Nader Tehrani
M.I.T. Architecture Professor

"Architecture Is Not Like a Nike Sneaker"

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Ultimately architecture is unique. Each building sits in a site in a certain moment in a very different way.

Nader Tehrani

Nader Tehrani is a tenured Professor of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a principal at the Boston-based architecture firm, Office dA. He has also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Rhode Island School of Design, and Georgia Institute of Technology, where he served as the Thomas W. Ventulett III Distinguished Chair in Architectural Design. In the academic context, Nader Tehrani has focused on research surrounding materials, methods of aggregations, geometry and the advancement of digital fabrication. His participation in the Immaterial/Ultra-material Exhibition at Harvard's GSD is also paralleled by his installations at the Museum of Modern Art, Boston ICA, and Georgia Tech, investigating new means and methods of fabrication in wood, steel, rope and polycarbonate. As a principal at Office dA he has received numerous international awards. Office dA’s work in green, sustainable design includes Helios House, a sustainable power station in Los Angeles, and the Macallen building, a 144 unit condominium in Boston. Office dA has also worked on the Tongxian Arts Center in Beijing, the Elemental community project in Chile, and the Villa Moda Competition in Kuwait. 

Question: Where does a design concept begin?

Nader Tehrani: Our design process in nonlinear.  We are always engaged in problems of culture, where we’re building, what that society is like, what its people are like, what our clients are.  We’re always engaged with technologies.  How do they build?  What are the materials and methods available to us?  What kind of labor force goes into it?  We look at the particularities of this sight over another sight to the degree that a geography can inform that you’re working on something, but none of this usually adds up to a synthetic moment.  They come into a kind of productive conflict.  Our task is to see how the evidence of this information and this material that we’re researching ricochet off of each other to imagine how a project, an architectural problem arises out of that.  The architectural problem doesn’t arise out of this of course.  It is something that you project onto it and of course we have our own agendas, missions and thesis that underlie a lot of our work.

What are some of the cultural considerations involved in designing a building?

Nader Tehrani: Well building in Beijing to start with was a very difficult task for us.  The initial task of going there and understanding their means and methods of production was I think relatively easy and you can see from the work that it is so literal at one level in working with their traits, their brick, their mode of construction.  The discursive moment between design and production was much more vast.  A project that took two, three months to build took two, three years to negotiate probably out of our own ignorance of not being able to find the right channels to deliver the project contractually.  That makes a huge difference to learn how to speak the language if not literally, culturally speaking the language of the society in which you are going to be a part of, so a lot of what we do now as a result of that project is to try to understand social practices, legal practices, casual practices if you like of how a project is produced as a kind of infrastructure for an actual design itself.  It’s impossible really to have a successful design process, to understand where you invest that time and the Beijing lesson was a difficult one for a project that is only 2,000 square feet, two or three months to build, that should have been you know done in a much faster speed. 

What advice would you give someone beginning a building project in China?

Nader Tehrani: Probably I would tell them to find the right partner, find the right collaborative platform, to understand the financial parameters of a problem, but not to dwell on the details of this or that dollar because the larger mission, the larger… the speed at which something can be done and the general effort, the bigger picture essentially is more important and if you get those right the details can probably follow.

Question: How have globalization and interconnectivity changed the way we live?

Nader Tehrani: Well there is no doubt that with the accessibility of information and of knowledge there is a collapse of time and space and so the cultural differences that would have been there are now beginning to come into confluence, but it’s also more curious I would say that how the same bit of information or the similar pieces of knowledge are interpreted so differently in Tehran than in New York, so I’m more interested in identifying those differences and capitalizing on the uniqueness of that moment because you remember that architecture is not like a Nike sneaker.  It isn’t actually everywhere.  Architecture at the end is unique.  Each building sits in a site in a certain moment in a very different way and for the most part that is what we do.