2020 Architecture Firm Award

Every year, the AIA recognizes one firm that has produced notable architecture for at least a decade.

With architecture that is simultaneously humanistic and analytical, Architecture Research Office (ARO) has, over 25 years, crafted a reputation for imaginative work that emerges from the firm’s relentless exploration. Continually advancing the built environment, the firm pushes boundaries and leverages research and an inquisitive methodology to continually answer the question, “What’s next?”

Founded in 1993, the firm is led by principals Stephen Cassell, FAIA, Kim Yao, AIA, and Adam Yarinsky, FAIA. With a staff of just 30, the firm’s portfolio includes a broad range of work that has been widely celebrated and recognized with six AIA Honor Awards, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Architecture, and the Academy Award for Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2018, ARO was named AIA New York’s firm of the year. Whether its a 500-square-foot recruiting station in Times Square for the nation’s armed forces or a new campus for the Rothko Chapel, the inception of each project is marked with a deep dive into the client’s mission and culture so that the firm can emerge as the client’s biggest advocate. ARO’s approach, rather than a signature style, serves as the common thread running through each project.

“ARO's work, ranging from their extensive work on additional American university campuses to the cultural work they are doing for the Rothko Chapel and have done for the Judd Foundation to the research work that they've done on urban climate issues as well as material fabrication, has been consistently tight in its articulation (no excess), but it emerges from a keen understanding of each project and a keen appreciation for each deployed material rather than coming from a school of minimalism,” Sarah M. Whiting, Assoc. AIA, dean and Josep Lluís Sert professor of architecture at Harvard University, wrote in a letter supporting ARO’s nomination for the award.

ARO’s approach is on full view in projects such as the new home for New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which welcomes the world’s largest LGBTQ congregation and stands at the forefront of gay rights. To develop the program for the project, ARO worked closely with more than 100 congregants and a number of religious scholars for more than four years in search of the perfect space, a Cass Gilbert–designed building in Midtown Manhattan with more than 50 feet of storefront. A new facade comprising lit signage with vertical gold pinstripes and lavender glass reveals the congregation’s mission while showcasing a modern institution set inside a landmark setting.

As much laboratory as design practice, ARO endeavors to expand the profession and define new ways of thinking about the built environment. As a nascent firm, it was awarded a grant by the New York State Council on the Arts to examine the relationship between CAD/CAM technology and craft, the results of which were on view in a public exhibition. ARO’s eagerness to share its ideas and findings with the profession can be seen in many other projects, such as its material explorations for Knoll that evolved into the ARO collection of modular, acoustic architectural felt components. The collection leads yearly sales for Knoll subsidiaries FilzFelt and Spinneybeck.

“The firm’s ability to shun the a priori is what it’s famous for. Trusting in intellect and acting with thoughtful restraint is ARO’s lasting innovation, its mark in trade, the thing that has differentiated these architects from their peers,” Philip Nobel wrote of ARO in Metropolis. “Theirs is, of course, the right way to practice.”

ARO’s atmosphere is one of collaboration and shared ideas, and its studio environment reflects that commitment. It is not uncommon to find the firm’s young designers participating in client meetings while project directors are leading design, delivery, and operational initiatives. Since its founding, more than 25 former employees have moved on to establish their own practices, and ARO continues to provide mentorship to these young firms.

“It takes the tireless efforts of firms like Architectural Research Office to construct a positive working environment within their offices that develop skills, discipline, and deep values to empower every young professional to achieve their own measure of success and purpose towards lifelong contributions to the profession and the broad realm of architecture,” wrote Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, in a letter supporting ARO’s nomination. “I, too, admire their willingness to admit that they know enough to know that they don’t know.”

Jury

Kelly M. Hayes-McAlonie, FAIA (Chair), The State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York

Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, Arrowstreet Inc., Boston, Massachusetts

Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, Foster + Partners, London, United Kingdom

Marsha Maytum, FAIA, LMS, San Francisco, California

Takashi Yanai, FAIA, Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects, Culver City, California

Scott Shell, FAIA, EHDD, San Francisco, California

Melissa Harlan, AIA, Kiku Obata & Co., St. Louis, Missouri

Maurice Cox, City of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

Image credits

Architecture Research Office Staff

Architecture Research Office

A New Urban Ground

Architecture Research Office with DLANDstudio

Architecture Research Office-05

Elizabeth Felicella

Architecture Research Office-06

James Ewing/OTTO

Architecture Research Office-07

James Ewing/OTTO