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Flexible And Unforgettable: The Architecture Imperatives For 2021

Bushwick Generator

In a year when Americans stayed home and offices and retail buildings were left empty, the commercial real estate industry was taught the importance of one word: flexibility. 2020 showed developers, architects and owners the massive need for flexible spaces that can adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Matthias Hollwich, a founder of the New York-based architecture firm HWKN, understands the importance of flexible design, but he also wants to take things a step further.   

“Coming into 2021, buildings need to be two things: flexible and unforgettable,” Hollwich said. “Flexibility gives us power in an uncertain world, allowing us to create spaces that can be adjusted to fit new demands. History has shown us that truly unforgettable buildings, like the Guggenheim Museum, are timeless and can weather any storm.”  

In 2021, HWKN plans to embrace flexibility in its design solutions and expand its operations, creating a new brand called FLX. Bisnow recently spoke with Hollwich, a 20-year industry veteran, who has designed iconic buildings including 25 Kent in Williamsburg, Journal Squared in Jersey City and Die Macherei in Munich, about his approach to design and his firm’s mission to create spaces that will stand the test of time.  

A rendering of FLX Work.

Bisnow: Can you describe your approach to design?

Hollwich: We use the phrase "Beyond Architecture" to describe our work. Any architect can design fine buildings, but we go deeper to understand a project holistically. In the early stages of a project, we explore new business models, the opportunities posed by different possible sites and even new typologies based on how people live and work in a particular area. After designing the building, we go deeper into the building’s activation, making sure it is being embraced and enjoyed by the community.

25 Kent

Bisnow: How do you adapt to changing architectural trends?   

Hollwich: The key is to have an open mind and be observant, not just about what’s happening right in front of you, but in the world as a whole. One of the benefits of working with us is that we have projects in both the U.S. and Europe, bringing cross-cultural fertilization to our work. The things we learn in America about communication, public relations and positioning, we can bring to Germany. Meanwhile, the things we learn about sustainability, community and technology in Germany can be brought to the U.S.

A rendering of Die Macherei in Germany

Bisnow: How do you balance the tension between creating a timeless, unforgettable building that is also flexible and adaptable to change?  

Hollwich: These two ideas do not have to exist independently of one another. We strategically insert sculptural elements into the building design where it matters most — the ground-floor experience — to create unforgettable moments. Focusing specific design elements on the base allows the rest of the building to be flexible. For example, we can combine a 5-foot office grid, a 30-foot lease span, operable windows, and 12-foot floor-to-floor heights with cooling sails, which permits the building to operate as an office building or a residential building, depending on need over time.

Our new FLX brand works off this basis. We are creating office buildings that can adapt to different densities and uses, and apartment buildings that have flexible unit mixes, and flexible assets that can freely switch from office use to residential use or from parking to office. Our FLX work will also become extremely relevant when we start to repurpose underutilized B and C class office buildings in the near future. We’re excited to share that in the coming months, along with our new partnerships with forward-thinking developers.

The Pennovation building

Bisnow: How do you approach branding as part of this philosophy?

Hollwich: We want our buildings to serve as their own brand ambassadors. What this means is there doesn’t need to be a logo that tells a building’s story, but rather the experience will lead to positive word-of-mouth and interest from news sources. This will organically create good PR.  

We’ve seen this happen with our Pennovation project, which is the innovation center at the University of Pennsylvania. People in the community were excited by the building and posted a ton on social media. Those posts made that building famous around the world, without us having to do a thing. In Germany, we are participating in the creation of an office brand called SPIRIT for the developer Landmarken. By combining the rationale of a prefabricated building with the emotion of a dynamic exterior design, we are setting up buildings that speak for themselves while keeping costs in check.

Bisnow: What excites you most about architecture today? 

Hollwich: 2021 is the year to re-invent real estate. It's the year to collaborate with local communities and visionary investors through projects that will generate value while make a positive impact for years to come.

This article was produced in collaboration between Studio B and HWKN. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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