Life is Better with Plants – Lots of Them!


The architectural designs of Amale Andraos embrace nature

By Ilene Dube

Getting kids to eat, and like, their vegetables isn’t usually the work of an architect, but for Amale Andraos, who is working on her second design for the Edible Schoolyard Project in New York, there is a connection between designing buildings and “the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of food.” Teaching the next generation about both is a big part of what she does. Named one of the 25 Most Admired Educators for 2016, Amale Andraos, 42, the new dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, has taught architecture at Princeton, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and American University in Beirut.

With her husband, Dan Wood, Andraos founded New York-based architectural firm WORKac in 2003. The firm has garnered acclaim for such projects such as the Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan and the Edible Schoolyard at P.S. 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn. WORKac is designing the new home for the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in downtown Brooklyn; an expansion of the Museum of Sex in Manhattan; and a new storefront facade for a parking garage in Miami’s Design District. Internationally, WORKac had designed a master plan for the New Holland Island Cultural Center in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is building its winning competition entry for a new 20,000 square meter Conference Center in Libreville, Gabon, Africa. In China, the firm completed a 2,000-acre master plan for seven new university campuses in Weifang and is currently working on a competition for the 2019 Beijing International Horticultural Exposition.

Indeed, there’s a plant theme running through. The recently completed Obsidian House in TriBeCa seeks to integrate the inside with the outside by having, in its Penthouse, herbs planted above the kitchen and a shower surrounded by ferns. In 2008, WORKac designed an installation in MoMA PS1’s courtyard, “Public Farm 1,” a solar-powered self-sufficient farm featuring an undulating daisy-shaped construction of cardboard tubes filled with herbs, fruit and vegetables.

In Above the Pavement, the Farm!, published in 2010, Andraos and Wood tell the story behind Public Farm 1: 150 collaborators—farmers, politicians, horticulturists, technicians, soil scientists, engineers, architecture students and artists—created a “new breed of sustainable infrastructure, capable of generating its own power, recycling rainwater, cultivating crops, and encouraging leisure” that demonstrated how “even the most impossibly utopian visions of green city living are within our reach.” A forthcoming book, The Arab City: Architecture and Representation, looks at Islamic architecture: its buildings, cities and landscapes.

Despite an exceedingly full plate, the East Village resident—she and Wood combined two units in a triplex where they live with their children—took time to talk to Urban Agenda.

UA: You were born in Beirut and have lived in Saudi Arabia, Paris, Montreal, Rotterdam, Boston and New York. Where and how did you become interested in the Arab City?

Andraos: Having spent my childhood in various cities in the Middle East, I have always been sensitive to the difference I felt existed between the lived experience of growing up there and the mediated images and predominant narratives about the “Arab City,” the “Arab-Islamic City” or the “Arab Street” one encounters in the media and in popular culture. Later, as I read the writings of Edward Said and Janet Abu Lughod as an architect, I became interested in how the contemporary architectural and urban production in the Middle East and in the emerging cities of the Gulf in particular, continued to construct the same narrative of contexts seemingly suspended out of politics or history, even as they are presented as visionary and futuristic, as opposed to trapped in a frozen past. This kind of reverse orientalism, as anthropologist Ahmed Kanna coined in his brilliant Dubai: the City as Corporation, has been quite interesting to me, not only as a way to read the current production as continuous with a certain approach to architecture and urban planning and design but also, moving beyond the region, as a way to reframe and critically engage the challenges and opportunities of architecture as a global practice today.


UA: Your book blurb says “Arab cities are multifaceted places and sites of layered historical imaginaries; defined by regional and territorial economies, they bridge scales of production and political engagement.” How would you describe it for the lay person?

Andraos: I don’t believe cities can be defined along ethnic lines and I find that the notions of cultural specificity and identity have been somewhat abused lately as we continue to construct the local and the global in opposition and make claims about authenticity, which are often quite problematic. Much of my interest has in fact been in undoing the notion of Arab City. At the same time, I believe the term “Arab” can today be quite instrumental in highlighting unique aspirations and evoking particular images that are specifically other to Islamic or Arab-Islamic as the two adjectives are decoupled to uncover a history that is today too often forgotten: the history of a long and complex engagement with the project of modernity, articulated in Arabic, that took place for over two centuries in the region, through the arts and letters, through political and intellectual thought as well as through architecture and urbanism. This engagement was transnational, progressive, at times secular and at times stemming from religious reformers and stands in stark contradiction to the narrative of a clash of civilization we mostly hear of today.

UA: Your father was an architect and you’re married to an architect. What is it like working closely with architects who are also family members?

Andraos: I was never able to work with my father, but Dan and I have a special chemistry and it’s incredibly rewarding and exciting to think, imagine and design together, to co-author, even if it is at times difficult, with seizing critique and passionate arguments. We like to say that a project is never good until we both agree it is, and neither of us is one to compromise.

UA: Who were some of your earliest influences? How did they inspire you to choose your career path?

Andraos: My father was my most important influence growing up. He was really a painter before being an architect, with an unbelievable culture, which seems to cover the entire globe, a deep love of history and great knowledge of art. He is an aesthete and a formalist and some of my most vivid memories of our early conversations are arguments about Duchamp. Later, I was also lucky to study with great educators who were passionate about architecture and cities, and always invited me to think outside of any given frame. Amongst them I count Howard Davies, Ricardo Castro, Toshiko Mori, Michelle Addington, Hashim Sarkis and Rem Koolhaas, of course.

UA: You have described yourself as part of the post-starchitect generation, and are concerned with sustainability. How do you determine when and if it makes sense to build?

Andraos: Too often architects are satisfied with their buildings meeting certain green performance criteria, such as achieving a LEED rating, for example. But what if a building is LEED certified but three times as big as it could have been? What if its program renders it a gated enclave, which displaces the city? What if it’s replacing an existing structure, which could have been strategically transformed to accommodate new use? What if technology and infrastructure could be inserted as if surgically in an existing context, rendering it radically new? Architects have so much more to offer than building alone, and when we have the privilege of building, I think we should be asking fundamental questions that have to do with scale, with density and compression, with program and use as well as with infrastructure and materials, rather than just respond to a brief or to regulations. It certainly is not easy, since we are more often than not invited at the end of a process, but I think we need to demonstrate that architects are not only there to answer problems, they can in fact lead in recasting the questions.

UA: How do you teach this?

Andraos: I believe students want more than what we are offering them, so they are teaching us, and together we are learning to ask different questions, to reframe the problems and to continue to expand the possible answers, whether through new forms of practice, new means of engagement and action or new forms of knowledge and discourse.

UA: Why do edible schoolyards need architects?

Andraos: Edible Schoolyards are not just about growing, cooking and eating organic food within an urban context and a school program; they are about pleasure, the experience of fresh food and the art of simple cooking with the understanding that food and cooking are an integral part of culture and expression. That is what is so inspiring about Alice Waters as a great chef and a food activist and the Edible Schoolyard NYC, which is the foundation we are collaborating with: their mission embraces the importance of architecture, and of the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of food as an experience, however simple, which is part of learning about the world and enjoying being part of it.

UA: Why do architects need edible schoolyards? 

Andraos: Because they are such a pleasure to imagine, design and build. They are very fulfilling projects, which bring together large ideas about cities and the environment and the very real and tangible daily experiences of kids who are empowered to learn and be in new ways.


UA: You prefer architectural models to relying on technology. What about drawing? How important is drawing in architectural practice today?

Andraos: Architectural drawings and models are critical today, as we try to make connections across scales and visualize a given context in ways that render externalities tangible, for example. I also believe it is important to counteract the omnipresence of the architectural rendering, which has somewhat homogenized architectural invention and reduced architecture to image. Instead, I think drawings and models can be more material and personal, they are an abstraction and can be either analytical or experiential or both and one can discover and design through them, as annotations of ideas rather than mere representations.

UA: How can architecture today help us realize our visions of utopia?

Andraos: I don’t think we should try to realize our visions of utopia, but use those visions as agents of change and as invitations to think of alternate possibilities in the ways that we live and engage one another and other species. Architecture can help us engage with the real: to shape the reality of our housing, our workspaces, our cities and parks, our institutions and our infrastructure in new ways.

UA: How does the Diane von Furstenberg headquarters, designed by WORKac, incorporate some of these concepts of sustainability and ecology in an urban setting?

Andraos: The Diane von Furstenberg building was partly a preservation project and partly a new interior construction which revolved entirely around bringing natural light into the depth of the building, enhancing the experience of working as designers within it and minimizing the use of artificial light through the use of heliostat mirrors. It was also an exercise in compression and urban density, where individual working spaces were rendered quite tight in exchange for collective meeting spaces lining the main stair. Finally, the green roof and geothermal heating and cooling further contributed to thinking about the building’s systems as ecological infrastructure.

UA: How do your designs help to connect people with nature? 

Andraos: We like to think that our work revolves around constructing second natures and environments: we seem to be obsessed with perforating and carving buildings to introduce green spaces and gardens, to bring in the sky, to always feel connected with the outside and the larger context. But we also like the idea of creating a sense of connection by making systems visible: by designing structures with shapes that celebrate water collection and reuse, for example, or with roofs and courtyards that are designed to grow food or collect compost, all of which render buildings an integral part of larger systems—ecological, agricultural, urban, etc.

UA: Why are you committed to educating future architects?

Andraos: Architects have the ability to think across scales, from the scale of a brick to that of a building, a city or an entire territory. They can draw lines that make visible the invisible: networks of exchanges, resource extractions, large scale migrations, etc. They can create feedback loops and parametrically iterate scenarios that integrate large amounts of data and bring together various disciplines and expertise. Architects are embedded in and learn from history even as they project new possibilities for the future. They embrace technology while also being critical of it. Architecture is also one of the few disciplines that can bring together the sciences and the humanities. As climate change brings more and more uncertainty to the future of our built environment and changes how we think and design this environment, I believe architects have a unique and significant role to play.