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Department: Architecture

Cassell Architecture

Stephen Cassell ’86

Principal, Architecture Research Office

Reconciling two loves

My first week in college, my resident adviser, an economics major named Craig Foreman, mentioned that he had taken an architecture class the previous spring. Craig said the course opened his eyes to a subject that, up until that time, he had never even considered. In retrospect, Craig said, he wished he had majored in architecture. Until that first week in college, I too had never even thought about architecture. The profession had not really entered my consciousness, and I had no idea that Princeton had a School of Architecture. Through grade school and high school, I had always assumed that I would be a molecular biologist. I had taken every science course I could. I worked summers at a research lab at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I loved science. I especially loved the complex systems and relationships that make up molecular biology. However, as Craig was describing his architecture class, I immediately decided that I should look into this further.

Architecture, much like molecular biology, has a series of complex relationships; relationships between the activities that occur in buildings, the building systems themselves, and how they all work together over time. What really excited me, however, was the fact that architecture might combine aspects of my love of science with another love of mine: craft. Throughout my childhood I always had a love of making things. My father, a doctor, had woodworking and metalworking equipment in our basement. By the time I was nine, I was proficient on his 1940s Southbend metal lathe. Every Saturday for six years, I went to jewelry school. My grandfather was a civil engineer and a jeweler in his spare time. All of this fostered a love of materials and craft, but I never assumed this could amount to more than a hobby. My conversation with Craig, however, made clear that architecture combined two disparate things that I loved. During my first year at Princeton, I took the prerequisite science and math classes. However, my first semester of sophomore year, I took Alan Chimacoff’s introductory course in architecture and then “sophomore studio,” and I was hooked.

Rewards of a Princeton education

I have the sense that there was something very special about my architectural education at Princeton. I read a lot of theory for my classes, so I built up a taste for abstract thought. But I never wondered about its application to real work. There’s a popular misconception out there that theory doesn’t factor into doing real work. Likewise, there’s a sense that critical investigation doesn’t have anything to do with creativity. My experience at Princeton made these kinds of questions moot for me. I felt that I had a very hands-on experience, in both the thinking and making of architecture.

In 1992, I earned my master’s in architecture from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Rem Koolhaas was my thesis adviser. The following year I founded Architecture Research Office with Adam Yarinsky to pursue a critical approach to architecture and design. Our work follows a rigorous process steeped in the exploration of complex architectural relationships but dedicated to the high level of craft I have always cherished. The firm has won numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects, the Chicago Athenaeum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the New York City Arts Commission. Today we are fortunate to count some of the nation’s leading businesses and institutions as clients. Especially joyful is our recent work at Princeton, which includes the renovation and expansion of the School of Architecture. The firm’s work is the subject of a 2003 monograph, ARO: Architecture Research Office, published by Princeton Architectural Press.

“… Until [my] first week in college, I too had never even thought about architecture. The profession had not really entered my consciousness, and I had no idea that Princeton had a School of Architecture. Through grade school and high school, I had always assumed that I would be a molecular biologist.”