INTERVIEW: Architect Oana Stănescu Creates Vital Spaces That Bring People Together
In the early 2000s, the most likely place to find an architect was on a plane, or such was the legend. Architecture was famous, brand-name talent seemed scarce, and jet-setting was the new international style. The absurdity of the design economy then was hardly a deterrent, as if being an international commuter resolved a deep contradiction in architecture (an inherently slow business) with respect to things that are fast, ephemeral, and popular. For a new crop of globe-trotting architects like Romanian-born Oana Stănescu, the profession still carries too much of this sort of baggage. Electrified by her not-too-soon discovery of James Baldwin, Stănescu suggests to me that the great American author garnered a unique historical awareness in part thanks to international commuting. From Tokyo (working for SANAA) to New York (working for REX) via Basel (working for Herzog & de Meuron), Stănescu has threaded people and cities together in unassuming ways, surfing a fresh and liberated mode of practice. As we have tea in a hotel lobby in New York City, I learn that she has been typing letters to prospective clients on a vintage Olivetti, a way of communing with her real intentions on real paper, the work of self-awareness perhaps. Currently, the 36-year-old co-teaches a design studio at the Architectural Association (AA), London, titled “Play Process, Sequence, and City,” together with creative passe-partout Virgil Abloh (as well as Lucy Styles and Simon Taylor); but the title of her current seminar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design says it all: “Non-Professional Practice.”
It may take a village to raise a child, but it was under the moniker Family New York — the office she founded with Dong-Ping Wong in 2009 — that Stănescu and co. launched the nonprofit Friends of + POOL in 2015, in order to protect and realize their vision for a floating cross-shaped public swimming pool in New York’s East river — thereby adding a completely other dimension to architecture’s inherently social process. Less known, perhaps, is the duo’s collaboration with Kanye West on the sets for his 2013–14 Yeezus tour. Stănescu shrugs off facile judgments as easily as she embraces change, having amicably dissolved her firm with Wong while openly and successfully winning a battle with lung cancer. As her name, “o-a-n-a,” might sound when voiced with care, she is a big determined breath of air. And that is exactly what you get when you hear her speak of teaching, advocacy, and establishing an eponymous practice of her own.
You’re currently a design critic at Harvard and a visiting tutor at the AA in London. When it comes to teaching another generation, what issues come to mind?
In the beginning I was always surprised when students would say to me, “Tell me what you want me to do.” I see people in school having a hard time relating architecture, or at least what they are told about it, to who they are and what they care about. Whenever they look to me for answers, I’m like, “No! We don’t have the answers.” In older generations there’s a a nostalgia about what architecture used to be — we are not returning to the so-called starchitects anytime soon. You can only fundamentally change the field by letting go of some of the myths. Ask yourself, what are the things that you don’t need, that you don’t care about, which were handed down?
I want to agree with you. But are we really over the strongman in architecture?
I only recently discovered a beautiful essay Denise Scott Brown published in 1989. It’s called “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture,” and in it she describes being written off by the media, and she starts asking why. She argues that we need “the man” — she was talking about the star system long before the term “starchitect” was coined — because we need to believe in a mythical figure who can create immeasurable quality in architecture. There’s truth to that. We live for myths, for fairytales. We create these people, whether they’re artists or musicians or anything else, and we like to attribute qualities or standards that they cannot possibly live up to. But, being an architect is not like being a doctor, we will no longer have the same job for 50 years. The fundamental question today is “What do you care about? Who are you in all of this?” The skills that architecture students learn are super valuable. We need spaces. We need reasons to be in places. We need reasons to pull our heads out of our phones. And we need people who are able to think by themselves. Don’t wait for a design brief. Look around you. Ask yourself what can be done better, and do it!
How do you think social media is assisting the culture of compliance you’ve observed?
I think of the Internet as a version of MTV. Growing up in Romania, we had one TV channel, and then, after the 1989 revolution, we got MTV. It was the first global public space. It was insights into other worlds, stuff you couldn’t get in a library. It was good because it was contemporary. Your peers were doing things there, very differently. It was actually quite huge. So, we can complain about social media all we want, but we’re not going to be able to ever let it go. I’m sure there’s a lot of treacherous things coming from living with a giant crowd, but we have to learn to make something of it. Consider the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last year in Parkland, Florida: within two days those kids had a hashtag, and within one month they were able to organize the largest anti-gun march the U.S. has ever seen. I feel I grew up in a cave compared to some of the things that are happening today. These teenagers are more articulate than any politician campaigning about those issues today and that is because they have tools and language that we didn’t have before.
You’ve worked with two heavy hitters in your career so far: Kanye West and Virgil Abloh. In the spirit of learning from fields other than architecture, I’m curious as to what you learned from these two, both of whom embody completely new kinds of careers and aspirations.
None of the issues we are facing globally right now can be tackled by a single profession, nor without the kind of collaboration enabled by technology. Kanye was interested in communication, in our productive exchange. He looked at me as an architect without any of the conventional stereotyping or judgment we’re so used to in the field. Typically you’re not recognized as an architect until you’re like 40, 50. As a woman too, there are all these obstacles. He comes from a very different field, where these things don’t matter as much. He was also bridging the creative process; where in music many people collaborate at the table, he was trying to do the same in architecture, and it was more difficult in architecture! He gave me freedom and helped me believe in myself, one thing for which I will be eternally grateful to Kanye. To me the interesting conversations always happen outside of the architecture field. If you have ten people with the same background looking at the same problem, you’re going to end up with the same solution. We need new perspectives, and there’s so much to learn from each other.
What are you working on that’s got your mind hustling?
A vacation house for a young couple with two kids and a dog on a site outside Toronto. I’m really excited because it’s just acres of green, a beautiful landscape. And it will be my first time traveling to Canada. Another project — and this is hilarious — is my thesis design for my hometown in Reșița, Romania, which I did at architecture school in Timișoara. Reșița is a former industrial town, and its historic center is crossed by a disused rail structure, approximately ten stories high and about 600 yards long. We used to export steel to all of Europe, and this rail track was the pride of the town! When I was in high school we would climb up there and be stupid. After it stopped being used in the early 2000s, my premise was that it would be more expensive to tear it down than just to make something of it. Structurally it’s completely sound. So for my thesis I proposed turning it into an elevated park. This was in 2007, two years before the first section of New York’s Highline opened!
PADL: How did that project take off now?
Reșița is a small town, and everyone knew about my thesis. The mayor emailed me last summer and said, “I have it, it’s ours; let’s make it happen!”
How did he even find you?
(Laughs.) When I was little, I was a member of the same skiing club as him and his daughter. Now we’re in the process of designing the park and applying for European Union funds. I still can’t believe it’s actually happening.
The complexity of the process you are describing here, with all the many players involved, is not unlike that for + Pool, the project you first put forward in 2010 with your former Family partner Dong-Ping Wong, and for which you launched a non-profit in 2015.
Yes. You always depend on the family that you build. For + Pool, the biggest effort was talking to communities, talking to politicians, talking to swimmers, learning how to fundraise, starting a non-profit. The amount of people sitting in meetings and the amount of knowledge and brain power has been really amazing to witness. It's such a hugely collaborative effort. I always tell students, you literally never work by yourself. You are tied for better or worse to people and depend on learning how to communicate architecture to non-architects.
There’s policy and law, but the pool is also technically a complicated thing. What didn’t you know that you actually needed to know?
We didn’t know anything. (Laughs.) I don’t think we even knew the dimensions of an ordinary-size pool! Thank god, that was the easiest part to figure out. Everything was new. How do you permit something that isn’t a building? How do you filter water? Everything was a learning curve. The reason we got where we are today, or the way we got where we are today, has very little to do with architecture. On the other hand, the design is compelling. It’s a simple cross, and when people look at it, they react immediately. They get it. Its simplicity speaks volumes to me about the power of design. You look at the image and you just want to be there, to swim there. And it cleans the river! That’s, to me, design at its best, when it is both intelligent and visceral at the same time. But I learned through the public response.
Why all these years of effort for a nonprofit public space?
Any project you do reflects what you stand for. Any piece of architecture has socio-political connotations whether we want to acknowledge them or not. Dong-Ping, Jeff (Franklin), Archie (Coates), and I founded a non-profit in order to guarantee our vision. We were approached by commercial developers, but we didn’t want it to be another exclusive thing. To me that’s where responsibility comes in: you have to pick your battles. You can choose either side, you just have to be conscious about it and not pretend. The public nature is important. We live in cities, we depend on one another, we need each other — though as a society you’re as weak as your weakest link somehow. I can’t believe it took me such a long time to discover what’s going on here, to realize that 43.5 percent of New Yorkers live around the poverty line. That’s still blowing my mind and makes me cringe when we’re blasting it as the greatest city in the world. It may be, but for whom and at what cost?
I feel as if you are invoking a different kind of democracy and role for architecture. You’re from Romania, a country that has had an ambiguous relationship to democracy — sometimes an ally and sometimes not — for much of the 20th century. How has your background shaped your attitude to collaboration, to public space, to the things we should be looking for in common?
When I was growing up, if you wanted anything, you had to make it happen. My mom was happy when I was born because she could buy an extra pound of sugar, because of rationing. However, as a kid you don’t know what you don’t have. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you never miss anything. You’re really resilient in that sense. I had friends, for example, who fabricated their own snowboards. You couldn’t rely on a government or anyone to hand you anything. That’s still a fundamental part of who I am. A portrait of Nicolae Ceaușescu hung in every classroom. You would have to sing in his honor, and he was on TV all the time. Then all of a sudden that person, that god really, was executed almost live on TV. At the age of six or seven I understood that something that seems unquestionable one day can be completely reversed the next. All of a sudden a country doesn’t have a system anymore — no educational system, no structure, nothing in place. It’s terrifying but also super exciting because it shows you that everything is up for grabs. It shows you that all these institutions, all these things that we created, are abstract and artificial. It’s important to believe in them and to fight for them. You need to fight for them because they can always crumble.
Have sports been a consistent support for you?
We were always encouraged to be independent from an early age. Always sent to camps, to ski, to this and that. Those things allow you to be on your own two feet, which then allows you to navigate the world less in fear and in more resourceful ways. There’s nothing like sports in terms of establishing the importance of friendship and of collaboration — you depend on one another, and you have fun. You go through all those ups and downs of winning or losing or breaking a foot together.
You’re a finalist in this year’s MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program. Your proposal, “Seriously Fun,” in collaboration with the textile artist Akane Moriyama, makes a strong pitch for playfulness. Can you elaborate?
We’re very hardened by the way of the world today. Everyone is super bogged down; there’s no optimism at all about the future. Can you create a place that just allows you to forget about that, to let your guard down, to communicate once more, see the world, see yourself, see everything through something way more visceral, more honest maybe? We wanted to create a place that connects humans and makes us human and that isn’t tied to words. That was the notion of play. It’s the one thing that biologically cannot be explained. Animals play too. The smarter the mammal, the more they play. (Laughs.) It hasn’t been explained because, though it takes up a lot of energy and is dangerous, it serves no obvious purpose from a biological, evolutionary point of view. I do think that ultimately you can probably trace back a lot of my projects, and those I did with Family, to fundamental values which I believe in or care about. In a letter I wrote for the MoMA/PS1 competition, I said something along the lines of, “What would be more glorious than for a project to allow or enable people to fall in love?” Falling in love doesn’t mean with someone else. It can be with life, with the moment, with the party, with the music, with the people you see, with the crowd, with anything. It’s very much about letting your guard down, creating a place that just allows you to be less hyper-rational.
Do you think that’s the problem with the public spaces we have today, that they actually disempower all those ways of connecting?
Public space in the U.S. is a very contentious issue. There are a lot of questions about where it starts and where it ends and how much of it is truly public. And that is because when it is done not with the public but with the private in mind, those values will ultimately shine through any design, any gesture you might attempt to call public. One of the biggest questions for me is how it becomes hyper-regulated and hyper-prescribed. Everything is about safety. Everything is about litigation. It’s almost like everyone lives in fear. If you live in fear, you’re not going to be able to really enjoy or make that much out of life. Some studies show that technically safer playgrounds often instill more anxiety and fear in kids than actually allowing them to learn how to navigate and deal with situations on their own. With public spaces, it’s the same thing. They are a reflection of the society at large.
Do you have a favorite space in New York?
What’s interesting with public spaces in New York is that they’re usually super busy. So one of my favorite things is to go at midnight to the Great Lawn in Central Park and just lie there by myself. As a woman, I actually put off doing that for a couple of years: do you get to enjoy the moment or are you paranoid the entire time waiting for something to happen? You’re in a pitch-dark place but you see the entire city surrounding you. It’s magic. It’s like being naked in public or something like that. Some of the best things come from breaking the rules. They’re there to make us safe and to allow us to coexist, but you always need to push them a little.