot in the ocean that I try to make every project feel like.”

You used the word vibe.

We totally picked that up from Kanye. Architects never talk in terms like that—I couldn’t say vibe for the longest time and not giggle at myself for trying to sound cool, and now it’s one of the most common things we say in the office.

How do you identify the vibe you’re looking for on a project? Or is it something that can only become clear after the fact?

On every project there’s a vibe you’re going for, even if it’s not clearly defined yet. It always feels like the word itself—it’s so ambiguous. Oana and I fight a lot, but we both shut up when we hit that point where it’s like, “That’s it.” We can never predict when it’s going to happen. Sometimes it happens on day one, sometimes it happens at the 11th hour.

Can you connect this phenomenon to a project you’ve done?

The Off-White store in Hong Kong was the first proper, built, front-to-back project we ever did. There’s the jungle thing in the front that’s really tiny, but sitting in there, you felt bracketed from the rest of Hong Kong, just for a second. One of Virgil’s last genius touches was adding a soundtrack of birds. You hear water droplets hitting leaves. All of it adds to that feeling of stepping out of the stream of Hong Kong for a second. You could go kitschy with that really quickly, but all of these elements came together so it doesn’t quite feel that way. It feels clearly man-made—you’re not pretending it’s anything natural. The grid ceiling, for example, reminds you it’s still a designed, almost industrial thing. That was one of those projects that hit exactly what we wanted to achieve.

The way you’re describing it as a little oasis in a super intense urban space, it almost feels like it’s providing a public service. Do you conceive of retail spaces as public spaces?

Yeah. That was what was really satisfying for us with that project. We realized you could conceive of retail as a public space, and it worked. Part of it was a purely visceral reaction to being there. Hong Kong is amazing, but it’s exhausting, like parts of New York are. There’s so much commerce—everywhere is trying to sell you everything. So, can you just do this pocket of non-commercial, even if it’s just the front third of a retail space? Most of our training up until that point was all civic or cultural stuff, anyway, so I think it was a natural way for us to approach that little space. And full credit to Virgil being okay with a third of the store not being a traditional shop.

“There’s not a lot of spaces I can think of that have the depth that a person has—the imperfections a person has in a way that seem perfect at the same time.”

Virgil seems to try really hard to not be precious about ideas, to not try to own ideas.

When you talk to him, he’s like, “I’m doing this as long as it’s still fun, and if there’s a moment I’m bored, I’ll do something else.” That exact thing, we took a lot of cues from. That’s such an amazing way to work. You’re not going to produce a masterpiece with everything you do. There was a moment where we were like, “Can we work as fast as Virgil?” We can’t, but we did speed up a lot. I love architecture that’s super precise and beautiful, but there are projects where we just want to put one rad idea out there and then move onto the next one. That’s so liberating from an architectural standpoint. It’s always shocking how many things you come across where it’s like, why hasn’t anyone come across a better idea? Or if they have, why is that better idea not implemented yet?

We were actually approached a couple years ago to redesign a suburb in San Diego. It was a coincidence that it was San Diego, but I was like, “There’s no way we can turn this down, it’s exactly what I want to do.” It was meant to go right up against those cookie-cutter, Truman Show-type suburbs. The client wanted something that looked completely different, that was completely self-sustaining resource-wise. Why has nobody rethought what a suburb is architecturally? If they have, I haven’t seen it. Or I haven’t seen a good one, anyway. All of that stuff that doesn’t feel like anybody bothered designing it, that stuff to me is the most interesting type of project. Like a food court in a mall.

Or a McDonald’s.

That would be an amazing project, because you know it’s going to change lives, even on a small level, more than virtually any other project you can do.

Those are the spaces that reveal shared values, because they have to be something everyone is going to be able to and want to use. They probably say the most about us in aggregate.

They’re also the places where I feel like the idea of architecture and design is still very much an aesthetic treatment as opposed to a way to solve a problem or provide a fruitful alternative. Programmatically, functionally, you just don’t really think of architecture approaching those as places to make better. Make prettier maybe, but not necessarily make better socially or politically.

I think that’s why people are still intrigued by someone like Buckminster Fuller. His shit happened to look really weird, but there was a real utopian aspect to his work.

I want that utopianism! I feel like you don’t get a lot of utopianism right now. It’s kinda dire. It feels like, at the moment, it’s kind of survival mode on an architectural level. I don’t feel like there’s a bigger, utopian vision. There’s a lot of getting as big as you can assuming it’s not going to last forever, as opposed to thinking about how we change what architecture means, or how building a city can really change how buildings are delivered to people, what their relationship to the built environment is.

As a species, we’re on the brink of some catastrophic shit. That reality must affect your process in terms of wanting to create stuff that’s not only sustainable but actually ameliorates your environment—like +Pool. Are you trying to design towards a moving target? Like, “Will this house work in 40 years when the world is way hotter?”

We do design a little bit like that, but the problem is I’m generally an optimist. So, the pool, for example—if anything I think it’ll be useless in 40 years because the river will be totally clean. Which probably won’t be the case, but that’s what I want to happen. I am really curious about how Trump World has affected how we look at projects. Part of my optimism is that—with a few notable and newsworthy exceptions—I generally feel like everybody is amazing in their own right. One of my favorite aspects of +Pool is just getting at a lot of weird people together, half-naked and swimming around. I love that architecture could potentially be a part of that, just appreciating how beautiful people are. I do feel like that aspect of trying to make public spaces or community spaces in places where they don’t typically belong or aren’t expected is even more potent now than it was last November.

I remember there was a competition to redo the White House, just as an idea thing—I have no idea what we would do if we were to attempt that.

“All of that stuff that doesn’t feel like anybody bothered designing it, that stuff to me is the most interesting type of project. Like a food court in a mall.”

Right now, I feel like you would have to start by levelling it.

Just get rid of it. Make it a park.

When your team is working, do you ever think about undoing bad design?

I feel like that’s most of our job. Good design oftentimes is just making shitty design less shitty, it’s not even necessarily coming up with something new. I feel like so much of design, certainly built environment stuff, is one decision that seemed good at the time but later requires bad decisions to support it that just pile on top of each other to the point of absurdity. A lot of it is stripping away crap, basically. Both formally but also programatically, technologically, expectation-wise.

Programmatically-speaking, how do you ensure you’re keeping yourselves open to new ideas, new ways of thinking?

It’s really important not to do too-similar projects over and over again. We have a short track record of retail projects—I know that that will change soon, because once you get to the point where you’re very experienced at doing something, you fall into tropes and patterns really easily. And how do you avoid that? How do you keep moving? Kanye is a great example. His fans, the people that love him, don’t purely love him because of the music or the clothes or whatever that he makes. They just like him as an inspirational person. He could virtually do anything, move into any kind of industry, and people would still be interested. Virgil is another one. I would love it if our work could fall into that. It’s not, “We like your hotels,” or, “We like your retail,” it’s, “We like your way of thinking about stuff. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing.”

Can you think of any specific places that hit all of your vibe requirements?

I do love Central Park. One, for its scale. It has a really good combination of manicured, old-school elegance, and places that seem kinda wild. It’s still, to me, one of the most amazing planning moves, to see that long rectangle on a map. One of my favorite places in Central Park, which is also one of the most corny, touristy places, is that lake where you can rent a rowboat. I’m such a sucker for that stuff.

Touristy shit is touristy for a reason.

It works! The boats are still junky, steel row boats, it’s pretty affordable, it’s never that crowded. But it’s super romantic. You wanna have a baguette.

How about outside New York?

This is an Oana reference, but I’ll steal it: in front of the Pompidou Center. It’s a big, stone plaza, but because it’s sloped towards the museum, people just sit down. If it was flat, it would be a parking lot. But I love that just that one move makes you want to hang out there.
One of my favorite buildings that I’ve ever seen, because I cannot explain it, is Corbusier’s Ronchamp. One, because it’s funny-looking. I don’t even know if I’d call it pretty, or beautiful. It makes no sense as a designed object. It looks like something you would create if you were fucked up out of your mind on a three-day shroom binge, yet sober at the same time. Everything is in its right place, and nothing makes sense. It’s really gestural. It seems super intuitive. On the measurable levels, the lighting quality is amazing, the scale is amazing, the sighting is amazing, the materials are incredible, both humble and exceptional at the same time. The first architectural thing that I remember is the Salk Institute in San Diego, and all its components come together beautifully to make something that transcends the sum of its parts, but it is not incomprehensible in the way that I think true magic is. Ronchamp, I do not understand how it came about. It’s silly as shit, and it’s a little awkward. There’s not a lot of spaces I can think of that have the depth that a person has—the imperfections a person has in a way that seem perfect at the same time. When you fall in love with someone, it’s exactly because they’re not a computer-generated robot of a person. They’re fucked up in the perfect way. They’re weird in the perfect way. They’re asymmetrical in the perfect way. I can’t think of another man-made place that’s so perfectly imperfect.

  • Interview: Adam Wray
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Dong-Ping Wong / Family NYC
  • Photography: David Brandon Geeting (Portrait)