Brothers Chris and Dominic Leong of Leong Leong Architecture grew up in a sleepy Napa Valley town but fell in love with cities as skateboarding teenagers visiting San Francisco. In searching out the best spots for skateboarding, Dominic said, “You find pleasure in the city in the most unexpected places, constantly creating your own space, or using the city in your own way.”
These days, as young architects in New York City they still view their urban environment as a treasure trove of unexpected opportunities, as when they happened to pass by the experimental gallery W/——Project Space in Chinatown and decided to create an installation despite its being challengingly tiny. Rather than focusing on competitions or theoretical projects, they often prefer to do such small real-world projects as a way to experiment with ideas.
Founded in 2009, their six-member firm also tackles much bigger scale projects, such as a new 13,000-square-foot headquarters (currently in construction documents) for the fashion company 3.1 Phillip Lim in downtown Manhattan and a 7,000-square-foot artist’s studio and residence in New Jersey.
While their projects vary in type and scale, one common thread that runs through them is both architects’ love of the interplay of opposites: hard concrete tiles appear soft and sensual; a closet-sized space seems to stretch to infinity; and a retail environment playfully hides the merchandise. “Different building typologies have these kind of assumed solutions,” Dominic said. “How do we challenge those conventions to create more novel effects with our environments?” What’s impressive about Leong Leong is that they pull it off without it seeming like a gimmick.
3.1 PHILLIP LIM STORE
When Dominic Leong was part of PARA-Project in 2008, he worked on a one-story Phillip Lim store in LA with an iconic facade of concrete tiles that look like a puffy quilt. The next year Leong Leong designed a store in Seoul that gave that idea a new spin: the designers emphasized the two-story Korean space’s loftier height with a gradient of tile textures, from pillowy to smooth. Each store’s interior features a curved wall that divides the space up into smaller enclaves. Mirrors lend an illusion of added space and light.
This temporary art installation at W/——Project Space continued their experiments with inserting simple forms into a space and using mirrors to magnify the sense of expansiveness. Here they designed a topological environment of pink foam by combining a series of basic shapes (a circle, triangle, diamond, and rectangle) and blending them together with a cohesive surface. Mirrors in the 60-square-foot space create a “mise en abyme effect, so it becomes like when you sit in the barber shop in front of a mirror and it looks like you’re looking into infinity,” Dominic explains. “There’s this weird subversion of the constraints of interior space.”
SIKI IM CONCEPT STORE
For a pop-up store under the High Line as part of the BOFFO Building Fashion program last year, the Leong brothers found a kindred spirit in fashion designer Siki Im, who asked them to create a space that would subvert the conventions of commerce. They designed the store so that no clothes would be visible on entering: visitors stepped instead into an empty, otherworldly space with a curved floor and other surfaces coated in spray-foam insulation. At either end, little doors along the slopes beckoned visitors to explore further: by climbing downward, they would finally find the clothing, hung in mysterious grotto-like spaces.
In the renovation and expansion of an historic townhouse, the architects played with old upon new. They kept the elements that give the 1853 residence its original charm while making the volumes more light and airy. An expansion to the back turns the kitchen into a double-height space. On the top floor, dormer skylights bring views and natural light to two children’s bedrooms. Another new skylight drenches a refurbished staircase with sunlight, which also spills around the new curved edge of an adjacent hallway’s ceiling.