Nader TEHRANI speaks on developing a discursive academic culture at MIT, the democratization of education and disappearance of master-student hierarchies enabled by new technologies, being mindful of architecture’s “domain of expertise,” and much more.
suckerPUNCH: Could you tell us a bit about what is happening at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) right now?
Nader TEHRANI: One of the characteristic features of MIT over the last three or four decades is that, in many ways, it has been quite different than the Ivy League schools. Its various discipline groups—in Design, in Building Technology, in HTC (History, Theory and Criticism), in Computation, and in ACT (Art, Culture and Technology)—have enjoyed a relative autonomy and, beyond design, they’ve been much more research oriented. Research at MIT is a kind of cornerstone of the entire Institute. Of course, research is interpreted in different ways. For the engineers, it’s linked more to performance criteria, to innovation at the level of technology. For history and theory, it’s theoretical speculation, historical scholarship, and archival work. And I would say that in design, to some degree, research had atrophied. Why? Because design at MIT didn’t partake in the debates and discourses that were prevalent in the 1970s and ’80s, and of the pedagogy of the time, but shut its eyes to postmodernism and its corollary debates completely. About eight years ago, with the introduction of Adèle Santos as the Dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, a wave of changes began that have been underway ever since. After she took over the helm, she named Yung Ho Chang as the head of the architecture department, and they undertook a series of decisions that would bring more focus to design pedagogies, the curriculum, and the expansion of our design faculty. As the new head, I am now making the next wave of changes.
A lot of my mission is trying to figure out how to create a school—not a school of thought, necessarily, but a culture within a school—that encourages debate and a culture that is more discursive. MIT’s School of Architecture also doesn’t have a “building” as such—we have corridors, networks, and so on, but we don’t have a “place” that you can call a school of architecture. The central space at the school of architecture is a dome, which one cannot occupy. So one is centrifugally forced to the edges, occupying the periphery of the dome.
For this reason, one of the first things I did was to create a lecture hall, so that each discipline group isn’t having its lectures in different places on campus—you roll out of studio every day and you go to the same place, bringing everyone together as a daily ritual. Another thing I did was to capitalize on the existing café to create an exhibit hall right next to it—effectively, to create a cultural centerpiece around which the works of visiting critics, faculty, and students alike could provoke conversation. And, equally as important, I created a fabrication laboratory, where the Design, Building Technology, and Computation groups could undertake veritable experiments in the arena of fabrication. This was an important step, because even though MIT is a school of technology, it was weak in this very area of research, and this was a hindrance to the kind of interdisciplinary work that is central to the Institute.
Parallel changes have also been made in the core curriculum, making increasingly discriminatory and top-down constraints in the first three semesters of core, while deregulating the final four semesters in order that students may take advantage of the various paths the Institute offers for research development. Regulation for the first three, because the design school desperately needs to define a culture of its own—not only a technical aptitude, but also an intellectual literacy. Deregulation on the tail end, because MIT simply doesn’t have the tradition of producing conventionally centered architects—it’s more about dispersion. MIT produces incredible architects who then go on and become amazing people in computation, others in history and theory, or, alternatively, in parallel realms of technology at the [MIT] Media Lab. The idea is not to imagine that we are preparing students for practice per se, especially since practice as we know it is constantly rendered obsolete, but instead to imagine that our students are going to redefine new forms of practice that are emerging. So whether we’re preparing a student for Microsoft, for a boutique firm in New York City, or for an autonomous start-up practice, there is a sensibility of innovation, critical thinking, and multidisciplinarity that is characteristic of the culture of MIT. Now, in the current phase, with an eye toward integration, the dialogue that is happening across disciplines really has an ability to resonate across platforms. Part of that is also curricular. Obviously, we have studios, structures courses, history courses, and all that. But beyond seminars, we also have workshops. Workshops tend to be courses that are not taught by one discipline group, but multiple discipline groups at the same time; teams of professors from various discipline groups—say the Media Lab, Building Technology, and Design—undertake a project which may have a research phase, followed by a design phase, with its conclusion including a field construction somewhere in the world where its impact on the community may be tested and explored. So it’s exploratory, it’s integrative, and at the end it’s rooted in implementation.
The other thing that is critical to our core curriculum right now is that we have disbanded the linearity of learning technical skills. Drawing by hand, drawing by computer, and drawing by computation—by code, lets say—have all emerged as a kind of three-pronged set of intellectual skills. The first is about hand-to-eye coordination, the second a sort of mouse-to-software coordination, and the third is numeric in nature or code based. One doesn’t lead to the other; they are different and parallel forms of thinking. In order to be conceptually sophisticated you’re required to be technically knowledgeable—we recognize that there is reciprocity between the two. In tandem with that, at the end of the first semester core, students are immersed in the FABLab to take on the project of not only fabrication and digital construction, but also of interactive technologies, electronics, and mixed media. Students can begin to imagine that we, as architects, are here not merely to react to consultants and to coordinate different discipline groups, but that we can actually activate that thinking up front. So by the time you get into the second semester, you’re expected to have a more sophisticated understanding of making, such that you’re not waiting until advanced-level studios to take on problems of building. You’re actually thinking through problems of fabrication in a generative and speculative way in the early stages of your education.
Being a school of technology, we’re also attempting to define a culture that doesn’t necessarily compete with other schools of architecture; instead, we’re looking more deeply within the history and organization of MIT, to draw out the best of its potentials and to play out our own unique strengths, things that could never happen in other institutions.
sP: What do you see as the role of history and theory right now at MIT, or where do you see that fitting into the curriculum of the contemporary student?
NT: The legacy and the history of the HTC program at MIT is incredibly strong and uncontested. Stanford Anderson and Mark Jarzombek have had a lot to do with that, by now, both having educated generations of key voices in other schools. At the same time, our challenges today in the arena of HTC are slightly different than in the previous generation. Around 20 or 30 years ago, certain “schools of thought” were sustained and broadcasted by way of distinct institutions—that’s why we can point to unique cultural distinctions between what defined Cooper Union, Cornell, and RISD of the early ’80s. In turn, intellectual scholarships were developed under those auspices in various media, from design to theory, and even historical subject matters. As students, we had a more clear orientation toward the various schools of thought, their leaders, and their critical voices as a basis for interrogation or challenge. New platforms, polemics, and debates had both a more clear point of departure as well as a better articulated context for evaluation.
With the explosion of technologies—both generative technologies as well as communicative ones—the hierarchy that was once assumed between the masters and the students has all but disappeared. The student in Isfahan, Valparaiso, and New Orleans all have similar abilities to access information, and as a consequence, knowledge. And with a certain aptitude they can produce a range of things—research, artifacts, and processes—that challenge “authorities” at a moment in time when they could never have in previous decades. This has lead to the democratization of education, creating conditions whereby the geographically marginal and economically disenfranchised have virtually the same access to education as the elite that are enrolled in the various advanced education programs. Beyond Archinect, Dezeen, and Dezain, most all lectures are recorded these days, not to mention online courses that are accessible to all, now being developed on the MIT-Harvard axis. The line between high and low culture, in terms of education, is also being erased, whereby browsing for socks from Banana Republic can happen at the same time as one is listening to a MIT lecture or reading a pdf online.
So what are the critical questions for the historians and the theoreticians? What is at stake? What are the theoretical parameters that make something architectural or relevant? And how do you instill intellectually in young students a critical barometer such that, with all of the empowerment to access information and to instrumentalize technology, they develop a more broad, critical, and discerning judgment with an eye toward how to contextualize design as part of a larger cultural phenomenon? Thus, beyond an examination of the specific content in our history courses, from Palladio to Semper and beyond, I think we need to ask how technology has impacted our way of learning, and how history, theory, and criticism are being implicated by other forms of information out there. On the one hand, this is an opportunity to deepen the students’ access to knowledge, beyond that of the Western world. But on the other hand, this is an opportunity to forge alternative relationships between HTC courses and design, with more breadth, to create alliances that impact contemporary thought.
sP: Do you see certain baggage coming in with the students at MIT—whether societal, cultural, or technical?
NT: Well, some of the baggage is predictable. The current generation seems to respond to the narrative of ecological doom. And MIT is perfect for this, because somehow the myth of technology is like a little cloud over our head, linking us to sustainability, research, and technological apparatus that come with its culture. So these days we see a lot of thesis projects that deal with the global scale of ecological challenges—and they’re trying to address them through a building. I say this with a tinge of humor, of course. And while I obviously respect the political acuteness of their ambitions, it is also increasingly evident that many have forgotten the domain of expertise over which we can have the best impact. What has been lost is the students’ ability to discern what architecture’s agency is—architecture can do certain things, it cannot do other things. As voting citizens we can achieve certain things, but as architects we need to act through architecture’s instruments: drawings, planning devices, models, and those devices that are particular to the medium. Both are different forms of empowerment, but both cannot do the same thing.
On the lighter side, MIT is a bit nerdy; it’s cool to be a little bit uncool. So we will have students bringing in a wide range of interests that are somehow peripheral to a classic architecture program, but can gain a certain weight here. Our course, “How to Make (Almost) Anything” has a mythical presence within the curriculum and has been the stage for many experiments and speculations that could not be done elsewhere. Because of this, students also tend to be quite particular about “specifications,” going beyond the traditional fascination with form or parametrics to take on the protocols of integration, electronics, and interactive technologies.
The ambitions of our collaborations with John Fernandez and John Ochsendorf reflect this sensibility as well: when we do speculations on structures or environments, there is an intense balance between notions of performance and aesthetics, so that the kind of calibration and alignment between formal agendas and technical agendas are tested in those arenas. And certainly there is a student body that is responsive to that.
sP: What do you see as the current relationship between your academic and professional practice roles?
NT: As a leader, and as the head of five discipline groups, I exercise my power through debate, not through a model that emulates my professional practice. I am very forceful about what I do in my own office, but at school I operate differently. Even when I teach studio, there is a very different sense that we are working with paradigms, with larger cultural frameworks, and with different ideological preconditions; ultimately, it is the students that need to drive their work. And that is what we are trying to radicalize, not so much my own methodology, style, or agenda. Of course, my own “voice” naturally comes through, so I’m sure some of that casts a shadow on the work. But there are many other strong voices at MIT. Ana Miljacki, Sheila Kennedy, Meejin Yoon, Mark Goulthorpe . . . all have a clear presence! If you go down the roster you realize that, beyond them, those of a younger generation—among them Liam O’Brien, Cristina Parreño, Joel Lamere, and now Miho Mazereeuw—all have very well-developed stances and agendas too.
sP: Are there any projects that you would point out as examples for us to look at—things from the last year or two that you find exciting, whether a seminar, research studio, or fabrication?
NT: There are too many to enumerate, but some examples stand out: for instance, Skylar Tibbits, who is one of our professors, is also a graduate of MIT. He is exemplary of MIT culture because of the way his interests have bridged Architecture, Computation, Engineering, and the Media Lab almost seamlessly. And so you can’t easily categorize him, but he’s always up to something interesting, much of which you might have seen on the TED talks. The “Self-Assembly Line” is just one of those things.
Alexander D’Hooghe is another one of our key voices. He is the new head of the Center for Urbanism and also the director of the Organization for Permanent Modernity—his projects on the “Big Box”, on “Infrastructure,” and on the territorial scale are all key elements, not only of his oeuvre, but of the research and work that is being done under his wing in the SMArchS (Master of Science in Architecture Studies) program.
Felecia Davis is part of my generation, but she came back to school for her PhD. She’s doing some interesting work, looking at 3-D printed, multi-material, weave-textile strategies. She is one of many PhD students that are central to our culture.
I think MIT is still best described through the focus of the different discipline groups, especially when they overlap with each other. That is unique to MIT and something which other schools cannot easily replicate.