September 2011: Nader Tehrani '81
Nader Tehrani ’81 designs things as wide-ranging as furniture, architecture, and urban spaces. He heads the Department of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is a principal and founder of the recently-formed NADAAA, a Boston-based architecture firm dedicated to design innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, the cultivation of new methods of fabrication, and productive dialogue with the construction industry.
Tehrani’s interest in architecture was inspired at a young age, but he credits long-time Hotchkiss art teacher Blanche Hoar for the motivation that launched his career. “Blanche Hoar taught me art history; a talented and engaging teacher, she was the force behind my emergence into the arts at a serious level. I owe it to her for directing me toward the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Blanche was tough in all the right ways, and had a personal affection for those she taught.” Following Hotchkiss, Tehrani did, in fact, attend RISD, where he earned his B.F.A and B.Arch in 1985 and 1986, respectively. After a post-graduate year at London’s Architectural Association, Tehrani continued his studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he earned his masters of architecture and urban design with distinction in 1991.
Formidably diverse in scope and scale, Tehrani’s work ranges from galleries and pavilions to residences and schools. His award-winning projects include the Tongxian Art Gatehouse in Beijing, the Fleet Library at RISD, the LEED-certified Helios House in Los Angeles, and the LEED-Gold certified Macallen Building in Boston. He is the recipient of 13 Progressive Architecture Awards, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Architectural Award. His work has been exhibited at institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Tehrani lectures frequently and participates in conferences and symposia at architecture and design institutions all over the world, from Princeton University to the Guggenheim Museum to the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC). Tehrani has also served as judge for design awards such as the North American Holcim Awards, the Canadian Governor General’s Medals in Architecture, and the new Multi-functional Administration Cities in the Republic of Korea.
In 1992, Tehrani began what would become an extensive career in academia, including one year at Northeastern University, five years at RISD, and nine years at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, until he began his teaching at MIT in 2007. During this time, he also held teaching fellowships at Georgia Institute of Technology (Ventulett Distinguished Chair in Architectural Design), University of Toronto (Gehry International Visiting Chair in Architectural Design), Otis College of Art and Design (Donghia Designer-in-Residence), and University of Melbourne (Professional Fellow).
Over the past 25 years, the process of teaching has changed a great deal. According to Tehrani, “There seems to be a new ethic. There is lots of time spent on individual students with the sense that the processes of learning and experimenting are broader and more complex than can be taught in lecture courses. Interactive processes, critiques, group conversations, and debates are central to the design process and instill in the students a sense of their centrality to the transformation of discourse. Students today are broader and more intelligent; they are raised diversely and are well-traveled.”
Since becoming the head of MIT’s Department of Architecture in 2010, Tehrani has helped to restructure the core curriculum. The department, an active group of faculty practitioners, is centered on contemporary practice and conditions. Interdisciplinary collaboration is key, such as the program’s dialogue with material sciences, engineering, the Media Lab, and the Center for Bits and Atoms. He notes, “In both my academic and professional practices, we don’t define design in terms of the reductive boundaries of the various discipline groups. Our work bridges architecture, industrial design, engineering, and more. Advances in technology have transformed the way we practice, from the way we draw to the way we collaborate and the way things are built. Arenas of specialization have introduced the possibility of a greater level of complexity and sophistication. In the past, the architect would draw something and present it, but now, collaboration with a host of consultants from different generations and even continents is the new standard, enabling others to have an unprecedented impact on the development of a project. Access to information, literature, and broader debate has made the discipline more horizontal and democratic, essentially more accessible.”
At NADAAA, Tehrani gets to do the thing he enjoys most, “to simply be here and design with others.” He and his two partners are currently working both nationally and internationally on a number of projects, including public, institutional, and private commissions, and they aspire to make changes in the building industry. “We are trying to rethink materials – ways of putting materials together and the use of innovation through construction techniques that haven’t been tried before.” Prior to establishing NADAAA, Tehrani was a founding principal of Boston’s Office dA, a practice that he led for 25 years.
Tehrani certainly recommends architecture as a career. “I think there are many myths about architecture that need to be de-mystified. While it involves creativity, the conduit to making things involves a great range of parameters, constraints, and limitations that, when mastered, can be seen as a vehicle for freedom, design latitude and invention. Also, while it involves personal investments and ‘expression,’ it more broadly engenders a public dimension, both in terms of its responsibilities and its discourse. As a business, it surely has its fair share of challenges, but they need to be addressed as they would in any other line of work, and when done well are at odds with neither design agendas nor business development. Sadly, the United States does not have a strong investment in the arts in its education system, especially in the early years, and that tends to atrophy an entire cultural dimension of learning, advocacy, patronage, and ultimately transformation of the city and its environment.” Hotchkiss has had a strong investment in precisely this area, from music to the fine arts and architecture, and Tehrani encourages students to pursue design as a platform of learning.