In the heart of Boston’s Chinatown, with its dim sum restaurants and bakeries, sits the office of hot, young architectural firm Howeler + Yoon. Eric Howeler and Minjeen Yoon founded their multi-disciplinary practice seven years ago. Their small, but agile staff of five combine architecture with urbanism, art and public space, and they’ve got the website to prove it. The two met as under-grads at Cornell University. Howeler stayed for his Masters, while Yoon took hers from Harvard. After more than a decade getting practical experience, Yoon convinced Howeler to return to Boston to set up shop.
They began on a grand scale, with a commission to create a temporary interactive urban installation for the Athens 2004 Olympics at the base of the Acropolis. The result was an interactive display reminiscent of Avatar, with purple light stalks emitting white noise, illuminating in response to pedestrian movement.
Howeler explains it was a pivotal project. “When we did Athens, we pulled off this insane project. We didn’t know how to do it so we brought in collaborators. We had $100k of debt. We maxed out our credit cards to pay for it and the Olympic officials said they’d pay us back after. That was crazy! We shouldn’t have done that. They paid us back, but if we had known better we wouldn’t have done that.”
They may not have done it in hindsight, but the Athens sound and light show installation launched the Howeler + Yoon office. A developer in Washington, D.C. pursued them to build a similar project. That appetite for risk and adventure has defined the two and become their signature; something Howeler believes is encouraged by their teaching roles – Howeler at Harvard, and Yoon at MIT.
“Meejin is surrounded by people trained in technology, which is very facile for them so all of a sudden spaces can be information-rich. Teaching keeps you on your toes, you can’t get sloppy, and you’re always challenged. And the good part is you always have a pay check.”
The team avoid doing the same thing twice, preferring to break boundaries with things like a defensible dress or solar-paneled canopies.
“We like innovation, or invention. If we did the same thing all the time we’d be bored. If a project budget is small, but provides an opportunity to learn something new, we’re interested. It becomes a research project.” They took on one project with a tiny budget just for the chance to learn about water-jet cut glass, its tolerances, flattening, and other properties.
“I gravitate towards things I don’t know anything about, which is different to a specialist who’s really good at what they do and just keeps doing it. We pool our inexperience and see what we can do. We’re really good at bringing people together – structural engineers, sound composers, computer programmers and we figure it out together.”
Another common theme is their interest in public spaces. Having designed a beautiful city loft for friends, the team decided to focus on public space ideas for their broad exposure.
“A private project is never seen. The thing we did in Athens was seen by thousands of people, interacting with it. We’re not just trying to reach designers with great taste. It’s about making information more democratic; getting everyone to be engaged with the issues. We want to have a conversation with the masses.” And they are. They’ve designed and installed a mobile open-air library, and have come up with concepts for a City Hall covered in vertical plants called eco-pods.
After a busy start, the market cooled, leaving Howeler and Yoon to think creatively about how to get their name out. They started writing grant applications for research, which resulted in a book, and submitted designs for print competitions, which gained them a presence in major media outlets like the New York Times and Boston Globe, both of which, says Howeler, were great ways to reserve resources, while getting experience and exposure.
They’ve also had success in China, which Howeler recommends for young practices with a wide network. “China is more open to younger firms. They’re interested in the innovative, the novel, the Western. We did a 3m square foot project in China because a local firm couldn’t get approval from the city. A local friend told me we could get the project if we could persuade officials we could do it. We won the project away from the local firm. They presented us to the press, and our design to the Mayor and it became a matter of prestige. There is work in China; it’s a matter of having the right contacts and you have to be there, or have a good local partner. Harvard has exported a lot of graduates, so there’s a big network.”
The other key is having enough resources to be able to cope with deferred payment. Howeler + Yoon finished the three-year project a year and a half ago and are still waiting for the last payment. It’s not an ideal way to practice, but Howeler contends it was a great opportunity for them to build the firm and the Chinese have already promised them more work.
The team are re-focusing their energies back at home, though, with a new remit to consult on a hospital in New Orleans. Healthcare is a field with little design attention, which excites Howeler. “We’re talking about using the ceiling as a new landscape, a territory for design that affects the perception of the occupants and helps them feel better. I’m going to propose design interventions for the hospital that will engage people better with each other and with their own wellness, their own bodies. I love being in a place where we know nothing, but we get excited about it.”
For Howeler and Yoon, there is no specific dream project. They’re often hired to ‘do’ interaction. Their ideal is a project firmly capturing both, involving physical architecture with a responsive demand, an information component with content, and an agenda; a message to broadcast or convey. They don’t fantasise about the cliché museum project – they dream bigger and broader. When I push Howeler in my final question, he says, “maybe something more public, like a bus station that engages people as they flow through it.”
If any of Boston’s urban planners are listening, a Howeler + Yoon conceived bus station could well put the city on the design map.