In ‘Sisyphean’ struggle, architects remain hopeful

Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, co-founders of a New York-based architecture firm, presented a lecture at the School of Architecture Thursday.
Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, co-founders of a New York-based architecture firm, presented a lecture at the School of Architecture Thursday. Photo by Tory Burnside Clapp.

The first image in the slideshow sent a ripple of laughter through the packed auditorium: a tiny stick figure, labeled “Architect,” pushing a massive boulder up a steep vertical incline. The boulder was labeled “Power.”

“This is my favorite diagram these days,” Amale Andraos, co-founder of the New York-based WORK Architecture Company, said before an audience of students, faculty and design enthusiasts at the Yale School of Architecture’s Hastings Hall on Thursday night. The talk, which Andraos presented with her WORKac co-founder Dan Wood, was called “Nature-City.” The title referred both to the partners’ acclaimed design for a sustainable suburb by the same name, which was featured in a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and to their extensive exploration of urban design that integrates productive elements of the natural landscape into a city’s built structures.

“We don’t believe architecture can solve anything,” Andraos said of the relationship between environmentalism and design in WORKac’s creations. “Rather, we feel this is a question of impacting culture. In the architect’s Sisyphean relation to power, we believe in the visionary, and his agency to radicalize and to move culture.”

Andraos and Wood presented blueprints, sketches, maps and models of the buildings and cities with which they hope to inspire that radicalism. Their talk explained the logic and idealism behind several of the duo’s sustainable designs — plans for everything from a biodegradable public garden built 30 feet above a Queens sidewalk to a skyscraper in Shenzhen, China, where a small farm could thrive on the 20th story.

Wood described the projects as presenting a “new sense of what a landscape can be.” He spoke of the need to make public space productive, turning urban roofs into organic farms and suburban neighborhoods into composting centers, and of the desire to insert “moments of nature” into urban spaces.

WORKac’s designs have contributed to development of activist-chef Alice Waters’s “Edible Schoolyard” in New York City, the revitalization of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum and the transformation of an abandoned Russian naval post into a cultural center. Many of Wood and Andraos’ designs, however, will never be realized — that is not their purpose, the architects said. During the talk, they presented designs for an “aqua-ponic network” that would allow fish farming beneath the streets of Brooklyn, and an artificial hill that would serve simultaneously as an apartment building, a composting facility and a public garden. Designs like these present themselves as a vision of what is possible, rather than a plan for the immediate future.

“It’s interesting to see an architecture firm that’s undertaking such ambitious projects without intending that any of them should ever be built,” said Chenoe Hart ARC ’15.

Other students attending the talk enjoyed imagining themselves in a future created by WORKac, however far away it may be.

“I remember seeing the [“Nature-City”] exhibit at MoMA and choosing which of the houses I wanted to live in,” said A.J. Artemel ARC ’14.

Visions like Artemel’s are, by Wood and Andraos’ account, one of the most important products of their hypothetical urban designs.

“We don’t want to just reply to demand … We want to also create demand, and create a desire for something else,” Andraos said.

Or, as Wood put it, “Who invented the large soda? Was it the demand of the people, or of the people who were selling the soda?”

Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the School of Architecture, said WORKac’s vision of a sustainable future parallels Yale’s own efforts to reduce its environmental impact.

“We’re all rowing in the same direction,” Stern said. “These young architects are sharp, and they’re good. That’s why they’re here.”

WORKac has previously designed buildings for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the offices of fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations in Marseille, France.

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