One of the main thing we are looking in interviewing people and in their portfolios is personality

interview by Romanita Oprea

Oana Stanescu is a founding partner at Family, a New York based design practice.
Prior to joining Family, Oana worked at a diverse array of award-winning offices around the world including Herzog and De Meuron, OMA and SANAA. She has also contributed to numerous architectural publications such as Domus, MARK and Abitare and co-taught a seminar at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University as well as studio Core I at MIT in Cambridge. She is also a frequent critic at various schools like Yale University, MIT, GSD and GSAPP, in addition to lecturing in places like AIA Memphis and The University of Memphis, University of South Florida, University of Arizona, Women in Design – Denver, Neocon and AIA Chicago or Design Miami in collaboration with UN, Miami Beach. Oana’s work has been celebrated in publications such as the New York Times, Forbes, Madame Figaro, Architect Magazine, New York Magazine, Mark, Time magazine or Cultured, to name a few.

You were born in Romania, but you moved to New York. How did that happen?

It was by accident. I lived and I studied here and I was actually in Spain with a scholarship and I saw an ad from a huge architectural office in New York who was saying that if we are students we should submit our portfolios. And in that time, in 2006, it never crossed my mind that an office of that size and with so much success would hire students and that just based on a portfolio. So I send an email and deleted it right away, unfortunately I would say, because I didn’t even want to think about it, sure that nothing good would have come out of it.

I wasn’t even dreaming about New York, it wasn’t in my plans or in my radar. It just happened by chance.

We did an interview via messenger and I was extremely stressed, I didn’t know what to expect, but the interview went really well and then they said YES. But even then I knew I needed the visa and I came to Bucharest to take the visa. I didn’t start thinking about it until I had the visa. Within two days I got the visa I was already on a plane. It all happened very fast.

How would you say that your life has changed by moving to New York and what were the main stages of your career so far?

This is the only life I have, so I don’t know what would have happened otherwise, but to me the experience was mind blowing. I was there in an internship for a year and then the office. There was a young office, with lots of energy on projects. It was before the crisis. If anything would have happened a year or two later I would have missed that mark. There were money, projects, ambition, very young, democratic and non-hierarchical. It was amazing. I got along with the bosses really well. The way they were doing architecture is very much in sync with the way I was interested in architecture.

But the biggest thing to me, the biggest curve was that when I left. I e-mail my bosses at the time and I told them that the biggest thing for me that happened in that year was that I started to have that feeling that if you really want something you have to stand up for what you are believing in, and it becomes possible. I was coming from a very cynical environment where, even 10-15 years after the revolution, it was the mentality of “why bother? Nothing is going to come out of it”, etc.

The mood, the atmosphere in New York was different and I understood for the first time that I have to try, at least to make my own opportunities. If you are going to give up beforehand it’s certainly not going to happen. It was the biggest learning experience.

Another experience that was mind-blowing was when I came back to do my thesis in Timisoara. Afterwards I said that I didn’t want to go back just yet, because it was my biggest professional experience and it was a particular way of designing and creating architecture, therefore I wanted to see other offices and the way they do it. And for me the most mind-blowing thing about architecture is that right after I just sent my portfolio to a big office and they said yes, in a couple of weeks I was again in a plane. It’s mind-blowing to me that just based on your work you can get a job in many places around this world, and in a way that I got other people to pay for my travel. Because it was always a combination between an office I was interested in and a place I was interested in. That’s why I ended up at Sanaa in Tokyo, and then I went to South Africa with Architecture for Humanity, and from there to Switzerland at Herzog & de Meuron, and only then I did come back to New York.

What pieces of advice would you give young people wanting to get hired outside the country in important architectural offices?

I don’t know if I am the one to give advice, because I strongly believe in people carving their own path. To me the world today is very different from how it was 11 years ago when I was starting up. Today the world is full of opportunities, you just have to look for them and allow them to happen. Keep an open mind, keep knocking on doors. If you have an opportunity to talk to somebody interesting go right ahead. Make noise, etc. If you try and really believe, something will come out of it.

One of the main thing we are looking in interviewing people and in their portfolios is personality. Usually when people apply at an early stage (students or first years after school), the body of work is small, so is more about the way people think then it’s about the work in itself.

Our office, for example, is really small, so every person that works there needs to fit in the culture of the office, needs to be able to cover a multitude of tasks. So my only word of advice would be is keep searching for something that satisfy what you are interested in. The opportunities are most certainly there.

I started teaching a couple of years ago, mostly because youth is where the energy is, and where the ideas are coming from, and where the freshness is. One of my first bosses said that “the first time you do something, you do it best”. Because the moment you do a second or a third library, let’s say, you already think you know how to do it and you risk repeating yourself. And I think that is the benefit of youth and young people. They are open minded. Is kind of like you watch a kid play and he is building a tower, but it looks different that what you or I would build a tower like. Because I know how to do it is very hard and difficult to do it completely different, something a child would definitely do.

What would you say that are the main differences, beside the cultural ones, between the architecture in New York /USA and the one in Tokyo/Japan?

In Japan the office culture is very different than anything else I’ve known before. For example, for the first time I was in the States it was for the first time that I’ve started to understand and appreciate Europe. I’ve remember driving outside New York, through New York state, and seeing house after house and I started to wonder where is the center of the city, the church, the City Hall, where does something begin and where does it end? Here you take those things for granted, but in other places they just don’t exist. So, Japan is a very particular place where you hang out with people of the same age listening to the same music, seeing the same movies, but there is quintessential a different way of thinking about the world. It’s very hard to explain.

I would say that to a certain degree the Japanese architecture at this moment in time is one of the most interesting thing that is happening, architecturally speaking, in the world. There is a more intuitive way of thinking about architecture and, in a way, is stronger. I think that the Western world gave too much into Capitalism, money, the developers’ way of doing things. The way people live in Japan affects the way they design, in the sense that spaces, ceremonies, traditions, are important. And they are being reflected in architecture too. So, the architect is in a good position in the sense that the level of authorship or the importance to his gestures versus the Western world is really different, where the role of the architect is more heavily being pushed.

What is also funny about the Japanese architects is that they are, to me, some of the strongest characters, partially because there is the cultural and the language barrier. You stay in a client meeting and the client would say something and they would even kind of call the fifth amendment and say “sorry, I don’t understand” or there isn’t a lot of arguments- you take it or leave it. They are kind of head strong in that sense. In Japan I also worked for a woman architect, something that is a very rare thing, because in Japan women would most of the time end up at home, giving up their careers, and it was really amazing and impressive to see her career and what she was doing. Also, out of the offices I worked in she was the only boss that I have, that was sleeping in the office. Often in an architecture office you work overnight, especially prior to a client meeting, but she was the only boss that I felt that was in it all the way, 100 percent. It was something you would just ask people to do, it was part of the culture too.

The States are interesting and different from many points of view, but I often talk about it with my girlfriends too, I think there is less of an appreciation for design, simply because there isn’t the history. Better or worse here, if you grew up in Europe, you do see the layers of history and probably the architecture that is hundreds of years old. It’s not something that you need to learn in school, you learn it without even knowing it. You take these things for granted sometimes, but they don’t exist in other places.

Architecture competitions in the States, for offices, need to have a developer on board, you cannot just do it as an office. And sometimes the competition is for young office, without any kind of history behind them, where in Europe is much more effort in supporting the arts and the architecture and investing in them and kind of give the young and up & coming people a chance. In the States is much more a money and developer kind of thing (how much can you get in return, when you will get your money back, etc).

How do you believe that in Japan they succeeded in combining the new and the traditional architecture that is still done in a beautiful and tasteful way? I sometimes believe that in Bucharest we don’t have this vision and it’s new with old combined that is not working, most of the times.

This is a tricky one, because to some extent it can become censorship. How do you define tasteful? How do you draw those borders? Frankly, in the Japanese architecture the new things are not necessarily in sync with the new ones, they are just beautiful by themselves. For me is very hard to dissociate the Japanese architecture from the Japanese culture. And you are going to easily know that some of the Japanese architecture done outside of Japan is somewhat slightly different than the one done in Japan. Particularly when it comes to the residential stuff.

In the States the expectations from a building, once you walk in, is to have a perfect level of comfort. You are always good: in winter, in summer, it’s the same temperature. You are completely denying the exterior and the climate. In Japan the idea of comfort isn’t there forever. The fact that you might feel uncomfortable due to humidity, heat, etc, there is not even questioned, it’s just there. Part of the architecture that we see that looks thin and transparent, with plants here and there, is great and it works, but you need to have a certain mindset that some of those places are super exciting, but they are not the most comfortable ones. And we have different levels of expectations and desires about how we live. Some of those houses if you look at them it’s like they are meant for some sort of meditating, because you cannot move around freely or jump as you might fall in a hall or something else may happen. They are not the most practical ones. But, at the same time, it has to do a lot with awareness. You are very much aware of how you move through space, it makes you aware of your own body and of your surroundings.

I don’t know much about the situation in Bucharest, but I see it more like the quality of the new things, the quality of identity. You can choose to be responsible of your surroundings or to deny it. No matter what you do, you have a position and you make a stand. My biggest problem in general is that there is a very low level of the architectural quality. A lot of it is mostly due to money or misinterpretation of what architecture is and this is kind of disappointing. I think that is why the things that survive the test of time, they do it for a reason. They still work and there are still a set of qualities to them that kind of allowed them to survive.