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Nader Tehrani is a tenured Professor of Architecture at Massachusetts Institutern of Technology and a principal at the Boston-based architecture firm, Office dA. He has also taught at the Harvard[…]

A conversation with the M.I.T. Architecture professor and Office dA principal.

Question: How do you teach design?

Nader Tehrani:
Well beginning design thinking can be done in many ways and many schools, many schools of thought have battled it in a variety of ways, but the two extremes constitute one is engagement in the world and in all of its synthesis, in all of its complexity and all of its mess and trying to work through design issues by incorporating them, but the other approach, which is something we have tried to adopt in our most recent thinking is to edit and at least initially to begin to think that architecture if only temporarily needs to be absolved of all of that pressure and take on singular issues at a time, so for instance, in the core program we may take the issue of structure, engineering be so central to the architectural question, as one of the core points of an exercise and even at the risk of failure of all of the other constituencies around it, all of the other contingencies around it, all of the other considerations to radicalize the student’s knowledge in that domain.  That same thing may happen with problems of programming, problems of circulations, problems of urbanism, but in a way you end up with an initial education that atrophies ten things in order to in a way raise the stakes of one enterprise.

Question: What current ideas are leading the way in design education?

Nader Tehrani: Well the current moment needs to be looked at within a broader framework probably.  The way in which the industrial revolution has given a way to… digital revolution is changing things radically.  Even the idea of the internet and the accessibility to education, the way that we learn is not necessarily from a teacher, but from somebody in another city who happens to be in a junior program much younger than yourself.  The way we learn is just very different now, so and then that has also led to a revolution in terms of production.  We build through digital media now and that changes the way that you design things.  All of this has changed the way that we instruct in the earlier years and the later years.  In addition to that obviously the question of sustainability has become up front and center for a great range of people and that is another debate to be had, but it is of some concern, so there are let’s say a range of issues that have changed the focus from a global level and because of that one may say that there is two tendencies.  One is again how you incorporate the world into education.  The other one is how do you look at those irreducible aspects of the architectural métier or the architectural tradition without which we can’t consider ourselves a discipline? 

Question: How has information technology influenced design?

Nader Tehrani: You know at the most mundane level classes are being blogged if you like on the internet.  You exchange homework, readings, PDFs, so the way we engage with each other is done through this third medium, but collaborative platforms are also going towards information technology.  In the old days I would have to fly many miles in order to meet with people.  I get onto my computer.  I dial into WebEx and a variety of people, consultants, clients and everybody can see on the very page that I post on the internet and we begin to draw together on it.  What is interesting about this is that it instigates a relationship between images and words that often was overlooked because everybody gets to participate in that drawing platform and in that way in a much more compressed amount of time you get to have the knowledge that you borrow let’s say from the engineers, from the various other consultants, from programming groups and so forth to compress all of that into the medium of architecture, which ultimately specifies things on a document.  You know the document is essentially you know a series of drawn documents and a series of specifications, so the interactive abilities of information technology actually do change the way you work. 
Question: How has architecture changed with the onslaught of new technologies?

Nader Tehrani:
Well the most immediate thing that has impacted our generation in the last 20 years is the way that we build.  If mass production brought to the world a possibility of rapid expansion, of modularity, of repetition, digitization has brought about the possibility of customization.  The idea that diversity, difference, individuality can be engaged with the same ease as mass production.  The question of its relevance, the question of its engagement in different venues is still you know up in the air, but certainly the way we produce now is different as a result of that also because of the control it has given designers.  This has legal ramifications because the traditional relationship between clients, contractors and designers has shifted.  Designers no longer need to merely submit their drawings to contractors to get bids or to get to know what the means and methods of its production are.  They get to be a higher stakeholder in the determination of that form and how it is produced.  That makes a huge difference.

Would this change how you build? 

Nader Tehrani: 
There are certainly… I’m not certain about how everybody else works to be honest with you, but you can see it all around you.  You can’t imagine a practice like Frank Gehry without seeing the hurdles he must have gone through in order to convince the sheet metal industry to build the way they have done for him.  They have a…  They probably had a set of techniques which were germane to their industry, but Gehry had to cultivate a different level of dialogue with them, not only for reasons of liability, but for reasons of instrumentalization and that generation gave us a next generation of work that we are now seeing through the work of you know Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo in Yokohama, Sejima, in Luzon.  All of these buildings, the EPFL and the Yokohama Port are the result of I think a very close tinkering between enterprises that are spacial, material, engineering and environmental and I can’t think that you can arrive at those places without a close synchronicity if you like between the different disciplines.

Question: What materials do you think will be the next drivers of architectural innovation?

Nader Tehrani: I’m sure there is a lot of materials out there, smart materials, materials that at the nano level are being developed.  In fact, these come to the discipline quite late, so I’m probably not the right person to ask that question, but one of the reasons that I went to MIT was as a way of being to collaborate with material scientists and begin to imagine ways in which some of their work and our work can become relevant to each other.  But at another level I think it has not to do so much with a material that is going to revolutionize all of the industry.  There are going to be that and certainly the role of composites has had a vast impact on the way that we think about skins, structural skins, the strength of skins and the way that the boat building enterprise, airplane building has had an impact on the way that we even in fact built materials and furniture and skins in our own firm has had the kind of consequences that you’re asking, but I think of them as very small steps actually and I think that there is a huge leap forward that we still await.

Question: Do good architects need to have a grasp of other disciplines as well?

Nader Tehrani:
That was possible let’s say until several decades ago where education and the advent of specialization had not been so in a way stratified.  To the degree that now knowledge has been put on a rocket booster if you like the idea that different disciplines are occupying their own very distinct set of research principles that are inaccessible to a larger public.  It is becoming more and more difficult to create great generalists, so part of our challenge I think right now is how not to lose sight of those very disciplinary traits that characterize the core of your field on the one hand, while remaining agile and able to engage the other disciplines in such a way that you can give architectural substance to their knowledge.  The problem with these other discipline groups is that they’re brilliant in what they do, but they don’t necessarily understand their architectural potential nor do they understand their ability to synthesize and only the architect is trained to think in a way, to take incompatible elements and put them together into some kind of synthesis.  Whether it is a difficult synthesis or a happy one is a different question, but the idea that the architect is a thinker and a great improviser, somebody who is able to pick up the pieces and that is sort of what I see as the next big challenge.

Question: How has architecture embraced the green movement?

Nader Tehrani: Well you’re asking somebody who is a green architect as a citizen, but I’m not an expert of green architecture.  I’m also one of the people that thinking that most architects are using the banner of green architecture as a kind of soup de jour.  I think it is a serious issue.  I think that we need to think about questions of policy, questions of production in a way that is sustainable, but not everything has direct architectural consequences and one needs to remember that we are not talking about formal determinism here.  We are not talking about a direct consequentiality about a green principle and the actual form of a piece of architecture.  Imagine if you will you make a great piece of green building if you like, a great piece of architecture that is also a green building you know on Route 128.  What is the consequence of that building when the entire planning principles of the United States in a way cultivate an attitude about sprawl?  So the question of sustainability and the green movement needs to deal with the potentials of its impact on planning, urban design and architecture as a larger political effort, the architectural consequences of which have been around for centuries.  Very basic principles of a building’s orientation to the sun, the way it collects heat, the way it stores heat, the way it expels heat at night, these are well documented techniques that go back centuries and centuries.  I think there are many ways of engaging the green movement, part of them through new technologies and part of them through… actually an elimination of the very technologies that we so rely on today.  The building that we are in right now, the room that we’re in has no windows and requires a mechanical system to make it breathe.  Most buildings probably don’t need that and it depends on how we design them, but that is not an excuse not to research technologies that would advance the way that buildings work in new ways and new forms, but the linking, the direct link of determinism between form and function, between form and performance, between form and the greening movement is a myth that we also need to overcome. 

Question: Where are people working to create a more sustainable dynamic?

Nader Tehrani: I mean I think the mere decision to invest in our inner cities is one of those efforts.  The idea that through more density, through less public transport…  Excuse me, through less driving and more public transport, through ways of congesting if you like, our social, personal, institutional and daily lives that achieves that.  We don’t need to cultivate that kind of thing in an ever expanding domain you know in the suburbs, so sure.  I think that that is one way that we are already doing it, but that is not enough.

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.

Question: 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. 

Question: 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.

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.

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.

Question: How will architecture evolve in the coming decades?

Nader Tehrani:
It is always difficult to look forward and to imagine what the next most important thing is, but let me tell you I’m happy that we’ve made or overcome let’s say the first digital revolution and we can get past problems of visualization and even the problems of building, so we can assume that to some degree.  I’d also like the think that we can around the hurdle of sustainability with some ease.  The notion that problems of sustainability can be assumed in the same way that railing heights and other codes may be assumed in architecture.  These don’t have intellectual stakes.  They’re merely part of the technical infrastructure that we have to deal with.  The question I guess that looms for me right now is with the accessibility to design to the larger masses, with our ability to communicate and see works across the continent, across the age groups, with our ability to publish ourselves from a blog to a site, to a book, to a magazine how is it that questions of criticism gauge in the future education of the architect?  What is a critical inquiry?  And secondly, to what degree are we able to overcome our fascination with monocular projects, projects that are only invested in sustainability or projects that are only invested in geometry?  How is it that we can imagine works of architecture that deal with the problem of integration or synthesis without the kind of overarching philosophies that we have inherited from the Fosters and the pianos?  How do we deal with the exceptionality of the synthetic moment in inventive ways?  And that I think will separate the great architects from the masses?

Recorded on April 20, 2010