Interview x Oana Stanescu
Oana Stanescu on nakedness, her +POOL project and why we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about cancer.
In 2006, Oana Stanescu made her first big leap to New York City, after leaving her home in Resita, western Romania to pursue an internship at OMA. In 2013, Stanescu co-founded Family NY along with Dong Ping Wong, where the pair has worked alongside Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, The Office of PlayLab, 2x4, Arup, New Museum and MoMA, to say the least. Currently splitting her time between teaching at Harvard and working in her own practice, at the heart of Stanescu’s creative ethos lies the desire to participate in meaningful dialogue that tackles real issues.
I spoke to her about the role of social media in academia, her eight year
long +POOL project, and the nostalgia of advice.
You are currently based in New York City where you work professionally and also lecture. Having spent most of your education and early life in Romania, what was it like to make the big move to NYC?
I always say I came to New York by accident, really. I first came to New York in 2006, after having spent a semester on exchange in Spain. I saw an online job advertisement for students at OMA in New York, so I decided to send the portfolio I was working on in. It's
always important for me to explain that back then things were very different because the internet wasn’t quite what it was today, and having spent most of my time in Romania, I hadn’t thought an office like OMA would ever consider hiring students. It never crossed my
mind, because in a way that world was like something on the TV, you know, those offices were almost like Hollywood, or something that was on the other side of the screen where everyone has perfect boobs or a perfect nose, and you never questioned if you could make
there. So I applied, did a Yahoo Messenger interview and found my way over when I was accepted. I think it was one of those “big jumps” or a true dramatic leap for me. I remember landing just two days before and walking into the office almost paralyzed, I thought - how am I going to work with all these people that had come from those big schools? I was just numb with excitement, anxiety, and joy - a mixture of all those emotions.
My research examines how architecture can have a greater stake in contemporary culture by opening up what we do to popular discourse. Your work at FAMILYNY, along with co-founder Dong Ping-Wong speaks to this ethos, can you tell us how the +POOLproject echos this?
The +POOL project was an interesting exercise in that sense because we began working on it eight years ago now, and in those eight years since the main conversation has occurred outside of architecture circles. Early on we launched a website for the project meaning we
weren't just addressing the architecture community. Of course they were part of the audience, but there was a wider group of people that were really excited, and this is how the amazing interest for it grew exponentially. I think it's such a simple idea, especially when
you look at the shape of the pool and how it is surrounded by open water. What drew such visceral excitement early on for the project was this image of swimming in the Hudson on a hot New York summer’s day. I always come back to that because to me it shows the power of design at its best, when you just get it, without having to think about it too much.
The +POOL allowed us to communicate with developers, communities, educators, swimmers, academics, engineers, community boards and foundations across New York, and this is a skill I think we sometimes forget to teach in schools. Of course academia is
important, but architecture is for people, so what I find problematic is that this dialogue is not encouraged in architecture school. A lot of the time we are just talking to other architects and that discussion can be rather limiting because it doesn't prepare students in
many ways to communicate outside of academia. You know, architecture isn't rocket science or brain surgery so its doesn't have to be as
inaccessible. What I noticed in the last years is that there is a lot of outside interest in architecture, but people oftentimes don't know how to approach or tackle it. It's part of our job to open that dialogue to a broader audience.
In a recent interview with SCI-ARC you spoke about the meaning of “family”, at a professional and collaborative level, do you think inclusivity is important in what we do?
In many ways I feel that I have the perspective of an outsider because I’ve lived in so many different places, basically I am a transplant because I don’t have roots anywhere. I do enjoy this perspective, and part of my “living all over the world” agenda, if you will, is inspired by this interest in people and how alike we are, yet how differently we live. I find diversity exciting, and the beauty really lies in understanding this condition, where inclusivity is absolutely crucial. To be completely honest, when I first came to New York the office was fairly diverse, it was relatively small, about 30 people and a very international crowd, but there wasn’t a single African American employee, yet on MTV America looked very differently.
Back then I wasn’t as familiar with the States as I am now, but once you start paying attention to details like that it gets scary really fast. When you graduate and are in entry level jobs the representation of women is fairly even, but once you look at how this
advances at senior levels, you see women beginning to disappear. Maybe they are too smart to stay in the trenches. In the US, the profession is almost 80% male, which is insane. Inclusivity is essential because we are designing environments in which people, all people,
are spending their entire lives, and the only way to understand diverse experiences is by having multiple voices at the table. I hope we are outside of the era of the single author architect who sits alone at his desk and designs cities for the rest of the world, we can’t be
as oblivious to what’s happening around us anymore. I recently saw a video in The Atlantic where a Trans and gender non-conforming swimming group was formed in Britain. It was incredibly beautiful because there is something so visceral about the act of swimming, and being as naked as possible in public, while your body is exposed to the elements. There’s something about that sense of “nakedness” which can be so liberating in a public space. The group shared how they had been able to accept their bodies by feeling free, and although I have been working on a pool for over eight years, that’s something I’ve
never thought of.
So at the end of the day I think inclusivity has a lot to do with self awareness and understanding how limited a singular world view can be and being open to, hearing other perspectives.
Money, politics and policy often guide our profession, but at the heart of your practice seems to lie the ideology of "collaborative success" - where your work has a distinctive human element. What appears to drive you is a desire to connect with people and their ideas, do you think this route can challenge the typical way in which architecture
That's a tricky one because expertise and experience are what make our work a professional practice. When it comes to architecture, the main crux is money because it's well, one, expensive and two most projects have a long life. I don’t inherently have the answer to this
but we often discuss what is to happen in the profession in the future and we can see that it has been in an impasse, already for a while.
We’re no longer in a good place. I don’t think the profession is really going to change or become any more relevant or even be able to claim a seat at the main table, until we let go of nostalgia. We need to focus more on the skill set that we have, instead of the idea of what an architect is, in order to handle the kind of problems we are facing. It's 2018 now, and we have issues that we have never
seen before, so we must break from those boundaries, and issues need to be tackled by multiple heads and from multiple angles. We can't just sit by ourselves in our office and figure out the world when we are a tiny piece of the bigger problem, it’s imperative that
dialogue is opened up so we can collaborate productively.
I always think architects hanging out with just architects doesn’t make for a very interesting conversation. Personally, what I am really looking for is to have really critical and productive conversations with people irrespective of backgrounds. The best result can be that from this constructive dialogue a project is able to materialise. But of course, good conversations are hard to come by.
Your work with cultural figures like Kanye West, ushers in a new existence for architects who stretch the boundaries of what we do - do you still consider that to be architecture? And how did that collaboration come about?
Honestly, I don’t really care about what is considered to be architecture or not. 13 or 14 years ago I wrote in one of my notebooks that I would delete the word “architecture” if I could. I realised we are always questioning what an architect is or isn't, as if there was an
invisible border from which there is no return. It's a matter of language and concepts and how we think of them because the beauty of architecture is that you are confronted with a large variety of complex problems. At the end of the day we are generalists, not actual specialists.
I met Kanye when I was working for OMA in my New York, when I was the project lead for a pavilion in Cannes which was for the screening of a movie he had shot with seven simultaneous cameras. It was a really fun and exciting project because we were involved
from the beginning, and the restraints were very precise because we had to figure out the screen location and the dimensions needed to form the location of the cameras on the rig. It was a really good collaboration, so a few years later when I had left OMA we just continued the conversation.
I'm curious, I see you posting small snippets of your day on social media - why is that? Do you think social media can co-exist with academia positively?
That's a good question. Although I teach, I don't see myself as an academic, it’s more of a hobby for me. And initially I had a very fraught relationship with Instagram, closing it every three months but always coming back to keep in touch with my friends who are all over the world. Actually, my parents recently discovered Instagram, which is quite problematic because I receive phone calls and my mum’s like, “oh, you posted something an hour ago.” Meanwhile, it’s 2am and I’m thinking, why are you calling me, I thought this was an emergency!?
Anyway, especially now that I have my own office I am always debating over whether or not I should have a profile for work or do I keep it as personal? It’s really a bit of both but I like to think of it as an archive, or postcards, snippets or things, moments and states of mind I
would like to remember or revisit...and my dog, of course! So in that sense, for me it’s more social than media.
You chose to publish your article "on breathing", a touching and intensely vulnerable account on your discovery of lung cancer, online- why this medium in particular?
I wrote that selfishly for myself. It was a way to process what I went through and at the same time explain what was going on. I was having this conversation over and over again with friends so I thought, well, I might as well write it down so they can read it.
I felt that it was something important and again, it’s a way of capturing and processing everything i was going through. I am a very private person but the moment I found out about the diagnostic of lung cancer I told anyone! People I would sit next to on a plane or
friends, or people at work, anyone really, because when you have something like that on your mind, it becomes really hard to have a generic “Hi, Hello” conversation. I am half the age of the average lung cancer patient, a non smoker living a super healthy lifestyle, so if it happened to me it can happen to anyone. We know one in three people are going to have cancer, but it’s a part of our reality that we choose to ignore.
In retrospect, my thoughts behind telling people was to say: go hug your loved ones a little tighter, and if that makes you momentarily forget that thing that you feel ruined your day then you can realise how insignificant it is. To a certain degree, I feel like the crazy person in the village ringing the church bell, but putting that out there was an instinctual feeling, and I wanted to tell people to not take things for granted basically. And it was a moment in which I was thinking that “being strong”, whatever that actually means, is overrated. It doesn’t actually matter, you don’t get a medal for it, so you shouldn’t think so much about keeping appearances, but make sure you get through it as sanely as possible.
In my parents generation it's very much something that they don't talk about, they told me they haven't told anyone about my cancer, which I don’t understand. If you want to tell people, you should be able to tell, and if you want to keep it private, you should be able to
do that too. Personally, I felt it was a lot of pressure to keep hiding, so I said, here it is, take it or leave it.
And lastly, do you have any advice for students who are behind you? About the world, about architecture- or even about life?
There's this essay by Mary Schmich called “Everyone is Free to Wear Sunscreen” where she says,
“Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.”
So whenever people ask for my advice I always come back to that, meaning, you have to take it with a grain of salt.
If I were to say anything, I think it's important for future generations to question everything. Through the advancements made in technology and our understanding of science we're learning more and more about who we are and how we function, what the universe is and also what the limits of all these are. I think young people are mad when they realise how f*cked-up and unjust the world they have inherited can be. But at one point you become responsible for your part in this world, and in that moment we accept our responsibility in
either playing into how it is or challenging it. And there’s always room to make things more awesome.
Oana Stanescu, 2018. Interviewed by Tsyon Feleke, all images used with permission.