Q/A Workac – Reinventing Architecture

Q/A Workac - Reinventing Architecture, published in Frame magazine 2022

Amale Andraos: Our departing point is that architecture has to engage with our present reality in order to reinvent itself while at the same time becoming more utopian situating itself on the intersection of the urban, the rural, and the natural. The problem with the profession of architects is that we are still on the receiving end of work. You can surely direct your practice to your own goals, in our case especially how food and cities are interconnected, but unless you have a strong public sector backing you, or a private sector interested in exploring beyond the status quo, it will be very hard to change the role of architecture in society. What’s happening now, nevertheless, is that people try working differently since they see a future in making cities more self sustaining and responding to our environmental challenges.

Dan Wood: We have been teaching and writing, both of us, about ecology and urbanism, not the least in the research project 49 Cities. We started to understand how many cities around the world developed along with their farmlands, as explained by Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the Garden City movement. Returning from a Christmas vacation in Colorado 2007, we stumbled on Michael Pollan’s recently published The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals in a tiny little airport. It’s been a great inspiration: at that time nobody ever talked about food and architecture, or urban farming. In our winning proposal for the PS1 2008, we let go of the usual party space expectations, and aimed for a something like Superstudio’s Continuos Monument.

AA: We ditched fab labs, 3D milling machines and parameterics and went for our new concept PF1 (Public Farm 1) focused on urban farming, and which also led us to our next project Edible Schoolyards NYC. Growing food you are literally on the ground. We went beyond our theoretical interest and started to work with scientists, and the Horticultural Society of New York that worked with Rikers Island GreenHouse programs for formerly incarcerated inmates, in the end we involved more than 150 people. A part from economic and social dimensions, it is about the environment and designing for excess of life instead of abstract form. It’s also fun and lots of childlike creative pleasure, something we have explored in the Children’s Museum of the Arts here in New York as well as in the Brooklyn city library children section.

AA: When I studied with Rem Koolhaas at Harvard School of Design, he was going to give this really big lecture 1998. I was told afterward that some Dutch guy was looking for me. And when this guy Dan turned up, he asked me out for an American hamburger.

DW: She accused me of having a Dutch accent, although I’m from Rhode Island, just because I had lived in Rotterdam. Amale moved over there to look for work at MVRDV, or why not with Frank Gehry? But Rem told her to work for him. I had already worked there for 6 years.

AA: We got married in Rotterdam, it was a terrific party, nobody gets married there! We decided to settle in New York 2002, but all American work with OMA died after 9/11, Rem started to focus on East Asia. So we decided to launch our own practice WORKac in 2003 and setting up our 5-year-plans, the first three of them covered in our Duograph We’ll Get There When We Cross That Bridge (Monacelli Press).

DW: It’s true our first work was a dog shed: Villa Pup with three video screens, a treadmill, an odor machine, allowing the city dog to experience the life of its rural cousin. Quite the opposite of the big projects at OMA and what you would expect as a young office in Europe. Our client was a charity bringing dogs to prisoners with long sentences. The prisoners get a friend, and they train them to become support dogs for blind people.

AA: We were committed to say yes to everything, from bathroom renovations to zoning analyses, and we began to teach at Harvard, Cooper Union, at Princeton. We slipped in late and won a competition for Diane von Furstenberg’s new Studio Headquarters, and later we completed 35 stores around the world for her. At the time, and still now, we think that the whole way of building needs to be totally reinvented. We found much more inventive thinking in the food community with movements like slow food, city farming, acquaponics, replacing some streets of Brooklyn with ”infoodstructure”! And it has really transformed our practice: in any public project, libraries, museums, we try to put components of greenhouses, outdoor spaces, real connections between people and nature. Imagine if we had something like Slow Building! Yes, you are right, we should write a manifesto! 

AA: Neither of us wanted to be architects! My father is both a painter and an architect, he worked as an architect for ten years before the civil war in Lebanon. I grew up in Saudi Arabia where he started a company for prefab houses. I was brought to see art and construction sites, and I swore that I’d never ever become an architect; I didn’t what to do the same thing as my father. But at the age of 17 at college it was finally no longer about him but about me, so I went for architecture.

DW: My father took me to an architecture studio when I was 13, since I did draw well and had a knack for mathematics, who knows if it was because of my paternal grandfather who had been an engineer that designed churches in his spare time. But at that office they were so uncool, they did draw with rulers, it didn’t seem creative at all. Later when I was 20 I studied film and art history, and I had a summer job in Tokyo hanging out with an Australian guy who did his desertion in architectural history. I tagged along and met with architects like Arata Izosaki, Fumihiko Maki, and Kenzo Tange. Tange’s Komazava Olympic Tower looking a like a tree was totally different from anything I had experienced. Maybe I should become an architect?!

AA: I don’t agree that architecture lacks relevance in the information age. As a Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, when Covid hit, we distributed computers to all our students within a week. We began teaching virtually, and it’s amazing how much you can do remotely. BBut over and over again the students kept saying that all they wanted was Avery Hall. And I realized that: Yes, we can access information and we can do so much else on-line, but you can’t replace being together in space. You don’t bump into someone randomly coming up with brand new ideas in the virutal world. I think the pandemic has accelerated our capacity not to be together, but it also made a strong case for our need for interactions in the physical realm.

AA: Why do we come together, and what can we do separated? This query makes me think that architecture is more relevant than ever, but you have to be specific, you have to decide what purposes it serves. In all civic work we find find that you can’t replace real space. At the same time I think we should embrace design through disagreement as a process, the ability to hold together opposing ideas. Differences are positive in order to start over and together create something other. 

DW: On the other hand, the question is who designs these spaces. We are in moment when the big corporate offices are designing more and more, and they don’t care for highlighting differences and embracing inclusivity. I think that architects that are very invested in how things are built: in materiality, fabrication, new methods of constructions, they are more frustrated than us. We are more focused on being strategic; we have a lot of experience and therefore control of how to include the unexpected. We are looking into how we can intertwine form and performance in a narrative of systems and flows: how water, air, light, energy, food can actively influence both the built and allow for the unbuilt to be part of our cities. One such project is the assembly hall in Libreville, Gabon, where the slanted circular roof not only encompass the country’s ecosystems, but also collects rainwater for a waterfall, and employing other active and passive sustainable strategies.

AA: We are hard at work at BeMA, the Beirut Museum of Art, which is scheduled to open in 2025, the 150th anniversary of the Université Saint-Joseph that is the site of the project. We got the commission in 2008; the Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati laid the first stone in February. We had to rethink the concept with our clients in this public-private cooperation after the Beirut explosion in 2020, and since the very start the architecture in itself has triggered and been influenced by the mission of the museum. The educational program has now gotten even stronger involving public schools, artist in residence, outdoor rooms, playgrounds: it’s all about the people.

AA: Modern Arab art is usually associated with Egypt, with Iraq. When talking about Lebanon you usually get a story about individuals that were hybridizing east and west. That’s far from the truth, but the Lebanese art collection that dates back to the 19th century has remained quite unknown due to the lack of exhibition spaces. BeMA will remedy this and will house both contemporary art and a collection that go to Beirut’s first aspirations for modernity. It will also address the fact that there was hardly any cultural and public space created during the neo-liberal building boom after the war. With all the glass towers being built around the globe, we wanted to revive the balcony, which is fully in line with us usually starting, instead of ending a project with the interior. The way outer and inner spaces flow into each other is a vertical continuation within the facade of the park we’ve created. The museum will capture the nation building of the past, while at the same time engaging with new ideas about the future, all in all creating a place for everyone that will both feel and look open.

DW: Context has changed meaning through time; it’s no longer limited to the built environment. To say, ”fuck context” like Rem Koolhaas, will today mean, ”fuck the planet”. To care about context is not exclusionary in the way that identity is, and enables a critique of the architectural canon. In Beirut, as well as in many other international projects, we have not been focused on markers of identity, but in creating new institutions around shared programs and situations.

AA: It’s true, not the least here in New York that museums have to change their relation curators to audience, it surely has to be more inclusive. There has been a lot of criticism, and I think this is a very important time of reflection for foundations of knowledge like museums, institutions and universities as well.

AA: At the same time, it is not like the ideas of the Arab spring are gone, people are still very activist. Things do happen very fast, which maybe makes us forget that change requires time. We have an incredible sophistication in the knowledge of how racism plays out in the refugee crises. And while I think that the roles and presence of women in academia, and also in the profession of architecture has changes remarkably the last 10 years, I also think what is valued has changed: we are talking about preservation, about environment, about the social aspects. I think the real challenge is to make architecture much more inclusive and diverse, not talking only about gender but about race. When I was a student we organized a group called Architecture and Feminism, later renamed Gendering Space, as a protest against history courses that where very white, very male, very catholic. After 3 years of reading Foucault, Butler, and many others, my conclusion was that the questions were not male or female, but about opening up. I think today is a real good time to be a woman architect! Let’s get more voices in! 

WORKac’s suggestion for a more inclusive architecture

  • We have always been fascinated by Memphis, by Gaetano Pesce. If you do use color, choose the bold ones!
  • People ask us why our work is ’so happy’. But pop is not necessarily so, it’s full of contradictions: childlike, immediate, and yet quite complex. Use pop to be loud, to be legible, to broadcast, to communicate.
  • Don’t just do individual buildings: explore the conditions that shape both cities and urbanism by connecting this loss of distinction between the two to the larger environment in terms of systems, infrastructure and nature.
  • Think about contemporary work cultures, not the ones born out of Modernism. Experiment and question the workplace, regardless if it is at home or in a traditional office.
  • You don’t have to go for the smooth, homogenous and beautiful, you can be clunky. Let parts, forms, and systems remain legible. Why opt for less when you can have more: editing in rather than editing out.

Published in Frame Magazine 2022

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