On The Cusp

“We’re in purgatory,” Amale Andraos says one morning earlier this year, her back to a row of desks covered in iPods, blue foam models, and gleaming black computers, their screens showing half-kicky renderings, half-straightforward CAD. She’s talking about Work Architecture Com­pany’s recent move to its new offices, but she might also be talking about where the firm stands now, about how after founding the office four and a half years ago she and partner Dan Wood are beginning to form their own identity.

Work is just wrapping up projects accepted as part of its first five-year plan, which they describe simply as “say yes to everything.” That explains the bathroom; the low-budget apartment renovation; the kitchen, where, Andraos says, “we almost got fired because we didn’t know how to do a kitchen”; and the Ultrasuede bordello-themed conference room. Now, with projects ranging from the New York headquarters for Diane von Furstenberg (DVF) to shops for the Anthropologie chain, the firm is finding its way out of the shadow—the “tattoo,” Andraos once called it—of Rem Koolhaas.

The Koolhaas influence is clear (the blue models that line and dot the shelves and desks particularly stand out), and the firm’s sensibility and approach to architecture—one that mixes a close-to-insane level of rigor with quick jolts of humor—can easily be traced back to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The pair is starting to emerge, if not quite Athena-like, then still strongly and with ever increasing momentum, from the head of Rem.

The two, who are married, both worked at OMA, which is based in Rotterdam, Andraos for three years and Wood for nine. By the end of his time Wood was Rem’s right-hand man, so much so that he headed up the opening of the New York office in 2000. Three years later the couple split off and formed Work. After conducting business out of their apartment for the first six months, they opened an office on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on Rivington Street across from a now collapsed synagogue and above Moby’s Teany café. In April they realized that they were squeezed in too tight, that an office that thrives on background music, constant collaboration, and noise, noise, noise was just too cramped. They are resolute Lower East Side kids, though—the two and their fourteen employees—so they moved around the corner to Ludlow Street, where Work shares a floor, and a plastic-curtain-enclosed “conference room,” with the graphic-design firm Project Projects.

Andraos and Wood know where they’re headed. The opening of their largest built work to date, the headquarters for von Furstenberg and her company in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, is a big step out of limbo and toward independence. A six-story gut renovation, the building will bring them—they hope—out of an “Oh, didn’t they used to work for OMA?” take and into a “Yes, Work, I know them” reaction. “The hope is that it’s at a big enough scale that it should place us maybe somewhere a little bigger,” Andraos says.

“We connected,” von Furstenberg says of her collaboration with them. Strange, then, that it almost didn’t happen. She had already hired an­other firm, but during a conversation on Charles Simonyi’s infamous Microsoft yacht she was prompted by a friend to call Work. She had met Wood and Andraos through—guess who?—OMA, but didn’t put faces to the name until they all met in person again. Kismet is nice, but it wasn’t quite enough. Still von Furstenberg was intrigued. “I called them and said, ‘If you give me something I fall in love with by Monday, it’s yours,’” she says. “They did.”

Wood tells the same story on a sunny May morning, standing on the corner of 14th Street and Washington, a particular vantage point from which an interested observer can see the pièce de résistance of the building—the inner sanctum of DVF elle-même. Her private studio, a straight-edged faceted bubble that pierces through the structure, becomes a five-story Swarovski-crystal-lined stairway-chandelier—a gesture that Wood, with a smile and a wink, calls the “stairdelier”—and lets light in all the way down to the ground floor, connecting von Furstenberg to the brand that carries her name. Now Work is in charge of several more stores throughout the world, as the designer embarks on an aggressive expansion plan. Yes, this is the Diane von Furstenberg of the 1970s, the one who made her comeback two dec­ades later selling the famous wrap dress on QVC. And yes, this is Work Architecture Com­pany, a downtown post-Rem firm, just now defin­ing its identity. Somehow it’s a perfect fit.

It’s easy to see Rem in the project, but it’s also clear where Work is doing its own. The combination of gesture and program—the stairdelier—brings to mind the Prada store in New York (a project both partners worked on) and the dining-area stair in Chicago’s IIT student center (Wood served as project manager).Circulation-meeting- program-meeting-architecture is a particularly Rem touch, and Work thrives on the intersection of time and program (its Silk Road project literally overlaid the two), and on an absolute enjoyment in the rigors of architecture. With the DVF project, the building department wasn’t thrilled with the idea of the proposed five-story stairway; to get around it, the two found a loophole by making the third floor a mezzanine and coupling those above and below it.

Andraos and Wood took a similar run around the building department in their project for the clothing company Anthropologie, the closest to a freestanding building they have done: a store in Dos Lagos (a development in California named for two lakes that haven’t yet been made). The firm has a commitment to green architecture, but one that has its roots in midcentury Modernism and an affinity for the gritty. An attention to what the couple calls eco-urbanism is most visible in their unrealized proposal for a Las Vegas live-play complex, where Work suggested mitigating the necessary evil of massive amounts of car storage by turning the roof into a park, or “living machine,” that incorporates a water-recycling system. Enthusiastic as they are, Wood and Andraos are still at the point of relying on unbuilt large-scale ideas to communicate their dedication to green, and for now they are satisfying their environmental jones with toned-down (but significant) gestures like a geothermal unit in the DVF headquarters and a stylized green aesthetic for Anthropologie.

The store does visually what Vegas does conceptually —remind people of the power and benefit of green. An exterior patterned net eventually meant to be covered in vines details the facade, while inside the architects installed a glass-walled garden open to the sky, visible but inaccessible, and a fake hill that—thanks to the ever-present building department’s requirements that it have either railings or warnings (lest overly excited shoppers think it a stair or seat)—is railing-free but covered in every warning slogan the department suggested.

The firm’s sense of humor operates as easily in the Rotterdam Biennale as in a retail outlet in exurban Los Angeles. Where­as the Koolhaas-inflected Venice Biennale in 2006 was all about numbers, numbers, numbers, the Rotterdam exhibition, which opened at the end of May, is all about power. Work is responding with a project called Cadavre Exquis Leban­ese, a seven-stage collaged proposal for transformation of the city of Beirut—already so vastly altered by war and its aftereffects, not to mention various economic schemes like Solidere, a consortium formed by the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to re­place Beirut’s post–civil war architectural confusion and pickup culture with a consistent look. In a document explaining the biennale project, Work describes Solidere’s city center as “a perfectly polished and controlled image of its old nineteen-thirties self.” The 2005 assassination of Hariri led to political uprising and, Andraos explains, a reclamation of the once refined city center by demonstrators. Later, during the recent war between Hezebollah and Israel, the city center became a place for refugees, making it once again, Andraos says, “the site of power, political struggle, representation, and social compression.”

Before Baghdad, Beirut was the poster child for urban warfare. And that is why, Wood and Andraos say, their exquisite corpse of a proposal requires a virtual war-games arena, a kind of latter-day Colosseum. Sited on an abandoned landfill to the north of the city center, the arena is intended to satisfy “the world powers’ need to fight proxy wars.” Other parts of their proposal speak to a different, brighter future, one in which citizens study fashion in a futuristic structure, curl up in carpeted tubes to smoke hoo­k­­ahs and discuss politics, and visit the “Silicon Allee” for a dose of vanity-celebrating feel-better surgery. Even the coliseum turns into a nursery for cedars when violence is no longer profitable. The war-games arena says two things: war is inescapable, and even after everything, we still kinda think it’s a game. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and one that shows the particular wrench the two put into their thinking.

“It’s not that we want to do funny architecture,” Andraos says of their tendency to go for that jugular cry-laugh. “But things are so heavy, it’s a form of lightness.” Wood points out the obvious: “It’s a funny profession. Just no one realizes it.” Talking about the war-games coliseum—an idea that reminds us that we don’t understand war, we don’t understand Beirut, we don’t understand seemingly constant civil conflict, we don’t understand the destruction of a city and its existence as, yes, a cadavre exquis—Wood says that it’s the unexpectedness of the humor that makes it work. “When things are moving so fast, it’s such a cut you can make,” Andraos says. “In terms of critique or intervention, humor is a way to enter something without knowing everything about it.” It’s another moment we can trace back to Rem, and both admit that Koolhaas’s humor is one of the things that drew them to him.

“It’s always amazing because in the end the projects are so complete,” Andraos says of OMA’s work. “They are full of meaning, and they are funny, and they are incredible shapes and forms, and they work—and that’s why he drives everybody crazy.” Work might not drive anyone crazy on Rem’s level, but the two architects admit to a fierce commitment to an idea that can sometimes work against them. “One of our rules should be that if you don’t like word combinations, we can’t work together,” Andraos says after telling the story of a commission that the couple and their clients “fired each other from.” She and Wood insisted on a void; the clients didn’t want a void. Finis.

It’s a take-no-prisoners approach that the two bring out of the office and into the real world. It’s clear from spending time with Wood and Andraos that rather than shying away from the grittiness of life—avoiding the messy, dirty, and complicated parts—they are as interested in the difficult, and its overlap, as they are in the awesome. “I think you can learn as much through living and direct experience as you would through reading or theory,” Andraos says. “When you go and search, and you find something, it’s much stronger.”

Their willingness to engage in the real world doesn’t mean the two can’t operate in academia. There are architects who practice so that they can teach, those who teach so that they can live, and those who never practice and only teach (usually badly). Wood and Andraos, as she says, “teach so that we can practice better.” Whatever the impetus, it seems to be working: they have fans at Princeton University, where the dean, Stan Allen, hired them after a group of students brought them in to lecture. “I was impressed with the freshness of their working methodology,” he says. “There’s a pragmatism to their approach and a willingness to push ideas in a daring way.” Allen brings up the dreaded Rem shadow when talking about the collaborative and discursive way they teach and practice. “There’s a sense of this background of OMA,” he says. “It’s about the matter of architecture, using models, thinking about the way things work.”

Allen isn’t the only one who sees the connection. Jeanne Gang, an OMA alum who has managed to establish herself as a Chicago juggernaut, knows Work, and likes theirs. “The best people flock there, so we had this great environment,” she says of her time in the Rotterdam office. “I learned a kind of production, thinking, and collaborative atmosphere where you’re not just sitting in your office making a napkin sketch and handing it off for someone to finalize.”

The firm’s name—the possible pretentiousness of “Work” leavened by what Wood says is the rather ridiculous “Architecture Company”—makes sense given its dedication to its namesake, but it also shares Koolhaas’s cute nod toward anonymity. It’s hard to break free from the Rem shadow, to stand alone, but Wood and Andraos are part of a coterie of post-OMAers who have moved on to find their bearings and develop their own identities: Josh Prince-Ramus of Ramus Ella Architects, Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs of MVRDV, and Galia Solomonoff. The latter, who cofounded Open Office and recently integrated it into her own studio, worked at OMA with Wood (who recruited her) and says that it was only four years ago—and four after she left—that people stopped introducing her as “some­body that worked at OMA.” Solomonoff adds, “It’s like you’re on a train, and now you’re not on that train anymore—you’re at the front of your own train running into your own obstacles.” It’s easy to see, looking at Work—at everything from a slick designer headquarters to a store aimed at Californian hipsters to a site of twisted memory—that Andraos and Wood are not only moving to the front of their train, they’re now driving it.

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