When Josh de Sousa and Nancy Hou studied at Cornell University, they spent the summer in a travel program driving around Europe with six other architecture students and their professor. The experience marked the beginning of their partnership in work and life: The pair began working together during grad school at Harvard, and married last August. “We realized early on that coming up with ideas that were satisfying for both of us was sort of proof of concept,” de Sousa says. “Collaborating helps us build confidence and energy toward pursuing a goal.”
Their devotion to the design process, and each other, is what fuels their New York studio, Hou de Sousa. “Like many architects, we are also drawn to industrial design and art,” Hou says. “We’re comfortable with the fact that sometimes the best way to explore an idea isn’t actually through architecture.” Representing a single solution that answers a project’s many challenges, their broad range of work—which includes a trio of restaurants, community space around a mixed-use complex, and the redesign of a yacht that once belonged to Grace Kelly—reflects Hou de Sousa’s ability to embrace any opportunity as a means to make a positive impact. Their many conceptual projects, including Mochi, a sculpture of 6,000 discarded plastic bags transformed into waterproof panels, signal an interest in finding new applications for everyday materials.
“We want to contribute to larger projects that affect more people,” says de Sousa, who worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Office for Metropolitan Architecture before co-founding Hou de Sousa in 2010. “But at the same time, we’re not obsessed with becoming a large office. We enjoy focusing on design itself, and are content with the recognition this brings—or doesn’t.”
The studio got a taste of the spotlight earlier this year when it won Re-Ball!, a design competition for an installation inside an abandoned D.C. trolley tunnel using plastic spheres from The Beach, Snarkitecture’s 2015 installation at the National Building Museum. The studio’s concept, Raise/Raze, gave form to the previously free-form material by way of hot glue and Velcro. The resulting molecule-inspired cubes created a living sculpture visitors could rearrange, and marked the firm’s first realized competition win.
In July, Hou de Sousa opened Sticks, its first-place submission for Folly, an annual competition to build a site-specific structure at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York. Providing shade, storage and space for workshops, the simple grid of wood shelving strikes an elegant balance between function and embellishment and is on view through December.
“Hou de Sousa have an attuned vision that allows them to see the plurality of existing and potential uses of a site,” says Jess Wilcox, the park’s director of exhibitions. “In both the D.C. and Socrates projects, what is most engaging is the way their systems adapt to the ragged contours of the real world. Where and when they bend the rules they’ve made for themselves is where the work shines brightest.”