An Epitome of Inqusitvine

A man who lives by a set of priorities which he has set out for himself, abides by his own preaching – ‘remain a student, no matter what practices you take on in the future’… With us is not only a renowned International Architect, but, a true educator,
ARCHITECT NADER TEHRANI, Founder Principal, NADAAA.

Here he speaks his heart out about his expedition from a mere student to a professional, and then back amongst students – as a professor which reflects his desire for knowledge.
This exclusive interview will undoubtedly awaken our inner desires as far as learning every day is concerned…

What inspired you to take up architecture as a career?
A great deal of my childhood was spent in different countries, from England to Switzerland, then from Pakistan to South Africa, and then eventually from Iran to the United States. Later in my college years, I also spent significant years in Rome and London again. For this reason, much of my appreciation of the various environments in which I lived, came to the surface through the discipline of architecture – broadly speaking, the built environment, the city, landscape and the many itineraries that define the places that we inhabit.

Curiosity, flexibility, intellectual empathy and an eagerness to learn are the key elements in maintaining both personal and cultural health!

What made Architect Nader Tehrani the man that he is today? How was your transformational voyage?
While it is hard to speak introspectively about oneself in this way, I may attempt to at least outline a few defining moments that have brought me to the set of priorities that I live by today.

My awaking moment, as it were, came as I turned seven and my family moved to South Africa. It was in 1970, during the period of apartheid. Though still very young, it produced a jolt in my thinking, if only because of the sheer difference of environment, prompting me to ask questions about where we lived, what social conventions defined us, and the political dynamics that were very much at play during that period. Though certainly not phrased in this way, simple questions about the nature of where people lived, what spaces they occupied and how our daily lives were supported invariably all brought back the question of race, equity and basic human rights, none of which I had questioned prior in any significant way, but none of which could be overlooked, by even the most innocent.

The second defining chapter occurred in 1979, with the Iranian Revolution. While I had only lived in Iran for about four years, from 1974-1978, my identity was defined, in part, by our cultural heritage. Still, even in my own country, I was a visitor, having returned to Iran at eleven, staying until I was fifteen. As such, I witnessed the revolution from two perspectives: from a foreign and personal lens at the same time, however contradictory it would seem. Though I did not have any political affinities with the prior regime, I also did not develop any alliances with the new one, and so the idea of becoming a cultural orphan was somehow inevitable. What this would require, somehow, was the formation of an identity that could forge links that did not have the certainty of cultural roots, but rather intellectual affinities; and indeed, this enabled me to join a form of citizenship that we have witnessed in the nomad, rather than the exiled. I have been able to forge intellectual links that did not rely on the certainties of cultural or geographic roots as basis of validation.

My third Chapter is defined by my somewhat fortunate entry into college. With an educational track record that was mediocre at best, the idea of getting accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design was nothing less than transformational. It provided the most supportive environment within which one could explore, experiment and speculate on ideas without the burdens of conventional scholarship. At the same time, it was an environment that required hard work, great discipline and rigors that I had never yet experienced. For this reason, it was my first great engagement with a learning environment that would set the pedagogical tone for my years to come, both as architect and as an educator.

According to you what has been the real transformation of the building industry over the years?
Many technical transformations have occurred over the centuries, but somehow, they seem pale in relation to some of the more powerful conceptual transformations that mark the intellectual project of architecture. However, if I were to comment on the building industry at large, I would simply reiterate the challenge that has been created by the introduction if the legal separation between ‘design intent’ and the ‘means and methods’ of construction under the auspices of the American legal code. What this has done is to fundamentally challenge the architect, by effectively denying him/her the right to specify the built environment in the precise manner that is befitting and necessary of an architectural discipline. Though negative, this is also transformational, and a challenge to be taken on as a key project in the coming years.

Which is the innovative material application research that has changed the dynamics of the construction industry?
Over the past twenty years, we have witnessed the emergence of digital fabrication in the construction industry; though still rarefied, it is becoming more conventional in a variety of spheres and I suspect it will become a foundational requirement for any significant builder in the near future. To this end, even traditional materials have undergone different protocols in the assembly process as a result of this digital revolution.

Meanwhile, the material sciences have also been working across disciplines, with biology and computation as key partners, to imagine new materials whose ecological footprint and implementation may come to be appreciated in more optimal ways. We stand to do a lot more work in this area, given the latent waste that is part and parcel of all construction practices, and the sheer toll this continues to unleash on the global environment.

What are the new means and methods of construction that you believe have turned the tables as far as innovation is concerned?
I have already spoken to the digital protocols that have transformed our ability to control the means and methods of construction above. However, I also think that simple and better communication between architect and builder goes a long way to exact the type of innovation that is required of great projects. To this end, innovation is not always technical, but rather the result of basic cultural and contractual obligations that need to be undertaken as part of the commitment to architecture.

You’ve achieved a rare feat of designing three architecture school buildings. Architecturally what do each of the buildings say, and what was your personal experience with these buildings?
The opportunity to design three schools of architecture is, indeed, rare and a great honor. At the same time, each are very different in terms of their location, culture and pedagogy. For this reason, they are also quite varied in approach and sensibility. What may be, binds them all are a few basic ethics around which our practice revolves. First, because they are schools of architecture, we have taken a light hand on the elaboration of detailing to ensure that their rawness allows the type of intervention and appropriation that is befitting of a school of design where the expression of the building is invariably tied to the drawings that are pinned up, the models and mock-ups that punctuate spaces and the presence of exhibitions and other events that make the character of the building.

At the same time, we were careful to ‘speak’ to our audiences in a way that acknowledges that these buildings, unlike others, will house a very literate cohort, and as such, any building they occupy is prone to added inspection and critique. For this reason, we see these buildings as pedagogical spaces more than spaces for learning: they are didactic in their details, expression and experiments. The Hung Platform in Georgia Tech, the Folded Roof in the University of Toronto or the Suspended Studio in Melbourne all invest in a paradigmatic architectural moment that can only be described as both extraordinary and pedagogically motivated: that is, they motivate thinking beyond conventions and they push material and compositional strategies beyond their traditional limits. Thus, each of these buildings identifies key elements as transformational moments, not just for the building in question, but the discipline at large.

What transformational shift do you anticipate as far as education is concerned?
Many things stand to transform education, and have already begun. For one, online education stands to enable access to courses at an exponential rate– and across cultures, borders and time zones. At the same time, the unprecedented impact of the Internet on popular culture, politics and the protocols of everyday life has completely changed our consciousness, and given the cultural climate of the moment, a reminder that technology can be used to many ends.

Questions about scholarship, truth, verification and discipline have come to be challenged in this chapter, and for this reason, much of what we stand to take on through education in the coming years might be the re-inauguration of critical thinking as the basis for the channelling of an incredible amount of information, something that maybe no other historical moment has required. Education now may be as much the critical curation of knowledge as the access to it.

You also mentor many architectural students. What challenges do you face while guiding the future generation?
The key challenge is to provide them with all the necessary technical and intellectual skills they need today, knowing fully well that these are merely stand-ins for a discipline that is dynamic and ever-changing. To this end, we try to design our pedagogies around the notion of uncertainty, critical thinking, and the imperative of having students reinvent practices rather than preparing them for a practice on the verge of obsolescence.

If you have to choose one, which has been your proudest work so far, and why?
I think I would choose the Tongxian Art Center project, which remains incomplete; only the gatehouse was built, alas. That project exemplifies a certain aspect of our thinking that I consider to be the most productive, and in many ways as relevant today as the moment in which it was conceived. It is at once minimal, raw and restrained, while also complex, urban and elaborated in material ways. This is at once poised and mature, while also fresh and experimental.

Specifically, I like that, as a piece of architecture, it builds itself up as an urban project, creating context as much as responding to one. I also like that we worked with conventional materials, while provoking them to do things that they have never done: we effectively invented a variable bond for brick construction in that project. But also, in developing a system, we also created a platform on which others could operate, beyond our own authorship.

Being recognized as a reputed mentor and educator, what do you have to say to the emerging lot?
My simple counsel to them would be the same I say to myself: remain a student, no matter what practices you take on in the future. Curiosity, flexibility, intellectual empathy and an eagerness to learn are the key elements in maintaining both personal and cultural health!