Thomas Wong is a Design Partner in Ennead Architects and has been with the firm since 1993. In this tenure, he has provided insightful design leadership on a variety of building and program typologies, from performing arts facilities to research laboratories, museums to acute clinical programs. This broad range of experience underpins his versatility and speaks to his approach of every project as a unique design problem that requires a distinct, specific and authentic solution.

Among his notable, recent projects are: The New York University Langone Medical Center, Kimmel Pavilion, Energy Building and Tisch Hospital Addition; Cornell University, Weill Medical College, Medical Research Building and Weill Greenberg Center; and University of Michigan, Biomedical Science Research Building.

In addition, Mr Wong is currently designing the new Shanghai Planetarium branch of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum (SSTM), a project for which Ennead won the commission through an international competition.

Thomas is currently collaborating with Eleven as one of the judges in our Planetarium competition.

In this interview, we meet up with Thomas to ask him some questions in order to gain some insight into his architecture world…

Eleven: How do you define ‘architecture’?

Thomas: I believe architecture is the presence of thoughtful intent, the ability to affect human activity, the heightening of experience through the manipulation of physical space and the creation of built form. All buildings certainly do not qualify, but some structures or spatial experiences that were not created by traditional architects do, in my mind, become architecture. A place like Machu Picchu is a perfect example of the latter, as is the work of many artists who work at scale and with 3-dimensional form. Doug Wheeler, James Turrell, Michael Heizer, Robert Irwin….they’ve created some of my favourite architectural experiences.

Eleven: Your career has seen you engaged with a whole variety of scales: from the human (Brooklyn Museum Entry Pavilion and Plaza) to the urban (Taopu Smart City Master Plan). How do you rationalise and inject your architecture ethos at such opposites ends of the design scale?

Thomas: I was just debating this very question with one of our designers in the office who is working with me on a large scale urban masterplan in Qingdao. I think many of the basic concepts and the rigour of an architectural process translate across all scales, but I do believe that the elements that one can deploy and control vary greatly from the design of a building to the formation of an urban masterplan. I think that significantly affects how to approach one versus the other and influences the nature of the driving concept. I find that an urban plan is much more about systems and infrastructure as well as solid-void relationships; it’s much more difficult to pull off a grand singular idea. There are foundational similarities, of course, the most important being the forming of how people interact with the built environment.

Eleven: Your work spans the globe, from the east to the west. What are the fundamental similarities and differences of designing in each context?

Thomas: The more globalized our profession becomes, the more I think this fundamental question will need to be confronted. While I believe in the abstract qualities and the universal nature of architecture, it is imperative to create buildings which are of their place. That includes a specific tectonic approach and an attempt toward cultural relevance without creating kitsch. Unfortunately, the construction techniques across the world, especially for large buildings, are converging and that is making many buildings across the world feel very, very similar. Architects need to rely on factors such as landscape, climate and materiality to make work that is rooted in its specific locale.

Eleven: As an architect, what is the one thing you seek to achieve in your designs which define your personal threshold of success? What is your definition of good architecture?

Thomas: The singular thing I seek: to be able to say, “That was a really beautiful place.” But great architecture is so much more than just the aesthetic experience, and I think all too often people fail to see that architecture should also elevate the human activity it enables, that it should have a positive effect on the urban condition, that it should be responsible with our natural resources. Too often architects are adulated for their exuberant form making or self-conscious grandstanding. These days, I think there are a lot of buildings which could be thought of as cheap parlour tricks.

Eleven: What made you want to be an architect and what keeps you motivated as a designer?

Thomas: I always say that architecture is like being called to the clergy. You don’t pick it; it picks you. There is something fundamentally embedded within the architect which drives him or her to create. It is, in many ways, both a blessing and a curse, as it is certainly not an easy life. Yet, I feel there is no greater satisfaction than taking in the final building and space that one has a hand in creating. It’s usually a satisfying culmination to the creative struggle.

Eleven: If you were to define yourself through one of your projects, which one would it be and why?

Thomas: That’s hard to say, as I hope that I am only at the beginning of a long creative arc that will continue for many years. While I am extremely close to the planetarium, I am also hoping there are many works in my future which will push me to new extents, and that I can continue to explore throughout my career. I am very interested in pushing myself to all sorts of new ideas instead of relying on a defined approach or language.

Eleven: You are part of the jury panel for our Planetarium competition, and have designed one of the most innovative contemporary planetariums to date: the Shanghai Planetarium. Why do you believe that architecture should become a more engaged tool for experiencing and learning about space?

Thomas: Human civilizations throughout history have utilized built work to help provide a better understanding of the universe, whether at the pyramids of the Aztecs or Stonehenge or the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Daily modern life has become relatively detached and unaware of the stars and astronomy, yet it is the basis of so much every single day. The design of the Shanghai Planetarium was a way to revert us back to that more primal time when understanding the simple movement of the sun throughout a day and within a year was a matter of survival.

Eleven: On the topic of your fantastic Shanghai Planetarium design. What was the starting point and the inspiration behind the design? What were the challenges behind linking man with space through the built form?

Thomas: The starting point was an intense two months of exploration, where we tested a vast range of ideas, concepts and approaches. We tried not to judge or discard too much in that early exploratory phase so that we could then step back and survey which were the most important pieces and experiences that we wanted to develop. Then we threw away all our “schemes” and started over, synthesizing the most potent parts into a new singular approach. Among the most important ideas was bringing visitors in direct contact with real astronomical phenomenon and exposing them directly to the sky. We did not just want an expressive form that evoked the sense of the universe and a set of exhibits within, but one that actually was a lens to real, genuine and impactful interactions with the sun and the sky. This approach was in response to the biggest challenge of the project, which is the fact that the power of the universe is not so easily grasped from our terrestrial vantage point.

Eleven: What projects are you currently working on now?

Thomas: It’s been a busy summer. In design:

– A feasibility study for a new museum at a paleontological fossil site on the east coast of the U.S. which allegedly proves the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

– A new hospital in New York City.

– Two competitions for new university campuses in China, one a business school in Shanghai and the other an engineering school in Qingdao.

– Façade designs for bio-pharmaceutical manufacturing and research buildings in an industrial zone of Shanghai.

– A competition (just starting this week) for the new Shanghai Children’s Library.

– An ambulatory surgery centre in Brooklyn.

In addition, there is the never ending exercise of finding new work.

Eleven: What piece of advice would you give someone who wishes to become a successful creative innovator in today’s world?

Thomas: Be honest with yourself. Don’t chase things that you see others doing. Try to be something original. Embark on a life of introspection and examine what lies inside you. Open your eyes to what the world really needs. And be patient.

Eleven: Every architect and designer has a personal ‘dream project’ in their bucket list. What would yours be and why?

Thomas: At this point, what I really seek is the dream client: one who wants to invest in truly impactful design, who has a unique, complex and interesting design problem, who will trust the guidance of a design professional but also have a point of view, who wants to explore the reaches of what architecture is capable of, who might recognize the need to involve other creative professionals like great engineers or landscape architects, and who has a fantastic site. Those clients are hard to find.

Eleven Magazine would like to thank Thomas Wong for his time. We look forward to seeing the new Shanghai Planetarium realised and what Ennead Architects produce next! Click here to visit their website and have access to their fantastic portfolio.