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‘Berlin gives me the space to work differently and push my limits.’

Gems in this


Explore Playbook

Feature by Mikaela Aitken

Architecture has acted as Oana Stănescu’s passport to see the world, and she has followed these opportunities to Japan, Switzerland, South Africa, the US and Germany. It’s this life lived across cultures that the Romanian–born and now Berlin– and New York–based architect credits for her unique creative thinking.

Her celebrated and positively ambitious designs have seen Oana spend time in the company of clients such as MoMA, Nike, Adidas, Coachella and Kanye West. A firm believer in the ideas exchange of teaching, Oana has also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Columbia University and the Architectural Association in London. Following a decade–long stint in New York, where she was a former co-founder of celebrated design firm Family, Oana wanted to return to her home continent and develop a stronger foothold in Europe. Since 2020, she has been settling into life in Berlin, frequenting its bookstores and relishing in the space the city carves out for her creativity. We chat to Oana about exploring the world via architecture, her life in Berlin and her top travel gems in the city.


On where you’re from

Reșița in the western part of Romania. It’s a tiny town of about 100,000 people. I'm actually doing a huge project back home at the moment. It was my thesis project that evolved to have a life of its own. It's such a small town, the project sort of stayed in the local mythology. Then a couple of years ago, the current mayor asked me if I was ready to get it done. So we started working on it.

On making the move from New York to Berlin

You learn about yourself and you learn about the world as you travel. I did a lot of that up until now, and I had this sense that I had to come back home. By home I mean Berlin or Europe, not necessarily home-home. But Berlin feels a lot more familiar, maybe not familiar, but less alienating and closer to my home than any other place in the US. I learned a lot more about Europe by being away, and now it’s time to explore again with fresh eyes. I was in New York for over 10 years and I felt like a true New Yorker in many ways, but oftentimes that city makes you care about things you don’t necessarily want to care about. It’s like a big meat grinder that will easily churn and spit you out, which can make it hard to hold your own. So I needed a bit of space.

On returning home

I studied architecture in Romania but I never worked there. There is definitely something very nice and deeply gratifying about being able to build a home. There's something about your mother language, about the dishes that you grew up eating, about the high school friends whose friendships run so deep — it's like the foundations of who you are. It's always nice to come back to that. But then of course there's the person who you have become, so it's a constant reconciling of worlds, which is interesting.

Wanting to reconnect with her home continent of Europe and follow creative leads there, Oana left her home in New York to spend more time in Berlin. Moving during the lockdowns of 2020 meant Oana relaxed into the slower pace of life, with trips to nearby lakes and stop-ins at Berlin's plentiful cafés and bookshops. Images by Jack Hogan, courtesy Oana Stănescu.

On where creativity has taken you

I never explicitly wanted to leave Romania, not even for the sake of it. But then circumstantially, it happened. Prior to my graduation we weren’t part of the European Union, which made travel a lot harder. Architecture then became a passport that enabled me to move to all of these places that I would never have even been able to visit. I would just move, without having ever visited.  I would choose offices largely based on the city they were based in. I still feel stupidly lucky, it was a huge opportunity to be able to live in different places.

'Architecture became a passport that enabled me to move to all of these places that I would never have been able to visit.'

On navigating a new city

I landed in New York on a Saturday and started work on a Monday. It was the same in Japan. I had maybe one or two days to figure out where I was going. In retrospect, traveling to these places would have been out of the question because it would have been way too expensive and way too complicated. But through work, it all of a sudden became a real possibility. There wasn't much elaborate thinking or planning on my part. I was quite happy — and felt quite lucky — to be able to experience these places through the prism of living there, through the eyes of an insider. Working overseas has been a really nice way of getting to know a place and getting to know oneself. And work was as intriguing and as mesmerizing as the new city and the new culture.

On how travel inspires your thinking

From an inventive perspective, travel is extremely helpful. So much of what we do in this creative world is to reinvent. That has to do with being able to look at something from a different perspective, to take something and turn it upside down. From living in different places, the biggest learning curve was understanding that people are just people. Of course there’s cultural differences in terms of how one lives, but people are people and they hurt and they laugh. Architecturally, this acknowledgement set me free. It removed any stigmas or conducts that were ingrained in me from growing up in Eastern Europe. Once I got over that, I understood that architecture can be done in different ways, it can be inhabited in different ways and it can be talked about in different ways.

From working on installations for MoMA PS1 in Long Island City to designing and conjuring government and local support to build the floating +POOL in the East River, Oana and her former co-founder of Family, Dong-Ping Wong, implemented incredible public interface in their work. Images courtesy Family and Oana Stănescu.

On travel growing your perspective

I think we’re still very much taught in quite a singular way. But once you understand there isn't a single way to monopolize how something is done, you're a lot less willing to buy into shit. It puts the onus on oneself, to then think: ‘Wait a minute, there isn't just one way of doing things. I have to figure out my own way of making sense of architecture or my own way of creating.’ That was hugely liberating because all of a sudden, it changed the world from this big, seductive nebulous into a smaller, more approachable thing. The epiphany was that whatever I thought was my biggest weakness, was in fact my biggest asset. The main thing you have is your experience and your own thinking. You can choose to trust your thinking and work with it. That change in my perspective was enabled through travel, by encountering different people and having a whole range of experiences. The world became a lot smaller.

On the beauty in collaboration

Architecture is so complex — for better or worse. A lot of projects are at the mercy of factors that lay outside of your creative vision, whether it’s the client, the contractor, engineers, the weather or the global economy. To me, that’s the point where a project can become beautiful, where the orchestra starts playing. It’s no longer just you dreaming in a bedroom, congratulating yourself on an idea that hasn’t been through many, many pains. The growth of a project comes from it being constantly negotiated with others. You never have the answer to the thousands of problems on day one. There’s an evolution and complexity that happens magically, the process adds extra levels of depth and the project becomes more and more of an orchestral creation.

'You can choose to trust your thinking and work with it. That change in my perspective was enabled through travel, by encountering different people and having a whole range of experiences.'

On teaching the next generation

There is an advantage to being young and not having too much experience. Teaching is a constant refresher for me and brings me back to the fact that there isn’t one single way of practicing or thinking about architecture. It’s down to the individual to decide how they look at the world. If I want my students to take one thing away from our exchange, it’s that they have the luxury — or responsibility, depending on how they want to look at it — to make that choice. Don’t let anyone tell you there is only one way. There’s nothing more frustrating than being stuck in the wrong world — be it creative, social or professional. I want my students to understand that when everyone around you is telling you that you’re wrong or not fitting in, then more often than not it is that you’re just in the wrong place. Your gut is never wrong.

As well as public art installations and river regeneration projects, Oana and the team at Family also worked on commercial designs for Off-White and stage set design for Kanye West's Yeezus Tour. Images courtesy Family and Oana Stănescu.

On pushing your creativity

I’m most interested in my own limits and pushing these personal boundaries, operating in this liminal space. With time, you start to have reflexes and be less open to the world. So I like to remind myself that I have more possibilities now than I’ve ever had, so what do I want to do with them? It’s within a level of uncomfortableness that I can push my work and ask: where can I take those ideas; and where can they take me?

'In Europe there's the appreciation for the simple things, from cheese to wine, to the sea and the sun. There's a basic lust for life that's manifested in many of the cultures here.'

On appreciating the small things

I’m in Moabit, near Tiergarten, which is a very leafy neighborhood. I'm really enjoying it and I'm enjoying the city. I have a lot of friends here and it’s such an international city. This summer, I have had a very European summer, taking the train, not booking a return ticket and just meeting people along the way. I really missed the ease of that. You pass one meter from France to Italy and all of a sudden the coffee is good. That constant reminder of different cultures and different takes on things is really rich in Europe. There’s also the appreciation of the simple things, from cheese to wine, to the sea and the sun. There’s a basic lust for life that’s manifested in many of the cultures here in Europe. It’s been nice to soak that in.

On experiencing great design in Berlin

A few weeks ago I went to the Philharmoniker and I was talking with a friend saying how it's probably one of my favorite buildings. To which he said maybe it had to do with the fact that it was the first live concert I’d seen in a year and a half. But it was just amazing! From the sound of the orchestra to the space, it was extremely moving and a total gesamtkunstwerk [when different art forms are combined to make a cohesive whole]. I'm trying to go on a weekly basis because it takes you out of your head and is an otherworldly experience.

On your favorite cultural gems

I'm a big sucker for the Hamburger Bahnhof, always have been. I like enjoying lunch and then heading to the bookshop. Although the bookshop there is really a problem in my life, I’ve got to avoid it at all costs! Berlin has many great museums and galleries, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Bahnhof. Then for more bookstores, Walther König of course is a classic and another problematic one for me. Pro qm, which is in Mitte and has very nerdy stuff for architects. Do You Read Me?! is good if you want something more on the leisurely side, but they also stock a lot of really great architecture books. Oh and there are really great ice-cream places, one next to Do You Read Me?! and one next to Pro qm, which is very important.

Oana says Berlin has allowed her the space to explore new ideas and push her creative limits. Carving out her days, Oana often spends sunny mornings exploring nearby lakes before heading to work with her dog Perry. Then weekends are for perusing the city's best bookshops, museums and architecture. Images courtesy Oana Stănescu, Do you Read Me?! and Lysander Yuen.

On the architecture of Berlin

One thing that took me by surprise when I first came to Berlin was recognizing some of the more Eastern-style buildings, especially in East Berlin. There’s a juxtaposition between the Museumsinsel, the Reichstag dome, and the amazing architecture on Unter den Linden. Then you have the Eastern European roughness or bluntness that is at the intersection of Berlin like the Kino International. I really do appreciate how Berlin has distinct layers of time, and often they intersect and overlap. 

'I can bike to a lake with a beach, and swim in the morning, then be in the office by 9.00am. That's the purest form of luxury.'

On getting a nature fix in the city

Another thing that I’m completely excited and mind blown by are the lakes and the trees. It’s the fact that I can bike to a lake with a beach and swim in the morning, then be in the office by 9.00 am. That’s the purest form of luxury. Even though you do have a lot of access to museums, culture, clubs, people and books, you are also able to access nature and head to the lakes and have a swim. I’m biased about my favorite lake because it’s the largest off-leash dog area, called Grunewald. I’m there a few times a week with my dog and it’s about 10 minutes from where I live.

On the moody seasons

I like seasonality, I think it’s really nice. I’ve been taking advantage of other nearby areas around Berlin to get some sun. And then I’ll come back and sit with the Berlin weather. It’s a mood and moods are always nice. I like that moody places make you respond to something. There’s a way of life around that mood, whether it’s going to the saunas or enjoying all of the things you get to do in the dark or in the cold.

Since she left university, Oana has spent her life living across the globe from South Africa to Japan, New York to Berlin. Oana also travels extensively to teach and to design, including for projects in Maribor, Slovenia and Vancouver. Photos by Brigitte Lacombe, courtesy Oana Stănescu.

On the influence of Berlin on your work

Of course it seeps indirectly into my work, just through my own state of mind. My past year in Berlin has allowed me to take care of myself and take in the moment. The city has allowed me to not panic under the anxiety of the pandemic, but instead has seen me to just go with it. It’s allowed me mental space that I wouldn’t have found in New York, and I’m very grateful for that. Ultimately these things reverberate indirectly, as it gives me the space to work differently and push my limits. 100% there’s something happening for me in Berlin — I’m not quite sure where it will go or how it will manifest, but there is a sense of this being good and interesting, and I want to see what happens.

On a window or an aisle seat

Window. Let me be in my world there, uninterrupted. Be it a train, plane or car, put me by a window and I will be the most productive I've been in ages. Weirdly it's a place that I thrive in, like if I take the train to Paris I get more work done there than I do in a week in the office.

On Berlin in one word

A mood.

I do think Berlin has these rather distinct characters and distinct moments. So the city is what one makes of it. It’s what one sees in it and what one searches for.


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