Amale Andraos and Dan Wood are the principal architects at WORKac, a New York-based architecture firm known for its cutting-edge urban designs incorporating nature into the life of cities. On Thursday, Andraos and Wood spoke at the School of Architecture about their architectural philosophy, discussing both their academic contributions and their building projects. Entitled “Nature-City,” the talk culminated in a walkthrough of their firm’s design by the same name for a recent Museum of Modern Art competition tackling the urban landscape in the wake of the housing crisis. Their winning design reinvents a 225-acre portion of Keizer Station, Oregon in an attempt to create a sustainable community. In attempt to redefine the suburban landscape, the project offers a possible solution to the lack of resources and massive energy consumption of many American communities today.
Q. How did you develop your focus on nature?
AA. Clearly we’re kind of conscious of the environmental condition of the world today and are interested in projecting possibilities for the future. So rather than simply focusing on the built or architectural environment, which is more typical, we are more interested in expanding beyond. We want to really look at architecture in relation to the city, and the city to the agricultural and natural, trying to find new relationships.
DW. We’ve always been inspired by the idea of having a country life and a city life of the old aristocracy, and how we can actually bring that to the city and countryside in a way that the two poles don’t necessarily need to be so totally separated.
Q. You talked a lot in your lecture about how living environments need to both be more dense and contain more open space — a paradoxical idea at first. How do those concepts go hand in hand?
AA. I think that’s an unfortunate result of the current suburban settlement. It really was a dream of living close to nature, but actually you have to connect all these houses with roads and infrastructure, and this sprawl actually ends up reducing the amount of green space due to private yards. Instead if you densify and compress the housing together, you’ll start to liberate many more collective green fields.
DW. And also, by bleeding out any form of diversity from the suburbs — and I don’t just mean racial diversity or income diversity which there isn’t as well — but by outlawing any retail activity, any possibility to work or any public space from parts of the city, from the suburb, you really create a very strange social condition. I think if you look at the most dangerous places in the country, they’re much more suburban-looking than urban-looking. And the one thing everyone complains about when they move to the suburbs from the city is that they miss seeing people, and being able to walk places and go out.
AA. And part of our interest is to show that not all densities have to be Manhattan densities. We want to explore densities that can afford an incredible amount of green space without being as low as a suburban density.
Q. Then are the areas you’d redevelop in an ideal world more suburban than what we traditionally think of as urban?
DW. Places like Keizer [Station, Ore.] are very interesting in that there is this idea of density through the [government-mandated] urban growth boundary. It was very interesting for us to look at the suburbs. There was an earlier life where we said, “It should be cities or it should be rural,” but to look at the suburbs is to see why people really want to live in those conditions. If you look at density like Nature-City, it’s quite sustainable. It especially works in edge conditions, like the exurbs and places where going any further is really untenable. Even now, with people driving an hour and a half to get to an urban center, we’re trying to pull that boundary back and create a new edge of density with relation to the downtown.
Q. You spoke about the importance of working within restrained budgets and design using pre-existing spaces, especially in today’s economic conditions, yet many of your proposals seem radical in terms of how much you would need to build. Where do those two concepts meet in the middle? What do you hope to design that can actually be executed?
AA. I think it’s about always trying to be strategic. It’s not just bigness for bigness’s sake — the bigness of infrastructure is an investment in the future, whereas bigness in other ways is not and can be more wasteful. For example for our new Holland Island project, the last winner of that competition was Foster and Partners, which had designed a very large-scale intervention. Instead we were trying to be very strategic in combining intervention with infrastructure to minimize the impact on these structures.
DW. And even when we ran the numbers on the Nature-City project, we actually saved money in infrastructure because to lay pipes out to every single suburban house outside the city is much more expensive. And then the sustainable infrastructure like large composting facilities that can create power are at the edge of what’s doable right now, but once that becomes viable, investment in that would repay itself over time — let’s say the interest is in a 40-year investment, or even a 20-year investment. So we actually took out those numbers because we assumed someone would invest.
Q. Where do you see yourselves going next?
AA. Our next big project is in Gabon, in West Africa.
DW. We’re literally going to Gabon.
AA. But after that, I think, though we live and work in New York and feel very much a part of it, we’re interested in exploring more global possibilities.