From his office in Boston, award-winning designer Nader Tehrani '81 talks about his "aesthetic awakening" at Hotchkiss, his latest design challenge, and juggling a career in two cities
By Wendy Carlson
At first glance, the nondescript brick building in Boston's gritty south end seems an unlikely place for a cutting-edge design office. But inside this former plaster-casting studio, the grimy sidewalks and faded facade give way to an airy interior suffused with light filtering down from a series of sloped skylights. At long wooden tables, a dozen or more designers work side by side, quietly tapping at their computers or sketching floor plans. A puppy snoozes in a dog bed at one end of the office; at the other, a shelf showcases models that look like tiny abstract sculptures.
It's decidedly quiet here, but one floor below, the hum of machinery fills the air. In the NADLAB, a fabrication studio, another design crew works with saws, drills, routers, 3-D printers, and laser cutters, making one-off pieces like a curvaceous bureau fashioned out of compressed plywood and plastic composite door handles resembling duck feet. Nader Tehrani, principal and co-founder of NADAAA, moves seamlessly between these two worlds, dressed in his signature white shirt, black pants, and spotless white Adidas sneakers — a uniform that, he says, is "like my haircut: it gives me one less decision to make when I wake up.
Time is of the essence for Nader, who splits his seven-day work week between New York, where he heads the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union, and his office in Boston.
"I take the train at 6 a.m. Tuesdays to Cooper Union, and that ride becomes an office for me, so I can write for four hours, without the distractions of iPhone or Wi-Fi. It's like an isolation chamber," he says.
On mornings when he doesn't commute, he typically begins his day at 5:30 a.m. with a three or four-mile run, followed by a 15-mile bike ride. But even when he's exercising, Tehrani is working on designs in his head. Since he was a kid, Nader has been living and working on the move. His dad served in the Iranian diplomatic corps, so the family relocated from country to country and culture to culture, living for periods of time in Pakistan, Iran, and South Africa. Travel exposed Tehrani to various architectures and what he calls "aesthetic events," like the day he saw Hotchkiss for the first time.
Helios House, Los Angeles, CA
The year was 1978. Tehrani was visiting Hotchkiss after one of the worst nor'easters of the decade had pummeled New England. Snow had drifted halfway up Scoville Gate, and Tehrani, who was touring prep schools with his friends, barely made the trip to Lakeville. But what he remembers most about his visit wasn't the record-breaking blizzard, but Main Building, which, at the time, bore the design of modernist Hugh Stubbins, the architect best known for Citicorp Center's landmark tower in Manhattan. When he first saw Main, he remembers thinking to himself: "This is where I want to be."
Before the building was redesigned in its current Georgian iteration, Main resembled a series of abstract brick planes receding in space, without any apparent windows.
"It was scaleless, blank, and while composed of brick, it was completely edited of all the detail and iconography for which the rest of the campus was known," says Tehrani. "It was a veritable piece of architecture; it was hard and brutal, but to me, its minimal restraint was stunningly beautiful."
At Hotchkiss, Art Instructor Blanche Hoar inspired Tehrani to pursue a career in architecture, but his first impression of Main on that winter day instilled in him an appreciation of how architecture can define the ethics and environment of a place.
This holistic approach to architecture has been a guiding force throughout his career. A recent article in The New York Times describes Tehrani as part of a "bumper crop of designers whose sensibilities are bringing new depth to contemporary architecture around the world." For Tehrani, that sensibility first emerged at Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned his BFA and B.Arch. in 1985 and 1986, respectively. After a post-graduate year at London's Architectural Association, he continued his studies at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where he earned a masters in architecture and urban design in 1991. In 1992, Tehrani began an extensive career in academia, including teaching stints at Northeastern University, Harvard's Graduate School of Design, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, from 2010-14, he served as the head of the architecture school.
"I would like to bring the emphasis around to how the architectural discipline itself can bring a sense of transformation to the human condition — at home, at work, and in the public realm."
Since co-founding NADAAA in 2011, Tehrani and his partners, Katherine Faulkner and Daniel Gallagher, have worked on a wide range of nationally and internationally acclaimed projects, including public, institutional, and private commissions. Currently, the firm is completing the renovation of the University of Toronto's John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, transforming one of the city's most iconic neo-Gothic buildings into a work of contemporary architecture. The project was a milestone for Tehrani, making NADAAA the only firm in the country to have designed three university schools of architecture, with a fourth master plan underway for the University of Miami School of Architecture.
University of Melbourne, Australia
Now, Tehrani is facing a brand-new challenge: designing a new jail system in New York City as part of a proposal to close Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Last spring, Tehrani and his partners were selected to be part of Justice in Design, a team comprised of architects, designers, planners, psychologists, and incarceration reform advocates who are working with The Van Alen Institute, a nonprofit urban think tank, on a proposal to close Rikers.
For decades, city leaders have debated shuttering Rikers because of its notoriously corrupt reputation, brutal treatment of detainees, and inhumane conditions. Critics of the proposal argue that the complex of 10 jails and about 10,000 detainees can't be closed because the city lacks alternative infrastructure. Last July, Justice in Design released a report outlining design principles and programming for borough-based jails, or "Justice Hubs." Design on its own isn't going to solve the city's criminal justice issues, Tehrani says, but the process has given him insight into the workings of the system and how it can be improved through justice hubs and the participation of the communities they serve. As part of the team, he and firm co-founder Daniel Gallagher met families and individuals who are personally affected by the incarceration system, and he came away with a profound sense of their frustration.
"Sometimes, families wait for hours just to speak to their loved ones, only to find out they've been moved somewhere else," he says. Hubs in each of the city's five boroughs would make it easier for detainees to connect with their families, as well as with courts and social, educational and health services. "Jails also lack some of the most basic human rights that we take for granted: air, light, or views, for instance. Most cells are designed without basic privacy and acoustic insulation, and we need to rethink that," he says. The task will be designing the hubs in conversation with the surrounding urban environment, he adds.
Over the span of his career, Tehrani has challenged established design principles with his use of materials, building concepts, and style. His work has ranged from galleries and pavilions to residences and schools, reflecting the influence of a wide range of international architects, including Eladio Dieste from Uruguay, Miguel Fisac from Spain, and Pier Luigi Nervi from Italy. These architects, he says, "looked beyond structural optimization and considered the role of geometry, materiality, texture, and light in each of their works."
In 2007, Tehrani was co-principal in the design of Helios House, a hulking structure made out of large stainless steel triangles that looks more like a gleaming metal sculpture than a gas station. The building has become a Los Angeles landmark and the first LEED-certified gas station in the country. More recently, he helped transform a contemporary art installation made of 28 gigantic wool fiber ropes into blankets for Syrian refugees. And one of those small pieces on his office shelf was developed as a model for a research project to illustrate how unlikely structural properties can work together — in this case, 60 individual carved and interlocking blocks of polyurethane foam board.
In the NADLAB, he and his team of 20 designers continue to innovate, creating new building methods and materials, using digital technology and 3-D manufacturing. "We are trying to rethink material properties — ways of assembling materials through new means and methods, and engaging other disciplines as a basis for innovations in the construction industry, adopting techniques that may not have been tried before," Tehrani says. Each designer takes turns working on different phases in the design process, whether they're assembling composites, cutting block materials on a CNC router (computer numerical control router), or piecing together large architectural models.
In his career as an educator, Tehrani has emphasized a similar model of collaboration. "I'm trained as a traditional architect and have basically spent 25 years constantly re-educating myself through the younger generation," he says. "The idea of a teacher as the central master is all but obsolete. We learn horizontally: students learn from each other, and teachers more often learn from students. Whereas we may bring more experience to the conversation, the next generation brings an openness and a digital dexterity that often overturns one's assumptions. The academic environment is just a very different place than it was when I was in school."
In the future, Tehrani plans to keep challenging design and building concepts and pursuing projects that have far-reaching social impact.
"While I know that many people talk about social activism these days, I would like to bring the emphasis around to how the architectural discipline itself can bring a sense of transformation to the human condition — at home, at work, and in the public realm."
This story appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.