Architectural Startup: Dan Wood | James Petty | pettydesign

In the Fall of 2013, I sat down with Gregg Pasquarelli (SHoP), Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works), Paul Lewis (Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects), Dan Wood (Work.AC), and Stephen Cassell (Architecture Research Office). I wanted to understand and document how each of them formed their respective offices. I was after the nitty gritty details not typically published in the glossy magazines. I was looking for the hard times, the struggle, and the projects that were never published, but paid the bills. This interview is part of a series of 5 posts that will go through each of these architects and discuss their beginning.

Dan Wood is a co-founder of Work.AC. After being a partner of OMA for a number of years, he and his partner, Amale Andraos, moved to New York to begin a new practice. Their work has been widely published and well received. More information can be found on their website.

Architectural Startup: Dan Wood | James Petty | pettydesign

Dan Wood: At OMA, I had always worked on US projects. Amale [Andraos, co-founder of Work.AC] had also focused on US projects. So moving to New York City with OMA was simply an extension of that. We didn’t move to New York City with the idea of starting our own office, but it certainly helped to have worked on US projects before starting out.

James Petty: Were you guys moonlighting together while you were at OMA?

DW: It was a little more different at that time. I was a bit more senior, and she was a bit more junior. And… well… now it is reversed. I was pretty much already a partner when she started at OMA. So for example, I worked on Prada in the big overall scale while she worked on Prada New York.

JP: How did you spin off and become Work [.AC]?

DW: The year while we were at OMA New York, there was a lot of transition and change. There was a lot of focus turning toward China and CCTV. As a result, there was a shift in Rem’s idea of an office. Suddenly it was a very different situation to be in New York than what was going on in Rotterdam. It became very frustrating at times. Then there was the fact that we wanted to be a little more equal in the office and were ready to push out. Amale was a little more ready than I was. I wasn’t so sure. But events conspired to make it happen.

JP: When you initiated everything, weren’t you working out of your loft for a while?

DW: Yes. We were in a loft. It wasn’t even a loft. It was a glorified studio apartment. It had height. It had a double height section. But it didn’t have any light. We had sacrificed light for space thinking we would never be in the apartment during the day. We had ended up being in there with six people at some point. It was exciting. We had enough money to survive for a few months that we had saved up. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know what kind of work we were going to do. We didn’t know anything. So we really pared down. It was good. We really pared everything down to the bare essentials to save money, space and time.

JP: Could you talk about your first project, Villa Pup?

DW: Yeah, we got this call right after we had started. Someone had heard we had split off and asked if we would be interested in designing a doghouse.

JP: So this was through connections from OMA?

DW: I can’t remember. I don’t think it was a direct connection. We didn’t take any projects from OMA. But we did have a lot of contacts and connections. I can’t really point to the one moment, especially in those early projects, where one thing pointed to another. I don’t really know how it all worked.

JP: Did you guys have any projects that you wouldn’t necessarily work on today?

DW: Oh yeah, almost every one.

JP: Were there projects that you wouldn’t necessarily publish? The projects you would take on to keep going?

DW: Oh totally, yeah. We barely even published many of the projects from those first years. But even then, there was stuff we weren’t showing to people. On the other hand, the dog house we still show in lectures. There are others that really are seminal for us. The Target store was our really first big one. We were recommended on that project by a graphic design consultant. About five years ago I did a study trying to understand where we had gotten all of our projects from. That was really looking at the beginning years of the office. By far, the biggest percentage of work came through from recommendations of consultants and peers. Which is kind of weird. A lot of people would think that is an unlikely source. That was really where we got some projects in the early days.

JP: Do you mean other architects?

DW: Yeah, other architects that we knew who had projects too small for them or thought we would be a better fit. Building up your peer and consultant relationships was important. We had built up relationships with consultants while at OMA, but by that point, they didn’t owe us anything.

JP: Would you consider the Diane von Furstenberg Headquarters the one that really set you off?

DW: Yeah. That was the first major project. If I explained how we got that project, it would sound like a tall tale. I guess you could trace it back to the Seattle Public Library. With the Seattle Library, we were involved in fundraising. We met a lot of people, including people who were involved with Microsoft, and some who had retired from Microsoft. We became really friendly with a couple of those people. We were then a little less friendly, but still friendly with friends of those people. So that was one thread. So then another thread is through the Jane Wenner House in the Bahamas, which was an OMA project. Through the Wenner House, we had met Diane von Furstenberg and spent a crazy weekend in the Bahamas with her. When we had gotten back, she had invited us to a party. That was great but that was it, and we had lost touch with her for many years. The two things kind of came together on a boat on the Mediterranean when Diane ran into a friend of a friend of someone we had met tangentially with the Seattle Library. She said she was looking for architects and the friend said, “Oh I know Work, you should talk to them.” So she got ahold of us. Then there was this little competition, and we had to have a good idea. So it was good ideas, the competition, working hard, and connections that all made it happen.

JP: Did you put in extra effort into this competition knowing that it was going to end up being such a marketing tool for you and Work?

DW: Well we knew it was a great opportunity. We saw her on a Friday, and she asked that we bring stuff back to her on a Monday. We put as much work as we could into two days. We thought we had done a good job. We did three models, three different directions. They were made of cardboard and paper. When we got there, she had been running an architectural competition for months with dozens of architects. People had made wooden models with customized boxes and pink ribbons with Diane’s name on it, and we had three crappy models. It was really the strength of our ideas and our enthusiasm that got through though. I think we had one idea that really resonated with her. That was really just great luck considering we didn’t even know her very well.

JP: Is this the great stairwell of the project?

DW: It wasn’t even the stairwell. It was the idea of a shaft of light that came in diagonally through the building. That later became a stairwell. It was a diagonal atrium.

JP: You guys started out with a five-year plan. It is something you have talked extensively about publicly. Are you still operating on this strategy?

DW: We are. But we only do them in retrospect. We are currently on our third five-year plan. The original one was “say yes to everything.” Then the second one was… well, we don’t have a good catchy name for it. The first five-year plan culminated in PS1. The second five-year plan began with developing the ideas that we set out with on PS1. It was already a step up from our publication 49 Cities and our interest in nature and growing our own food. So from 2008 until last year (the second five-year plan), we tried to develop those at a bigger scale while trying to widen that realm of inquiry. In 2013, we won the African project. That is like a mega-PS1 project basically.

JP: It seems like the early architectural studios get into the rhetoric of smaller projects and have a hard time breaking into institutional work when they don’t have any prior experience to show for it. It seems to me that is what Work is trying to do now. You are trying to get out of those smaller projects and trying to get more projects at the scale of your Gabon project.

DW: Right. For sure. In the “say yes to everything” phase, we were coming at it with fresh eyes. We were getting a lot of inspiration from our clients. We didn’t really know what our style was or whatever. The next five years was really when we were trying to insert our own interest into the project. The next five-years will really be about scope and scale. Hopefully.

JP: Do you feel as though you have to put a filter on projects you are willing to accept?

DW: Yes and no. We turn down a lot more projects now. We turn down the large interior projects. I think we saw that there were two routes at the beginning. One was the kind of academic route where you develop your concepts and enter competitions and try to win. The other was you just keep working. You figure it out through working. That is sort of how the name Work came about. That is the route that we took. But part of saying yes to everything still led us to academics and teaching. Within that, there are two routes, residential and non-residential. I think with Prada and Target in our initial experience we have rarely done any residential work. I mean we have only done two apartments and a house… which was very early and not as successful as some of our other projects. On the one hand I would really love to do another house, but on the other hand, there are a lot of advantages with not doing so much residential.

JP: You mentioned that you had done some teaching early on. How has that influenced your practice? Some offices have used teaching to help finance their practice early on. Is that something that you have had to do?

DW: Yeah teaching has become really important to Work. We financed our practice through academia in the later stages since we had our internal recession in about 2009. We always had work, staff and the office pretty well rolling. One of our rules was to always act bigger than we are. Another rule was to always focus internationally and think global. I think that really helped us. The teaching is a really important core. It is more of an intellectual core than a financial one, but it doesn’t hurt. It is important to teach and react and guide students. It also allows us to take a moment to think about things that we normally might not have an opportunity to think about in everyday practice.

JP: You guys tend to do a lot of self-generated projects as well. Do you use these projects as a marketing tool?

DW: No. I think the best thing for marketing is your own projects. That is really hard when you are starting out and don’t have any of your own projects. We don’t really mention our work with OMA anymore. Professionally, people don’t know us anymore from working with Rem unless we tell them. You don’t get any credit for that work, despite whatever your contributions might have been. Which is right. It wasn’t our office. The self-generated projects were more about honing our craft. It was another way for us to think about things other than our day-to-day. Marketing is tough. I don’t know a good way to do it other than meeting a lot of people and to keep talking. I don’t think we ever got any of work through our website or anything.

JP: Have you guys considered putting out a publication of your work?

DW: We are working on one. We felt like we needed to have the basis of work to have enough projects to show something. We feel like we should have something within the next couple of years.

JP: In the “say yes to everything,” was there ever a moment when you had to do something a bit awkward?

DW: No we just ended up doing some really crappy projects. Well, we ended up doing a lot of great projects too with some great clients. What was great in the early days is that we had some clients who had big ambitions and huge interests in dialogue and very open and fun. They had great schedules and absolutely everything except money. That was really great. You can run into a lot of really great people in New York who are great to work with. They just need their projects really cheap. We never had to say yes to something that was too awkward.

JP: How is your work-life balance now compared to when you started out? Are things more difficult or is it easier to handle?

DW: Well when we were in the apartment it was terrible. I got the flu for a week and was stuck in the mezzanine, our private part. I could hear every telephone call and every meeting. We had no kitchen and no dining room, just the office. We had six people, and we had enough work that we eventually were able to get out of that and into a cheap office. We have children now, so it is pretty easy to know when we are in life mode. It is hard to know which is more difficult. You don’t ever mistake the weekends for working even though we are still together for all of it. I think that architects are very well suited for being married and working together.

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James Petty is an American architect experiencing and contributing to the Yale School of Architecture.