Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu  
David Yum Architects: Appreciating complexities

By Ingrid Spencer

When architect David Yum started his own practice, David Yum Architects, in New York City, in 2000, he was eager, enthusiastic, and confident that success would be imminent. After all, he had two projects in hand; lots of experience from living abroad and in San Francisco for five years, working with such architects and firms as David Chipperfield, Alvaro Siza, Mark Horton Architecture, Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, and Shelton Mindel & Associates; and architecture degrees from Columbia University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. But after 2000 came 2001, and suddenly the economic climate shifted, the projects stalled or fell through, and Yum found himself struggling. “When I started, the economy was fantastic, and then it was horrible,” says Yum. “And both the projects I had were somewhat related to the financial-services industry, which was suffering. It was a difficult time.”

Oyler Wu Collaborative: Suburban Intervention, Los Angeles
Images: courtesy David Yum Architects

The scheme for this low-budget Williamsburg restaurant is pinned by a long wood wall running the length of the space. From the ceiling, vertical boards fold at acute angles to form a bench, which draws you from street-front to the dining area in the back and finally, the garden area in the rear. Three sculptural canopies zigzag across the space, leading from front door to the bar counter, past the kitchen in the middle of the space and finally to the more romantic seating area in the back.
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But Yum stuck it out, and through perseverance and chance, got hired to renovate a 12,000-square-foot “cottage” in Hyde Park, 100 miles north of New York City, that Frederick Vanderbilt had built for his niece in 1896. Other projects followed, putting the practice on track. Yum says his experiences shaped his thinking about architecture. “So many different complexities go into creating buildings—social, political, monetary, cultural. You have to find a solution that synthesizes it all. It’s intriguing to participate in that—to be able to create a moment that addresses those issues. And I think that finding a synthesis that embraces more of those strands than fewer provides the richer, more resolved solution.”

For Yum and his firm, which has fluctuated from three people to as many as eight, finding a resolved solution that makes sense for the project means plenty of material and programmatic research, creative thinking, and often a do-it-yourself attitude. “For one residential interior project in New York City, we developed this wonderful screen that the client just loved, but he said, ‘Who’s going to pay for that?’ ” says Yum. “We wanted to do it, so we worked with resin, poured our own molds, and physically fabricated it ourselves.” Needless to say, the client was more than pleased. “It’s that kind of material exploration and attention to detail that excites us,” he says, “and it’s often the lower-budget projects that end up letting us be the most experimental.”

With his practice stable and word-of-mouth bringing in a consistent roster of clients, including several in the tristate area, more than one in Korea, and a winery near Santa Barbara, California, Yum says he’s looking forward to expanding, and ready to take on the growing pains. “Of course I’d like my firm to grow and get projects that more people get to experience,” he says, “but I do love the size we are now. We have a collaborative atmosphere, get to participate in competitions now and then, and have a lot of human interaction.” Riding the roller coaster of creating a small practice just may have prepared him for whatever comes along. “When you’re a small firm, a couple of projects can change your life. We’re open to that.” 

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