WORKac

Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of NY-based firm WORKac talk with Ana Miljački about different facets of sustainability, the lessons learned from saying yes to everything, and regrets, among other topics.

Recorded on August 17, 2021

About WORKac

Amale Andraos and Dan Wood started their firm WORKac in 2003, after both had worked at OMA in Rotterdam. WORKac has designed cultural, residential, institutional, and commercial projects including libraries in New York City and Boulder, CO, a student center for the Rhode Island School of Design, Edible Schoolyards with food activist Alice Waters, and a new museum in Beirut, Lebanon. Andraos and Wood describe the process and attitude of their firm this way: “WORKac creates architecture and strategic planning concepts at the intersection of the urban, the rural, and the natural. Embracing reinvention and collaboration with other fields, we strive to develop intelligent and shared infrastructures and to achieve a more careful integration between architecture, landscape, and ecological systems. We hold unshakable lightness and polemical optimism as a means to move beyond the projected and towards the possible.”

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript

Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Ana Miljački: (0:20) Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I am Ana Miljački, Professor of Architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab. And on behalf of The Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled I Would Prefer Not To.

I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes: refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, this issue stays hidden from public scrutiny, and thus also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind do not leave paper trails, if at all; they exist as echoes of professional gossip, not easy to examine or learn from. And yet the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about and decisions not to engage are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission, or types of commissions, or commissions with certain characteristics inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.

My guests in this episode are Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, two founding partners and leaders of the architectural firm WORKac, based in New York and operating across the US and globally from it. Amale Andraos, originally from Lebanon, and the US architect Dan Wood founded WORKac in 2003. A decade and a half later, WORKac was named the number one firm in the US by Architect Magazine and was AIA’s firm of the year. They have completed numerous important projects: libraries, museums, and schools among them. They’re currently working on a library in Brooklyn, New York, and one in Boulder, Colorado, as well as on two PILARES, multifunctional public buildings in Mexico City. Individually and together, they have received numerous awards and serve on important professional and academic boards.

We will talk today about some of the recent and future work of WORKac. But we will do that, or we will begin that, by talking about the work that is not in their portfolio: By discussing at what point is a commission not worth it, what kind of line gets drawn with a decision to forfeit the possibility of work, and how they make such decisions in the firm.

So, let’s perhaps start with your most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission.

Amale Andraos: (3:02) Thank you, Ana, it’s a pleasure to be speaking on such an important topic. As you were introducing our conversation, I was making a list with the intent to start with, you know, real examples, as opposed to theoretical. And so I’ll start with one story.

We were in St. Petersburg. I was there actually with Jorge Otero-Pailos, preservation architect, and it was after a few days of meeting with the client and the owner rep for the New Holland Island master plan and project. We had gone to present precisely to the Landmarks Commission in St. Petersburg, and that’s why Jorge, we had enlisted Jorge’s help. And it was, you know, it kind of do or don’t, you know, are we going to make it and is the project going to be realized or not? And we had been working really intensely on taking what was initially a competition—so, you know, a winning competition entry—and then transform to really take in the kind of preservation aspect, public aspect, etc.

And I was sitting across from the owner’s rep, and then finally, after a few days of just feeling like it was hard to put our finger on where the project was, I looked at the drawings that were presented, and—Yulia is the name of the owner’s rep [who] was sitting across from me; amazing woman, really powerful, super smart—and I look at Yulia and I said, “This is not our project.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, the whole project was . . . sure, the project transformed, and I understand that we need now to have residential units, and the mixed use is really becoming a sort of development, but the public aspect of the project is really crucial. This is an island that was not open to the public for centuries, and the idea of this kind of public promenade that cut across all of the buildings and created the sense of section and sort of history promenade, and understanding and learning—I said, where is it? There’s no line drawn anymore? I see it, like, it’s gone. She said no, no, it’s there! I said, it’s not there. I said, this is just a development. And Jorge was there and I said, I’m so sorry, we just can’t, we just can’t continue. We were in Russia. And I was like: We can—this is, there’s nothing left. I mean, we tried, and it’s not like we don’t try, right. It’s not like we were holding on to this competition, and then not. We went all the way working with them! But it just had gone too far. That line that was the kind of last realm of the public inside the buildings had been erased. And so we just, we left it, never to return, never to be invited back again. Yeah, that’s a true story. You can ask for Jorge!

Dan Wood: (6:26) I have a story that’s more recent. I think two years ago, we got a call from—I’m the vice president of the AIA for design excellence—and we got a call from an architect who I had just approved to head the justice committee, which I didn’t know too much about. But it was one of the committees under my purview. And it turns out the justice committee is focused primarily on prison design. It used to be prison design and courthouses. And he’s an architect who . . . he is actually not, I think he didn’t start as an architect, but he’s worked in architecture firms, and he’s an expert on prison design. And he seemed like a good choice for the chair of that committee. And so he called asking if we wanted to team up as design architects with their prison design firm to go after the new Rikers Island projects, and talked about how progressive they were going to be: How, you know, they were going to be open to the neighborhood, a completely new way of thinking about prisons, and it was going to close Rikers Island, which, where we had been once on a visit, and we knew how horrible the conditions were there, and that this was going to be a big improvement. And so he kind of painted this picture that it was about the community and about families coming to visit and transparency.

And so I, it seemed interesting: The public project for the city, a progressive project that the mayor was behind. But in a way, the more I talked to him, the more then things became like, “Well, of course we’re going to have a lot of windows, the windows can’t see other windows, because the prisoners can’t see other prisoners,” and “of course we need a place for solitary confinement,” and that all these aspects of control came up, and it started to be not so interesting. I also talked Amale, who told me it was totally not interesting, even though I thought maybe it was interesting. And then I spoke with my sister, who’s an expert on felon voting rights and reform at the Ford Foundation, and she told me about the abolitionist movement, and that many people don’t think we should build any more prisons. Then I started doing research and she pointed me, and I really understood, in a way that, we don’t really need another 6,000 beds or whatever it’s going to be, I don’t know what the number is actually—but they are supposed to be 200-foot-tall towers of prisons in each borough except Staten Island.

So we said no to that project, but it was very transformative in the way that I thought about those kind of projects. And so this summer when everything exploded with BLM and the protests in the streets, and of course, every institution was wondering what we should do in the face of all these calls for racial justice. And architects typically don’t have much agency in these kinds of discussions, but me and a few other people, Pascale Sablan and other people from the AIA, thought that one thing the AIA could do was make a statement on prison design. And we were quite adamant that it be that architects not design prisons, for exactly the reason you just gave: which is that it is a tool that we have, and it is a way to make a statement by simply refusing to engage in what is clearly a racist and problematic—uniquely problematic in the world—system of incarceration. It seemed clear that to participate at any degree was to implicitly participate in the system, no matter what your ideals were or how good it was. And I thought there seemed to be a lot of movement at the AIA. It was fascinating. We spent five months . . .

Andraos: Not summer . . .

Wood: Last summer, yeah, last summer, we spent about five months crafting and negotiating and discussing this statement with incredible passion, and, you know, huge meetings and people screaming and people crying, and architects arguing one side, and the other, it was really amazing. In the end, we did manage to put out a statement, I think that retains a lot of the strength of what we were saying, but it was fascinating to see how many architects, architects that I respect and would work with in general, saying that, we have to continue to engage even in a project like that, and that’s what architects do, we can make things better. We spoke with prison designers who told us flat out that, yes, we put in these community rooms and then the warden will make it into a solitary confinement room, or it’s a lounge space that becomes storage. And they admitted that their work does harm, and even with them saying that, that they actually cannot make things better. Architects—it was very difficult to convince some architects that this was a good statement; I thought it was. What was interesting is it’s so low stakes, because so few people do design prisons; like, maybe one percent of all architects in New York. It’s so easy to sign on to the statement. You’re never going to be asked to do a prison, so why not? But it was difficult.

Miljački: (12:27) But it also has metaphoric power, right? Do we engage as architects or not? And where do you draw that line?

So, both of these sound very clear, in a way. They of course took deliberation from you, but they sound like fairly clear positions now that you’re telling them to us as stories. But what I was wondering now maybe if we can go back a little bit further into the past of the firm. In the book that presents WorkAC’s work, “we’ll get there when we cross that bridge,” you open the story with a chapter that’s titled “say yes to everything,” a chapter that coincides with what you describe as the first five-year plan. So I’m wondering, maybe, what were the lessons from saying yes to everything?

Wood: (13:23) Well, the second five-year plan originally was titled “say no to some things,” and then we changed it. But, again, I think when you are a firm with zero experience, and not even sure what you’re all about, and you’re just the two of us in our apartment, saying yes to everything is also a very low-stakes game. No one is asking us to design anything that would have any kind of major impact. It’s really bathroom renovations, dog houses, teaching; you know, small things.

Andraos: (14:05) I think that’s why it’s interesting to ask this question, because it is, in a way, the more you mature, the more you have, not presence or capacity, is when you really need to be careful where your weight lies. The freshness of the beginning. I think Dan is right and that it was more in the spirit of, if someone asked us to design a floor, we would do it. It was like, we can’t be choosers. It was more about “nothing is low enough for us to think about.”

Wood: (14:55) Yeah, yeah, nothing is crappy enough.

Andraos: (15:00) I think the difficult questions come . . .

Wood: (15:03) And we didn’t have anything that we needed to say. We were trying to figure out what it was. There’s a reason that coincidentally, I guess, or by fate, happens to end . . . the five years ended with our project at PS1, the public forum one, which was, for us, the first project of the office five years later. After that, I felt like we had something to say and we had to protect something.

Miljački: (15:36) I do like that the doghouse has, persists in the book and on the website, everywhere as a kind of important reminder of that moment. But when we spoke once before, you were talking about a kind of psychological traumas of saying yes to everything. So I’m trying to remind you of those as we speak.

Andraos: (16:04) I think the realization there was: OK, any project, however small, however, is time, is energy, is care, and so where should that care be or go? I think it was more a kind of awakening of saying, OK, there’s only so much energy, where should it be focused? And do we really want to almost get sued because someone in the office changed the color of the carpet?

Miljački: (16:43) Maybe I’ll ask it differently: Did you ever regret not taking a commission? Or vice versa? Regret taking a commission?

Wood: (16:52) Well, Sure!

Miljački: (16:55) Yes to which one?

Andraos: (16:57) So there’s one commission I regret not turning down, but handing off to someone else. It was a small children’s museum in New York. I think that I had just become dean or something.

Wood: (17:17) We were just on Gabon with everybody, cranking out . . .

Andraos: (17:20) It just felt like we were too small. We were too busy thinking we—you know, you know, we are designing this big conference center in Libreville, Gabon. What are we going to do with a children museum? Intense clients and working with the city in New York. It was like, no, no, we got to edit, we got to edit. That was an extreme of like . . . and the thing is, an architect, when you start editing out projects, that’s when the office sinks, because suddenly, of course, Gabon stops, and you say no to New Holland Island. That one I regret.

I think today we would never give up a city project. I mean, it doesn’t matter— like right now we’re working on this project, which is a DDC project, we’ve been working on it even longer than the Kew Gardens Hills library, which took ten years. This is Issue Project Room, where like four months, we are stalled, because they want us to pay for the building permit. We don’t want to pay for the building permit, because it’s not the architect’s role to pay. It is a public project. It will happen. I think that’s a new, maybe . . .

Wood: Yeah.

Andraos: . . . very strong commitment. If it’s a public project, we’re just going to do it. I don’t care if it takes 20 years.

Miljački: (18:45) That seems like a pattern in your work and your body of work. Between libraries, museums, schools, they all strike me as sharing a civic, institutional, public dimension. I thought we should actually talk about what is it in these typologies or clients that is convincing to you, or that is appealing to you?

Andraos: (19:13) The thing about our interest in public and civic work is that, now, looking back at our work, it is so rewarding. You open a library, you do an intervention—I don’t care if you’re using only concrete, still. The fact that we actually can go and visit without having to ask the client if we can visit, it’s just different. We’re working now on this library in Boulder, and the budget is getting cut, and it’s COVID, its insanity, but the clients, they’re so great, they really believe in the mission of this library, and so they want to see it happen. It’s just different.

[Break]

Miljački: (20:38) I was reading through your book and in the beginning, you have the set of tenets that guide the practice. To me, it sounds like things like unshakable lightness and optimism, design through disagreement, or holding together opposing ideas. I don’t know if you remember that. But these are in the opening of the book. They seem to me like they describe a public project: a project that invites an audience that you cannot completely codify or even bring to the table at one time to discuss what it is going to be.

Let me ask you: When we spoke about some of this before, we also talked a little bit about ways in which geography or culture affect these kinds of decisions about taking or not taking commissions—geo-national kinds of cultures and one’s access and ability to understand them. At that time, you were expressing discomfort with working in some parts of the world. Do you still feel similarly? And how would you describe, really, this dimension of geography and culture impacting your decisions to take on or not take on commissions?

Andraos: (22:23) We think about this a lot, because we do work, actually, in many different places, and our background, together, has a pretty, pretty extensive map, in terms of places we have lived and loved and etc.

The first thing I would say is, I think we really resist generalizations. For me, it’s really crucial, the idea that we can just say, for instance, China is terrible, or Russia or Saudi. It’s, speaking from a presence in the US, like, if you look at the last 50 years, what this country has done in the world? We can’t just be paying taxes in America and then throwing stones at other countries.

Having said that, I think what we have found—and I don’t know, Dan, if you agree, but—is that it depends, right? So, often in the recent work we’ve done in China has been collaborations: for example, with Xu Pei, who is a friend and a colleague, or people who used to work for us and are now. So there is an immediate connection with . . . where we are here, they are there, and there is this knowledge, and we can talk about, is this client good? Is this project real? Is it good? I think we’ve done that, more and more.

This last summer, as we were all in lockdown, so the two PILARES projects are a collaboration with Ignacio Urquiza in Mexico City, who we still haven’t met in person. But we just collaborated through Covid. I think maybe collaboration is a way to sort of partner in ways that there is more of a sense of being present in a place and not just flying in and out.

I think, more recently, we’ve really resisted a lot of RFQs in Saudi, even though I grew up there, etc. But if we found the right partner, and if the commission is about education . . . I think drilling down is crucial. We did turn down a competition, because it was very much about orientalizing heritage towards tourism and whatever with guidelines, and we’re like, no, we cannot do that. But recently, someone approached us who works a lot in terms of creating maker spaces in labs for kids. So it depends, and I think partnering and collaborating is probably the way that we would cut through these sort of broad issues.

Miljački: (25:55) Maybe to move to politics in the office a little bit, you described once the, kind of the possibility, theoretically, of the existence of two kinds of projects in the office, producing a cultural rift within the office, with on one side projects that you have room to follow through on with your own curiosities and interests, and collective investment on the other projects that might be bringing in the money that supports the office.

Andraos: (26:35) We don’t have the latter anymore!

Wood: (26:38) Although it would be great. Definitely would not turn that down.

Miljački: (26:43) Well, okay, but let’s say that they were there. Do you have procedures by which you discuss this within the office—both the, let’s say, the values of the office and of your work, which you’ve referred to as we were talking about this today. Do you have a way to talk about those within the office, or a way that the office gets exposed to these instances of decisions to engage or not engage?

Andraos: (27:20) That’s a really good question. I don’t want to hog the mic. Do you want to?

Wood: (27:26) I do want to make it clear that we don’t have projects in the office that we’re not engaged in—that we would never take a project and then not care about it. I think that’s when it really starts to go downhill. It happens; projects start out maybe more optimistic than they end up. And we often get burned out by the time a project goes into construction, no matter how good it is. But there’s no . . . I mean, it’s not always clear which projects bring in the money. Some public projects are very lucrative. So I think there are clearly projects that don’t bring in money, which are more research projects, and those need to be financed by paying projects. But because a project is paying, or has a good fee, doesn’t necessarily change anything about how we would look at it.

Andraos: (28:25) It’s possible, I think what you’re maybe referring to, Ana, is that there was one moment in the office where we, after we did the Diane Von Furstenberg headquarter building and her first store on 14th Street, we got into this store production and rollout, literally. And we had a team of two or three people just working on that. And really, at the beginning the team was excited because they’ve got to learn a lot. They were rolling out the stuff in Shanghai, in Paris and Las Vegas—there was an excitement to the global footprint, let’s say. But after a while it became clear that it was just repetitive, and we stopped. But it was amazing; it allowed us to pay for debts right before 2008. But we never went back to this, and I think what is interesting now is that there is not right now a single project in the office that we are not passionate about, that is not pushing something. And that . . . I feel very lucky. Yeah. The business model is not incredibly stable at this moment.

Wood: (29:58) Right. And we’re in an interesting moment. We have ten projects in construction.

Andraos: (30:05) It’s nice, it’s interesting. And part of it is also abandoning maybe this idea that scale is important, which maybecoming out of OMA we had maybe more, that feeling, I feel, no?

Wood: (30:20) Yeah, but we have some projects with scale.

Andraos: (30:23) I know. But like every . . . like a tiny hydroponic farm, yes, is as interesting as a rooftop farm, is as interesting as a big new office building in San Francisco. Sort of holding on to these things, but I love all the work we have now. And even though we could use some more, I think we feel very privileged, somehow, that this is more of a meeting between what we want to be doing and what we’re doing.

Miljački: (30:58) Maybe that’s the next question: About how what you do affects what you do, and how you plan for it.

Wood: (31:09) Right. For us, the current difficulty is that we are very interested in a high level of sustainable design. We are working with incredibly innovative engineers on really different ideas about how buildings can respond to the environment, but that remains a privileged realm, financially, and not every client can afford, even when these systems are passive . . . passive still takes a buttload of insulation and really thick walls, so it is a bit frustrating that sustainability is not yet affordable. It’s an interesting moment, because, and at the same time, obviously, we realize that it doesn’t . . . a building can be as sustainable as it wants, it’s not going to move the needle on climate change unless every building is like that. So one individual project, it’s very hard to argue, needs to be 100 percent sustainable. But it’s still difficult, and it feels sometimes like an ethical problem that we need to balance. Or we need to temper our desire to make things super innovative in a systems way, against providing a building for the public, or making good space for the client, and supporting good work in other ways.

Andraos: (32:57) And I think this is where it also goes back to your question about geography and context, right? I mean, the PILARES are built out of concrete, but they have no air conditioning and they’re in Mexico City and they are little public buildings, and how much does Mexico, how much carbon does Mexico produce anyway?

So what we have, again, I’m very attached right now to great level of realism in terms of all these theoretical positions that architects are taking—like, where are you working? Who is it for, what is the knowledge in terms of labor? Can you move the needle on scale? Can you move the needle on how much planting you’re . . . like Marea, which is villas on the water, it’s super green, even though it’s mostly concrete, but it was about plants. And so, I think it’s different ways to keep trying to do something, even though one of the most interesting thing for us, even we’re designing a new house for ourselves, even, in Rhode Island, is the idea that perfection is not possible. So what matters is that it’s not 100% sealed, with the passive award or whatever—what matters is, with what you had, how much did you get to? Ninety percent? Did you get to eighty percent? Did you stuff insulation everywhere, and—which is design, right? The negotiation. So it’s not so much poster childs and icons of responsibility, of sustainability, but rather, OK, this is the budget, this is what we can do, and here’s where we’re going to invest it in, and how . . . I think these are maybe the more interesting questions right now we’re dealing with in a very real way.

Miljački: (35:09) Well, you’re prompting me to come up with one more question. Is there a, can we just say, there are certain characteristics for commissions that you would rather not take on?

Andraos: (35:26) I think things that we are now maybe organizing more ourselves around . . . One, if you have a preservation component, I think that’s immediately interesting. Even if it’s developer, there’s something very interesting for us, and we’re very good at it, in terms of preserving. The second is we have a comeback in terms of our food projects. We’re really working on a hydroponic . . . we’re working with a hydroponic farm company, we’re trying to develop this partnership. So a lot of collaboration, going after projects to build urban farm on roofs, things like that. I think we really want to push that, much more passive, and then civic and public buildings as much as we can, and passive in general— trying to push, trying to push an agenda.

Wood: (36:35) Yeah, we have some really interesting ideas about passive architecture that we need to find the right project to get them in.

Andraos: (36:44) So there’s three, maybe . . .

Miljački: (36:46) Two or three things that you’d like to see in a commission that you would say yes to, right?

Wood: (36:54) Yes definitely. Definitely. Yes. enthusiastically. Might say yes to some other things.

Miljački: (37:00) Is there anything else you would like to add on the topic of refusing commissions?

Andraos: (37:10) Now we have . . . not the retrospect, but we, we have a lot of distance. We were just talking with Dan, like, the ’90s and the 2000s . . . and we’re 20 years later . . . and it’s so clear where the different models of practice have led. The idea that you can do this and still do great work: not so much. You’re going to do this and you’re going to be trapped. So it’s a really important moment where this notion that anything can be brought together and still succeed is really no longer, I think, possible.

Miljački: (38:00) Thank you, Dan and Amale, for talking to me. And thank you listeners for tuning into I Would Prefer Not To podcast.