INTERVIEW: The Socially-Conscious Architecture of Dong-Ping Wong and Food
This summer, architect Dong-Ping Wong spent a month in “paradise” — in Grand Cayman to be more precise, where he was working on the garden of a new hotel. In early 2018, after a decade as one half of Family, the New York-based firm he co-founded with his friend Oana Stănescu, Wong branched out on his own under the name Food. As monikers for an architectural practice, Family and Food capture a spirit of anti-pretension and inclusion that permeates Wong’s general approach to designing — whether it’s a community radio station, a floating swimming pool in the East River, or a bathhouse carved from a hedge, he puts the emphasis on bringing people together in the environments he creates. The name of his current firm also alludes to the culinary-inspired descriptions he often uses for his architectural interventions: when talking about the hotel’s garden, for example, he describes some of the greenery he’s using as a “bento-box hedge;” a multi-level living space for a young couple is characterized as a “plate.” Given Wong’s appetite for digestible design and his recent forays into the hospitality industry, it seemed only natural to pair him up with Angela Dimayuga, the renowned chef and Standard Hotels’ creative director. For PIN–UP, she traveled down to Grand Cayman, where she invited Wong to a pop-up spa she had built in her hotel-room shower. Sporting face masks and robes, Dimayuga and Wong bonded over their shared intentionality in creating socially-conscious spaces that spark transformative experiences.
Angela Dimayuga: I’m curious: why did you name your studio Food?
Dong-Ping Wong: I can’t think of anything that is as diverse and brings people together in such disparate ways as food does. Food is so incredibly local, but also global. You can have incredibly inexpensive food, incredibly expensive food. There can be this amazing meal and yet I could completely disagree with the person across the table from me on a whole host of things, but we will enjoy the meal together even if just for that hour. There’s just something really visceral about food. It’s a necessity, obviously, but it’s also so experiential and emotional. Oftentimes architecture, the profession, gets really academic and you forget that you’re just meant to create spaces for people, as obvious as that may sound. With food, it’s important that you have to enjoy eating it, and it will have an impact on you and you will react to it without having to overthink it. At the end of the day, I want Food to do what food does.
Food is so ephemeral, so I love that you attach these values to your work as an architect — it challenges the permanency associated with architecture.
I think we often forget that we’re designing for people who are not architects — 99 percent of people using a space have no interest in or care about design or architecture. So I think about that immediate experience. How does a space make them feel? What does it leave them with? Do they want to come back? That sort of emotion is ephemeral, even if the space itself is very permanent. You put in all the work, you put in all the theory, you put in all these concepts and things you’re trying to say, but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t have that impact then I don’t see a point in it. It’s helpful for us in our process to always remember, “Look, you’re designing this for people who have no idea why this exists, or what all the thought behind it was.” And actually, all that shouldn’t matter to them.
It’s like, if it tastes good, it tastes good. It feels as though, in your approach, there’s a very strong intentionality around being inclusive.
I think the work we do is very deliberate, starting from the name. The places we create are open for people to come into. Who we work with, how we run the studio, the vibe in the studio — it’s not architecture that’s coming from a higher place that is being brought down to earth. It means a lot to me to be inclusive and open and familiar. Even if what we are doing is new to you, it shouldn’t feel in opposition to you. It shouldn’t feel unwelcome. I would love it if every space we design feels like, “Holy shit, I’ve never been in a place like this before.” It shouldn’t feel like something you’ve seen 100 times, by any means, but nor do you ever want it to feel removed or like something you’re not allowed to participate in. In the profession of architecture, there’s an interest in being very intellectual and removed in some ways. But it’s more fun not to do that.
So how and when did Food start?
We started at the beginning of 2018: the studio is still new but it’s born out of an office called Family that I shared with a good friend of mine, Oana Stănescu. After ten years together we each decided to start our own things, and there is definitely a lineage between Family and Food. The current members of Food are Cass Nakashima, Jesse Taylor, Bella Janssens, and Carrie Smith.
What projects is Food working on at the moment?
One of our projects is the headquarters of a fashion media company in New York. Most of the building is offices, but they’re doing a retail-community hybrid on the first three floors, which will be interesting because they are predominantly online. Clients like this are interesting because they don’t just want to create spaces to sell their product, they want to create places that give a reason for their communities to come together, which needs to be more than the shopping they can do online. A similar client is Virgil Abloh, who we’ve had an ongoing relationship with. As Family, we designed a number of Off-White stores, including the first one ever, in Hong Kong in 2014. When we did the first physical space for him, the nice thing was that it didn’t have to be — nor should it have been — a normal retail store. The location was in the middle of a really heavy commercial area, so we wanted something that felt like a break from all the shopping. Because it’s in Hong Kong, we designed it like a jungle. There’s another one in Tokyo that looks like an office because it’s in an office building. The one in Singapore is located in a super-commercial mall, so we basically blocked off all the windows with big concrete walls and made a gallery inside. The point was that when you walk into the store, you’re removed from everything else in the city. We always designed these spaces as different environments that would also serve the local neighborhood, regardless of what stuff was being sold — the actual retail element was almost secondary. Right now we’re also working on a couple of private residences, which can get tricky because it gets very personal. It’s nice if you get along really well with the client, and it can be a really beautiful thing to have a direct relationship with how they live, but civic work is more often exciting for us because you’re doing something that’s much broader and that more people can access. And then, of course, we’re working here on Grand Cayman.
As an Asian-American, I was excited to see that your studio and you, being an Asian-American as well, are working on a project in Chinatown. Because so many times I see the wrong people making spaces that are basically yellow-face establishments. So it’s very exciting that you guys always seek to build from the ground up.
Chinatown itself is such a project. There are such big questions. What happens to it? How do you participate in it? Our involvement in the neighborhood started with season one of Food Radio, for which, over a period of three weeks, we invited members of the community to a storefront we took over to talk to artists, especially those who may look like them, and to find out how they managed to make money doing what they love.
I was so happy to be part of the radio program, because I’d much rather participate in something in Chinatown that is conducted by Asian-Americans who live and work in the area.
Thank you for being a guest! These last four or five years have been the first time I felt part of a specifically Asian-American neighborhood and a community of people who are not just part of my family or family friends. Right now people are doing really incredible and interesting stuff in their own right. It’s trying to stretch what it means to be Asian-American, or even establish that definition of Asian-American. Food Radio was our first foray into doing something in Chinatown. But the nice thing was that in just three weeks we went through the cycle of being very awkwardly foreign to the area — locals were giving us weird looks — to working with the local public library, working with kids, with regulars coming in from the street. We’re now working on creating a community center. But what does a community center mean in 2019? And what does that mean in Chinatown? When we brought up the idea, we started getting in touch with a couple of amazing nonprofits in the area. There’s one called Asian Americans for Equality that protects low-income housing. But they also have a good development arm, meaning they actually build low-income housing as well. They know all the ins and outs of real estate in Chinatown, a wild knot of families and heritage. It’s really nice because we’re designing but we’re also learning about the political side. I would love it if we were able to create a new heart for Chinatown. Right now there are a few focal points, but there is no defining town square. The idea of creating that would be really exciting. We’re looking at a couple of spots, but there’s nothing definite yet, so it’ll be a long-term project. But there is something we learned from working on +POOL, a nonprofit we started nine years ago (a project for a floating, water-filtering public swimming pool in the East River): if you lead with an idea, it’s much easier to get people around the table to talk about it. When people see an actual design, they’re either, “I like it” or “I don’t,” but it’s a direct thing to have a conversation about.
And what exactly are you working on here in the Cayman Islands?
The main project is a stand-alone garden, a magical garden, for the new Palm Heights Hotel. It’s essentially a big hedge maze that has all these experiential moments carved in to it: sound rooms, saunas, pools, gym areas, areas for performances, and all kinds of other stuff. This is something I’ve never done before: 90 percent of our construction material is plants! It’s funny working with hedges. Do you treat it like a wall? How do we trim it in a way that feels architectural? And then how do we let it grow wild in certain other areas? It’s a garden of surreal experiences. The whole area, the whole Cayman, is such a weird paradise fantasy real place. I’m hoping our garden pumps it up even more, as though you were turning up the magic volume louder. Weirder! More high frequency!
Amazing! Now I want to come back at the end of the year.
Yes! And there’s a second project here: the formation of an artists’ residency program through the hotel. The focus is on artists of Caribbean, South-American, Middle-Eastern, African, or Asian descent. Basically making sure non-Western-European artists also feel welcome. It’s great how different a place like this feels when you’re seen among a real diversity of people. It’s familial and inclusive and open. I realized being here was the first time I’ve felt a belonging at a resort type of place, which I’ve otherwise felt on the outside of. To have a hand in shaping it and helping others feel just as welcome is fantastic. It’s nice that paradises like this can also be for us.
It feels really affirming to talk with somebody who builds these architectural spaces. I create space through menu writing or cultural programming, so it’s kind of like we’re doing it from different angles, but with the same goal in mind. The same intentionality. It makes me feel hopeful. And hopefulness right now is super important for a lot of people.
Absolutely, especially given where we’re at politically and environmentally. I kept thinking of a name for my month-long residency here, something like “Picture Yourself in Paradise.” Paradise in the sense that you can use this place to imagine what your ideal world would be like — physically, environmentally, socially. That we can create spaces in a place like Cayman that are not just for tanning or pure relaxation, but where you come to create something. Where the garden is concerned, you’ll be encouraged to interact with it in a new way. It’ll feel very different than any place you’ve been. I want it to be very active, not just a place you zone out, and to be used for mental and physical change. I hope you come out transformed and I hope you are interacting with nature in the most direct way.