The Landscape of the Future with Family New York and Felix Burrichter
In a conversation in our Penthouse library, Dong-Ping Wong, one half of Family New York (the most promising architects in the game) and PIN—UP magazine’s Felix Burrichter reflect on the evolution of conceptual architecture, with a look at some of Family New York’s most iconic projects.
Felix Burrichter: Who and what is Family?
Dong-Ping Wong: Family is basically a design studio. It's fairly straightforward. We're small: six people and a dog. It was founded by my friend Juana and I. She grew up during revolutionary times in Romania, lived through Ceaușescu being overthrown, more or less in a war-torn Communist country.
FB: And you?
D-PW: I came from San Diego, obviously the complete opposite. I grew up in probably one of the nicer places in the country. It's very blonde, full of beaches. We met in New York, in an office called Rex. It's basically an offshoot of OMA [Office of Metropolitan Architecture, founded by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas]. Two guys, Ares and Josh, pulled some sort of genius move where they stole a bunch of projects and 60 staff from OMA, and started their own firm back in the day. This is all pre-recession, which meant offices like that had tons of money, way too much money. I was running a big chunk of a $400 million, 60-story tower that I certainly had no experience doing. That was just what was happening at the time. The whole point was to build as big and as tall and as crazy as possible.
FB: How did Family get started?
D-PW: At some point, we said, "It's a good time to start an office." I always knew I wanted an office, but it wasn't that we had planned to start it during the recession. We had nothing else to do, so it kind of made sense. We got used to someone having outlandish ideas. But obviously once the recession hit, there had to be a good reason to do what you're doing. Even if we were given all the money in the world, you want your project to have some tangible benefit to the public good. We had to ask that central question; what can architecture do? Can you actually make architecture more productive, something beneficial? Which I think sounds very normal now, but at the time, came from a place of doing just absurd work. That led into how we were approaching a lot for the projects we're doing.
FB: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
D-PW: Sure. I did the classic American schooling system, undergrad and grad school in architecture. It's how I ended up in New York. Juana did undergrad at Romania. By the time she graduated, she already had so much better experience than anything her school was giving her. But also, it was a very technical program. Mine was very intellectual. I think it balanced out well, obviously. Her education was much more real life and mine was much more book learning, I guess.
FB: You started the office in 2010?
D-PW: We picked a name. We registered a website. Then, we were like, "We're an office now." For a while, obviously, we were just doing competitions. We were putting ideas out there, having no idea how to get any paid work.
FB: One project that really stands out to me is another early project, Plus Pool.
D-PW: Yeah. It's still ongoing. It's by far our longest-term and largest projects. And probably one of our most utopian projects. It's a very bottom-up kind of project. We're figuring out everything, from the financing to the politics to how to do it.
FB: How did Plus Pool start?
D-PW: For a while, we didn't really have a lot of work. Instead of just trying to get small jobs, we decided to put out giant stuff. Obviously, it's a plus-shaped pool. The big thing is it's filtering over half a million gallons of river water every day. The idea was just to get everybody to swim in clean river water. It was a dumb idea, but one that seemed fun to try. When we started it, we didn’t even think we'd try to make it real. We just thought, "Well, let's just put it out there and see what kind of reaction there is." Certainly, we didn't anticipate that we'd be doing this seven years later, that we'd have a whole nonprofit around it. All we did was produce a series of drawings, a series of renderings, made a website.
FB: But there’s lots of interest in it.
D-PW: That day the weather was so hot that it caught attention immediately. Our website crashed, and we got calls from engineers and actually the parks department about what the hell this was. That basically started off the entire project, again. We had no idea how much this might cost, if this was even possible, who would want this.
FB: Also the technology did not exist?
D-PW: Yeah. The first thing we did was Google, "How does a Brita work?" Frankly, more or less, it's stayed true to that. We describe it as a giant Brita. Obviously, it's not quite the same, but in principle, it’s a very similar way to filter water.
FB: What's really remarkable about that project is that it gained traction almost entirely through the Internet.
D-PW: We made a website for it. We posted it on Facebook. I don't even think Instagram was around at that point. I truly believe if we'd tried to do it five years before that, we wouldn't have been able to, we wouldn't have known how to. One of the reasons it really blew up was that it was picked up by Gawker, and it outlasted Gawker, which I guess is a good sign. It was so fluid, being able to communicate an idea to the general public that way. We didn't have to convince anybody before we released it. We just put images out into the world. That seems, again, very normal now, but at the time we'd never thought to produce a project that way.
FB: You said it's a nonprofit now?
D-PW: The nonprofit has been around for about a year-and-a-half. We're in the process of fundraising and lobbying. Everybody gets a tax break for donating at Pluspool.org. We're in the process of patenting the filtration system, which also means we're talking to the Department of Health in terms of either getting variances or literally rewriting code. There is no city code for a floating, filtering pool. We need to figure out how that fits into all the regulatory hurdles of the city. To learn how to test water quality, we partnered with Columbia University. We had one of the scientists come in. They loaned us all their equipment, gave us a very rudimentary way of collecting and testing water. We picked up all these random skill-sets we never anticipated.
FB: Where are you testing?
D-PW: At Pier 40, on the Hudson River. We did one summer of testing there, to see if our filtration would work in different parts of the city. Luckily it does. When the river gets dirty, it gets incredibly dirty, through shit, sewage. What we showed in our testing was we were able to maintain the Plus Pool-level of water quality no matter what the river was doing. This was the first time anybody has been able to filter river water in real time in real life.
“Scientists try to understand the future, and architects try to change it.”–Felix Burrichter
FB: How do you get to the pool?
D-PW: There's a bridge, a gangway that brings you out. One of the things we wanted to maintain was that you remove yourself from land when you go to the pool. You are on this floating island. The idea is that it is this in-between space in the middle of the river.
FB: How did you initially get out the word about it?
D-PW: We had a tiny 20-page booklet that we mailed to people we thought would be important for the project. Most people didn’t get back to us. One really important one who did was Josh David, one of the two founders of the Highline. He told us, this will take you a decade at least, and we laughed at him. Like I said, we're on seven years now, so! From that, we developed a whole engineering team. One of the largest engineering firms in the world called us up and said, "We want to be part of this project. We have a lot of R&D money. Let's make this happen." We've been working with them for about six years now. We got a Letterman shout out before he retired, which was great. I think he claimed he would never swim in it.
FB: I'm sure you've been asked this question a million times, but why Plus?
D-PW: Architecturally, we wanted a bunch of different pools tucked together. What’s funny is none of us are really natural swimmers. I grew up surfing, but I really don't like pools that much. We wanted a thing that was really open to all sorts of people: competitive swimmers, kids, people who just want to have a drink. It's four pools stuck together in one. But the real reason was we just thought a plus-shaped pool would be eye catching. One of our early meetings was with a state senator who's now one of the supporters of the project, and he's like, "Why the fuck is it a plus? Wouldn't it be way cheaper if it was just a rectangle?" which is probably true. But we realized immediately if it wasn't a plus, half the people would not pay it any mind. The fact that it's funny looking: you see it in passing, you'll at least pause for that extra five seconds. One of our board members didn’t realize it had filtered water. He liked it because it looked cool. The fact that it’s a funny shape has been really, really useful for us.
FB: Someone once said that scientists try to understand the future, and architects try to change it.
D-PW: That's fair. I think you end up changing the future whether you want to or not, just because you're building something that affects whatever environment you're living in. I would like to think that good architecture, at least, is more conscious of how it's changing the future. A lot of times, we'll design stuff that's not so much about the space within whatever thing we're designing, but more about all the stuff outside of it. How's it affecting the city around it, the sidewalk in front of it? The pool is an interesting example where, weirdly, we're now part of this world-wide community, with other groups trying to do these utopian pool projects in random cities around the world.
FB: Where are the other ones?
D-PW: There's one in Houston, one in London, one in Sao Paulo. What's nice is we get approached by them early on, usually, because we’re trying to help them solve the filtration system. But also, we just developed this network of people who think, "I'm not a trained engineer, but maybe I can make something that makes our city better." That’s really powerful for us. Beyond the actual physical thing of the pool, there is some way of thinking about how you can affect your city or its future.
FB: I wanted to ask about the notion of sustainability. Where does that come into the scope of your work?
D-PW: We've actually always had a discomfort with that word.
D-PW: When we were starting the office, the trend of green architecture was taking off. You saw how superficial that was at the time. Now I think it's much more important; people take it much more seriously. One of the reasons we just didn't like that term was that idea is literally the ability to sustain: the philosophy of holding on to what you have and minimizing the waste of those resources. That’s just not that optimistic to us. We started talking about it in the terms of productivity instead of sustainability. Instead of, let's say, reducing how much energy you're using, could you do that at the same time you're producing more energy than you use? Like that Dallas project.
FB: Or with the Plus Pool...
D-PW: Instead of necessarily just reducing contaminants, could you actually produce new kinds of clean water? Subtly, that changed how we were dealing with the environment. Sometimes it's very tangible, like gallons of clean water. Sometimes it's more ephemeral, like a place to hang out. I think that's been a nice core that we come to. Whenever we're lost on a project, we always ask, “What is this project actually making and why is that a good thing?"
FB: There aren’t a lot of pools in New York…
D-PW: We learned this after the fact, but given the population in New York, there's way fewer pools than there should be. 50% of the population doesn't know how to swim, something we never considered when we started it. We started a swim program for eight- to 12-year-olds. This is the second year we've been doing it, so we started training what we hope will be the first lifeguards when the pool opens. It it was really an amazing extra bonus that we were able to do that.
FB: And you host an annual benefit?
D-PW: You have to throw a lot of parties, which is not the worst thing in the world. You have to find ways of not only engaging people but raising money. What we're doing is, you can buy a tile and that tile literally exists on the pool, in the future. We thought it was nice that people could own a piece of New York eventually.
FB: On your website, every project has a little hand drawing. Do these drawings come first, or is this something that you do after, because you feel there’s a need to explain projects in a very simple way?
D-PW: They usually come in the middle. There’s definitely an interest to try to make things simple. Things like a circle, a plus shape, are really appealing to us. It's a very understandable form. It has worked really well for us that we can use those sketches as a way to communicate to people. It's a way for us to convey an idea really quickly without having to solve everything yet. We’re trying to make projects as legible as possible.
FB: Let’s talk about one of your more theatrical projects: the stage set for the Yeezy tour.
D-PW: This was the stage for Kanye's tour, two tours ago. Again, our whole premise was to make an environment within all these coliseums. We'd been working with Kanye for a little while when we did this. We developed a really intimate relationship with him, especially on the design side, because we weren't particularly famous. We were easy to push around. We didn't really have a lot of ego. We were obviously, as you can imagine, just really excited to be there. We were eager to just try a lot of things and push beyond things we were experienced with. We'd never done a stage before. We'd never done anything theatrical before. I imagine he appreciated that we're just approaching it differently.
FB: How was it working with Kanye?
D-PW: We ended up coming up with a design and then handing it over. As you can imagine, he has an incredible network of production and stage builders. It went completely quiet for a month. We had no idea what was happening. Then, he just said, "Come out to Seattle.” We went into the Coliseum and turned the corner, and there it was completely built. Relatively true to form of what we had proposed. There was this whole descent-into-hell trajectory we had thrown out as a joke. There was a whole part of him getting sucked up into a spaceship, his face super giant. I feel like half the stuff actually made it into the show! But again, there was no moment of, "That's great! Let's use that in the show." It was surprising, but actually pretty amazing. It's probably the only project where every night you'll have something like 16,000 people cheering at it.
FB: Have you done more projects together?
D-PW: He and his wife have a couple of homes in L.A. that we've worked on. The first project was actually an apartment in Paris. I remember the very first time we went to Paris. We were in his apartment before he was there, and at some point I think Juana was showing me around because she'd been there a week before. We were in his room, and there was his Nike shoe in his bedroom, and I remember picking it up, thinking, "I feel like I'm holding something that's worth way more than I'm worth." I put it down right away. That whole apartment experience was really amazing because he was recording Yeezy at the time, in an apartment that was probably as big as your office, all in one space. We’d be working in the dining table in the back. There'd be all these fashion people in the middle of the room and all the music was in the front. He would just be shuffling back and forth, up from 8:00 in the morning. We'd pass out at like 10:00 p.m., and he'd just be getting going with the music side. It was just a really nuts thing to see. Kanye is by far the hardest worker I've ever seen, period.
FB: How did he find you?
D-PW: He hired OMA to do a pavilion in Cannes a year before we started working with them. It went well, and Juana was the project manager on the project. That project finished. A year later, he just called us up and said, "I'd rather just work with you guys directly." I'm sure we were much cheaper. That's basically how it started. It's one of those things where he'll call up and just be like, "Can you get on a flight to Paris tomorrow?" and we're not really sure why. That happens a lot.
FB: You mentioned you're very aware of the fact that you're a post-crash firm. Do you still feel that that is the case?
D-PW: Yeah, kinda. I always have this skepticism that any day now, we'll be fucked again. Just like, "Well, it was a good run."
FB: Let’s talk about an example of more commercial work. Even that has a public aspect…
D-PW: We did a bunch of stores for this brand called Off White, and when we approached them, we asked ”Can we make them tiny little public spaces?" The first floor of the store is a mini jungle you can just hang out in. There's no product in there, nothing to buy. It's just a relief from the rest of Hong Kong. It’s a stretch to call it a public space, but we did fight really hard, for example, for the door on the street to always be open. It's a tiny space, about 900 square feet, and we're basically able to claim a third of it for literally nothing. We've ended up approaching all our projects that way. Is there a way to, even in the tiniest way, give back something? In this case, it was really good because it's on an incredibly busy street. You'll get grandmas coming in just for a break, people who have no idea what the store is stepping in for a second just because it's cool. We actually installed a rain-drip system, so there's a bit of misting. Virgil [the founder of Off White] had this idea to install a soundtrack that's just birds chirping. There’s a very pointed idea to make it a funny park.
FB: You have a store that is half public space. You have a public pool that cleans river water. I feel like there's a utopianism embedded in every project.
D-PW: Yeah. For every project, we want to create some kind of environment. It's not always a natural environment, but it's the idea that you're designing an environment, whether it’s four walls or some kind of civic component, whatever that might be, even if it's literally just a place to hang out in a mall. Partially it’s knowing that if you're going to spend so much time doing these projects, convincing someone to give you so much money, they should be worth something. I would love to think it's utopian. I don't think it's always utopian. It's probably grander than some of our work is. We’re definitely trying to find ways to sneak the public into some of the work, even if it's a private commercial thing or a stage set, creating a kind of weird community around the work that maybe didn't exist before.
Words by Dong-Ping Wong, Felix Burrichter and The Editors.