Lessons in Adaptive Urban Re-Cycling

Adaptation [noun]
the action or process of changing something, or of being changed, to suit a new purpose or situation

Cities and buildings have many stories. From initial conception and construction to the ultimate and subsequent use, a site and its buildings transform in relation to their evolving urban context, use, environmental forces, and social and economic demands. This studio looks at a process of deep adaptation whereby buildings and cities are not just “changed to suit a new purpose or situation” but the “situation” itself requires interrogation and interpretation from multiple points of view enabling the architecture to undergo a series of radical reconsiderations. Moreover, this adaptive process must recognize that as designers, architects, educators and activists, what we do (everyday) has a direct impact on others and the environment. What and how we design can change social norms, upend latent hierarchies, advocate for a cleaner healthier environment, create more equity, take on preconceived notions of program and type and provide for new ways if seeing.

The site of the studio—under interrogation—is Empire State Plaza in New York’s capital city of Albany. Conceived and designed by the then Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and the architect Wallace Harrison, Empire Plaza was built in the late 60s and early 70s and is a paradigm of modernist urban planning that played out in this era’s other such government centers as Brasilia, Chandigarh and Boston, to name but a few.

The successes and failures of this movement’s architecture are myriad, and both specific and often wide-ranging, but Empire Plaza’s troubled relationship to its context—the city of Albany—can act as a critical lens for a forward thinking urbanism and architecture that considers the new and current administrations’ (President - Governor - Mayor) stated goals of climate action, sustainable/responsible building practices, inclusivity and social engagement and pushes them towards futures that are more open for the design of architecture and the populace it serves.

Through a series of choreographed operations, students will be asked to critically re-adapt Empire State Plaza by transforming its relationship to its larger urban context and infrastructural systems, rethinking its program and use, adapting its existing buildings to become carbon neutral and imagining the possibilities towards a new kind of public plaza for the people of Albany and the citizens of New York.

This study will also serve as a platform for the re-imagining of modernist planning, urbanism and architecture—from multiple points of view—that has often not served its contexts, stood as resistant energy intensive examples of the carbon age, is programmatically mono-cultural, and in many cases fallen victim to knee-jerk demolition without better replacements. To this end, this study will include the re-cycling, re-use and modification of existing buildings.

This re-imaging process will take place through five different operations that will serve as lens’ or perspectives which will each offer a new forward looking future fiction for Empire State Plaza. There will be five reviews—one for each operation. Each review will reveal a new story, an added layer and/or a different point of view from which to critique the original. The final project is a collection and/or series of adaptations—lessons in re-imagining a future for Empire State Plaza.


Early in the semester, the studio will visit Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY.

During the February travel week, the studio will travel from NYC to Brasilia and spend three days studying the Federal Capital of Brazil and its surrounding city, landscape, and buildings. From Brasilia, the studio will travel to Sao Paulo for four days and visit several adaptive construction projects including Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompeia Factory and Teatro Oficina as well as several other architectural sites.

All Semesters

Spring 2024
Advanced Design Studio: RAI Reimagined
Isaäc Kalisvaart, Bjarne Mastenbroek, Andrei Harwell, Erik Go
Spring 2022
Advanced Design Studio: Paradise Not Quite Lost
Mark Foster Gage
Spring 2021
Advanced Design Studio: Coastal New England: History, Threat, and Adaptation
Alan Plattus, Andrei Harwell