New York–based design firm Family couldn’t have a more appropriate name. Partners Oana Stanescu and Dong-Ping Wong collaborate and communicate seamlessly, as if each was an extension of the other. Although they often approach projects from different angles, they arrive quickly at the crux of a problem together. “We understand what a partnership is,” Wong says, adding that the duo also share a goal of producing “architecture as a productive piece of the city”—not architecture for its own sake, nor esoteric architecture, but ambitious architecture that makes a difference and “has a point to it.”
Wong grew up in San Diego and studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, received his M.Arch. from Columbia University, and worked at OMA, EHDD, and REX. Stanescu, who hails from Romania, earned her architecture degree from that country’s Polytechnic University of Timișoara, before working at OMA, Herzog & de Meuron, Architecture for Humanity, SANAA, and REX.
Wong and Stanescu met at REX in 2006, where the two were emboldened by the experience of working on major projects—such as Museum Plaza in Louisville, Ky., and Oslo Vestbane in Norway (projects about which Wong jokes, “We had no right to be doing those sorts of things at our ages”)—to form Family in 2009. Since then, the firm has completed a number of design experiments to test what’s possible, both in architecture itself and in the agency needed to make it happen.
The most well-known example of Family’s audacity is Plus Pool, a speculative plus-sign-shaped structure that will float in New York’s East River, filtering river water through a three-level purifying system for safe swimming. Designed in partnership with PlayLab, a New York firm with which Family will soon share office space, Plus Pool’s cross shape allows for different uses in each leg, from lap swimming to lounging.
The project is also, not coincidentally, visually stunning. “We knew we’d never be asked to do something like this,” Wong says. But their initial public relations blitz—they debuted the project with a website and marketing campaign in 2010—resulted in worldwide media attention and was followed by two successful Kickstarter campaigns, raising more than $300,000. The pool is now essentially a done deal, with enthusiastic backing from the city and its residents. Site selection will happen next year, and completion is set for 2019. Major international cities, from Berlin to Sydney, are now clamoring for their own Plus Pools.
The initial seed money to conceive Plus Pool came from Family’s win of a 2010 competition to design a contemporary art museum and pedestrian bridge in Maribor, Slovenia. The building turns the conventional museum courtyard inside out, pinching the exterior in several places to carve out intimate public spaces. The walking bridge is not straight, but circular, creating its own unique waterfront in a city that’s largely lacking one.
The duo’s ambition also extends to residential design and entertainment. Family created the dynamic mountain-and-sun stage for Kanye West’s 2013–14 Yeezus tour, and their next venture is to reimagine the suburban lifestyle and banal housing developments by creating a contemporary, environmentally conscious, 40-unit housing block in San Diego.
By holding fast to the notion that “family” extends to cities at large, the firm has been able to “work on things [we] believe in,” Wong says. It also takes discipline: Several developers approached Family to create Plus Pools for private use, but Stanescu and Wong refused, determined to see their contribution made in the public realm.
“It always comes back to how our work can be generous, give back, and relate to a much larger audience than the people in a single building,” Stanescu says.