Crystal Talk
Text: Norman KietzmannPhotos: Raymond Adams, Iwan Baan, James Ewing, Elizabeth Felicella



Amale Andraos and Dan Wood have a shared mission: they want to rehabilitate modernism in America and they even show the courage to pursue utopian ideas. “A building has to perform something,” explain the founders of the New York firm WORKac. What unites their projects is their relationship to nature: roofs serve as parks, vegetable patches float above courtyards and rays of sunlight are guided into the dark reaches of buildings by light catchers. For them, the act of building means more than just providing sufficient floor area or creating a new landmark. Architecture must provide space for urban experiments.

When you visit WORKac’s website, you are confronted by an ever-changing entity: small and black, their logo emblazons the lower right corner of the window, where it continuously changes its shape in a flowing transformation. It’s a fitting image for a firm that approaches their work with neither ready-made answers nor an obligatory style. With their open and interdisciplinary attitude, Amale Andraos and Dan Wood symbolize the self-image of a new generation of architects in the USA that gives priority to collaborative projects as opposed to the individual ego.

The undertaking got its start in an intellectual crucible on the other side of the Atlantic: Rem Koolhaas’s office in Rotterdam. Dan Wood, who was then a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and Amale Andraos went to New York in 2002 to establish a branch office there for OMA. Both had already played with the idea of going off to practice on their own. “After moving here, we realized that it could be as exciting for us to just work together,” says Amale Andraos, looking back. Born in Lebanon, Andraos grew up in Beirut, Paris and Montreal, and received degrees in architecture from McGill University in Montreal and from Harvard University. Dan Wood originally comes from Rhode Island and lived for a long time in Paris before working for Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam. He received degrees in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and New York’s Columbia University.

It’s no accident that their firm is named Work. “We were very conscious of not wanting to make it just about the two of us, but rather the understanding that it’s a collective,” explains Amale Andraos. After having done many small projects and interior jobs, they made their breakthrough with the Diane von Furstenberg Studio (2004–2007) for the New York fashion designer. The renovation and rooftop extension of the factory building in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District anticipated salient parameters of their later work.

“We definitely are very obsessed with light and the quality of light, and we’re obsessed with bringing the outside inside,” says Amale Andraos. A stairway cuts through the building, creating a diagonal axis that brings sunlight from the rooftop terrace deep inside the building. Mirrors on the ceiling and the walls of this tunnel increase the effect, while a crystal-shaped, facetted glass object set on the roof acts like a light catcher. Amale Andraos and Dan Wood have also continued working with the interplay of inside and outside with their new building for the Kew Gardens Hill Library (2008) in New York City’s borough of Queens, whose green roof was lifted up toward the street to reveal the main reading room at the same level as the sidewalk.

The interpenetration of architecture and nature is also a key part of their design for an arts and cultural center on the eight-hectare island of New Holland in St. Petersburg. Although it is only a few minutes walk from the Hermitage, the island was long reserved for the military and thus closed to the public. For almost 300 million euro, the one-time shipyard, which was built in the Dutch architectural style in 1719, now destined to become a city within the city. Amale Andraos and Dan Wood’s winning design for the international competition from 2011 is more than just a simple renovation. “We certainly cannot think of building without the landscape outside – and within it. They are one entity,” emphasizes Amale Andraos.

Where necessary, they attack the historical substance with a scalpel to carve out space for landscaped atriums. When the long Russian winter inhibits use of the large park in the middle of the island, the activities can be quickly relocated to artificial landscapes inside the buildings. It speaks volumes that Amale Andraos makes no mention of the prominent clients – Russian oligarch Roman Abramovic and his art-loving girlfriend Dasha Zhukova. What she does speak about is architecture, space and program.

One project that WORKac is now working on simultaneously to their project in St. Petersburg is the Assembly Hall for the next African Union Summit in Gabon. As part of the governmental plan Green Gabon, the sustainable building is to be completed on a hill in the middle of the capital, Libreville, by the summer of 2014. In addition to an auditorium with 1,000 seats, the circular building has three oval-shaped courtyards that will feature the country’s diverse vegetation. Because the roof shall be sloped toward the valley, the garden courtyards will also be visible from the city.

The project name, L’Assemblé Radieuse, is more than just a reference to the circular shape in plan – it also pays tribute to its own archetypes. “I always say, deep down inside we have a kind of modernist streak. The modernists worked in tandem with emerging nations that where approaching modernism to protect their independence. And that’s the modernism that we were inspired by for the project,” explains Amale Andraos. Neither Le Corbusier nor Louis Kahn was able to build one of their comprehensive ensembles in Europe or North America, however; for that they went to the young democracies of India and Bangladesh.

Amale Andraos is an assistant professor at New York’s Columbia University, and as of the fall of 2013, Dan Wood holds the Louis Kahn Chair at the Yale School of Architecture. But it’s not just because they teach that WORKac devoted their 2009 exhibition and book project 49 Cities to the utopias and large-scale plans of the fifties, sixties and seventies. Their interest also demonstrates the rebellion of a new generation for whom architecture means more than just providing sufficient floor area or creating a new landmark. Architects of this generation venture to challenge the status quo with their own radical proposals.

“As cities have finally proven their superiority over their suburban counterparts — in everything from quality of life to environmental impact — they should again become our much needed laboratories of experimentation,” says Amale Andraos with conviction. And if the politicians are unable to provide urban playing fields, these architects unceremoniously seek solutions on their own. “Locavore Fantasia” is the name of the 2008 vision of a terrace-like, stacked landscape that has fields for different fruits and vegetables, along with a small golf course and housing for migrant farmworkers. Even though it is highly unlikely that this inclined high-rise farm building will ever be built, Amale Andraos and Dan Wood have succeeded in starting an interesting conversation.

In 2008 in the courtyards of the MoMA affiliate PS1 in Queens, they created a temporary installation for the art center’s annual summer parties. Instead of drawing upon the theme of an “urban beach” like their predecessors, they designed an urban farm. WORKac formulated their goal succinctly: “40 years after the Summer of ‘68, we felt it was time for a new leisure revolution, one that creates a new symbol of liberation, knowledge, power and fun for today’s cities.” Beneath a wave of cardboard tubes that were planted with 51 different species of fruits, vegetables and herbs, there was a shady meeting place and venue for events. Six chickens and twelve chicks also mingled among the visitors, laying eggs throughout the summer and underlining the project’s playful approach.

That project did not result in trouble with the animal welfare authorities, but in a commission to build New York’s first school garden in the borough of Brooklyn. The “Edible Schoolyard” at P.S. 216 is supposed to give children an understanding about how food is grown, and a chance to cook and eat together in a large kitchen. The project’s unique feature is a mobile greenhouse that covers almost 150 square meters [1,600 sq. ft.] of garden in the winter months and can be slid over the kitchen classroom during the spring and summer. Proof that the idea of urban agriculture is not a passing fad is given by the continuation of the project with another “Edible Schoolyard” at P.S. 7, which WORKac is currently making a reality in Harlem. Even if realization of the grand utopias still needs a little time, Amale Andraos and Dan Wood are by no means content to wait. They design projects that give us more than just facades – they convey utopian ideas in small, manageable bits that are fit for everyday.