The Author and the Discipline: A Conversation with Nader Tehrani

Nader Tehrani is Dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union and a principal at NADAAA.


Wes Hiatt: This issue’s broad one-word-theme is “Identity.” It is concerned with the architect’s engagement with the politics of identity and attempting to position this as an urgent project in our times: today movements on all sides of the aisle are asserting who, what, where, and how they have their being. Do you see it as our responsibility as architects to make room at the table for these competing ideas in the ways we can?

Nader Tehrani: Yes, it is certainly one of our responsibilities to make room for competing ideas, and tolerance is at the root of this principle. However, when tolerance allows certain voices at the table whose main argument is to exclude others from the dialogue, then that becomes our defining predicament.

For this reason, some of these “competing ideas” cannot actually have equal standing because, by definition, they are exclusionary: their main cause is to alienate others but challenging their right to exist altogether. So when we talk about the possibility of an open environment where multiple platforms may coexist, it should mean that conflicting philosophies can actually come into tangency without harming each other at their foundation. The basis of this is to enable debate, discursive practices that yield conversation, and even disagreement.

The rhetoric of the recent campaign trail, which is now forming the cornerstones of the incoming administration’s policy, is one of the historical moments where the dignity –and rights–of citizens in their diversity is being challenged at a fundamental level. Women, people of Mexican origin, the LGBT community, Muslims, African Americans and a range of ‘others’ have been identified as targets to marginalize. Nicolas Kristof’s A Confession of Liberal Intolerance in the New York Times of May 7th, 2016 makes a poignant case for the necessity of left leaning intellectuals to enable the voices of the right within the academic context, but the argument also falls short of the challenges we face today, post elections, when the hegemony of the three branches of government can effectively silence diversity altogether through alleged legal means.

WH: One way of understanding how we may start to engage with this problem is for all of us, as thinkers and makers, to critically reflect on our own identities. You yourself have a varied and cosmopolitan background with roots in Iran, but an upbringing in half a dozen countries. Do you believe this has had an effect on your work?

NT: I am not certain that I have self-consciously channeled my ‘identity’ as a significant factor of my work. However, as you know one can never suppress the unconscious, so even if one doesn’t set out to do an “Iranian Architecture” there may be certain traits that emerge unconsciously that betray you. In this sense, I am sure that my experiences in South Africa, Pakistan, Italy, England among other places have also helped to form a consciousness that constructs identity in a more polyphonic way. Having said that, let’s also distinguish between the disciplinary and the autobiographical. There are rules, tropes, and functions within the language of architecture that have absolutely nothing to do with our subjectivity as individuals – somehow, they operate independent of that. To that end, we can speak about both and see if there are moments of tangency.

Given that I did not grow up with a monolithic background, a single history, or common language, I found my early years of schooling quite challenging — simply because I didn’t have a stable foundation from which to emerge. This, in part, explains how visuality became a kind of substitute for literacy. Because of the heterogeneity of my background, I needed some alternative medium through which I could eventually come to grips with the question of ideas, and their translation into substance. Architecture ended up being that medium, and in many ways I could say I started reading with more depth through architecture—first through images, then through formal abstraction, and later in relation to words again.

Having said that, my academic profile invariably has a lot to do with how I engage with the discipline today. Rodolfo Machado was at the helm during my years at RISD, and I am very much indebted to the unique academic environment he enabled while I was there. At a moment in the ‘80s when the Gay Pride movement was at its height, he provoked questions that were open, challenging and liberating –both culturally and architecturally. Maybe I was not that conscious of its openness at the time, because we took our context for granted to some degree; we thought that is was ‘natural’ somehow, but he was careful to pose questions that would make us question the very order of things, whether social or spatial. In this sense, he had a subtle way of insinuating the architectural in every aspect of the political events of the time, without making them explicit.

Academically, the question of identity was formulated around the problems of representation. In theoretical terms, the translation of Saussure’s linguistic terms, the structure of the sign, the semiotics of Barthes, and Derrida’s notion of differance all contributed to the predicaments of the production of meaning in ideological terms. In architectural projects, problems of type and character were pitted in relation to each other as a foundation to tease out other ideas about de-familiarization and estrangement. As such, identity was constructed not so much in static terms, but rather as a dynamic terrain, where form and meaning could gain agency to release associations depending on context, audience and temporal positioning. Thus, identity, as a theoretical terrain, was constructed, as much as it was rooted in the social contract of the languages through which it was transmitted.

WH: Does the role Rodolfo Machado played in shaping the culture of RISD during your time there resonate with how you’re working as Dean at the Cooper Union today and previously at MIT? Do you consciously inject the schools in which you work with an awareness of present issues and construct a culture that takes them on?

NT: In the context of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, where certain hierarchies were deeply rooted and cultivated, much of my first year of work has been dedicated to creating a more inclusive environment where students and faculty of all ranks feel the comfort and responsibility of participation with the ability to transform its culture. So the political project of empowerment has been a great part of my initial work at the school. I don’t know if this gets at the question of identity in the way you’re asking, but if representation in the arena of participation is the first step before we even talk about space, form, or materiality, then this was my first act.

Having said this, the shaping of culture at Cooper Union has very much been on my mind, and I would cite my years following RISD at the Architectural Association, under Alvin Boyarsky, as equally influential in thinking about the nature of an institution. His ability to transform two row-houses into a hot-bed of debate was, in great part, the result of his understanding about how the lectures, exhibitions and publications could produce a larger footprint than the pedagogy alone could. The bar played a central part of this too, as everyone knows, and I am not sure I can achieve changes through the same means, but I have also been focused on opening up the doors of Cooper Union to other voices, to a younger generation, and to ideological disagreements as a positive –and necessary– attribute of identity of the place.

WH: I very much agree that this must be the first step, and within the context of an education — and in particular an architectural education and studio culture — the necessity of equal representation is evident. But once that equal arena is established and we all continue the work to maintain it, I wonder what effect this has on our making as we move the discussion toward form, space, and the possibility of architecture itself substantiating individual and collective identities.

NT: The notion of identity, in architectural terms, has been used and abused in different ways throughout history. To name one of the more salient, the Architecture Parlante of Ledoux was explicit in the role that architecture may play in constructing identity, effectively adopting forms, iconographies and even plan types as representational means. His Saltworks project is polemical in materializing this stance.

At the same time, in Boston, we have seen the way in which ideas about decorum, appropriateness and identity have been co-opted by agencies such as the Boston Redevelopment Authority to essentialize its colonial era, flattening history to effectively build an idea about identity that is monolithic, totalizing and without friction. Much of the way in which ‘brick’ is dictated in the reformulation of the urban landscape in Boston is the result of this type of identity construction, barring the production of knowledge, the research of new ideas, and the testing out of intellectual projects within the context of the city.

This speaks to the notion I was discussing earlier: the difference between the autobiographical and the disciplinary. All the work we do in the office positions itself with respect to the responsibilities it owes to its city, the advancement of spatial and organizational ideas, to material invention, and to what architecture can do through its own terms. The auto-biography of my background and education simply have nothing to do with the disciplinary traits that have their own instrumentality.

WH: What got me interested in what you’re calling the autobiographical was studying Stanley Tigerman and encountering how insistent he and others that write about him are about his Americanness. But if it’s true that there’s no one-to-one correspondence — if the culture one is associated with does not bear on the work — then don’t we lose something in our reading of someone like Stanley’s work?

NT: Well, I certainly recognize the importance of cultural differences and the way in which they can define a person’s contributions to the field. Maybe nothing can be more American than Learning From Las Vegas, and yet we must come to terms with the idea that its authors, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, come from varying backgrounds and cultural denominations. My point was simply to overcome the tendency to essentialize identity as a form of ownership, entitlement and authority.

One of the most important traits of the architect is his or her ability to translate cultural terms into formal, spatial and material terms. In part, this is due to the fact that as architects, we are always foreigners to the very contexts in which we are placed, even when those contexts are close to our culture. In this sense, despite Tigerman’s knowledge and experience in the United States, it would require someone like Rem Koolhaas to conceive of an interpretation that is unleashed by Delirious New York to get to a reading to which an American author would have no access. That is the ultimate act of translation. We have seen this with Engels in Manchester, Durrell in Alexandria and Banham in Los Angeles. For this reason, whether in design practices or in interpreting a city, I maintain that one’s place of origin has a limited ability to impact our range as interlocutors of representation. It is ultimately the author’s intellectual capacity to read, translate and project an idea that impacts our notion of identity.

WH: In what ways then would you say your office’s work engages with these issues of identity?

NT: I suppose we address questions of identity in a variety of ways. First, our work as a body does not define itself in terms of a single authorship; there is no style or brand as such, and our predisposition to work with varied morphologies, materials and spatial constructs produces circumstances that defy the singularity of identity. At the same time, since much of our work has emerged as a result of material experimentation, a challenge to the means and methods of construction and an engagement with the construction industry, much is its identity is also owed to the focus on construction systems, detailing, and material agency as the basis for its presence in the field. For this reason, much of the work is propelled by our invention of systems –or logics—that can subsequently be appropriated by others to make other pieces of architecture. As such, the identity of the work is in its systems, not necessarily the work of architecture itself.

By extension, our appreciation of the cultural differences that drive different architectures has also produced work that absorbs local identities as part of its modus operandi. And yet, even that does not explain the contribution of the work, because the work is certainly not exclusively defined by a reactive relation to culture, context and community; quite the opposite, its driven by an idea about projection, and an understanding that any work is somehow an imposition that is motivated, much like a translation. Under such circumstances, identity plays a wider role, because it escapes the reductive iconographic bias it has gained over the years; instead it taps into the spatial, material and ritualistic aspects of human activities that gain currency in projecting identity through practices.

Having said all this, I think discussions of identity are complex and problematic. Coming to terms with the identity that Cooper Union has accrued over the years, has been challenging for me, if only because so many have tried to claim its history and culture as a foundation for their individual intellectual projects—effectively essentializing it for their own purposes. Few have yet to imagine that its history as a “school of thought” has had the necessary frictions that defy any monolithic reading, and as such it remains a productive and fecund platform from which to project new experiments. As such, its identity is open to the next generation’s experiments, and certainly not limited by a reading of its history. Many have yet to become comfortable about their own agency in making this history happen.