by Alexander Luckmann
Andrea Steele, AIA, is a Partner in the New York office of TEN Arquitectos. A graduate of Lehigh University and Harvard Graduate School of Design, she was principal of Andrea Steele Architect before rejoining TEN Arquitectos, where she had previously worked, as a partner in 2006. She oversees TEN Arquitectos’s New York office, and leads most US projects, including a large number of public buildings. Much of her current work is in New York City, including a residential development on the East Harlem waterfront, a cultural center for Downtown Brooklyn, and a community center in Queens. Recently completed projects include the New York Public Library 53rd Street Branch, the civic role and place in her practice of which she describes here.
Q: Who or what inspired you to become an architect?
A: I cannot identify any one thing or person as influencing my decision to pursue Architecture. My parents were Peace Corps volunteers in India, and as such, I went to college with the desire to make a positive impact on the public at large. I began my studies in the Sciences with the aspirations of working in the field of Neuroscience, assuming the best way to improve the human experience was to understand what influenced our understanding of the world around us. However, in pursuing my degree, a required art elective lead me to taking an Architecture Design Studio, where I soon realized that instead of studying how the brain translated our surroundings and interactions into experiences, I could directly influence, and hopefully positively impact, people’s experiences by defining our environment.
Q: Can you talk a little about your education and professional trajectory?
A: Given my original desire to study Neuroscience, my early undergraduate focus at Lehigh University was in the Math and Sciences. Once I switched my major to Architecture, I took advantage of the liberal arts education to supplement those studies with philosophy and arts courses which added another dimension to my research. I received my Masters in Architecture from the Graduate School of Design, where my thesis focused on how understanding the fundamental workings of the brain could inform an architectural design reinforcing the connections between mind and body.
My professional career with TEN Arquitectos has expanded this to a process that seeks to create connections among site, program, and community through three primary lines of investigation:
Architecture as Public Space: Our projects strive to connect people to people, and people to the city, to serve as a platform for social exchange. All architecture has a public dimension and must be attuned to the possibility of enhancing civic relations and human experiences.
Architecture as Infrastructure: Architecture is an investment in infrastructure, and can deliver not only a built work and programs but also improved efficiencies and networks. Architecture must help connect people to resources, create new opportunities, and bring new public assets.
Architecture as Territory/Landscape: Architecture is empowered to connect people to place and to culture, enriching or clarifying a “sense of place” that strengthens identity. Projects grow from their sites. This line of inquiry brings us always to questions of history, culture, and ecology—sustainability on multiple levels.
Q: You previously headed your own firm. What attracted you to moving to TEN Arquitectos?
A: I met Enrique Norten not long after I moved to New York in 1998 and we unofficially established TEN’s New York office in 1999. It wasn’t until TEN won the international design competition for Brooklyn Public Library’s Visual and Performing Arts Library that TEN Arquitectos established a New York presence. It was around that time I decided to leave to start my own practice, as I was about to have my first child. With the notion that I could start up an office and have my first child at the same time, I was just naïve enough to succeed and built a diverse portfolio of private and public projects. In 2006, Enrique asked me to return to TEN as a partner. Beyond my strong belief in the design mission of TEN, I was attracted to the idea that I could leverage my experience working with schools, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations to bring in more public/civic work.
Q: What recent projects have been particularly important to you?
A: At the moment, all of the current projects have a special importance, as each has a unique opportunity to positively shape the public realm. All architecture has a public dimension and must be attuned to the possibility of enhancing civic relations and human experiences. The recently completed the 53rd Street Branch of the New York Public Library allowed us to explore how creating a new civic landscape could connect people to people, people to the city, and serve as a platform for social exchange. Our greatest aspiration is that our clients will embrace the full potential of the project and identify opportunities beyond those we initially recognized. The NYPL has done just that—as the 53rd Street branch is now hosting music performances, lectures, screened the presidential debates, the Olympics—and most recently was the venue for an artist exhibition and live opera. It has become the civic landscape we envisioned.
We are continuing this investigation with the design of a new community center for the local not-for-profit group Make the Road New York, which works to ensure dignity and justice to the immigrant community. This center will provide Make the Road with the much needed permanent presence to connect their members to legal, health, and educational resources. Similarly, our work with Brooklyn Academy of Music, MoCADA, 651 Arts and the Brooklyn Public Library is allowing us to further explore how architecture can elevate cultural institutions and integrate them within the city fabric—ensuring they are visible and accessible to the public at large.
Q: How and why are you involved with the AIA?
A: I have been a member since becoming a licensed architect 16 years ago. In that time, I have considered myself and my firm fortunate to use the AIA as a valuable resource, giving us the opportunity to participate in the relevant discourses that impact and define our profession. Most recently, I spoke at a Leadership Breakfast for the Women in Architecture Committee—and it has renewed my interest to take a more active role in the diverse programs offered at the Center for Architecture.