Dominic Leong knows aesthetics are politics

The co-founder of the architecture firm Leong Leong discusses fashion, public space, land recovery, and design’s impact on bodies throughout history

The brothers Dominic and Chris Leong founded their architectural studio in 2009. Since then, from their office on Manhattan’s Bowery, Leong Leong’s created projects from the scales of furniture to single-family homes to multi-building urban campuses across the globe.

The formal eloquence of Leong Leong’s projects is undergirded by a complexity of thought and a collaborative approach to working with the people whom architecture impacts. This ethos is as present in large-scale endeavors like the Anita May Rosenstein LGBT Center in Los Angeles or a master plan in rural New York as in stores for 3.1 Philip Lim or temporary interventions, most recently including the exhibition design for Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The politics of aesthetics, the cosmological potency of architecture, and design’s responsibilities to a plurality of bodies come up in this conversation with Dominic Leong. So too does the more personal—even psychological—intrigue of ambiguity and illegibility. Through material estrangement, he suggests, we can reroute our attention. Afterall, architecture, whether in triennials or in the streets, needs to connect with those it serves, now and in the future.

Right: Dominic wears shirt and jacket by

Drew Zeiba: Leong Leong recently created the exhibition design for the Met Costume Institute show, Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion. You’ve worked in both art and fashion contexts a lot before—what was it like blending both for the Met?

Dominic Leong: It was an interesting opportunity to think about the history of the Met, its legacy, what that represents, and how that is all embodied in the building. The Costume Institute is one of the most visible departments in the Met because of its connection to fashion and popular culture.

The entry point for us into the project was a shared interest in how Andrew Bolton, the chief curator, talks about the ‘dressed body’ and the representation of the body in fashion, but also the presence of the body across most of the museum’s collections and archives. The body is a common denominator that is found in almost every department or collection. And that is a really interesting way to think about the museum, through the body. We asked, How does architecture expand its understanding of whose bodies it has been designed for? If you think of architecture from a Western perspective, it’s inseparable from narrowly defined concepts of the human body. You can go back to Vitruvius: the Vitruvian Man, Le Corbusier’s Modular Man. You can trace a relationship between the concepts of the human body and concepts of architecture. Now, when we’re thinking about how to expand into a more pluralized way of understanding different bodies—from race, gender, disability, etc.—it also expands how we think about architecture and by extension how we think about the institution.

The other conceptual point of departure for the exhibition was the conservation term ‘inherent vice’ that was foregrounded by Andrew Bolton as part of revisiting the archive of objects. Because of the way certain garments in the archive were made or their materiality or their construction, they can’t be saved through conservation. So what does it mean to display garments in the archive that are beyond saving because they are slowly decaying. Is there a way to revive them? Can we present them to the public to highlight the ephemerality of fashion?

What emerged from these questions were ideas of how the exhibition architecture and display systems could recover the ‘sensory histories’ of the garments. Most often when you encounter an object in the museum it’s visually, right? With fashion in particular, these are artifacts that were worn by people. They have these personal histories. They have the smells of who wore them. They have the proportions their bodies had. They have a particular sound—like a 19th-century ballroom dress that ‘swooshed’ into the room. It was such a compelling prompt to consider the way a dress sounds as much as the image of it. Through the design process we realized there was an opportunity to blend how we have been thinking about bodies and architecture and how [Bolton] was thinking about the ‘dressed body’ and fashion, which led us to create display systems for experiences of touch or smell or sound, not just vision.

“I don’t consider myself an activist architect, but architecture is an aesthetic medium that has the power to give presence to different communities.”

Drew: Does this thinking about the body or bodies come into your other projects? I’m thinking, for example, of some of your larger-scale housing or civic projects that need to adapt to many different people at once.

Dominic: The Anita May Rosenstein campus in LA for the LGBT Center is a good project to talk this through. The history of the LGBT Center is pretty incredible as it relates to architecture: beginning with the political activism in the LGBTQ queer community, specifically in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, the Liberation Houses, which were domestic spaces appropriated to provide social services to the community, and how the Center evolved from a grassroots movement to an institution over time.

At what moment does capital-A Architecture get involved in this process of supporting the needs of a community that historically didn’t have institutional support or hasn’t been reflected in the presence of any kind of civic architecture? When we got involved in the project, it was part of a larger process of institutionalization for the LGBT Center, which led to their vision for a new typology of an intergenerational urban campus with six different types of social housing, a youth center, senior center, and 100 units of senior housing—a whole continuum of living programs. There are so many different needs within that spectrum depending on where people are coming from in their lives. What does it mean to design safe outdoor space for youth who are coming in off the street? Safe outdoor space doesn’t usually exist in urban contexts. So what does it mean to create a sanctuary of courtyards in the context of Hollywood—to make different bodies feel safe? What does it mean to design for seniors to maintain social connections? We were really thinking about how to design a campus to connect the different people who live and work there but also connect with the neighborhood and the city. It’s a unique convergence of an institution and a home.

Drew: When thinking through an institution, and what it requires—including by code or funding restrictions—are there any compromises you feel you had to make? What did you learn that you might take to subsequent projects?

Dominic: We learned aesthetics really do matter. I would say aesthetics matter as much as resolving pragmatic constraints, but I think oftentimes, an aesthetic language is harder to define and not as easily translatable into the same system of value. Like, yes, we need to address all the programmatic and operational concerns. But we also really needed to make sure that the language of the architecture can connect with the people who it’s built for. I think every project has different capacities or ways of doing that. There’s no formula, but it’s about putting [aesthetics] on the table as a critical consideration. Ultimately, architecture is an aesthetic practice and a social practice. That’s also why it’s political. I don’t consider myself an activist architect, but architecture is an aesthetic medium that has the power to give presence to different communities. The aesthetics of that presence is super important. In and of itself that is a social act. It’s also a political act, whether it’s stated as such or not. It’s saying that something can be said that wasn’t said before—and that’s a certain kind of power.

Left: Shirt and shoes talent’s own. Jacket and trousers by Fendi. Glasses by Akoni.

Drew: On the topic of power, I wanted to ask about another larger-scale initiative, Hawai’i Nonlinear. How did that come about?

Dominic: Hawai’i Nonlinear started with a teaching collaboration with an artist named Sean Connelly, who is based in Honolulu. My dad’s family’s from Hawai’i, and I’m part native Hawaiian. I didn’t grow up there, but I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid with my family and it was really formative. Leading up to 2020 I was asking a lot of questions about my own personal relationship to this place and culture. Then 2020 rolled around—the Movement for Black Lives—I was teaching at Columbia amid all the conversations about anti-racism. My questioning of my role as an architect within these processes really accelerated. What was my positionality relative to all these conversations? And that just led into a few years of intensive teaching with Sean about the role architecture could play in cultural and ecological recovery in the context of Hawai’i.

He’d already been working at this intersection in different ways in his art practice and his activism, understanding US urbanism as an extension of US military infrastructure in Hawai’i. So we taught a series of design studios that began to consider how architecture could reconnect to the specific ecology and culture of Hawai’i. And out of those studios, we formed a nonprofit, which is Hawai’i Nonlinear. I’ve since become more of an advisor and Sean is directing it. There’s a real opportunity to use architecture as a tool within these ongoing processes of grassroots recovery of land and native food systems that have been interrupted by over-development. It expands the understanding of architecture from just an object to thinking of it as a material and cultural system inseparable from the environment. It’s just one node within a larger network of relationships that ultimately, through the lens of a Native Hawaiian worldview, comes back to our relationship to land. In Hawaiian culture, the word for land is ‘aina.’ But it also translates to ‘that which feeds.’ So it suggests a totally different way of relating to our natural environment that is genealogical and familial, but is not extractive. It’s about being in a reciprocal system of care with the land. The land cares for us, we care for the land. We are in a reciprocal relationship and cultivating the resources within the context of Hawaiian ecology is a system of management that is beyond just practical management but is related to a cosmological and genealogical set of relations. So that all presents an entanglement that is unavoidable. We’re in a system of capitalism and imperialism, dealing with the legacies of colonialism.

In Hawai’i there’s a large network of local organizations doing ecological recovery and cultural practice on specific sites. Many of these groups need to increase their operational capacity to scale their programming for school programs, food sovereignty, community gatherings, etc. You see a lot of shipping containers and tents, which are very practical. But what we are exploring is how architecture can support this work by evolving traditional Hawaiian structural systems to create larger, more flexible spaces. We’re developing a prototype for a large-span wood structural system that uses traditional lashing joints. Long term, the vision is to make a fully ‘island-based’ building system by regenerating endemic plants traditionally used for lashing and various types of thatching. We’re building a full-scale prototype of the structure that will be exhibited in the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial this fall.

Drew: Perhaps to return to the discussion of aesthetics, on a more granular level, I’m really curious about your approach. One interesting facet of your work to me is how you will work with what seems like a large segment of a single material, like a light stone or a metal, but it’s curved or scalloped or cut in such a way that causes something to happen with scale and this simple gesture. What’s your approach to material and form? How do you make those choices?

Dominic: It’s pretty intuitive to be honest. Over the years having been asked this question a few times, I’ve had to find ways to post-rationalize it. One way I understand it now—one of the formulas, so to speak—is a fascination with an aesthetic or formal language that presents a certain coherence or legibility, like a familiar shape or corner or straight line, and how that formal language interacts with a material effect, or sensibility that makes the perception of it more ambiguous. Maybe you’re challenged or it draws you in a bit. It’s unexpected. I love the tension between coherence and strangeness, for lack of a better word. I don’t know what that’s about—that’s probably a whole therapy session. But I think it’s a constant search for coherence and legibility, along with a desire to connect people to their bodies, and feel something unexpected.