Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Marc Kushner, AIA: Pop-Architecture for the Masses
HWKN’s founder has been at the helm of a building with its own theme song, and a website that established a foothold for architecture in the world of social media
By John Gendall
Marc Kushner, AIA, and Matthias Hollwich founded their New York–based architecture firm HWKN six years ago, back when the economy was nothing but bullish. The fledgling firm was soon faced with a cratered building market, where far more established firms were hunkering down, cutting expenses, and scrambling for public-sector clients they would never have previously considered. Kushner didn’t hunker down; he reached out and carved out space for a successful design practice that thrived on the expansive ideals of connection and interaction in architecture.
First, there was Architizer, which Kushner and Hollwich founded with Benjamin Prosky and Alexander Diehl. Launched in 2009, in three years this social media website has become a mandatory destination for architects, clients, architectural journalists, and architecture lovers. This intensely visual site is a repository for tens of thousands of projects and thousands of firm profiles, all presented cleanly and approachably, ideal for a public audience. Its building-design-specific format gives architects an online tool with the potential magnitude of Facebook to help connect to each other, potential clients, and the wider public.
Then, there was Wendy, the latest iteration of the MoMA’s PS1 Young Architects Program competition. Wendy, which opened in July, is equal parts art installation, building, and branding exercise. The combination of its limited shelf life, attention-grabbing and commercialized cheery countenance, and popular culture immediacy places it in cultural territory few buildings dare to go. Recent PS1 installations have reflected on this age of architectural austerity by being dour and enigmatic, but Wendy is an extrovert with swag to sell. The tote bags, t-shirts, and DJ booths might at first smack of crass and oblivious consumerism, but a look into Wendy’s spiky sky-blue skin reveals a higher calling. The fabric that makes up the project is treated with a titania nanoparticle compound that will neutralize airborne pollutants, cleaning the air. With her catchy moniker and associated ’60s bubblegum-pop theme song, Wendy begs for interaction and reciprocates by taking an active role in remediating its environment. Whether asking architects to connect and interact with a website, or inviting the general public to experience a building as a pop-culture event, Kushner (as he explained to AIArchitect) has defined his practice with the idea that architecture is a place for people to come together in.
LESSON ONE: Don’t Apologize, Get to Work
“PS1 has been really great for us. The firm is six years old, so during the recession, when there was no work, we did Architizer; but as the economy improves, we’re eager to do anything. We’ve done a lot of retail work, like last summer when we did temporary pop-up cubes at the end of the High Line for Uniqlo [a Japanese clothing company]. Those were in place for six weeks from beginning to end, which is not quite what you think about when you think about architecture. We’ve done a lot of these small, quick hits of architecture that link branding and design.
“Wendy was an opportunity to take all this expertise we had in temporary installations, but to strip out the branding and replace it with X. More than anything, identifying that X became the big objective for us as we considered this project.
“What that X turned out to be was ecology. We wanted to do something ecological, but we wanted to do more than just the respectful dance—the apologetic approach of using less water or better light bulbs. We wanted to reverse the game and reach past the definitions of sustainable architecture—[to] excite people, [to] make it fun. [Wendy] visually leaps out over the walls of PS1. You can see her from the 7 train, you can see her from Jackson Avenue. We want to challenge the public and what they expect from the architecture around them. We used a readily available scaffolding system; then we treated the stretched fabric with PURETi’s titanium dioxide solution, which neutralizes airborne pollutants. The particles literally just wash away in the rain. Richard Meier, [FAIA], used it on his Jubilee Church in Rome as a way to keep its white color in a dirty city. So over the summer, Wendy will take the equivalent of 260 cars off the road. She is reaching into the ecology of the city and trying to repair it.”
“We launched Architizer because we thought we could, but we had no plan for what to do after that. During the recession, there was hardly any work, so we used that time to get the site up. It turned out that people started using it. It’s about to pass 500,000 Facebook fans, and there are 11,000 firms with profiles and about 45,000 projects up at this point. One of the things we’re really happy about is that Apple loves it—it’s one of the preloaded apps on every iPad.
“It’s been a struggle of success. Do we integrate it in our firm? How should they coexist? Increasingly, they live side-by-side, but there’s not much overlap between them. The infiltration has more to do with this idea of marketing and architecture. It has evolved since it began, so we’ll be relaunching it in the coming months.
“I think some of the most interesting things we’ve done with Architizer in the last couple of years have been the competitions that link architecture with cultural movements that people wouldn’t normally think were architectural problems.
“When gay marriage passed in New York, [Architizer] did a gay pop-up wedding chapel competition. Here was this cultural moment, a legislative victory, which has nothing to do with architecture on the surface. But TheKnot.com was doing 24 weddings in 24 hours in Central Park, so we got in touch with them and said, ‘Wow, this is a great idea, but what kind of space does a gay marriage need?’ It’s actually a typological question. All of a sudden, in a New York Times article about that event, the conversation was just as much about gay marriage as it was about architecture. So with that competition, we linked architecture with news and placed it into the public consciousness. That’s how we think about our designs.
“We think less about finishing a building, having it professionally photographed, and issuing a press release. Instead, we start all the way at the very beginning, thinking about the stakeholders and how we involve them and how we get them excited. It’s not about architecture plus a marketing plan. Architecture is communication. When we talk to retail clients, we always tell them the project is bigger than any billboard you’ll ever rent.”