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Meet the 2013 Curbed Young Guns: Eric Tan

Take a stroll through MoMA and you'll find, in the Cut 'n' Paste exhibition on architectural collage running through December 1, work by Eric Tan, Gensler's Town Square Design Leader and a Curbed Young Gun. Tan, 27, worked at SOM CASE and Henning Larsen before joining Gensler, and he's also part of an international architecture collective, PinkCloud.DK, which reached the finals in a competition to design the Miami Marine Stadium and won another competition with a design for a pop-up hotel. "As a young architect, he is engaging, he crosses disciplines, he connects with clients, he connects with interns?he's a natural leader in addition to just being incredibly talented," says Gensler Principal Maddy Burke-Vigeland, who has worked with Tan on a number of projects.

Tan's conceptual work?including a redesign of a site on Allen Street as part of Gensler's Town Square urban makeover initiative?appealed to our Young Guns panelists. But Burke-Vigeland also speaks highly of his more concrete work on projects like the firm's response to the city's Empire Stores RFP. That project involved coming up with new uses for Dumbo warehouse buildings that have sat empty for years, and Tan was instrumental to the firm's entry. "It was a team, it wasn't just Eric, but he was a true leader in?getting the strategy" and making sure the presentation was visually clear and understandable. Internally, too, Tan has been a major part of the firm's intern program, setting up an initiative that groups interns to work on projects at Barnard and Columbia, with the goal of improving community ties between the schools and their neighbors. We spoke with Tan about the Allen Street initiative, his background in the field, and his future projects.

Curbed: Tell us about your background and how you got into the field.

Eric Tan As a kid, I always had a interest as to how society works, how people got together in groups, how cities worked. It was more like an anthropolgical view of how cities functioned, and why exactly people in society do the things they do, where exactly do these social trends come from, and how exactly can I shape some of them??.That was the thing that I was always fascinated by.

How would you describe your overall design philosophy?

I think that the best design actually tries to solve a problem in the simplest way possible. The simplest and most efficient way possible?.A lot of design think is trying to design for the sake of designing something. What I quickly found out was that wasn't how the world works. Every architecture project, I see it as more of a problem-solving project?this site has X problem, these are the issues affecting the site, these are the kinds of people that use the site. It all has to function in a more or less seamless way, so that's how I look at architecture.

What are some of your favorite projects you've worked on?

Here at Gensler, we have this newly-developed research program called the Town Square program?and this was a project that I was fortunate enough to be put in charge of. [The project looks at] how can we design for a future city and what exactly does that future look like? Who will live in this future city, and how are we as designers, planners?how do we plan for this future city?

We had?developed a sort of?project about trying to improve a small part of the city, and then using that as a scalable [design]. We want to take some of the vacant plots of land within the city, some of these strange leftover spaces, vacant plots, plots of land that don't really have a function as of now?something that will revitalize certain parts of the city. Our site is currently in Allen Street between Houston and Grand Street. There are these strange medians that are just not used now because people haven't really figured out a function for them. These spaces are sort of too small to construct on, but they do remain a sizable size, enough for us to turn them into parks, turn them into various vibrant public spaces. We wanted to use these vacant plots of land as kind of a test lab for [the future city].

You also run an international design collective. Tell us more about that.

It's just something that I do with some friends from school?it's a passion project. [We do] projects that are purely conceptual. What if we were to redesign housing projects in the city? How would that work out? What if we were to do pop-up hotels? It's sort of a venue for me to do these sort of extreme architectural experiments.

What types of projects do you hope to work on in the future?

There's so much happening in the world of tech now, and also the field of robotics. As a whole, architecture and also how we construct, how we build, how we operate, really hasn't changed since the mid-1800s?it's still very much hammer and nail. If you actually look at how much tech has changed in the late 1990s, it's a huge change. So I'm hoping to somehow combine the two. Perhaps in the future, construction is all operated by these smart robots, perhaps we could track construction in real-time. How does affect how we work?how does that affect how society works? I think these are all things that are really fascinating.