Yen Ong, AIA, is a co-founder and principal architect of the award-winning international practice 5G Studio Collaborative. One of his early career highlights included the role of associate project architect on Renzo Piano's Nasher Sculpture Center.
Where did you grow up?
Before I was seven, I grew up in a poor neighborhood surrounded by slums in Jakarta, Indonesia; it was then a city two-thirds the size of Dallas having 6.5 million citizens. My parents began their business by selling electronic spare parts at half-a-penny each while supporting three young children; I did not realize then the magnitude of their burden. I learned to live very modestly early in life and to navigate the unregulated, dense urban living conditions all around me.
Looking back, I realize now the experiences during those years profoundly prepared me for how I would face challenges when we launched 5G Studio, how I would choose to persevere through and revel in incorrigible chaos fogged by uncertainty.
If you were not an architect, what other profession would you have pursued?
I would most definitely have pursued a career as a software architect. At the age of 10, I took a course on the BASIC programming language and became fascinated by the aspect of structuring data, computation, variability, and logic based on certain sets of intentions. Programming felt very empowering. For example, I could program a simple helicopter landing simulation game for myself. It was much later — in my teenage years, when I revisited my past childhood neighborhood — that my passion shifted towards gaining the knowledge to enrich the lives of the poor by improving their living conditions and basic needs for shelter.
Where do you find inspiration?
Mostly in unexpected personal moments. In 2007, I was designing a freestanding emergency medical care facility for a group of young doctors. After a few drafts of the design, I was confident of the resultant solution — until the events of one particular night when my wife's pregnancy needed emergency medical attention put into question the way I viewed the merit of the architecture. The next morning, I was determined to design a healing environment to support hope and restarted from a blank page. The realized project (featured in the May/June 2010 "Health and Wellness" issue of Texas Architect) proved to be a significant turning point in the history of my company, and more importantly in the young doctors' entrepreneurial venture. We are now working on the doctors' second building, currently under construction.
Do you listen to music when designing? What kind?
I tend to listen to movie soundtracks when designing. My favorite composers are Morricone, Williams, Silvestri, and Zimmer. Soundtracks are composed or compiled to support the expression of an idea. I find it helpful in framing my focus on architectural coherence, especially in the conceptual phase. At times, I would repeatedly listen to a soundtrack like Cinema Paradiso for a while, then knowingly risked switching to the likes of the Inception soundtrack; I have learned to leave some room to revisit a concept whenever I do this. One of my habits at the end of a design phase is to blare out Nessun Dorma rendered by the late Pavarotti before leaving the studio.
What is your favorite time of year?
I have a favorite weather more so than any particular time of year. I love the rain. When I was a teenager, I would often be over-excited over the potential of an idea that I would have a hard time sleeping at night. Thankfully, Indonesia is an archipelago with 13,000+ islands and has a high annual rainfall rate. During most of those nights, I would end up listening to the sound of rain falling on my house's tin roof and be glad to be wide awake.
What is the next building you plan to travel to in order to see for yourself?
Casa Malaparte off the Isle of Capri, Italy, had captivated me since I stumbled upon her picture on a postcard at a souvenir shop in Florence. I was a fourth-year architecture student then spending a semester residing in a small hilltop town in Tuscany. Leading up to that moment, I had been searching for my own anchoring in architectural theory, wishing to pierce through the overwhelming academic cacophony of preceding semesters. An instant reading of the architecture gave me such clarity that I understood immediately what mattered to me more than any theory. I will choose to arrive there someday on a calm sea.