As if I needed better evidence that change was afoot at WORKac, the architecture firm led by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, a stack of Sheetrock and a semi-demolished brick wall greet me as I enter their office, mid-renovation, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side one morning in October. Since 2014, when Andraos became dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), a hyperactive institution with global satellites, the firm has had to adjust to new pressures. “We had a tough time the first year,” admits Wood, over an intermittent chorus of drills, saws, and Shop-Vacs.
But now that Andraos has settled into her job uptown, the office has embarked upon what he describes as “a really experimental period.” A book documenting nearly 15 years of practice is due out this fall. And major projects, such as a new public library in Queens, are nearing completion. Having ascended to the highest ranks of academia and demonstrated that their office is capable of winning significant commissions while they are still in their 40s, Andraos and Wood find themselves in an enviable predicament.
With the experience and reputation they’ve amassed, they must determine how to proceed.
“When we started the practice, we didn’t know what we wanted to do, and we were really about working,” says Wood. “But I think we realized very quickly in teaching that it’s a way to escape the day-to-day pressure of everyone demanding that you make decisions. Teaching is really just reacting to other people’s decisions. You set things in motion and you kind of watch them go.”
Andraos, more measured than Wood, strikes a philosophical tone: “I aspire to foster a school where everyone is in a kind of passionate state. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Pragmatists both, they want to prove to students that it is possible to think about the same things in the office as in school (Wood teaches at the University of Pennsylvania). This means they are obligated to hold up the other end of the bargain in their role as risk-tolerant professionals.
“We have no problem throwing people onto a project that doesn’t exist,” offers Wood.
“Actually that is a problem,” says Andraos, drawing him back from the ledge of extravagance.
Wood concedes, “That is a bit of a financial problem.”
Now and again, they indulge themselves. (What better use of an Ivy League administrator’s salary than speculation?)
And on such occasions, the DIY spirit and environmental preoccupations of the 1960s and ’70s counterculture act as their guide. For the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, WORKac collaborated with Ant Farm members Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier to reanimate three prescient projects from the outsider group’s archive, and collaged them into a floating habitat called 3.C.city. A more recent project of this sort, an off-the-grid house in the Arizona desert, re-envisions the Earthship passive energy building type beloved by Cold War survivalists as a sleek, solar-paneled glass wedge (part greenhouse, part living area) perched atop an adobe brick thermal mass.
Less far-fetched fantasy than over-the-top reality, the house is characteristic of their work in general, which luxuriates in intensive programming and odd proximities. For proof, consider the facade they were commissioned to design for one section of a parking structure now under construction in Miami’s Design District. “We said, OK, we’re going to take the four feet that are given for the architect, for the envelope, and really create this kind of vertical public promenade of all our favorite topics— art, kids, animals, water collection,” says Andraos. Wood adds, “So it has a playground, a little lending library, a listening lounge, a graffiti art gallery, a garden with a palm tree, a DJ booth.”
In the office’s current moment of experimentation, this programmatic feverishness has taken on a slightly different form, emphasizing the articulation of boundaries. A proposal for the new Beirut Museum of Art, awarded second place in a recent competition, carves speech-bubble-like cavities of various sizes out of a freestanding concrete mass, reconceiving the balcony, a fixture of the Mediterranean city, as a receptacle for artworks. While we talk, Wood takes a small model of the building by his hand and switches on a battery-operated light. The dimpled cube glows, as does the architect’s face.
This childlike thrill from miniatures is a holdover from his 20s. Wood, who was raised in rural Rhode Island and studied film theory in college, “got really into model making” as an architecture student at GSAPP during the pre-paperless studio period of the early 1990s. After graduation, he pursued this interest professionally, first in New York and then at OMA in Rotterdam. His career took off from there. “One day, Rem called me out of the model shop and said, ‘You know, we have a lot of projects in the U.S. now, so you should be in charge of them.’”
“I thought he was Dutch,” recalls the Lebanese-born Andraos of her first encounter with Wood, in 1998. “So I said, ‘Do you want to go for an American burger?’” By then her own identity was susceptible to misinterpretation, as she’d spent much of her childhood living in Saudi Arabia—where her father, an architect and painter, pursued a prefabricated-housing venture—then in Paris and Montreal. Andraos completed an undergraduate thesis on downtown Beirut at McGill University and made Middle Eastern cities the focus of her first major initiative as dean; but she approaches the subject of her native region, and most other things, from multiple vantage points. (At GSAPP, she insists on making connections across different programs, and with the outside world, around shared environmental and social concerns.) As a student of Koolhaas’s at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design—where his research at the time spanned Roman cities to Lagos, Nigeria—and, later, as his employee at OMA, Andraos was taught to take seriously every condition possible. “Certainly we still carry that approach,” she says.
Indeed, despite the considerable time both spent working for Koolhaas, when Andraos and Wood set out on their own, in 2003, they took with them less a formal grammar of off-kilter cantilevers than an expansive, hierarchy-busting perspective. For the first five years, during which WORKac completed mostly interior projects locally in New York, the firm’s philosophy was “Say yes to everything.” Villa Pup—an immersive urban doghouse incorporating a treadmill, an odor machine, and video screens—was its “mascot project.”
A turning point came in 2008, after winning MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program. The annual pavilion pageant epitomized for them an exhausted architectural discourse focused on fabrication, form-making, and material exploration. In retrospect, WORKac’s canopy-as-functioning-urban-farm also signaled a shift in the competition criteria, no doubt hastened by the financial crisis (future winners, like Andrés Jaque’s water-purifying COSMO or HWKN’s air-filtering Wendy, were judged as much for what they did as how they looked).
Attracted by the excitement in other fields—urbanism, landscape, ecology, infrastructure—WORKac turned its focus away from the building proper. With the exception of a culinary classroom for Edible Schoolyard NYC at P.S. 216 in Brooklyn, completed in 2014, its most important projects from this period were research-based. 49 Cities, a self-initiated study shown at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2009 and published as a book, reframed the history of visionary urban schemes like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Royal Saltworks complex and Superstudio’s Continuous Monument in ecological terms. Nature-City, a speculative suburban redevelopment prepared for MoMA’s 2012 Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream exhibition, proposed landform-esque structures that combined living and working spaces and infrastructural features such as composting hills, geothermal pumps, and water-pressure waterfalls.
In the past year, however, a renewed interest in the problem of the building has emerged. “It’s kind of like we went from inside to very large-scale outside, and now we’re bringing the outside and the inside back together—which is architecture,” says Andraos. Over the course of our conversation, the issue we keep returning to is that of scale. Andraos and Wood express a desire to be closer to the work, whether by exercising greater control over details or, as in the case of their long-standing relationship with Edible Schoolyard NYC (a second facility was just completed in Harlem), contributing to a project’s broader ambitions. “True partners” is how Kate Brashares, executive director of the food-education nonprofit, described Andraos and Wood to me recently. For her, their work revealed how the architecture of the culinary classrooms could not only support but become an integral part of the organization’s mission—space as environmental-sensitivity training.
Still, Andraos and Wood can’t help but wonder if they are shooting themselves in the foot by preferring more amenable scales. Does an architecture firm accrue experience only to pass up larger projects? For practices like WORKac—concerned with building but invested in experimentation, research, and teaching—the future is hardly predestined. Reliable guides for how to engage the world are in short supply today. The gospel of bigness handed down to their generation in Koolhaas’s S, M, L, XL—only by dramatically increasing scale could architecture fully engage its own time—gives Andraos pause. “I think it’s a question. I think we’re allowed to say the price is too high.” Wood, concerned about diminished impact, offers a counterpoint. “I want to temper the idea of pulling back on scale. It’s really pulling back on excess, maybe,” he explains. “There are some very big ideas that can help the world be more sustainable.”
As Andraos sees it, maintaining control over one’s practice as far as deciding the scale at which to operate is the greatest challenge architects face today. The question pertains to issues like payroll, certainly. But to the extent that there is a choice, it is also a political and ethical consideration. “It’s a privilege to be able to decide how you want to live it,” Andraos says of life, which, for her and her partner, is never far removed from work. “That’s what practice is.”