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Nature vs. City: In Architect Dan Wood's World, Opposites Attract

The principal at WorkAC expands on his unique vision for urban living.

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WorkAC

Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, more commonly known as WorkAC, have worked on architecture of a varied scale since the duo struck out on their own in 2003. The pair met at Rem Koolhaas’s future-starchitect factory Office for Metropolitan of Architecture, a firm lauded for its conceptual and intellectual projects.

Following the "tattoo" of Koolhaas, as Andraos once put it, WorkAC has kept busy with a catalog of self-initiated project focused on cities, like an ongoing reference project comparing cities throughout history. We talked to principal and co-founder Dan Wood about all things architecture, from suburban myths to New York’s civic design initiative.

How did your participation in the "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream" exhibition at MoMA come about?

We have a long history with MoMA. And every three years, Barry Bergdoll wants to explore a topic that's broader than the typical architecture show. There was a long expression-of-interest phase, and an interview, then they narrowed it down to ten firms then five. We had prepared the team and site beforehand—since it was all based on the research we had done at Columbia University—and it was great to do all that before we did any design work.

WorkAC's Nature-City proposal for the Museum of Modern Art's "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream" exhibition, 2012.

And how do you think conceptual programming like “Foreclosed” helps people visualize a different future?

In the beginning we thought a lot about the Buell hypothesis: "Change the dream and you can change the city." So it was about the American dream, how we could change what people's expectations are. In the Horatio Alger model, it means always doing better than the previous generation. And over the past 50 years, it’s become having a house with a yard.

We had to answer our own philosophical and conceptual design challenges and communicate that to people who don't typically think about architecture. That’s why we did the scale model, and that's why we worked with Wieden + Kennedy.

Another view of WorkAC's Nature-City proposal for the MoMA’s "Foreclosed" exhibition.
Housing typologies explored in Nature-City.

Did you find the audience to be much more broad than, say, an AIA exhibition?

The response was much more critical than with "Rising Currents," but any time you cover the suburbs you get a very psychological reaction—people can be possessive and defensive. I feel the audience [who actually saw the exhibition] wasn't that way at all; people were really engaging with it. 

So what Fox News said about the show, that it was for cultural elites—it’s not true. MoMA draws 10 million a people a year! The whole country, the whole world, is the audience at MoMA. So it was a broad audience. Normally Fox News wouldn’t pay any attention to architecture shows.

There are two myths about the suburbs working in tandem: One is that this is what everybody wants. Obviously what people want is not a predetermined thing, and the suburban model is relatively new. (Do people want an 84-ounce soda or is someone trying to sell them a 84-ounce soda?) Second, that the suburb is a grassroots, individualized dream. Suburbs were developed as a massive infrastructure or development, hundreds of houses at a time, in a politically charged environment. So people’s reactions to them are not 100 percent in line with actuality. 

Rendering for WorkAC’s Kew Gardens Hills public library, breaking ground this year. The project was commissioned by the New York City Department of  Design + Construction’s Design and Excellence program.

Can you tell me a little bit about your 49 Cities project?

We started teaching about ecology and urbanism in the mid 2000s, and realized we couldn't talk about contemporary urbanism without examining the history of it, from the Roman city on. We wanted to bleed them of all their social baggage and examine the idea of a city through an ecological lens, and by the numbers.

Can we redraw these past cities in such a way that can easily be compared in terms of open space and landmass? Quantitative examination led us to all sorts of thinking about urbanism. It’s a constant reference in the office for us. In each edition, we just add a little more and fix the numbers. 

Your PS216 Edible Schoolyard project was selected as part of the US Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. How do you think architecture fairs like the Biennale help/harm the cause of socially minded architecture practice?

We've never been to the Biennale but hopefully we’re going in two years!

All of these festivals—Rotterdam, Guangzhou, Shenzhen—are opportunities to further the conceptual backbone of the firm. We once charted all of our projects, one axis was size of client and the other was visionary content. [The client side went] from us to large national governments. It started [on the small side] with lots of visionary projects, and then it dipped into what we called the 'belly of banality' with mid-level developers and state governments, then picked up again with the biggest possible projects. For one of those festivals, we designed a fish farm where they cut the budget by ten, so we used goldfish in it instead of tilapia. And now they're going to build it in San Diego. 

You mentioned to the Yale Daily News that "we’ve always been inspired by the idea of having a country life and a city life of the old aristocracy, and how we can actually bring that to the city and countryside in a way that the two poles don’t necessarily need to be so totally separated." How so?

She cut off half the quote! The idea was that the aristocracy used to have that life, whereas we want it for everybody. Central Park is like a facsimile of country life. I always find Olmsted a bit pedantic—an urban version of a park designed to explain country life to city folk. I am talking about wilder versions of nature where you can bring the lived experience of nature to a city, which brings a deeper sense of community and closeness to the earth. It’s not meant to make an inmate of nature in the city, but making nature work better in cities. 

How is the park life in, say, New York City, varied from that of Copenhagen or London or Tokyo? Where do Americans get it right or wrong?

Having grown up in the countryside [rural Rhode Island], I feel like I have a different attitude. Amale grew up between Saudi Arabia, Paris and Montreal—she’s more urban. She's got the aristocracy part [laughs]. And this whole concept is about more than just parks. But it's also less! Growing something on your rooftop or replacing flowers with something edible.

Take the Diane von Furstenberg headquarters [in the Meatpacking District]: It’s a project about nature, and how light is brought in via the heliostat mirrors. Natural light circulates throughout the building, and even if you're working in the there and not aware of the big technical system, it gives you a different feeling—an interaction with the natural world. 

It's this relationship between the urban, the rural and the wild that we're interested in looking at. 

The striking exterior of WorkAC’s Diane Von Furstenberg headquarters in the Meatpacking District of New York, 2007.

Do you think suburban density works better for planned developments of the future than urban density? If so, what is easier? What is more challenging?

That's where we started with "Foreclosed." Up until that project we didn't think about the suburbs really at all. At one point we proposed moving all of New Jersey into Newark to free up farmland! For this show, we had to think about the suburbs, so we started with the idea of living closer to nature. The beginning of the suburb at the turn of the century began with Ebenezer Howard, who said, 'you have the town and you have the country, but where do people really want go? So I'm going to invent the town-country.'

But now the best of both worlds is the worst of both worlds. You have to mow a lawn made of grass from thousand of miles away, roads separate everything, you can’t walk anywhere, and there's no public space. If you look at the density [in our Keizer, Oregon proposal], it is quite urban—five times as dense as a typical suburb. But we made it with three times as much open space, so it's much more natural than a typical suburb. The green space has native habitats and places you can hike and interact with wildlife. When you go out the back door, it's wild, and out the front door, a grid of streets. 

I think there are real benefits to urban density, but we wanted to prove you could have it and live closer to nature.

This is Dwell's monthly column for The Atlantic Cities. Read more of Kelsey Keith's work here.

About the Author

  • New York-based Kelsey Keith is a senior editor at Dwell where she writes and edits In The Modern World. She's written about design, art, and architecture online and off, with stints as editor at Architizer and Curbed New York. She's obsessed with civic infrastructure, homes with gables, and architectural follies.