ARO Monograph, 2003

ARO: Architecture Research Office

Princeton Architectural Press, 2003
Stephen Cassell and Adam Yarinsky

We have always considered our office to be a design project in itself, a collaborative enterprise to shape and adjust as it evolves. In this respect, this book serves two functions. First, it documents our body of work. Secondly, it serves as a tool that allows us to reflect on our intentions and our methodology. The seven projects presented here demonstrate the diversity of work within our office and illustrate both the projects themselves and our working process. In addition to photographs and renderings of each project we have included drawings, models, and sketches from the design process. The images, selected out of hundreds of items, highlight key aspects or moments in each project’s development. With this documentation and the four essays by our colleagues we hope to inform the reader about our methods and our work. In turn, we are given the opportunity to reflect, educate ourselves, and adjust how we make architecture.

A few shared basic beliefs about the context of architecture underlie all of our work. We acknowledge that all architecture is situated within a complex system—buildings exist within an elaborate web of relationships. These relationships, whether spatial, material, programmatic, or temporal, are always too intricate to fully know or predict. Similar to the ecology of a forest, or the economics of a small city, certain aspects can be understood; the whole system, however, can never be fully controlled. This complexity has a profound effect on design, which is compounded by the fact that the implementation of architecture is the result of countless decisions made by multiple parties over an extended period of time. In recognition of this fact, we develop strategies through careful study of the specific conditions that surround a project, taking into account the entire system with its complexity and reframing the goals of the project in these terms.

We believe ideas in architecture become manifest through the use of a building and through the relationship it creates to its context. This is in opposition to the concept of designing architecture that serves as an object or a representation of an idea. In order to achieve our objective, the ideas or goals of each project must be clearly stated and conform to one’s intuitive experience. Each idea must have direct architectural consequences. Each concept must be logical and consistent to itself, to the goals of the project, and to the world. Our task is to link our ideas and concepts with the specific conditions of each project through the making of architecture.

Our methodology arises from an insistence on developing, testing, and implementing our architecture based on its underlying ideas. Methodology does not, however, undermine intuition. On the contrary, it serves as a framework in which we can define and test intuitive ideas and in which intuition can flourish. As such, methodology leads to “informed intuition”—once we have produced twenty perspectives of the same conditions, we gain deeper insight into the issues at hand.

To make architecture that is strengthened by its circumstances, we try to understand the complex parameters of each project and the relationships sustained between it and its context. We start by investigating the project’s physical, economic, and social contexts. We study the physical qualities of the site, including climate, topography, and views. We question and define any economic limitations. We consider whom the project is for, what building systems are appropriate to the place, how the project will be implemented, and who will build it. All of this data informs our understanding and helps define a strategy for the creation and implementation of the design.

We begin designing by quickly looking at a broad range of possible design solutions. While we may initially bring a specific set of intentions to a project, we try multiple configurations, usually twenty to thirty test fits, of the program on the site. Unburdened by a singular a priori idea, this early and direct engagement gives us better insight into the basic architectural issues. At the same time we produce a variety of formal solutions to the project. This gathering of information and questioning of the broad context of the project culminate in a series of diagrams that serve to clarify the goals of the project.

We then test specific ways to reach these objectives through architecture. Using drawings, models, and full-size mock-ups we study different options. If one or more of the early schemes is successful, we start an iterative process, experimenting with variations of the proposed idea. These studies start with broad pragmatic and formal strategies. As the design begins to take shape, we focus on different areas and aspects of it in more detail, constantly working in an iterative manner. It is important not to understate the range and intensity of research at this stage, which usually involves studying hundreds of variations, working in models, computer models, and perspectives. As we proceed to hone the architecture, we look for a formal and material language that resonates with the ideas of the project. This is also why our work’s language varies from project to project. Each is specific to and consistent with its own conditions and not the result of a superimposed vocabulary. Once this formal, material, and pragmatic logic is set, a whole series of implications becomes evident and drives the design forward. The iterative approach continues throughout the design process, becoming increasingly specific as the project develops. It is through this way of working that ideas are tested against the particular conditions of the project. Often several strategies or ideas coexist within a project, working toward a unified design.

Throughout the design process it is important that the nature of the tools we use be appropriate to the specific problem that is being studied. Therefore we vary the media (scale model, computer model, full-size mock-up) and the vantage point (section, perspective, plan) as well as the level of detail with which we study the design. Speed of feedback is critical to keep it fresh and moving forward. If too much detail or time is invested in one particular drawing or model, design may stagnate, and one may hesitate to try alternatives.

Through our work we desire to learn and to make better architecture. While we do bring a particular viewpoint to each project, we do not assume to know the answer before we start working. By gathering information, rigorously trying alternatives at every stage, and gradually pushing forward in an iterative way, our intuition is bolstered by experience. Ultimately, we strive to find an elegant solution to the problem at hand, a resonance between ideas and forms that communicates directly to the user. The success of each project can only be measured through its use and the relationships it fosters. In the end, the work stands by itself.