Dong-Ping Wong on designing buildings that give back

Wong’s work spans a water-filtering floating pool in New York, through to weird and wonderful stores for cult streetwear brand Off-White. Here, he discusses the importance of creating experiences through architecture, and why the industry is changing for the better

Dong-Ping Wong’s fascination with architecture – or at least the design of physical spaces – began as a child when his parents were looking to move house. Growing up in the suburbs of San Diego, much of what was on offer were almost identical looking cookie-cutter houses, but Wong would find himself getting excited about the minute differences between the layout of the bathrooms, or slight variations in the colour palettes.

“I realised way down the road when I was actually in architecture school and we’d do iterative studies, where you make a model where really a small thing has changed, that it had come from back then,” says Wong. “Plus, I always liked to draw as a kid and I sort of knew I didn’t have the discipline to be an artist, so I needed a profession where people were telling me what they wanted me to do and I could respond to that.”

Family’s winning Golden Tower concept for a competition to design a public installation in New York’s Chinatown

After studying architecture at the University of California, Berkeley and doing a Masters at Columbia, Wong did a few stints at architecture practices in New York including OMA and REX Architecture. He then decided to set up shop with his friend and colleague Oana Stanescu so that he could pursue the kind of work he had always been interested in, namely architecture with a social purpose.

Family New York came to be pretty much right after the 2008 recession – not exactly the best time to be starting up an architecture practice when the number of building projects on offer were rapidly drying up, but this only spurred Wong and Stanescu on more. “We’d come from working at offices where there was so much money everywhere that you could do a building just because it was bigger than the next building,” he says. “So when all the money ran out, I thought there has to be a reason to spend all this time and money on a project. It has to contribute something worthwhile to the city it lives in and the people around it.”

A render of Wong’s +Pool concept, developed in collaboration with design firm Playlab

This selective approach to the kind of work that he wanted to do led to Wong’s views on what he calls ‘productive architecture’, which formed the basis of a Ted Talk he gave on the subject in 2013. “I think most people rightly thing of buildings as walls and ceilings and floors, where all the fun stuff happens within them. I really like the idea that buildings are not just passive shells for activity but active members of society,” he says.

Many of Family’s projects have focused on ideas like community or sustainability, such as its ambitious +Pool concept, which was originally thought up in collaboration with design firm PlayLab in 2010 and is currently still in development. The idea behind the pool is essentially to act like a giant sieve in New York’s East River, filtering the river water that fills the pool, and in the process cleaning up to half a million gallons of water every day without the need for additives and chemicals.