An Amalgamated Drawing Office


15 December 2016

“We’re still waiting for the hammocks,” says Shawn Broderick of SOSV, a venture capital fund that supports the startup accelerator Urban-X. Urban-X is about to move into its co-working space at A/D/O, a new multi-use design centre in Brooklyn that opens to its first cohort of startups and design entrepreneurs in January 2017.

The forthcoming hammocks betoken the ethos of A/D/O: flexible, communal working spaces underwritten by muscular VC investment. The main initiative behind the whole space comes from Mini in the latest iteration of the automotive brand positioning itself as a significant commissioner and funding body for urban design and architecture. The brand lives primarily in the acronym: A/D/O stands for Amalgamated Drawing Office, the name given by designer Alec Issigonis (1906-1988) to the design team behind the first 1959 Mini. With its 24 rentable desk spaces, fabrication facility, and Urban-X accelerator programme, the 23,000sqft converted warehouse is a slice of Silicon Valley startup culture in post-industrial Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

It is the first space of its kind in Greenpoint, but not in Brooklyn. A few months ago, the Goldman Sachs-funded New Lab, a collaborative 84,000sqft workspace fostering tech, design, and engineering startups, opened in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. For fashion and textile manufacturing, Manufacture New York and the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator have been available to enterprising designers since 2012 and 2014 respectively.

What sets A/D/O apart from previous ventures is its efforts to include a wider design-interested audience. “It’s a programme and a building that defies categorisation," says Eric Bunge, co-founding principal of New-York based architectural practice nArchitects, which has been responsible for converting the former 1920s warehouse into a site fit for A/D/O. "It was an evolving, moving target throughout the design process.” In addition to the workspaces, A/D/O houses a shop, a restaurant, and large communal areas which will host the "Design Academy", a public events programme led by Daniel Pittman, who formerly ran OMA's research wing AMO in the Americas.

The Design Academy will run three to four-month long "investigations" that tackle themes pertinent to contemporary design, architecture, and technology. The first investigation will launch with a festival from 27-29 January 2017 and centres around the theme of utopia v. dystopia. It will feature talks (Alice Rawsthorn and Yves Béhar are among the confirmed speakers) and workshops by makers such as MOS Architects, who have already designed ultra-flexible furniture units for the communal spaces at A/D/O, and London-based art, architecture, and design collective Assemble, who will create a new site-specific work entitled A Factory as it Might Be in A/D/O's outdoor courtyard. “The most exciting part of the Design Academy is that we get to join all of these dots together," says Pittman. "So MOS Architects will do an interesting collaboration with Assemble, and Assemble will work with the restaurant. Having a physical platform for that is unique.”

The notion of amalgamating the activities that take place in the separate sections of A/D/O is something Bunge has been attentive to when formulating nArchitects' general approach to the project. “We want to reposition relationships so that they don’t feel like something super established," he explains. "One of the concepts that we often talk about in our firm is the idea of an ‘almost-building’ that's not complete, that invites appropriation.” This notion of the almost-building is something community designer Ari Joseph, who heads up the rentable workspace at A/D/O, appreciates. "That was such a godsend," he says. "To be able to walk in here and for it all not to be figured out already. We have a lot of room to develop the narrative of the space and take ownership of it.”

Currently, the 24 desks and fabrication facility that comprises the workspace are available for full-time renting for $600 per month. The premises are open 24/7 behind secure key access, and feature – among other things – a 4x8ft CNC machine, 20x30in laser cutter, a full set of hand tools, three 3D printers, a digital loom, an etching press, a risograph, and storage space for each tenant. “It’s really about getting prototypes to a point where you can go to a fabricator or a manufacturer and develop a product,” Joseph explains. A/D/O is also aiming to provide part-time rentals of the space, which would make it more affordable for recent graduates.

Next door to the rentable desks is Urban-X's co-working space. The hammocks are yet to arrive, but some of the startups in the first cohort of "acceleratees" are on site showing their projects. Farmshelf, for example, is a modular hydroponic growth system whereby users can grow herbs and vegetables in little-used urban spaces. Broderick explains the premise of the programme. "With Urban-X, the project needs to address an urban problem,” says Broderick. “The Farmshelf guys have already figured out their hardware, but we could help them to connect with local governments from all the surrounding cities and the right investors.” For the next cohort, who start on 9 January, this will entail a four-month-long stint in the A/D/O co-working space, with mentoring from industry experts.

How this alliance between VC startup culture, cultural programming, retail, and community engagement will pan out in practice it yet to be seen. "A/D/O is built for design professionals," says the space's managing director Nate Pinsley - and indeed the entire building is geared towards cross-pollination of activities. "What we’ve done is to create a home for creative work, and also a forum for an investigation of the role that design will play in shaping the future,” he says in summary. The integration of branded and non-commercial initiatives, however, is not always friction free - a collective like Assemble, who have systematically worked to undermine the principles of neoliberal urbanism in their projects, might, for instance, sit uncomfortably next to a venture capital fund with $250m assets and a management whose stated aim is to solve urban problems. The coming months will evince whether their amalgamation at A/D/O amounts to utopia or dystopia.