Architectural Startup: Stephen Cassell | 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.Stephen is a co-founder of ARO, Architecture Research Office. The office is located in New York City and is known for their highly thought out work. More information on ARO can be found on their website.

Architectural Startup: Stephen Cassell | James Petty | pettydesign

Stephen Cassell: I knew my partner Adam [Yarinsky, co-founder of Architecture Research Office] at Princeton. He was in graduate school, and I was an undergraduate. We had both worked at Stephen Holl. He left first when he got a teaching fellowship up at Michigan and was later at the University of Virginia. We had a third partner, Tom Jenkinson, who had also worked at Stephen Holl. When we started, Adam was teaching at UVA. I was teaching at RISD and doing freelance work for an exhibition designer named Edwin Schlossberg. Tom was still at Stephen’s office part-time. At that time the economy had tanked so there was no work at Stephen’s office. I had left right after the competition submission for the museum in Helsinki. That was before the jury, and there wasn’t any further work in the office. We started while we were working on other things. We started with a small loft project and a lobby project that a friend of Tom’s had down in Soho.

James Petty: So this was working nights and weekends?

SC: Yeah basically. Schlossberg had said I could work on my own projects in his office. Ed was really generous about that. They ended up renting us desk space while we started our own place. He had 40 or 50 people. They had plotters and printers and the infrastructure. Within three or four months, Adam was done teaching and moved back to New York. Tom then quit Stephen’s office and was working at Schlossberg’s office as well. It was a way to keep our overhead really low. At that time, my freelance commitment was reduced to site visits a couple of days per week. Between that and teaching, I was able to make enough money to eat while we got our office going. We had a few theories. One theory was that if we started our office at the bottom of the economy, it could only get better. I can’t remember exactly how long it took for us to begin pulling a salary, but it was pretty quick.

JP: Your first free-standing project was the Colorado House?

SC: For free-standing, yes. By the time we had started the Colorado house, we had moved into our own office. We were in Schlossberg’s for about a year, and then we had moved into an office next door to where we are now. Within the next year, there was super low rent. By then we had the loft project turned into a building renovation. It was a warehouse to loft conversion. That turned into a few more projects within that building, about five or six projects. That really powered our office. We also had worked for a company that we had known from our time at Stephen’s. A lot of back-office work that you would never see published, but it paid the bills. The design projects then began to come in. We did a loft on 20th street. The house in Colorado ended up being for the parents of the people that we had done that loft for. Actually, we just finished another project for that same client a few months ago.

JP: So you use the network of existing work to generate new work.

SC: It was hourly work and they just constantly had something for us to do. It was really helpful for the first three or four years. After a certain point, we began to phase that out of our office. It was not ambitious enough architecturally. Since we had enough paid good projects, we phased that out. Most practices in New York start with interiors.

JP: That seems to be one of the hardest things about starting an office in New York. So many offices begin by starting on these lofts and renovations but never quite gain traction on anything larger. How did you overcome that?

SC: Part of it is always being really conscious about what we took. Early on we started doing theoretical projects parallel to our paid projects. Self-generated work. A lot of offices do that. It was partly to cultivate clients to get bigger work such as the house project. The house was a big deal for us. Around the same time we were doing the house, we got the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square.

JP: That seems to be the project where you received a lot of publicity and helped get ARO to where it is now, especially your interest in the public sphere. It was your first real public project and ended up being the most public place you could be in the world.

SC: That came through a few different channels. We were working at the time with a big engineering firm called, Pearson Sprinkenhof. It was a global engineering firm that Steven Holl had recommended us to. Oddly enough a childhood friend of my mom was a dissatisfied architect working there. Like everything else, that was taking something where there was no architectural aspiration, where even the client had no architectural aspiration, and we were working much harder to make something. We worked much more intensely on it, more than they ever knew or cared for that matter. All they cared about was that we designed it and got it approved very quickly. We were strategic about it. We figured if we made it an America Flag, no one could argue with it. That was the only design thing a General could understand. It was a conceptual thing, but it was also something no one could argue with.

JP: Did you realize at the time that this project was going to be such a momentum generator for your office?

SC: Not really. On the one hand, it was clear that this was an amazing site. It was right in the center of Times Square. It also had a certain aspect that the client wasn’t paying attention to the design other than pragmatic issues. It also became clear that, even though they said money was an issue, it wasn’t. For such a small building, it ended up being $1200 per square foot, which was incredibly high at the time. All they cared about was getting the thing done and making it durable. We could make everything out of stainless steel as an excuse for making things durable. They had suggested that a “nice brick building” would be appropriate. It was as much about setting up a thing where the client was clearly happy and something that they could clearly understand and sign-off on and something where we could create a space and do something that we thought was right in terms of design. That was parallel to the house project. The house started earlier but had a longer construction time.

JP: At that point, did you already have employees?

SC: We had our first employee within the first six or nine months. It was a student of mine from RISD. We called that the inverted pyramid management structure, three partners, and one employee. By the time we were doing the Armed Forces project we had six or seven people in the office. We were working on a very expensive loft project and a bunch of other projects in-house. We had gotten some momentum by then. We had a couple of different business consultants that we would check in with that gave us feedback on how to charge for things early on and take care of ourselves. We said ‘yes’ to everything in the beginning to get momentum, but then we got much more picky about what we chose in terms of shaping the practice we wanted.

JP: You have been very successful in connecting with clients to continue your investigative research. How do you go about finding such clients?

SC: We were lucky that we had all worked at Steven Holl’s office. Early on we had realized which clients had the potential for design and which didn’t. I say clients rather than projects. Pretty quickly we realized you could talk to someone and realize if they cared about design and if there was enough alignment with what we did well and what they wanted. A lot of times we would talk to people and there was a clear lack of alignment. We turned down projects and said we would keep looking for work. We would rather be smaller and have the right clients. When we first started, we took everything and injected design into it. Then we slowly started to increase our filter. By now it’s self-selecting.

JP: Do you think that’s the right path by taking everything in the beginning and slowly creating that filter?

SC: Yeah. At a certain point, you need to eat. You need to get something to get that momentum. I don’t mean doing three Wal-Marts. There are certain projects that take just so much brain time and are so deadening that they aren’t worth doing. We are an office that early on said ‘no’ a lot. We figured it was going to work out one way or another. You end up getting more of what you do. If you do one thing, you are going to get more of those things. If you do one more ‘crank it out project’, you get more ‘crank it out projects.’ You need to be pretty careful in the first years about what you take. It was because we do such a diverse set of projects, which for a long time was really hard. We didn’t want to just do rich people’s lofts. We were always trying to expand. It meant we didn’t have just one thing to show in our portfolio.

JP: The curse of getting institutional work is that in order to get larger work, you need to have already completed something.

SC: As far as getting traction in institutional sector, we began doing work for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum exhibition. We figured there was an alignment between ideas and the exhibit. It was the only public work we could do at the time, but it was at least public. We used that as a vehicle. Now, it is still the same way. We go after many things we have never done before. But because of the methodology of how we work, people come to us because we haven’t done a certain type of project before. They are looking for that rethinking of the typology. In that essence, we have generated a new market.

JP: Could you talk about the role of teaching in your office? You and your partners have had the opportunity to teach at many great institutions. You have mentioned previously that you view the role of teaching secondary to practice, but how do you place teaching within it?

SC: Adam, Kim [Yao, partner as of 2011] and I all teach on and off. Adam and I realized that if we taught full time, it was easy for the administrative duties of teaching to overwhelm our life. Committees and all of this other stuff. Going after tenure. We learned that from watching Steven Holl. He was always complaining. What we realized is that we would try to teach every 2 or 3 semesters, but not constantly. It was enough to engage with the academy and know what is going on and talk with our peers. We learned a lot through our interactions. Teaching is the ultimate way of forcing you to articulate you what you are trying to do. Students are smart, and you can’t bullshit. It’s a good way to keep yourself honest and have good people in your office. By teaching not too often, we get the best of both worlds. It has worked out relatively well. When the economy tanked in 2008, we all started teaching a lot more. Every semester sounded wonderful. By then we had taught enough that it was easy to get a teaching position.

JP: So you have been able to use academia to pay your rent.

SC: Yeah. That was the first time in a long time that it had to pay our rent. We used it as a way to ensure we kept the core people that we cared about in the office. We could make more money teaching than in the office at the time. In some ways, we were lucky because we were not doing too much developer work so we didn’t get hit as hard as other firms.

If you enjoyed this interview, take a look at some of the other interviews in this series:
Gregg Pasquarelli (SHoP)
Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works)
Paul Lewis (Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects)
Dan Wood (Work.AC)

Also, take a look at interviews of architects who are developing their own work at I spoke to Architects & Developers:
Peter Guthrie (DDG)
Jared Della Valle (Alloy)
Kevin Cavenaugh (Guerrilla Development)
Jonathan Tate (OJT)
and many more…

About pettydesign

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