There's an inspiring new guiding force at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation: Amale Andraos, the school’s new dean, who co-founded the influential firm WorkAC with her husband and partner Dan Wood in 2003. From the Holland Island Cultural Center in St. Petersburg and Wieden+Kennedy’s New York offices , to the Blaffer Museum in Houston and the Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan , WorkAC’s body of work is engaging, forward-thinking, and at the forefront of sustainable thought. A leader in globalization and urbanization, Beirut-born Andraos is excited to help students explore the potential of the day within the architecture and design world. She previously taught at Princeton, Harvard, and University of Pennsylvania Design School.
The firm is currently completing the Conference Center in Libreville, Gabon, and designing the second Edible Schoolyard at P.S. 7 in East Harlem. (Their first Edible Schoolyard is at P.S. 216 in Gravesend, Brooklyn.)
It’s not an easy time for architecture. Students need to develop both design thinking and expertise, while learning to be highly critical, flexible, and adaptable to the conditions they will encounter.
Docservis: It’s no small undertaking to step into the role of Dean at Columbia’s GSAPP. What are intentions and hopes from the outset?
Amale Andraos: Columbia’s GSAPP is a highly diverse, high-energy environment. It’s one of the most open and intellectually generous places I have been part of. I would like to maintain this sense of generosity and continue to encourage diversity, of people and perspectives. To build on the school’s legacy of a progressive and experimental mode of education while re-enforcing the sense of collaboration, focus, and debate.
ID: In what ways do you suspect your presence will be felt at the university, in terms of both established and new programs?
AA: I would like the school to continue to build collaborations across campus, through specific projects and initiatives as well as by supporting individual faculty’s and students’ interests, to examine questions and shared concerns from diverse perspectives and expertise. Columbia is a leading research university on a wide range of issues from climate change to the effects of globalization and data science, amongst others, and GSAPP’s strong focus on cities can both contribute and learn from such collaborations and exchanges.
ID: What would you say are the great opportunities and challenges or responsibilities of young people entering the field of architecture?
AA: It’s not an easy time for architecture. Students need to develop both design thinking and expertise, while learning to be highly critical, flexible, and adaptable to the conditions they will encounter. I think our graduates are not only talented but also have a strong sense of leadership, creativity, curiosity, and entrepreneurship, which have historically rendered them quite agile at carving new territories for meaningful practices, whether specifically architectural or within its expanded field.
ID: How important has mentorship been in your own career, and how crucial is that concept for new members of the community?
AA: Mentorship is important and we certainly should expand the opportunities for it to take place. But one can’t wait around for mentors, and it’s difficult to seek them actively. It actually can be quite liberating not to have mentors for long stretches of time, and suddenly find that your own unguided explorations have opened up the possibility for unexpected new friendships and support.
ID: The principles that guide the projects of WORKac seem to lend themselves perfectly to the notion of responsible planning and preservation that is taught in the grad program at Columbia. How does your experience with the firm shape your approach to this role as dean?
AA: The kinds of explorations, cross-disciplinary investigations, and collaborations we enjoy at WORKac will inevitably inform how I will approach leading the school. I am a firm believer in building teams to investigate issues, and in design as an iterative process. While the school’s strength is in its incredible diversity, its faculty and students share a strong sense of responsible engagement with the world, all the while being incredibly creative, experimental, and open. It’s a thrilling environment.
ID: Your work with Dan Wood has always been inspiring. What has it meant to you to build your career as a partnership?
AA: I couldn’t imagine working any other way than in a constant state of exchange, productive critique, and collaboration. Life and work are seamlessly intertwined, and it’s a great adventure together.
ID: Many leaders in the architecture-design-city planning community see this time and the coming decades as a period of incredible significance, as cities swell in size and density. What do you consider our most vital steps towards responsibly meeting new global needs?
AA: As architects, we need to further develop our ability to think relationally, whether we are studying history, analyzing a particular urban context, or engaged in re-inventing an architectural typology. We also need to think across multiple scales at once, as we continue to learn how to build better teams able to address the issues at hand, from climate change, to designing resilient infrastructure, imagining more equitable cities or more meaningful architecture.
ID: While the word “sustainable” is thrown around often, you’ve dedicated your career to its true meaning. How do we, as an industry, become ever more responsible and creative in this regard?
AA: We cannot rely on technology alone, or the embrace of “green” materials, even though both are quite important. I am interested in engaging the more fundamental aspects, such as scale, the re-writing of program, the re-imagining of infrastructure, the engagement with culture, with narrative, with art. All of those aspects are important if we are to live more sustainably.
ID: What are some of your recent projects at WORKac that you feel have not only expanded your repertoire but honed your thoughts on urban design?
AA: Nature-City , which we designed for the MoMA exhibition "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," explored ideas we are now implementing in a number of master plans we are designing in China. In particular, we just completed a master plan for seven new university campuses in Weifang, in collaboration with SLAB, SCAPE, and Studio Zhu-Pei, which has further developed some of the ways in which to weave urban density with ecological preservation and richness.
ID: What were your early inspirations, and how do you feel now as you reflect on how far you’ve come?
AA: I feel it’s too soon for me to reflect, but I certainly owe much of my very early inspiration to my father, a painter and an architect, who left Lebanon and his practice at the beginning of the war to start a prefabricated housing company in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where I spent my childhood.