A Greater Sense of Urgency
I have been meaning to write this post for months, but something more practical or urgent would always come up. And then, on Thursday, as I was in the midst of another urgent “thing,” my Facebook started flooding with news of Zaha Hadid’s death.
This left me profoundly shaken. I had somehow assumed that she was a fixture who would always be around, someone you can be in awe of or mock, depending on the circles you were in. In the back of my mind, her story was proof that outsiders could not only make it in the architectural world, but that they could be stars. And that architecture could serve not just itself but also leave the world a more interesting and complex place.
Perhaps the reason her passing affects designers so strongly is that she is the first great architect of our time who is now “done,” and whose legacy is up for review in a kind of digital society we have never seen before. Architecture, to a large extent, is about leaving a mark, and everyone is trying to determine what kind of mark Zaha left, or—in other words—what was it all for? Was it worth it? Did it matter?
It made me reflect on my own life and work, and why, in 2014, at the age of 26, I had quit my job at a large architecture firm in downtown Manhattan to work on my own design practice in Brooklyn. Architecture had been my religion, and I had abandoned it—at least for a while.
Zaha’s death gives me a greater sense of urgency. It reminds me that there is little time but that the possibilities of human endeavor are endless. It also reminds me that it is okay to be myself, even if I don’t fit into the image of what an architect looks like or the kind of work he or she should be making. Her extreme self-confidence makes me feel invincible.
So although this post was finally instigated by the tragic passing of life, it is about new beginnings as well. It is about me saying that our firm, Isometric, already well-versed in the world of graphic design, is now also officially open for architecture projects. And because all architects start from humble beginnings, I wanted to document and share the process behind our first built project.
How We Got the Project
Last spring, we were contacted by a close friend and former Isometric partner, Alex Huang. One of Alex’s contacts was looking for a designer who could convert a dark, dilapidated 90’s club into New York City’s first Asian rooftop beer garden.
The client, Andy Lee, came from a family of restaurant owners. He already owned three restaurants in New York. He and his chef, Brian Tsao, now dreamed of creating a new entity that authentically captured the Asian American experience. Brian, who also fronts an underground metal band, was sick of making sushi. He had won awards for elevating American favorites by adding exquisite flavors inspired by Asian street food. This new thing would be in Brooklyn. Rather than catering to stereotypes of Asian-ness, it would be unabashedly “weird but authentic.”
The Site Visit
The site was on the shared rooftop of the Sheraton and Aloft hotels in Downtown Brooklyn. The first walkthrough with Andy Lee and his architect-of-record was fascinating. We were amazed at how awful the existing space was: gaudy tiles, glossy black paint, shiny stone bar, fake water features, you name it. And the saddest part was that each of these furnishings and finishings was considered to be very expensive.
It is not too crazy to imagine what would have happened if we did not advocate for a full overhaul. We have unfortunate examples of retrofitted Asian restaurants all over the United States. Just change out some artwork, re-upholster the furniture, maybe add a few plants. Asian restaurant owners do this not because they have bad taste but because they have to make the most of limited funds as a matter of survival. Here, there was an opportunity to transcend that and to express the cultural ethos of this project in tangible ways.
When we first discussed the project with Andy and Brian, we were struck by their intent to create a literal garden that would float above Brooklyn, offering both a serene environment removed from the city below and a deeper understanding of the urban fabric through panoramic views. They envisioned a casual gathering space where people could escape the frenetic infrastructure of New York City while remaining at its very heart.
We articulated fluid zones of activity as destinations. Indoors, the Main Lounge features a starscape of hanging lights and a matte white stone bar. The Rock Garden is marked by straight lines and cooler tones, with a standing ledge overlooking the Brooklyn skyline. The Oak Alcove features a sinuous bench, and is perfect for groups of friends to gather in. The Panoramic Lounge has fully-retractable doors, offering a 45-foot seamless connection between interior and exterior.
We created custom solid wood furniture composed with two elemental shapes: the rectangle and the circle. The orthogonal lines of the rectangle articulate clear definitions of space and direction. The fluidity of the circle—just as precise—erases these definitions. This process of definition and erasure is present in every aspect of the space and becomes a trigger for different kinds of social interactions. Rift-cut white oak lines the walls and bar, creating a natural environment. We punctuated the space with more than 300 sublime Asian plants, including specialty bonsai species.
Outside, the 2400 sq. ft. terrace is segmented into smaller, intimate zones using tall movable planters and custom Western red cedar furniture that carries a similar design to the indoor space, creating continuity. The space is perfectly flexible: both tables and planters can be rearranged to expand or contract a particular zone to suit visitors’ needs.
The Exhilaration of Building
In New York, time and space are precious, and the lease had to be paid each month. Even as we finalized the design, demolition drawings were being submitted and approved by the city. Every week that passed had a deadline and a milestone. Because the existing condition was so complicated, we often found ourselves pinning up directly in the space to demonstrate to the General Contractor exactly what we meant. There was also a feedback process: the GC would offer his advice, and we’d go back and revise our drawings.
Meanwhile, each morning we would be calling floor tile vendors, our carpenter, facade fabricators, and countless other vendors. Andy Lee was the ideal client in how deeply involved he was in the project. He cared about every little detail and, without the pushback from him, we would not have considered alternative ideas or bolstered every single design decision we made.
I remember there was an afternoon when he was in our studio. We had already placed the order for the custom furniture and were particularly excited about the long slender tables for the main lounge. Andy was concerned that they were too narrow. He asked me to sit across from him, and we used foamcore to simulate the table. He listed all the items that the waiter would be placing in front of us. Based on this conversation, we increased the width by two inches.
It is truly amazing to be part of a multidisciplinary firm. We learn from each other’s perspectives and backgrounds. We argue, we fight, we try to communicate better, we challenge disciplinary dogma, we push for conceptual autonomy over commercial pragmatism, then we refine for mundane but important practical concerns. What is beautiful to graphic designers is often cliched to architects, and vice versa; what is elegant to architects is soulless to graphic designers. This—or any other project we do—would not be as compelling had it not been for this vigorous collaboration.
The construction process seems like a blur now. But in the moment, every small challenge, every hurdle, every win was of paramount importance: getting the PR team and the chef to agree on a single concept; resolving issues between the contractor and the millworkers; ensuring that the hotel management was satisfied with the level of cleanliness; zipping across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens to coordinate everything from homosoate soundproofing to Muji soap dispensers; and most of all conveying a sense of…I guess it was extreme confidence.
What I learned along the way was that people often look to architects to solve complex problems but that we don’t have to have all the answers at the outset, nor do we have to fake expertise. There are a host of advisers, consultants, friends, and teammates who are there to help figure things out. I remember one moment when we were really struggling with the lighting. I called my former coworker and friend Nicky Chang. Nicky gave us a quick tutorial on how to abstract and break down the challenge. She also annotated a plan with rules-of-thumb and basic dimensions. I may have stayed at my old office for years and not have learned these rules. It was only through doing that I was able to learn. Once the thing is designed, though, the architect needs to convey a sense of calm confidence. It is the kind of conviction that says: “In my mind, it’s already built, and here’s what it looks like.”
Perhaps that is why Zaha Hadid’s passing affected me so strongly. Her audacious defiance of social and disciplinary barriers opened up the imagination of a new generation of designers and architects. Two years ago, I refused to spend more time at a desk as a replaceable cog. I had the audacity to believe that I could be doing more with my skills, education, and experience. And on Thursday, as I paused in the middle of my to-do list and read the news in horror and disbelief, it dawned on me what a goddess Zaha was. And I began to believe that I could be an architect again.
Design Team: Waqas Jawaid, Andy Chen, Nicole Fischetti, Nathalia Camacho, Taylor Simpson, Jessica Huang; Millwork by Parz Designs