Nader Tehrani is a Principal leading the Boston-based architecture and urban design firm NADAAA. He is also the Dean of the Cooper Union Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture and previously served as the Head of the SA+P Department at MIT. A recipient of multiple prestigious awards including the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and the Harleston Parker Award, Tehrani has been directing intensive design research in projects spanning the globe for the past 25 years. Recently, he sat down with Modelo to reflect upon his personal journey in architecture, his approach to design and where he sees architecture heading in the future.
On his path to becoming an architect
A common question, and everyone has their Lego story. In my case, it was slightly different. It was a distinction between language and visuality. Growing up, as we went from country to country and culture to culture, what we lacked as kids was a common foundation. We didn’t have one language: we had many. We didn’t have one history or one culture: we had many of them.
For me, visuality became a language — a language through which I could begin to communicate or do things. That doesn’t mean that I knew I was going to be an architect, but it became another way in which I could own a form of communication. That also doesn’t mean that I was drawing or making a lot exclusively, but it became a way of referencing what I was looking at in South Africa, Pakistan and Iran, among other places in which I grew up, all with their own environments and ways of building.
You’re constantly asking yourself “why is the world around me a certain way?” My memory begins in Pakistan; it evolves into a slightly higher consciousness in Iran. But, then I’m woken up abruptly in South Africa and its neighboring areas –including Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique. Later yet, my experiences in the USA, Iran, Italy and England were more targeted, with design and architecture playing a more prominent role in the formation of my thinking.
Of course, there are also other things that are more immediate: I had two very influential older cousins — one of them was an artist, the other an architect — and one can’t underestimate those kinds of mentors in one’s life. They teach you how to draw or teach you how to think through visuality, so those became important instigators.
On finding his voice as a designer
There are the more visible and invisible moments in one’s formation. The visible moment was towards the end of high school when effectively I had proven myself to be stellar at everything but schoolwork itself. At that juncture, I discovered a course offering in art history with a professor named Blanche Hoar, who was one of the excellent and inspirational teachers at Hotchkiss. That was really transformative for me because that actually did direct me towards architecture in a concrete way, and in particular to RISD. It was very clear in the context of my high school, where traditionally everybody would be counseled towards the legal, medical or business professions. I thought it clear that ‘this is not what I’m going to do.’
It also was quite telling to visit RISD for the first time because when I saw what the students actually did, I couldn’t imagine that this could be education — because they were having too much fun. That first visit to RISD was probably when I was in eleventh grade and I realized something interesting was happening there and it had nothing to do with traditional notions of scholarship. I enjoyed the sense of uncertainty, risk, and speculation that they cultivated — in short, very different than the conventional homework of high school.
On being a mentor
It is a difficult task to be a mentor, given that everyone has differing needs; knowing how they react to a prompt is certainly important. That said, I think that some level of discipline in combination with promiscuousness, audacity, and willfulness play a large role in the design process. In design, you can’t have stage fright: you have to be willing to make mistakes, you have to be comfortable with uncertainty and you have to know that beyond a targeted goal, you have to be invested in an entire process, a research, an analysis, and a conjectural act. You also have to develop a sense of criticality and self-awareness, not only to be able to critique your process, but also to transcend it in what you make. At the same time, that kind of calisthenic process also needs to be translated into intellectual discipline, where critical questions are punctuating the process. You’re not doing things for the sake of doing them — you’re asking why and giving value to things: why is this good, for whom is this good, what is design for? That makes a huge difference, particularly now since almost anything is possible. The malleability that media, software, and communication offer now make it a more poignant moment to ask ‘why am I doing this?’
On being an educator with new technologies
For one, your responsibility is to not only teach on an expanded terrain of media, but even harder you have to learn it, which invariably becomes a generational question. I graduated from grad school the day that they brought computers into the university — it wasn’t the first day obviously — but the computers that impacted drafting, drawing, and modeling arrived the year we were leaving. It begins to tell you that everything we’ve done in our practice happens after we were in that free environment where you can actually speculate on that stuff. I’m trained as a traditional architect and have spent basically 25 years almost constantly re-educating myself through the younger generation. Our own staff and collaborators throughout the years have played a critical part in this education, and during this period there has been a rapid evolution of software, hardware, instruments, and the ability to research in very different ways. That continues to happen at a cataclysmic rate. So, how to remain a student is becoming one of the most important challenges for not only us to teach students, but for us to teach ourselves.
On starting his firm
Well, you can’t deny yourself of your own history, so the story of NADAAA is invariably linked to Office dA, a firm I founded in 1986 with Rodolphe El Khoury and later catapulted to other heights in the 1990’s with Monica Ponce de Leon. The fact that a part of that history is killed or taken away from you does not mean that it is of less significance. What we achieved and gave birth to, beyond projects, were a series of processes, incremental discoveries and ways of asking questions. There were associated techniques, intellectual biases, and they have also defined a pedagogy of a certain era. I would be lying if I said that those things were not extended into NADAAA, it’s inevitable. But, at one level, it was a natural transition from dA to NADAAA. While the end of Office dA was a very violent one, it also helped to define priorities, to set the stage for what to invest in going forward, and to come to terms with the ethical terms for that transition.
More than anything, it was a moment to look forward and construct an opportunity for how you develop the practice. It also happened to occur at the moment when our office was transitioning from small to larger scale projects — and this concurrent with projects that became increasingly international. That had massive ramifications on how we gave priorities and focus within each project: what to design, what to customize, what to pre-fabricate, and how to gain control over complexities. Analyzing it now, from my current perspective, looking back at the past 5 years: here we were- building a company from scratch — I was lucky in having Katie Faulkner and Dan Gallagher as partners in this process, and certainly none of it would have been possible without their central role, not to mention key collaborators of the last ten years. We were waking up in the early morning and Skyping with Kuwait, by mid-morning communicating with France, at midday with Boston, Washington D.C., and Toronto, and by the end of the day with Melbourne, China, and Korea. That was our typical day for almost three years non-stop. The simple energy and the tenacity that it required, not only of me but of the staff and partners in general, was extraordinary. During that period, which by the way, was at the nadir of the economy, it was not enough to bathe in the luxury of work, but to demonstrate a certain translation of rigor from one scale to another: how to translate that discipline into different languages, trades, labor forces, and protocols of construction.
In tandem with this, a lot of our efforts went into a critical curatorial process: an editing of our work to fight for what really matters. To a great degree, that had to do with a critical synthesis of where engineering and architecture come together. We put a lot of effort into studying the various disciplines that impact design — from structural to environmental engineering, waterproofing and insulation requirements, and illumination and acoustic strategies — all areas in which the performance of the building could become critical to the project’s formal, spatial and material decisions. Of course, it was a defensive act, a preemptive strike at value engineering, but a way of demonstrating what is indispensible to the project.
We went back to what could be called the irreducible attributes of buildings. The idea of a difficult but critical synthesis brought this family of projects into conversation with each other. In coincidence with this was something quite unprecedented: as the economy was in shambles, we did about 14 competitions as a way of targeting new possibilities, and 3 of those happened to be architecture schools and we won them all — one through an RFP process — but the others in an open competition. This is the one building type whose audience is composed of faculty, students, and visitors whose critical appreciation of the discipline operates at a heightened level. For this reason, invariably all three projects also became pedagogical buildings, in both senses of the word: first, an investigation of new spatial arrangements that could foster alternative models of learning, and second, buildings that become didactic instruments –projects that, serve as examples of exemplary architectural conditions. Whether good or bad, these buildings will become objects and environments of critique, and with an audience of sophisticated and alert critics. We became an interlocutor for three sets of audiences –as clients — and in turn, produced very different buildings, that despite the commonality of their programs, serve very different missions.
On the future of NADAAA in next 5–10 years
My ambitions are not so much geared to getting big. Instead, I would like the right kind of work, and that usually starts with great patronage, and the kind of sponsorship that understands what only we can bring to them. Great patronage for me is the one that recognizes that we work in a very customized way for each of them that we genuinely collaborate with different teams, but that we bring synthesis in a way that nobody else can. We are very much invested in producing new forms of knowledge, and if it’s not inventive, it’s not architecturally viable for us. It has to advance some form of knowledge in order to be part of a discussion… and that may be spatial, formal, or material. Our interest in the performance of buildings, whether programmatic, visual, or environmental is also giving rise to a significant amount of research and work these days. It’s a robust combination of these things that gives architecture this ability to produce new forms of knowledge.
I would also like to see the work maintain its diversity of programs, constituencies, and geographies. We’ve had and hopefully will continue to have a diverse set of work that deals with the issues of social relevance, innovations in housing, things of institutional importance, as well as elements that involve formal, spatial and material transformation, areas in which we’ve brought emphasis to for many years. I know that many people talk about social relevance and well-being these days, but I would simply reverse that. Let us bring emphasis to how design matters, and how the architectural discipline can bring a sense of transformation to the human condition –at home, at work, and in the public realm. Great architecture really matters, and if anything, I would like to bring light to the debates and differences of opinion that make design a real protagonist in forming well-being, education and policy.
On the future of architecture in 5–10 years
With the explosion of the Internet, the accessibility of education online, and with the connectivity of cultures: the one thing we have already seen is the immediacy of information and the ability to do extraordinary things in areas of the world, where 20–30 years ago it wasn’t possible to gain access to an education. You don’t need a MOOC to Google, so self-education, do-it-yourself, make-it-yourself, the Fab-Lab movement, all of these are instruments of self-empowerment — they will not only democratize knowledge, but they will ease the way in which we all have access to design. This makes the role of the architect and the educator even more important because it demonstrates to you how difficult it is to do an integrated and well-synthesized building. This is may be where a complex architectural construct differs from a mere icon. Managing the information around architecture, while focusing on the discipline are two different things, but with the infinite wealth of material on the web, it is becoming increasingly important to develop a critical sense of curatorial discernment on the one hand, but also a decisive sense of what projects matter…
As we move forward, the distinction between the arts and sciences is also getting compressed. As an example, people doing research at the nano-scale of architecture will be developing technologies that rethink the laminar nature of walls, currently composed of distinct functional layers –insulation, sheathing, waterproofing, vapor barriers, among others. By recomposing the wall at a cellular scale, different behavioral qualities can be cast into a monolithic construct, essentially making the laminar wall a relic. In turn, other work done in the area of smart technologies are transforming the way we navigate cities, speak to each other in the public realm and plan out the city. In effect the architecture and the body are being brought together by a third medium, beyond the traditional formal, spatial and material realms. All of the things I’m saying have already happened, so the question is how do they begin to impact the discipline in a more profound way, especially at the foundational level where education stands to speculate from a different position.
If at some point the architect was known as the generalist, then the profession also succumbed to the ascending importance of advances in adjoining disciplines: in technology, fabrication, computation, engineering, and beyond. With new software, and the increasing consciousness of how we can reclaim lost territory, architects are also realizing how they can control the means and methods of fabrication, to simulate the environmental engineering of spaces, and speculate with lighting such that the consultant plays a less constraining role… and rather becoming a source for intellectual liberation.
I see an incredible transformation in education also because the idea of the teacher as the central master, the figurehead, is all but depleted. We learn horizontally, students learn from each other, teachers more often learn from students because there are some things that come from the breadth and depth of scholarship. But, there are other things that come from the flexibility and malleability of operating through media and operating with uncertainty. As you bring generations of teachers and students together, the academic context as an environment is just a very different place than when we were in school. The process of production and criticism of projects is also becoming much more dynamic. Part of this may have to do with the trust that in order to go forward, you may also need to ‘unlearn’ certain things, or at least to free yourself up from the shackles of certain ideological biases. Within the space of that uncertainty, a new possibility of learning becomes unleashed. The education of an architect at Cooper Union is a great example of such pedagogical circumstances, not only because of the stellar practices to which it has given birth, but the way it has cultivated those practices; instead of teaching them certain skills and techniques, it gave rise to forms of questioning, to mechanisms of research, and a definition of the instrumentality of the architectural medium as a source of knowledge. But all this emerged from a moment, where first, as a school of thought, it would task everyone to suspend what they think they know, if only to re-discover from another perspective. Translating this ethic into contemporary terms will certainly part of my task going forward.
On advice he would give himself before starting
I suppose it’s very conservative advice, given my own background: I would say do your homework. Those tests that seem totally meaningless- don’t do them because they are required of you, but do them because they’re important calisthenics for something else that has yet to happen. In my case, the short-cuts I took around the disciplines of structural and environmental engineering haunt me to this day, and have ironically become the main focus of my design inquiry and speculation. Had I done my homework in these areas, I suspect we could also have radicalized our experiments to date, beyond where we are now.
In essence, architectural design is composed of a lot of areas of potential, and as designers, we often give bias to one area alone. This can atrophy the muscles of many other intellectual areas of research, and so my argument is to recognize this as early as possible in one’s career.