AGREST, DIANA, AND MARIO GANDELSONAS

Architects, United States
Agrest and Gandelsonas, Architects, is an internationally recognized firm that was
established by its principals, Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas, in New York in 1980.
With a focus on architecture, urban design, and interior design in relation to the city, the
firm has been an integral part of New York’s architecture community. Celebrated for
their work in developing an understanding and practice of architecture through linguistics
and semiotics, Agrest and Gandelsonas have been instrumental in advancing the
course of contemporary architecture in the wake of late modernism. Establishing a selfnamed
critical practice in which writing, drawing, and building would have equal weight,
they have played a key role in the architecture community’s reevaluation of design as part
of a larger cultural context.
Natives of Buenos Aires, both Agrest and Gandelsonas were educated at the
University of Buenos Aires School of Architecture and studied linguistics with the
French semiotician and philosopher Roland Barthes in Paris. Arriving in New York in the
late 1970s, they became Fellows of the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies,
where they played key roles in establishing the institute as both educational venue and
publisher of periodicals such as Skyline and Oppositions . Agrest is adjunct professor of architecture at The
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and AA in New York and has taught at
Princeton, Yale, and Columbia universities in addition to lecturing throughout the world.
Gandelsonas is the 1913 Professor of Architecture at Princeton and has taught at Yale,
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Harvard, the University of Illinois, and the University of Southern California. He has also
lectured widely throughout the world. Authors and coauthors of a number of books on
architecture, urbanism, and architectural theory, Agrest and Gandelsonas are also
responsible for a series of seminal essays and articles that have fixed their place in the
history of architecture. Agrest is the author of A rchitecture fr om Without: Theoretical Fra mings for a Critical Practice (1991), a collection of essays on
the relationship between architecture and larger cultural phenomena, as well as editor of
another collection of essays, The Sex of Architectu re (1996), whereas Gandelsonas has published two books
documenting his unique approach to the formal analysis of the American city: The U rban Text (1991)
and X-Urbanism (1999). Jointly, Agrest and Gandelsonas produced their own monongraph, Agres t and Gandelsonas : Works
(1995).
Moving away from the rational, purist, and autonomous architecture that characterized
so much of modernism, Agrest and Gandelsonas have looked outside and around the
actual discipline of architecture to inform their approach to working within the field.
Drawing on such diverse sources as history, semiotics, language, psychology, and film,
they have taken their architecture beyond exercises in formal manipulation to reflect
culture and society at large. Their point of reference has been that of a broad sociocultural
spectrum rather than strict formalism.

Agrest’s insightful essay, “Design versus Non-
Design,” originally published in Communication (1979), is a poignant refutation of an unthinking formulaic attitude toward design and a call to acknowledge the merits of
that which is less self-consciously designed. Gandelsonas’s often-quoted “On Reading
Architecture” (1972) asked the design world to pause and recognize the textual capacity
of architectural design as a language in and of itself.
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An intensely felt and highly unique perception of the city has formed the basis of this
firm’s work, whether it has been for competitions, buildings, or interiors. Reading the
city as a text, the architects have continuously analyzed, both verbally and visually, the
forms, programs, signs, and symbols of the urban condition. Taking the American city as
their primary subject, they have identified on a number of levels the systems and
hierarchy of the structure of the city while deriving meaning from their forms and
compositions. Continuously reassessing the relationships between fabric and monument,
street and plan, and nature and artifice, the duo keeps the analysis fresh and ready for
further interrogation. Gandelsonas’s striking analytic diagrams of the American city,
which have become a trademark of his investigation into urban morphology, have
brought plan, street, building fabric, monument, and nature into a concert of form that is
at once artistically appealing and scientifically legible.
A clearly defined idea or concept is central to every project that the firm of Agrest and
Gandelsonas develops. Intertwining theory with practice, they treat research, analysis,
and writing as part of their practice and practice as part of their theory. They perceive
architecture as possessing three distinct phases—writing (text), drawing (graphic), and
place (building)—and embrace each for what it brings to furthering the role of
architecture within the culture at large.
While giving careful consideration to historic and contextual parameters, they explore
material and technical possibilities for giving shape and meaning to the projects they
design, whether it is for a building, an interior, or an object.
A trio of apartment buildings in Buenos Aires (1977) that explored issues of scale,
typology, and material while responding to historical and contextual conditions within
both classical and modern idioms established the identity of Agrest and Gandelsonas in
the built environment. A series of much published and exhibited proposals for reshaping
the American city have acted as a barometer of their intellectual investigations at the
level of urban design and have ultimately led to practical applications. Their Vision Plan
for Des Moines, Iowa (1992), rejects the notion of the master plan and instead embraces
the fluid permutations and idiosyncrasies that sociopolitical and economic factors can
lend to urban design. Their South Bronx Community Center (2000) presents a footprint
that is contextual and object like at once. Although a linear blocklike element refers both
to the tower-in-the-park type of housing project in which it is set as well as a generic
block of fabric, its prominent oval form acts as both marker in the city and reference to
the idea of object endemic to the midcentury modernism of the housing project it is built
within. Designs for houses, both built and unbuilt, have provided exercises for the
architects in the manipulation of typology, scale, and compositional sequence. The Villa
Amore (1990) in Southampton, New York, reinterprets the Shinglestyle house as a
grouping of “found objects” in a modern idiom. The urban interiors of this pair of
designers have been directly responsive to the city while acting as testing grounds for the
design of objects that blur the distinction between furniture and architecture. The design
of an apartment on Central Park West (1988) was a veritable laboratory for the testing of
material and form as catalyst between furniture and architecture.
Architects, writers, and educators with an indomitable spirit for exploration and the
shedding of light on the multiple perceptions of architecture, Agrest and Gandelsonas
have had a profound influence on generations of students, critics, architects, and the
general public. They continue to read and research the city as both foundation and testing
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ground for their work while slowly but surely enhancing the urban landscape with the
fruit of that investigation.

Selected Works
Building 1, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1977
Building 2, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1977
Building 3, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1977
Upper East Side Townhouse, Manhattan, 1985
Framings, Bill Robinson Showroom, New York, 1985
Interior on Park Avenue, New York, New York, 1986
Interior on Central Park West, New York, New York, 1987–88
House on Sag Pond, Southampton, New York, 1989–90
Vision Plan, Des Moines, Iowa, 1990–92
Des Moines International Airport, Des Moines, Iowa, 1992
A Town Plan for 10,000, Shanghai, People’s Republic of China, 1996
Vision Plan, Red Bank, New Jersey, 1992–97
Pool House, Sagaponack, New York, 1998–99
Las Casas, Jose Ignacio, Uruguay, 1997–02
Melrose Community Center, South Bronx, New York, 2001

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