Spotlight: Amale Andraos

School News

Spotlight: Amale Andraos

November 07, 2016

Amale Andraos is the Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.


Andraos has taught at numerous universities including the Princeton University School of Architecture, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania Design School and the American University in Beirut. Her publications include the recent 49 Cities, a re-reading of 49 visionary plans through an ecological lens, Above the Pavement, the Farm! (2010) and Architecture and Representation: the Arab City (2016).


Andraos is a co-founder of New York-based WORKac, a 35-person firm that focuses on architectural projects which re-invent the relationship between urban and natural environments. Since the founding of WORKac in 2003, principals Amale Andraos and Dan Wood have achieved international acclaim for projects such as the recently completed master plan for the New Holland Island Cultural Center in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wieden+Kennedy’s 50,000 sq ft, three story New York offices, the Blaffer Museum in Houston, Texas, the Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan and the Edible Schoolyard at P.S. 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Currently, in Africa, the firm is building its winning competition entry for a new 20,000 square meter Conference Center in Libreville, Gabon. In addition, the firm is currently designing a second Edible Schoolyard at P.S. 7 in East Harlem and exploring the future of work, art, and technology with the design of a new home for the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in downtown Brooklyn.


I like to go way back in time. I’m interested in how you got to where you are. How did you begin this journey and who are some of your inspirations? How did that lead up to being dean at this point in time?


My Father is an architect but mostly a painter and I grew up in a house where art was very important. We talked about painting all the time. I was living in Saudi Arabia as a child and my father had a prefab housing company so I also was often on construction sites. So I have very early memories of construction. So I think that’s probably the biggest inspiration and then I was lucky to have some great mentors, people who I admire at McGill. People like Howard Davis or Ricardo Castro and then later at Harvard, Toshiko Mori, Hiroyuki Shinzaki, Michele Addington, and Mirco Zardini were really inspiring professors. Obviously I was very interested in Rem’s work when I got to Harvard. It was one of the reasons I went there. I decided to apply for the Project on the City, which he was leading, and then went from Cambridge to Rotterdam as a result of that. Rem is a great influence. So that’s sort of the trajectory. I always find myself being inspired by Dan [Wood], my partner. When we started we were at different points and it’s been great to sort of grow together in the practice.


How did you put your practice together? Was it just the two of you at first?


It was the two of us and when we moved to New York after a number of years living in Rotterdam and starting OMA in New York, which Dan was starting, he was a partner. After a year at OMA in New York, we realized that it would be more interesting for us to just launch our own practice. So we moved into our apartment, put the plotter on the kitchen counter and the foam cutter on the dining table and we started.


There you go.


Yes. There you go. It starts.


At that point, was there a project or a competition you had won that was a catalyst for the practice?


No. We had done an open competition for a project in Montreal very early on, which we didn’t win. We just felt we were ready. I always knew that I wanted at some point to be on my own and do my own thing. For Dan it was a little bit different. He had been partner at OMA for some time and so he had to decide that that was what he wanted to do and we had to decide that that was what we wanted to do together. We kind of took our time deciding that but once we did we just kind of launched without any particular project. One of the very first projects we did was a dog house. It was very interesting to go from very large OMA-scale projects to a dog house.


In terms of the commissions you get, looking historically and up to now, how do you get those commissions? Do people seek you out or are you pretty aggressive about going after certain projects you’re interested in or how do you negotiate that?


You know, that’s a really important question especially for students going out. I think in the beginning we said yes to everything. We really tried to gain momentum, gain skill and learn through doing. There was a real commitment to practice. We’re quite a competition-based firm, which is not a very common model in the U.S. but coming from our European background we sort of carried that through, so we do a lot of competitions and more and more invited competitions and we’ve won a number of them. We love doing competitions. But we’re also at a point now where we’re privileged enough that some people just come to us because of our previous work. Our best story in that sense was PS 1, which literally led to the edible schoolyard project and I think it’s rare that PS 1 leads to a commission, but in our case it did and so putting an agenda out there and having someone say, hey, you know this is really interesting. I’d like you to think about edible schoolyards here in New York. That was really great. So it’s a combination of doing competitions and, I think, more and more, having people approach us because they’re interested in the work.


It’s interesting what you said about the competition aspect of this. I never really thought of it this way but is there more of a culture of doing competitions as a real integral part of practice in Europe compared to the U.S.? And why do you think that is?


Yes. Definitely. I think there is a very strong competition culture. Although now whenever there is a big recession it makes it very hard, but every single public project is subject to a competition. Public housing, institutions, school buildings. That’s really how young practices emerge.


Are there more competitions in Europe that offer funding? Or is it still like doing the work for free?


No, I think they are paid. There are more paid competitions. Of course there are open competitions as well. You know, the U.S. is more of an RFQ, RFP process of interviews, which we do a lot of as well. But the mentality is different, right, because the purpose of the interview is I’m going to hire you because of your previous experience, so unless you have open-minded and kind of visionary clients or people who want to push the boundaries, which many are but that’s a very sophisticated audience, there is a sense that, well, have you done a school? Well, OK. So we’re going to go with someone who has already done a school. So it takes longer, whereas if you take the competition model in Europe, everybody has a chance, whether you’ve done it or not. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but certainly for young practices in Europe, they really emerge very much through the competition model.


I’m very interested in your book. How did you develop the premise of the book and what is it trying to clarify and critique?


When I got to Columbia after teaching at other schools I felt like this was the one school where I could explore this questions I’ve always been interested in on a very personal level. The question of the Arab city, is there an Arab city, or using the term “Arab” to undo some of the assumed notions that we have about Middle East and region in a kind of Said model a little bit. But it was also interesting for me to bring this into the present and to look at the question of the Arab city as a way to understand this question of global practice. Which all of us architects have been engaged in for a very long time but that global practice has taken on a very particular bent in the last, I would say, two decades. Things are faster. You know, the kinds of relationships that would get built over many years are no longer the same. If I think of Arab tropical modernism or I think of local architects, the kinds of modernism demonstrated at Rem’s Biennale, is very different from how we practice globally today, I think. So it was a way to look at those questions and also to look at, through architecture and cities, the transfer of power from the old centers, which are Beirut, Damascus, Bagdad and the creation of new centers of power, which are Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and look at the shift in architecture as a way to understand that shift in power and what it means in terms of the values and questions of engagement with modernity.


This triggers a thought on my part, which is there’s a lot of attention on the Burg Kalifa and these huge towers that are going up, but I wonder if people are missing larger parts of the picture.


Yes. That’s kind of what my introduction is staging as a question, which is what’s happing in the Gulf is either rejected as capitalism at its worst…


Kind of how it was done with China, right?


Right. And like a kind of pure spectacle where global capitalism is flowing through real estate. That’s one way to look at it. I’m more interested in situating that recent production within a much longer history and to kind of anchor it in dialog with the old centers, only because there is this kind of hype of finally the Arab world is engaging modernism and modernity and I think what the book is trying to say is there has been over two centuries of that engagement and it took on many many forms and often was undermined by conflict, by its relationship with the West. So there is a very problematic shift moving from a context that wanted to be progressive, secular and kind of engaged with democracy to a context that is founding itself on questions of exclusion, identity, religion and looking at that as a problem to be examined.


What’s the personal angle for you?


Like many Middle Easterners from my generation, you know, if you think of the Arab Spring it was a moment of hope to reconnect with this other kind of engagement with modernity that has been shut down. So I’m interested in the gap between Arab and Islamic, not to say that one is better than the other, but to introduce a kind of gap and I’m interested in that history of Pan-Arabism, which is often depicted as a failure. But I think it’s worth uncovering some of its successes. And there was a very strong expression through the architecture of that era. So for me the interest is to complicate the narratives that we hear today in the same way that I think in general we could complicate all the narratives we engage when we’re, quote unquote, practicing globally.


Absolutely. Did you grow up partly over there?


I was born in Beirut and I grew up between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia before moving to Paris in the mid-eighties.


So how did you get to the stage of becoming a dean? Is that something you always saw on the horizon?


I had no idea. I didn’t think that I would ever occupy that role. It’s just circumstance and I have to say I do love Columbia. When I became full time here I thought this is home, I like the intellectual diversity and the generosity, it’s very global and international so I felt very good here and it’s one of those things when the opportunity presents itself and someone asks you to step up to that position, it’s very hard to say no. It’s a very unique experience


You definitely have a lot of responsibility. You’re really guiding the ship at that point. What do you like most about it?


I like what I love as a teacher, which is when you see a student doing great work or if you are able to support faculty doing great work and when there is great energy or you’ve made something possible. What excites me is enabling others and enabling great work to be done. That’s really the great pleasure. To create the possibilities for opportunities for others and to advance the field and to explore certain questions.


With that in mind, what do you think are some of the most important things professors can impart to students?


I think students and architects have access to so much more information than they ever did before and are bombarded with images and projects, so I think what we can offer to students is the means to articulate positions to filter through all the information and to find ways to bring things together, to develop work and positions out of all that information. The best thing that can happen when they graduate is they have a sense of the kinds of questions they want to ask and have developed the skills to allow them to ask those questions in interesting ways, I think. We are trying to open up possibilities for them and create a sort of matrix for them to be able to navigate as they get out into the field.


What advice do you have for students who are just embarking on their careers?


I think architecture is a very long long endeavor that requires passion and curiosity, maintaining that passion and curiosity, and not being afraid of trying different thing and different paths. I always tell my students, I knew a lot coming out of school but it was nothing compared to what I knew after two years of working for Rem and it was nothing compared to after two years of working on my own. That’s what I love about architecture and being an architect is that you are always growing and it’s a kind of privilege to be able to do that. ◼