Architect Asya Vasilieva, who currently works at Strelka KB, explained to Strelka Magazine how she went from being a senior architect to working as an intern at the American bureau WORKac, which cultivates award-winning architects, and how to stop being afraid and start experimenting.
Asya graduated from Moscow State University of Civil Engineering in 2012 with a degree in urban planning. Her university provided a sound technical education and she was taught by urban planners who gained their experience designing new Soviet cities. In 2015 she became a senior architect at the Central Research and Projecting Institute of Urban Planning with the Ministry for Construction, Gazprom and numerous city administrations as her clients. Asya found out about WORKac — Work Architecture Company— via a friend who had worked with their head and founder Dan Wood in the Netherlands. Asya liked their work, and after sending her portfolio and motivation letter received an internship offer.
WORKac was founded in 2002 by Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, former employees of Rem Koolhaas’s OMA. In 2015 WORKac was named «Company of the Year» by the American Institute of Architects. They also won the competition for the reconstruction of New Holland Island in Saint-Petersburg, but the project was never realised.
Duration: from a couple of weeks (for US students) to 6 months. Support: assistance with the visa application process, late dinners and taxi rides covered Application deadline: not restricted Internship compensation: $1400
INSIDE THE OFFICE
For me, working at WORKac was like going to church and obediently devoting myself to architecture. During my internship, five permanent architects and three interns were working there, including me. Ex-employees came and helped with larger projects. I immediately noticed the national diversity of the team: Russia, Korea, China, Italy, France, Switzerland, Poland, the US. We all worked in one open space, and there was also a separate room for modelling that had a laser cutting machine and unlimited working materials: the models had to be beautiful and efficient in their representation of the concept. We were provided with a bank card so that we could buy all the materials we needed, regardless of quantity.
The organisational scheme was not typical for an American company. But it was very similar to the experimental approach of Rem Koolhaas, because both founders worked at his firm for many years and witnessed the very beginnings of the OMA office in New York. Half of the WORKac team focused on commercial projects, and the other on architectural competitions.
The working day started at 9am and could end at any time from 8 pm on, which is also very unusual for an American company. People in the US are used to working with a fixed schedule and any overtime work is generously compensated by employers. But this wasn’t the case at WORKac: everyone understood why they needed to stay. After all, people come to this bureau to learn a new approach to design and it’s offices like this that breed Pritzker award winners.
In the morning, the project leaders met with the working groups of 3-5 people to discuss projects. These groups were managed by architects: recent graduates of American universities, they were young but very professional. They set up the working process and the deadlines, assigned roles and managed the work entirely. They were also assigned interns. During these meetings the concepts could chаnge drastically, and 80% of the time was devoted to experimental design and searching for the right idea. Models were regularly made so that each week all the new ideas could be grasped and inspected from every angle. That is why we spent most of our time in the modelling room.
At first, I found it strange that WORKac had such a small team, while the projects they created were so magnificent, both in their beauty and scale. But then it all started to make sense. For four months I saw nothing but the office and my journey home. Each month there was a competition project to work on, so we had to stay late until 10-11pm and work weekends. In my spare time all I wanted to do was eat and sleep. People who come to WORKac devote themselves to the profession entirely: your heart, thoughts and time do not belong to your private life. That is why dinners and taxi rides are always covered by the employer. I remember watching the lights of Manhattan go by from my cab window, tired and unable to move after a day of work but utterly happy.
PROJECTS I TOOK PART IN
On my very first day I was assigned to a team working on the project for a residential building in Arizona, Arizona House. The project leader was Eugenia, an architect from Russia. She helped me settle into the work process. We were creating the final model, carefully and thoroughly working on every detail, colour and material in order to communicate to the client the impression of the actual Arizonian landscape and the architecture of our building.
My second project was an international competition commissioned by a women’s rights non-profit NoVo Foundation, the Metamorphosis Building. This was an interesting and complex task. We had to develop a renovation concept with some additional new construction. The building was located in the historic district of Manhattan, with High Line park being just nearby. Five people were involved in the project. We started off by analysing all the planning regulations for this area. It turned out that we could replace the annex with a new one and also add a couple of floors. The first model of the building’s mass looked simple, but it evolved with each new attempt. We also researched the surrounding area and on the basis of that created a special model. Then, we also developed a programme for the building, taking into account the needs of various users and our client’s requirements. The programme included all the possible uses of this building, depending on people’s age, the purpose of their visit, and their line of work. After that, we started experimenting with the facade in order to link it to the programme. 80% of the time was spent searching for the right idea. We continued to add changes until the very last moment, re-modelling over and over again. This allowed me to observe the process of conceptual design as a whole.
Before the completion of the Metamorphosis Building, I was moved to a different team, which was working on an interior design competition entry for The Four Seasons restaurant. The Four Seasons is a famous New York spot for fine dining located in the Seagram Building (a 157 meter-high skyscraper built by Ludwig Mies van de Rohe in 1958 — ed. note). Creating something that would be comparable, but in a new location, was incredible. We came up with an interior design that divided the space into four zones for the four seasons. The search for the right concept was lengthy and difficult: at one point everyone in the office was in some way involved in this project. We kept ripping off textures and replacing them with new ones until the very last moment.
The next project was also a competition entry: a renovation concept for the Dreamquarters office building in Toronto. The four of us worked as a solid team after already having collaborated on several projects. I was fully responsible for developing the building’s layout. Our project leader was a Korean architect, Yongsu. I’ve never encountered anyone as hard-working as he was: it seemed that he never slept, fully understood and memorised all the comments the senior architects gave us, was calm at all times and knew exactly how to distribute work. We were required to preserve the facades overlooking the streets, so it was decided that all the public functions of the office should be concentrated there: meeting rooms, recreational areas, gym and auditoriums all were to open onto the street. When Dan and Amal were describing their vision for this building, it seemed impossible. But they gave us directions and we interpreted them as form. As a result, we came up with dozens of different versions, out of which we picked one and continued to perfect it and change it over and over again until it was ready. On the very last day we were devising a method for creating a non-standard facade and rooftop: it was supposed to be very light and thin. Our project did not win the competition, but in our attempt we managed to create something new.
My last project was the reconstruction of a museum located in Manhattan. The project was going through various stages of approval, and one of the administrative bodies decided that the project needed to be improved, as it didn’t fit into the existing cityscape. I was present at one of the client meetings: it was quick and constructive.
ON LIFE IN NEW YORK
In America, it is normal to be polite in every situation, and it was a great pleasure to be in a society like that. I didn’t have any friends in New York who could help me with accommodation and explain how to better organise my everyday life there, but luckily I was constantly meeting good people. During the first month, I was staying in a six-bed women-only hostel room that cost me $400 a month. It was mostly inhabited by Russian-speaking people. During my second month I placed a notice looking for a flatmate. A Belarusian girl, Sasha, quickly responded and it turned out to be a very fortunate outcome. We managed to find new lodgings quite quickly: a small room in a three-room apartment in Brooklyn, paying $840 between the two of us. Sasha became almost like a sister to me: being away from our families we supported each other in all of our difficulties. I hung out mostly with the people I stayed with, young Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. In the end, your soul always gravitates towards your own people. But once I completed my internship I realised how dear the people I worked with had become to me, even though we hadn’t been that close at work.
During my last month at the office, I was working in a more relaxed mode, finally finding some spare time to walk around New York. I noticed that the skyscrapers are not at all oppressive despite their grandeur. Alongside them are parks, well-developed social infrastructure and historic districts. Most of the museums offer either free entry or reduced-price tickets: all you need to do is a little bit of research to find out about them. People strike up casual conversations on the street very easily: it is not considered ill-mannered, no one runs away from you. New York is very multicultural and that is why you settle in and stop feeling like a stranger very soon. The high energy of the city inspires and changes people: they start to believe that anything is possible. I remained in a constant dialogue with the city: it revealed new places to me, rewarded me, made me walk in circles and confused me. Sometimes I had some time off time during the weekends. I made sure to leave the office earlier and developed a habit of walking around the city at night. A new person moved into the room next to ours, a film director called Stasya. We shared views and interests and soon had our own favourite places in the city. We chose them spontaneously and never planned anything.
WHAT I LEARNED
The five months that I spent at the WORKac office changed my life. It wasn’t easy having to start over and become an intern. But it was worth it. At first, the way people worked appeared strange and alien to me: no friendships, no emotions, nothing personal. But after noticing my hard work and the enthusiasm in my eyes people started to observe my work and help me out. In the beginning, I made a lot of mistakes, but instead of wasting their time on criticism, my colleagues corrected them for me and so taught me how to avoid them altogether.
I could sense that my employer valued me and wanted me to develop my skills. I was provided with all the necessary conditions and could just focus on creation without worrying about other things. Even the craziest of ideas were discussed at WORKac. The search for the concept was always brave and without limitations, while the final idea was always worked out down to the tiniest details. That is why I could easily voice architectural ideas there that I wouldn’t even dare to think about in Russia.
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