Life Starts at 50

Let’s review some old saws about architects.

Architects are pretentious. That is often the perception, though what one of us might experience as pretense another might see as confidence, perhaps even an earned feature of genius. And who is to say that the same architect unobserved is not a saint? Also, there’s a new breed of designers afoot, more interested in substance than effect in persona and construction. Rate it half-true.

Architects are uniquely qualified to shape the built environment. This is a hoary claim; the American Institute of Architects has been making it in one form or another since at least World War II. But “uniquely” is a high bar; certainly a few instances of successful extra-architectural built-environment shaping can be found. Only a handful would explode the premise. And just playing the averages of who-builds-what, there must be as many examples of lay brilliance in the landscape as pedigreed. Still, if you can find one, a truly qualified architect is a better choice than none at all. Rate it aspirational.

Architects don’t really start their careers until they’re 50. Surely this can’t be so! Think of all those poor, hot bodies cranked over the desks of a thousand faceless sweatshops in the small hours of the night, watching their dreams drain away with each click on a bathroom detail or lighting schedule. Are they not engaged in honest work? Or think of all the 20- and 30-somethings who take advantage of more creative opportunities to design, get lucky, and catch some press, or earn themselves one of the many “Young Architects” awards given out by institutions here and there. Are they all pre-career, too? Historically, there’s some support for the assertion: Kahn, Corbusier, Gehry—all started late, didn’t get to the buildings we remember them for until they were grown up. There are really two ideas packed into this old formula: many architects don’t get a chance to do their own work until they reach middle age (there’s a lot to learn), and many of the best architects spend a lot of time learning.

When I first wrote about Stephen Cassell and Adam Yarinsky, they were 34 and 35, respectively. Their firm, formally Architecture Research Office, familiarly ARO, was a few months away from turning six. There were still more neon signs than digital screens in Times Square when I met them there to look over the construction of the Armed Forces Recruiting Station, a wee little booth of a thing, but—sited as it was at the then-undisputed center of the universe—a very good get for two young bucks. It was 1999. A mere fourteen years ago. But, even handicapping for the psychological barrier of skipping past the turn of a millennium, ages past. Ages: in the profile of the firm I wrote for this magazine in July of that year, it made sense to mention Cassell’s mid-interview cell phone check, equally his demurral that the device was purchased only in response to a new baby (now grown), not, as I wrote, “for business or other affectations.”

The name of the firm was another potential affectation that seemed in need of explanation. OMA, Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, had been around for decades, but there were others operating anonymously with such frank labels. Architects were already doing business as Asymptote, Morphosis, even FORM, but ARO’s was a very different manner of identity masking in the late twentieth-century design marketplace. It was humble. But what was this research they claimed to do? They were vague about it. “Actually, we came up with [the name] in, like, three days because we were trying to get a job designing the space inside a computer-game store,” Cassell said then. “To be honest, we thought about it far less than we should have.”

Or just the right amount. We know now that the “research” in ARO is no marketing ploy, no bluff. They proved it, for instance, in a 2009 planning study for the soon-to-be-in-high-demand area of Manhattan south of the World Trade Center site, where they collaborated, in a surfeit of planning intelligence, with Beyer Blinder Belle. They proved it, and their prescience regarding the fragility of New York City’s waterfronts, in their project the next year for the Museum of Modern Art’s Rising Currents exhibition. Research is something ARO excels at, something it is often called on to do; research is also essential to how the office operates in projects that don’t on their faces seem to demand so much of it: university dorms, private residences, a synagogue. “Before we start designing anything, we’re almost anthropological,” Yarinsky said recently when I reconnected with him, Cassell, and Kim Yao, an employee of many years and now their third partner. “Before we put mouse to pad,” Cassell continued, “we have a really good understanding of how people will work in a given space and what the pragmatic and conceptual goals are.” What this means in practice is that, along with their names on the door, the designers of ARO are also suppressing that giddy urge of architects to flog a particular style, push a formal agenda, impose a preconceived language on construction. “We’re information-driven,” Yarinsky said. “We don’t come in with an a priori idea.” He said the same thing in 1999. And it’s true.

ARO has designed dozens of good buildings. But the firm’s ability to shun the a priori is what it’s famous for. Trusting in intellect and acting with thoughtful restraint is ARO’s lasting innovation, its mark in trade, the thing that has differentiated these architects from their peers. More than any particular structure or study, certainly more than some signature look, it is their consistently applied intelligence that earned them a National Design Award in 2011. Theirs is, of course, the right way to practice; architecture is a service profession, after all—meeting the needs of others, one’s clients, should always take precedence over the exorcism of creative demons. It is the right way to practice, but not the usual way. All architects know somewhere in their hearts that they should do as ARO does—listening, learning, improving the world for others without any celebration of self—but, given the frailties of the human ego, that is rarely how it goes down.

Perhaps that is why, in recent years, ARO has become a favorite go-to for architecture schools. In 2007, the office completed an addition to the monastic mid-1960s block of the architecture building at Princeton, adding light- and student-filled spaces where there were once famously only dire catwalks separating the faculty wing from the studios. Cornell hired Rem to do its fancy new architecture school, but brought in ARO to study how to make the building make sense going forward within the larger campus context. ARO completed a five-year plan for the Harvard Graduate School of Design and is now at work on a 15-year plan. The office has a planning study underway for the architecture school in Ann Arbor, was shortlisted for a new architecture building at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and is now waiting to hear the results of an invited competition for the design school at Kent State. Meanwhile, ARO’s new headquarters and showroom for Knoll opens this spring. Without making a fuss about it, Yarinsky, Cassell, and Yao have become the architects’ architects and the designers’ designers.

Big things are coming for ARO. What may be the firm’s highest-profile project since Times Square will open in Soho this fall. The Donald Judd Home and Studio Museum is destined to bring a lot of attention to the firm. But in true, admirable ARO fashion, visitors there may never know the spaces have been touched by architects at all. In a recent visit to their downtown office (twice the number of employees and more than double the space of ARO circa 1999), Cassell, Yarinsky, and Yao were positively geeky and endearing in their excitement, as they explained how this system and that had been tucked away here and there to maintain the integrity of the existing, now-historic Judd studios. There is an entire new building, essentially, hidden within the poché of the old, making it all possible (very, very quietly). But is there some new design feature at the entry, say, or in the store? No, they said, and they seemed surprised that I’d asked.

Around the time the Judd museum opens, ARO will turn 20. Yarinsky and Cassell are both pushing 50. The magic number. What now? They’ve laid the groundwork, they’ve learned their trade; better, the mode of practice they’ve pioneered (or rediscovered) has become an inspiration for a generation of young architects. They’re ready for their biggest challenge. Someday soon, someone’s going to come along and give them a job of another type, a monumental building on a monumental site, the kind of design problem that demands more than level-headed analysis, the kind of building that would shake anyone’s humility, that might lead to greatness—the kind of architecture that their firm has been preparing to master, in its measured, uniquely unpretentious way, for 20 years. Here’s hoping they get the chance, and soon; their careers, after all, are about to begin.

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  • Courtesy Lajos Geenen
  • Courtesy Paul Warchol
  • Courtesy ARO
  • Courtesy ARO
  • Courtesy ARO
Courtesy Lajos Geenen Courtesy Paul Warchol Courtesy ARO Courtesy ARO Courtesy ARO
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