Learning From Failure

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. 

  • Transcript


Question: Which of your projects most exemplifies your philosophy?

Nader Tehrani: I mean there was an important moment I think in our background about 10, 15 years ago when we designed Casa La Roca in Caracas and why I like that project still out of all of the work that I don’t like is that it expands on a very simple principle that was laid out you know centuries ago by Jefferson in the Serpentine Wall in Virginia, the idea that through a certain economy of folding or bending you can bring structural stability to a wall that is only one width thick, something that was later radicalized by Eladio DiEste.  Our contribution to this lineage was very simple.  If you don’t think of the wall as a brick wall, but start to think of it as a wall within which the mortar sets the agenda of the wall, the mortar not as a fixed entity, but as a variable entity, through the renovation of a bonding system that is not fixed like a running bond or a Flemish bond, but rather a variable bond you can bring different densities of structure into this wall that has lateral bracing, but in that moment you bring to the space behind it the possibility of controlling light and air.  The idea that a structural proposition acquires an environmental gain or if you like a social, the division of the inhabitants of that house from their in-laws next door, to me that is a moment where problems of materiality, culture, technology and the environment coulees in a very specific design move and what I like about that also it’s not so much interested in the design of a wall.  It’s interested in the design of the parameters that gauge that wall, so that once you understand that I can give it to you as another person to redesign it for me or to cultivate a relationship with it, which is much more intimate.

Question: Are there projects that you would alter?

Nader Tehrani: You know our work is constantly about failures.  You test things so that they fail.  That is the way engineer’s progress.  They build arches, test them to their yield point and I hope somehow to be able to that, not in the technical realm so much, but rather in the realm of synthesis.  Yes, we have learned a lot about those… from those failures.  Maybe if I can say the biggest lesson I’ve learned from ourselves is in the quest for determination and specification we probably have focused too much on the role of a single detail in its ability to proliferate and control an entire design and the transition from let’s say the design of an object to the design of parameters that engage objects has been our most successful lesson.  Now when I sit down to design and I design much more collectively now with other discipline groups I am still invested in the peculiarity and the specificity of an architectural object, but I’m much more interested in what the other discipline groups can bring to it and the degree to which my engagement with them can specify the parameter that propel the design process and in turn the object, but it gives us more lateral freedom to produce new forms of knowledge, to incorporate others in it and to make it smarter.