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EPISODE 008: Ryan Ho on surrounding yourself with inspiration

“I try to draw inspiration from anything that moves me. Luckily, I’m usually in a space where something like that happens.”

Our next episode goes to Ryan Ho, the architect who founded the Square Cube architecture firm. His work can be found in apartments, homes, businesses, buildings, and public spaces all throughout New York City.

Here’s what he had to say about how personalities manifest in spaces, inspiration from unlikely places, and how people experience his work in unexpected ways. Subscribe on iTunes


Ryan:  It all kind of started when I was super young, playing with… I don’t know… I’m a huge tinker-er. I like to mess around with things. I’ve always liked to… Whenever I get something that I’m interested in, I like to take it apart or really inspect it to figure out how it works and stuff. That fell into just the way I learned and things like that.

The first time I heard about architecture was my cousin, who lived with us, came from Hong Kong to study architecture in London. That, I guess, was the first time I was introduced to the word and then, also finding out basically what it was. I just saw… he was at home working. He was always making models and drawing things and then also… There’s always something with images and then there was art, and then there was putting things together, which is really cool. I just instantly gravitated towards it.

At that time, I was really into drawing and all that stuff. It just kind of clicked. I don’t know, I just always said I have, from super young age, remembered I’ve always said I wanted to be an architect even before I really actually knew what it was. It just completely stuck with me. Almost 30 years later, I’m still saying I’m an architect.

Jenna: So now, you play with Legos in real life.

Ryan: Exactly. Yeah, Legos, real-life Legos.

Jenna: Can you tell me about the projects that you’ve been working on lately and certain aspects about those projects that make you excited about what you’re doing?

Ryan:  Sure. Right now, most of my work is commercial architecture… One of the unfortunate things with working in New York is that there’s not a lot of ground ups so you have to work within existing space unless you’re working with a huge firm and then you do have the opportunity to work in ground ups that may take five to 10 to 15 years to build something of significance.

Most of my work here, locally, in the city is all gut renovations of existing spaces and the commercial aspect of it is like I design offices for tech companies like tech startups and then more established tech companies. That’s, primarily, most of the things I’m working on right now, a good chunk of that.

The other portion, smaller portion, is residential which is where I got my start and that is also the same, gut renovation, combinations and things like that.

Every now and then, I’ll work with key developers to do ground-ups like multi-family dwellings and things like that usually, but usually in Brooklyn.

Yeah. That’s what I’m working on at the moment.

Jenna:  Nice. How would you describe your work? Are there any similarities? You said before that you like to tinker with things and take things apart. Does that find its way into what you’re doing?

Ryan: Yeah, definitely. I feel as if I have a pretty odd method, I guess, of starting up the project and my initial design process is kind of weird. I always like to get to know the client, whether it’s a couple, an individual, or an entire company. My method is, always, I want to figure out who they are versus them telling me who they are because someone’s sort of perception of themselves or their company is very different than the way they actually hold themselves and actually act and function, I guess, on a daily basis.

One of my things is, if they let me, I’ll sit in their office for a day or two, even a week, and then also with residential clients, I’ll ask them, on the first meeting we have, “don’t clean your house. Leave it messy. If it’s super messy, leave it messy. I want to see the real you in your space, the way you use it, the way you function. The way you function in it incorrectly or the way you think, something’s wrong.” Lots of people will say “I wish I had a dining room” or “I wish we had a bigger conference room” or something but it’s just because they’ve seen it in a magazine or they’ve gone to another place that it’s worked and it looks beautiful or something like that.

And they’re like, “That’s the solution. That’s what we’re missing that’s why our space sucks.” Then, when I go there, I see it, I’m like, “No. You don’t need a bigger conference room. After watching you guys, you need a big lounge. Your lounge is what’s missing. You need a bigger one. You guys love using the lounge. A good 50% of your day is in the lounge and you guys have all these casual, impromptu meetings. It’s really cool. That’s the way you should do it because that’s the way you guys function. If you change that, it’s going to feel weird. It’s going to feel really foreign.”

It’s the same way with residential too. I’m seeing them using the space like if I see them with loads of clutter, these guys love having stuff out. They love that chaos. How can I keep that around but organize it for them where they can still access it just the same way they have it now but, I don’t know, in a cleaner fashion…

It’s all those little things I try to piece together and figure out how I can take them, their quirks and their unique ways of living and functioning, and put it into the home or the space so that it’s almost like a tailored-made shirt. You put it on and it just fits. You don’t have to figure out how to wear it. It just… it just works.

It’s all those little things I try to piece together and figure out how I can take them, their quirks and their unique ways of living and functioning, and put it into the home or the space so that it’s almost like a tailored-made shirt. You put it on and it just fits. You don’t have to figure out how to wear it. It just… it just works.

Jenna: What are some examples of how people’s personalities play out in their spaces?

Ryan: It’s tough. Something with couples, it’s really interesting. You can totally see… There’s a lot of the times you could see who the dominant character or person in the relationship or in the space is. I’ve never seen a perfect balance, a very perfect balance. There’s always someone who’s super… It’s a lot more prevalent. Their stuff is there. You can feel it. It’s everywhere.

I guess that just plays out in the space just like in a relationship too. There’s people who… Like a couple, let’s say, one’s a lot more vocal and more present and then someone might be a little bit more in the background. It’s the exact same way, the way that people live. People’s personalities usually match up with the way they live. There’s that crazy… Not crazy but people who are super social and run around like ahhhhh… There’s always something going on. They always have something to talk about.

I always find their homes are very chaotic in a way. They’re running around just like they’re losing things, but they always want order in some way. “This is what I want.” They’ll show me a picture, a super minimal space. “That looks amazing.” I’m like, “You can’t have that because that is not you, but we’ll work to find a way to get you to that feeling but you’ll kill yourself if you get a space like that. It’s just going to look horrible all the time. It’s going to be a mess or you’ll feel like you’re living in someone else’s space.”

It’s the same way with companies too. It’s just interesting because, with the companies, it’s a little bit easier with commercial projects because they can re-brand themselves really easily because they’re not a person, they’re a company. It’s very different.

Sometimes, their websites too are so different than the way they want their space, and I get confused. I’m like, “Your website looks super clean, minimal, like apple-esque and you want this really industrial bespoke, Brooklyn-y, really weird… I guess it doesn’t necessarily need to mesh in that way but, for some reason, I think it would be nice if it all fit together really well. But sometimes it doesn’t.

Jenna: Sounds like you take a very holistic approach to the design, it’s not just a room or a building for someone. It’s a reflection of their personality.

Ryan: Mm-hmm.

Jenna: As someone who’s so visual and… you’re taking in a comprehensive look of what’s around you and noticing how people interact in certain spaces, how do you find New York City then? It seem like this city is pretty chaotic, and people that don’t live here, if they’re talking about it they say, “It might be a little dirty,” “There’s too many people,” or, “The buildings are all really old and falling apart.” How do you live in New York City?

Ryan:  Oh man… New York is such an interesting place, and space. I think it’s actually one of the ugliest cities. [Laughs] It’s filled with a lot of horrible architecture. But then it’s also got these little quirks to it which make it really beautiful too. It’s just an amazing city. I love it to death, but I always run into one of those issues where people are like, “Oh, you’re an architect. You design in New York. What’s your favorite building?”

I never really have an answer, because I don’t really have a favorite building here. But something that I really love about New York is the way people interact with public spaces and then just spaces in general.

It’s seasonal. There’s seasonal things and then there’s also… There’s just all these weird ways that people utilize space in New York like large areas to gather. Rooftops are really important, always super important… And I know that, just everyone always has the same story. Whenever I meet someone who just moved to the city. The younger people just get here and their number one goal is to socialize, because it’s New York. It’s about socializing, going out partying, meeting people, this and that, just always doing stuff.

It reflects into the spaces that they want to be in. Most of the people I talk to always ends up to the same thing. “Oh, I don’t care about my room. My room can be tiny. I just need some place to store my stuff. We got to have a big living room. We’re going to have a big space. Just like a huge public area so we can throw parties. Our rooms can be tiny and crappy.” Either they’re like, “Oh, we need a balcony. We need this. We need that.”

It’s always public or “everyone” space needs to be the good space and then no one really cares about their room. “Oh, I’m not going to be spending that much time in my room. I’m just going to sleep in there.” Sort of that hotel vibe when you go on vacation. You don’t really have to stay in a nice hotel because you’re not going to be sitting in it all day.

Then, also just public space in New York is amazing, how people utilize the parks and then just… the way it changes neighborhoods too. For instance, like Dumbo. I moved there maybe more than five years ago but around five years ago right when they had just started breaking ground. It had been a really long, ongoing project but they just started breaking ground right when I moved there, in that area.

It was pretty quiet. There was literally nothing there. I still feel as if there’s not much in the neighborhood there, but the park itself, it’s brought so many people there and it’s insane how many… It’s strange on a weekend… I have a dog and taking my dog down there… Back in the day, it was super quiet. Now, if I take him down there, it’s chaos. There’s so many tourists, there’s loads of people, there’s noises, smells everywhere, which is so cool but it happened all in five years because they built a park. Right by the water. And then it just attracted all the stuff.

It’s amazing. It’s really cool to see that. Obviously, that attracts developers. Now, there’s these high rises being built everywhere. There’s this crazy, multimillion dollar apartments and they’re horrible. They’re covering up the views and all that stuff but, I mean, it comes with the territory. You can’t reserve a space and expect it to not, like… nothing happened to it. I think that’s just something really interesting and what I like seeing and experiencing in New York, I guess.

Jenna: If you were to look at your portfolio and all the sites, spaces, that you’ve worked in together, what would be some similarities between all of them? Do you design a certain way for each one? You were speaking before about how you design for the people that are living in that space, so I would think those would be reflective of their personalities, but you also have a personality too, and you also have a way of designing a space. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Ryan: Mm. Yeah. I don’t really necessarily have a super strong aesthetic, language in all my designs. I guess, in certain times, periods, spans of time, they have a similar look or maybe material or something that I’m really interested in that specific time and it flows between projects but, aesthetically, I try to tailor it towards the client in a way then bring in what I like and what I think matches them too.

Something that I’ve noticed that other people always point out whenever they see something, every now and then, some of them, “Oh, obviously, this is yours. I could see this is obviously your project.” I guess a lot of my designs, the way I design too, is very mechanical. There’s weird things, like little transformer-type things. I like doing to spaces where everything functions. It’s not just a thing in the corner that looks nice. That thing in the corner also might turn into something, or it’s there for a reason. It’s like you pull up the table and something, it’s a bench, and you don’t have it there, it’s a side table or something like that.

A project that I just finished in Dumbo, there was a couple that wanted it to be… They had this amazing 16 or 15-foot window at the very end of their one-bedroom, sort of like a loft. Super high ceilings, about 18-feet high, 20-feet high ceilings and then their windows start three feet off the floor and they go all the way to the ceiling. It was a shame because it’s the view, you can see it’s right on the wall, you can see lower Manhattan, you could see Governors Island and then the Statue of Liberty and stuff but you’re so low down, it just didn’t feel as impressive as it really should.

So I wanted to take them off the floor, so basically build them up and then, after doing that, we noticed that took away some space. They wanted a dining area and all these other stuff. I utilized the elevated space and I specifically designed the platform, the new platform, to be 18 inches high, which is like a standard seat height, so I turned that platform, did a funky shape, and turned it into additional seating area for dining.

There’s a column there too which grounded, divided the space in two areas. On one side of the column, it was the living room and then the other side, it was the kitchen and the entry. I utilized that by designing a table that was scroll cut perfectly around… The table was scroll cut around the columns and it slid right in, and it also helped them… This couple loved entertaining and having parties.

They told me that they had a lot of people over every now and then and they really liked counter space, so I figured this dining table is right in between the two areas so you swing it one way and it’s a dining area and then you swing it the other way, towards the kitchen and it matches up to that kitchen island there. That just blended in with the counter tops. It essentially doubled the counter size and the serving area for them to entertain. That was a dual purpose, swinging thing…

Yeah. I always try to add something like that into the space where it’s like a quirky custom thing that’s highly tailored to… It solves multiple problems and it’s fun too, I guess, because it’s like this little… moving thing.

Jenna: You’re a mechanical tinker-er.

Ryan: Yeah, I think so. Mechanical tinker-er, yeah. I think that flows throughout a lot of my projects. It’s like some weird thing, I guess, like the space, you can play with the space in some way. I always try to add to the project if I can.

Jenna: Thinking about what you do and how you’ve been describing what it is you do, it seems like we’re constantly flowing between engineering and Mathematics, and art and design and creativity. How do you balance those two elements in your work? It seems like you’re truly embodying both of those things which, I think, if some people think about architecture, they’re thinking it’s Math and it’s right angles and it’s these boxes and cubes everywhere… but it’s also very creative. How do you balance these two things?

Ryan : There’s a set of limitations that I understand, I guess, that I respect in a way. There’s so many different ways people, I think, there’s so many different ways that architects design. There are design architects and there are code architects. I have a huge respect for the code architects even though that’s something I’m not interested in. They’re sort of the lawyers of architecture.

They know all the rules. There’s all these tests in the books, huge books full of all these codes, literally codes, and I completely respect that. These other people, design architects don’t. They don’t care. They just want it to look a certain way. They wanted to do something in some way and they’ll tell… Maybe the code architect to the Architect of Record, “make this work.” Most of the time, sometimes it doesn’t work and they’ll force a way to try to make it work, which will essentially ruin their design.

It’s like a really weird thing… but I try to keep all of that code and the structural, mathematical elements in the back of my mind and start from the ground, ground zero, from the very beginning and just go from there and just… I don’t know. I go through guidelines, I guess. I have these limitations of where I feel like I can go and then if I get really excited about something, I’ll try to go further. I’ll always consult with the Architect of Record or something to make sure that it works.

I think that’s just the way I’ve always done it. I always have that rule of, you know, if I don’t know how to do it myself, I shouldn’t be trying to do it. It’s weird. I think that’s like the whole tinkering thing. I want to know how it’s made. I want to know how it’s put together and then, oh, I could try to recreate this, do something similar, figure it out that way. I guess I try to apply that in the way I design too. If I don’t know how to do something, I’ll look it up and then go from there and figure it out.

Jenna:  What’s something that you’ve learned recently?

Ryan: Ooo… In architecture or just in general?

Jenna: I guess both.

Ryan: That is tough. I guess, recently, in terms of just interiors and things like that. I also delve into that realm as well. I tried to do full service projects. In interiors, generally, I’ve always been drawn towards super minimal, cleaner, natural-looking things and I’ve made friends in the past year, in the past couple of years, interior designers who are just… They use all these different textures, loads of patterns, it’s really loud and things like that.

I’ve never been super drawn towards them but I like patterns and textures and prints and things like that. The clothing I wear, there are always prints and things like that but when it comes to my spaces, they’re just really, stark in a way. I wanted to bring that in, but I didn’t really know much about it. I guess that was something I picked up on through my interior designer friends, consulting them and talking to them and seeing their process. How do you put Chevrons and patterns on the wall and feel okay with it? And put it next to this and that, just like how do you mesh these clashing elements? I guess I’m slowly learning about that whole process and becoming comfortable with trying to include it in the designs.

Jenna: Something I like about what you’re saying is that you’re talking about consulting other people if you don’t know something, that you look it up or you’ll work on it, or you’ll tinker a little bit and then you’ll talk to others about it and make sure that you’re right. That seems like it could be really important if you’re working on a building or a space, to get it right. Can you talk a little bit about the types of people that you consult and learn from, and how that’s helped your work?

Ryan: I guess I’ve been working in New York for almost nine years now. My biggest thing is I really crave… I love to learn things. Or just seek out a new challenge, something like that. I’m constantly trying to do side projects just to keep myself, I guess, and my mind entertained. Sometimes I get … Not bored, bored is a bad word but I don’t feel inspired, I guess, if there’s not that excitement of, “ooo, I’m really obsessed with doing this thing right now,” completing something and the excitement of moving on to the next challenge.

I guess the process of whenever I want to consult people since I’ve been here for almost nine years now, every time I meet someone new or work with somebody that I find interesting or I like to work with, they always have something really awesome to offer, I feel, which is why I’m interested in chatting with them and becoming friends with them eventually or just become business friends, and work together.

I still work with the same contractor, one of the first contractors I’ve ever worked with in New York. I still work with him today on a lot of my projects. That’s the process, I guess, is I’ll reach out to friends, to other people I’ve met like I was saying and just… I feel like people do that to me as well so it’s just this process of I don’t feel I’m bombarding people with questions because I love helping people out too.

If someone’s got a question or they just need help with anything, I like helping people and, I guess that when it comes time if I have a question, I don’t feel as bad, I guess… I don’t know… asking them for their advice on certain things like, literally, all the people that I work with in terms of contracting or just in the architectural sense. I’ve been working with most of them for a really long time, since I first started and just keep pulling people closer and closer.

Jenna: Where do you get your inspiration from?

Ryan: From anything and everything, I guess. Literally loads of different things, like side projects. As I was saying earlier, I love working on side projects. Things that just aren’t related to architecture… Maybe they are but, I don’t know, I feel like they’re not. I have a huge passion for music and all these other things. I love art as well… Architecture, luckily, is involved with space and we’re in a space or surrounded by space constantly.

Literally, at any given moment of time… Let’s say, I’m obsessed with… Right now, music-wise, I’ve been obsessed with listening to disco so I’m just seeking out, going to musical sets or shows or things like that that involve disco or going to events and things like that. By going to these new places or seeing these new musicians or DJs or whatnot, I have to go to different spaces. Sometimes, that can create or spark inspiration.

With art, let’s say, seeking out, looking at, going to a new museum… I just love museums… Going to a museum to go see an artist that I’ve never seen before. Suddenly I’m in a new space. Then, even if it’s the same space, the way they utilize it, especially with museums, the way they utilize the space is always really interesting. It completely can change the way you think and move throughout the space, with art, I’d say.

I try to draw inspiration from anything that moves me. Luckily, I’m usually in a space where that happens.

Jenna: What would move you about a space? So many people walk through a space and it’s just like, oh, this is where I’m mailing a letter or this is where I’m grocery shopping and this is where I sleep. What would move someone about a space?

Ryan: For me, in particular, I really love the human aspect of the space itself. Something that I dislike in terms of publication images or published images of architectural space or architecture in general, there’s never people. There’s just this naked space. Literally, you’ll never see the space like that because they shut down, let’s say, the museum. And it’s empty. It’s completely bare. And you see the space and it’s in its naked form which is really beautiful to see that, but I think the real beauty of a space is that it works properly too. That’s what adds to its beauty, is how people interact with it.

Like seeing someone in their home too, it could be this beautifully designed… They spent millions of dollars on some amazing architect and the home is so beautiful. And the way they use it and live in the home is amazing. I guess I’m moved in that sense. Also, if I go to someone’s home, like travel and visit some friend’s grandparent’s home or something and it’s just like this old home that they’ve just been collecting junk or something like that… I’m moved by that as well equally as much as seeing something that’s been highly designed and tailored and all this other stuff and unique materials that were used and these details and like that.

I pick out that type of stuff too and I could go to a thrift store and an old crappy basement thrift store that’s dusty and stuff and I can still feel… I can still be moved just as much by going through a space like that. It’s just like all the little things that I pick up on that, move me.

Jenna: Going back to the beginning, it seems like you’ve always been really in love with architecture and design. Was there a specific moment or series of periods of time where you’d be working on something, working on a model or working on building out a space and you just had that feeling like “this is it, I want to always be doing this?” Is this work for you or do you find that you could do this even if you weren’t paid?

Ryan: Yeah. There’s always a moment, I guess, in every project that I’ll get really excited about something. It’s usually actually at the… A lot of my design process is done in 3D, 3D modeling software, and that’s where I really figure things out, all the little weird details, because it’s like building a model. I don’t have to do that anymore. I can just do it on a computer, much easier. Well, at least for me.

During that process, that’s usually where I’ll find that super exciting moment where it all clicks together. I think those little moments, definitely, I’m always looking for that moment. That’s when I feel I figured out that project like, “Oh, I’m on my way to figuring it out.” It’s like working with a puzzle. And then, finally, realizing what kind of… Almost getting an idea of what the picture is.

I think it’s so deeply ingrained in just everything that I do that I think I would… I do things as well, I’ve done projects in the past, and also currently as well, completely for free. Just because I like… If I can offer my services to someone that is a friend or even someone that I don’t really know that well… I just visited a hairstylist or a guy that cuts my hair and he has a space that he… He just moved in. He just got a space that he wanted to do a function of where he had his friends over but also he wanted to do a little bit of work out of the space too…

I went over there and just gave him some advice. I spent a few hours over there just helping him out with the space because he wanted some advice and I’m like, “Okay. I’ll give you advice. You can take it or not.”

That sort of thing, just a nice environment where someone was interested in my help and what I have to say about the space. Yeah, I’m passionate about that kind of stuff where I’ll do certain things for free.

I’ve done entire projects for free too. When I first started out, my first commercial project was completely done, 100% for free – designed a tech startup space completely for free, a full project.

It was totally worth it because it got me to where I am now. Looking back, I always try to find, even in bad situations, I guess, there’s always a learning. Something that I learn from it so it’s not a waste even though, that time, it may have been super frustrating or something like that, but I’ve learned something from it and, hopefully, it’s a good thing.

Jenna: Are there any materials that you gravitate towards?

Ryan: I would say I really love natural… Not natural but true material, I guess, the true form of the material. If something’s wood, it’s wood. If it’s concrete, it’s concrete. I don’t like that artificial… Unfortunately… Obviously, if you use real raw, real material, there’s a cost to that, obviously, so you can’t always use that but if I can add that to… Have that in projects, I will always gravitate towards that.

I don’t like “dressing something up” essentially. If it’s a concrete column, I want it just to be a concrete column. I don’t want to, you know, wrap it up in gold and do weird things to it, and have the space lie in a way. I’d rather have it a wooden table be a wooden table or wooden wall be a wooden wall.

I like wood, actually. That’s the material I think is really nice is bringing together wood and something cold like concrete. I love that combination.

Jenna: Warm and cold.

Ryan: Mm-hmm. Yeah, exactly. Concrete can be a super warm-looking and feeling material as well, inviting. Because many people think of concrete, you associate it with just parking garages and just the sidewalk, and really raw, dirty as well but, if it’s done properly, and you surround it with natural things too, it’ll be just as warm and inviting as a log cabin.

Jenna: Are there any types of projects that you like to work on going forward in the next few months or a couple of years?

Ryan: Something that I have always been obsessed with and just always been trying to get into is designing public… Something that’s a public space. Specifically making an installation or something like that, an installed space. I keep bringing up I love watching people utilize space and how they use it versus how it looks. That’s a huge important part too because that’s what draws people towards it and people considering… When you’re reviewing design and people talk about it, they talk about the way it looks first and foremost, then you figure out… Then the next part is “does it work?”

My biggest thing is, what I’m most interested in is seeing how people utilize the space and what better space than a public space where, literally, anyone, everyone can go and then also, I can be a creep and hang out and watch people use it.

That’s the next goal, I think, is to try to find some opportunity to design a public installation, a space, and then watch people use it… and see interesting ways in how they utilize it, ways that weren’t intended.

That’s, I think, that’s where I find that, the magic. Those are the magic moments when you’re like, “Oh, this, I designed this to be a seat and then that’s a table there and maybe someone will use it in a completely different way and it just makes way more sense.” That’s really cool. I find that a lot more rewarding than seeing someone use it as intended.

Jenna: Why?

Ryan: That means… that it’s a learning thing for me too.

Because, let’s say, I design and that’s a seat and a table and then maybe someone uses it as steps and turns into a platform and then everyone just uses it like that and no one ever uses it as a table and seat. That’s something like a learning experience to me. I’m like, “Oh, okay, why are they using it like that?”

Then, you know, something might click and something might be so obvious. Once I see someone using a space like that, “Oooh! Okay, that does make so much more sense. What I was doing is really weird and it works but this makes so much more sense” and then I can take that and utilize or take that language and just re-apply it. I learned … It’s something learned through outside interaction, which is really cool.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to witness that as much with the projects I work on because they’re other companies’ offices so I can’t just waltz into someone’s office even though I designed the space, I just can’t go in watch or see the space and, especially people’s homes. I literally, after I finish and take photos of the space, pretty much never see the space again. That’s something… I, obviously, follow up with clients and things like that but yeah… never really see the space in the way it’s interacted.

Sometimes it’s a good thing because, I think, it would be kind of crushing seeing someone destroy and use the space not the right way or, I don’t know, that’s also something that I find interesting too if they use it in a different way but… It’s nice to just always have that perfect, just finished, “looks the best” sort of thing, that’s always nice but, definitely, public space is the next challenge, I think.

Jenna: We’re talking a lot about space, this concept of space and the space that you live in, that you manipulate, that you build things in. What is space? In it’s most purest, simplest form? What is space? What shape does that take? I mean, most of our buildings here, at least, in New York are very rectangular. And what opportunities lie within space?

Ryan: That’s a very interesting question. That’s actually something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is just space in general and how… Like you were saying, literally, a space can be contained in a room or it can be outdoor space but space is always a containment of an area, I guess. Something… there’s a funny cat video… This is why I started thinking about the whole idea of space is. There’s this funny cat video like the millions of cat videos that go around that I saw on Facebook one day… It just popped up and I swear I don’t go seeking cat videos…

This one, it happened to pop up and it was, I think, it was a how-to sort of things… “Oh, how to get a cat out from hiding in a space” or “how to catch a cat,” I think. It was one of the things, literally, people would just put a string in a circle, literally, just a flat string and put it in the middle of a room where it was very obvious. And cats are drawn towards that because they really like being in a confined space. That’s why people, I guess, are trying to “catch” their cats because they’re hiding under the couch and they can’t get to them, where they’re stuffed somewhere really tight and… I think, that’s what makes them feel safe.

It’s the same with human beings as well. Reasons why we live in contained spaces is because we feel safe, sheltered and things like that, but that whole idea of this flat, sort of circular element on the floor… It wasn’t recessed in any way, just like a shape drawn out essentially on the floor… and the cat felt really safe. And felt like it was contained. And it was drawn towards that. And that defined a space for them… for the cat in the videos.

That was what really spoke to me in a way. How can that be applied? That’s technically free space, in a way. There’s no structure to it. There’s literally nothing. It’s just a shape on the floor. And I was thinking how can that be applied to the way we… The rest of the world and humans live and interact with space and things like that. Obviously, I’m not trying to change everything, say, “We should just live without walls, live in the forest… blah blah blah … ” but how can that be translated into something – an installation, let’s say.

I’ve been toying with the ideas of using light and shadows and things like that to create space essentially. Not a physical space but a visual space where the people interacting with it will hopefully turn it into a space.

Jenna: Cool. It’s amazing what you can get from cat video.

Ryan: I know, the cat video. It’s so funny. Maybe I should watch some more cat videos… [Laughs]

Jenna: Your firm is called Square Cube. Where does that come from? Do you just like cubes?

Ryan: I do. It’s just when I’m thinking, I’ve just always drawn cubes. I remember in school and stuff in my notebooks, there were cubes… Just while I was in school, bored or something or just not paying attention or focusing even… I don’t know. I just had cubes drawn everywhere. Then, in school before I made… When we were making models, physical models to practice before I made the actual thing, I would make a cube, out of whatever material the model was going to be made out of. Just to warm up, I’d make a cube, and I would have a collection of cubes at the end of the year or something. Just like in the corner of my desk.

I really like graph paper. And just grids and things like that. I guess that translated… “how can I take that obsession and…?” I mean, I have a cube tattooed on my arm, which has nothing to do with the company in itself. It has to do with just my obsession with drawing cubes and things like that.

I guess that’s how it came about. Maybe the tattoo does have to relate to that as well.

Square cube, the actual term “square cube” is a mathematical law which is really cool. It has to do with density and size and mass and space. As the shape grows in size, its mass doesn’t… accelerate and grow as fast as the… its footprint or whatnot which, basically, it’s like architecture. You can build a gigantic super tall skyscraper. It’s footprint doesn’t necessarily change or its density might not change. It’s just a large structure and its just, hollow inside.

Yeah, it has to do with space. [Laughs]

Jenna: If you were given millions of dollars tomorrow …

Ryan: That’d be great. [Laughs]

Jenna: To design a space for yourself, to live in, what would that look like if you could do anything?

Ryan: Well… would I be constrained to being here?

Jenna: No constraints.

Ryan: I could take it anywhere.

Jenna: Anywhere. You can do anything.

Ryan: Oh, man. Oh man. Okay. I would definitely not build it here. I’d build it somewhere else.

I really like nature and the outdoors and mountains and all this other stuff. I would totally build some crazy… I really like tree houses and cliff houses too. I’m obsessed with that type of stuff. Whenever I see something like that, those are always… The houses or designs, where I’m just like, “Whoa! That is so cool. I want to live there!”

Those are the spaces where there’s a living room shot or something and it’s just the end of the living room is just this huge glass panel and it’s just infinite. You just see it literally looks like, if you kept walking, you just fall… into a forest that’s hundreds of feet below you. That, I would love to do that. I don’t know what it would be but it would depend on wherever the site would be. That’s definitely when I’d do some crazy, above-the-trees, cliff-house type thing.

It wouldn’t have to be remote necessarily but, I guess, it just comes with the territory of being on a cliff, probably away from everyone. I would definitely do that, maybe a series of treetop houses connected to a cliff house would be really cool.

Jenna: What would be inside?

Ryan: Oh, man. Just open space. I’m not a huge fan of multi-level homes, I guess, like the traditional “two-story home with a basement!” I love, I think, just having a single floor plan is just really nice. Just having one space and just keeping it as open as possible. I’d have a huge… like I was kind of saying earlier, listening to people who first moved to the city… I need a big entertaining area. I would definitely want a huge… The communal space would be just one massive space, divided through visual partitions in a way. Not actual physical partitions but visual partitions like the cat ring.

Then, obviously, you’d have your bedrooms and things like that, but the big chunk of the space would be a seamless blend between interior and exterior. That’s what the inside would be. Tying in inside and outside and just feeling as open as possible.

That would be amazing. I’d like that money now, please.

Jenna: What’s something that people don’t understand about architecture?

Ryan: I guess a lot of people don’t understand how far it goes. When they think of architecture, a lot of people actually think of interiors for some reason. Not for some reason but you know if you look at what’s presented… You look through Architectural Digest, for instance, that’s an interiors magazine. It’s really not an architecture magazine at all. It’s literally just showing you… most of the people in there are decorators even…

Obviously, there are architecture elements, which showcase homes, the exterior of it, but it’s not an architectural magazine. A lot of people confuse that with architecture but, obviously, that is a very important part of it to the interior and the full-finished piece.

It’s always difficult explaining things. People in New York, I feel, or in bigger cities have a better understanding of architecture because they’re around it more, I guess, and they understand there’s all these horrible… Not horrible, but there’s all these really boring bits of it too where there’s that whole process which I always, that’s my least favorite part, is explaining it to clients…

Let’s say, for residentials, it’s like, “Okay so, the fun part begins after this two, three months phase of talking to the city officials, the Department of Buildings. You’re going to have to pay this much in permit fees. We’re going to have asbestos inspectors inspect… ”

And they think, “Oh, we’re going to get this guy and the space and it’s going to be awesome, see renderings. We’re going to see visual elements. We’re going to go shopping for furniture. We’re going to look at fabrics and materials and things like that.” I’m like, “Well yeah. We’re going to do that but before all of that, we have to get you guys permits. We have to go through and get the Department of Buildings agent to review and do an interview, to look over your set.”

There’s all these things you have to do before the fun stuff starts and I think a lot of people, most people don’t really know about that process. And it’s always a shock. It’s always a big shock. They’re like, “We were hoping to get the apartment ready in three months.” I’m like, “Nehhhhh, No. That’s not going to happen.” I think that’s something that people are all just very unaware of is that… That’s not really an interesting portion to really talk about in magazines and people don’t want to read about that generally. It’s just not there, so people just don’t know about it.

Jenna: What’s the best case scenario with a place that you design? What do you want to accomplish at the end of it?

Ryan: At the end of it? Best case scenario just in project in general would be to achieve whatever, I guess, was set out to be achieved in the beginning.

Hopefully, the space is super overly functional, and everyone is very happy and comfortable with the space and all that. Obviously, I want them to be happy in the end. That just is a huge win is when the client is super happy at the end. I always try to get to that point. I don’t like burning bridges.

So a successful project would be a happy client but then, also, for myself would be… It would be a good-looking project and also they love using the space. And they love being there. That would be a super successful project.


Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing Episode 008 with Ryan Ho.

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