Reconstructing architecture: Office dA

May 19, 2009

Office dA founding partner Nader Tehrani speaks with AR about materiality, construction and why research matters to architectural practice.

DN: The impression I have is that your practice is really an old-fashioned architectural practice where you turn your hand to everything, where as designers you’re not restricted to a certain area, I think there’s an of incredible sense of adventure that’s restrained by a very exact conception of what the project should be.

NT: First of all, you know that Monica and I are both urban designers. By practice, most of our projects are within the strictly architectural area. And of course we do interiors, furniture, products, so the range of scales tends to be quite vast. I do think there’s a world of difference between urban design, architecture and industrial design, but that’s because the parameters and key issues of each should not be confused with each other. But insofar as there are differences it’s maybe not helpful to stick so tightly to definitions such as what is the design of a city versus what is the design of a cup, because there are certain issues that may actually translate across the board that have been suppressed. Which is why you’ve seen, for instance, so much critical investigation around the blurred edges between architecture and landscape architecture over the last decade or so. People have rejected the disciplinary enclosure between these different fields.

Basically, we were educated in the eighties at a moment when there were two dominant tendencies in the academic arena: one was kind of the tail end of post-modernism, the kind of re-evaluation of history, typology and things like that, and at least in the American context, much of the investment that had been made in prior generations in material studies or the building industry had basically been erased, which is why you got all of those stucco boxes that looked like basilicas or rotundas and made allusions to history. At the same time, there was another tendency that was looking outside of architecture towards literary criticism, philosophies and so forth, with the advent of deconstruction and all of that, where notions of negation, fragmentation found their counterpart in an architecture, well, that looked like fragments or looked like collages, and all of those, by the way, posed interesting challenges for the building industry, but their study and their bias was not really in the building industry. The building industry was seen as a veil through which they had to penetrate in order to materialise the theory.

I think maybe these were necessary moments in a certain sort of historical trajectory, but actually we were not interested in them. We basically launched our initial set of buildings in the early nineties as a systematic analysis and critique of each medium of construction; that’s why you have a house in wood, that’s why you have a house in terracotta, one in concrete, a chapel in glass, and so forth. So for better or worse, the artificial isolation of a technology for each project was a way for us to identify a cultural convention: terracotta, Venezuela; clapboard, Alabama; precast, Arizona; stone, Toledo. So in a way we used the material as a way of inscribing, almost in stealth, certain conventions on projects, and then because of the redundancy of mono-materiality, the obsessive overuse of a certain medium to demonstrate how that medium can be radicalised. If you use that same material for floor walls, ceiling, roof, these have different performative requirements, they have different structural functions, they have different phenomenal relationships. The question was: how do you underline them in different ways? So the kind of brick and block transformations you see in Casa La Roca are precisely a demonstration of the limits of a certain materials set. Whereas in a normative architecture the greatness comes from an understanding that a floor is a floor, a partition is a partition, a hung ceiling is a hung ceiling and a structure is a structure. I would say this is the way architecture does and should work. To do what we do is to artificially project onto it a requirement which problematises something in order to solve it; we produce a problem in order to solve it.

As we were rejecting what we saw was happening in America, we were also looking at Spain [and] Switzerland. We were looking at these other practices within elements of our own, because they were able to transform the material foundations of the discipline. To some degree, Frank Gehry did that in America. I’m not a huge fan of the way in which Gehry works, but he’s always consistent, and the by-product of what he does is always challenging how the industry works. In the early work it was the kind of exposure and delamination of the construction industry, but later when he did all of those metal sheeting buildings, it was not – it was through dematerialisation. When you look at them, you don’t see the means and methods of construction, but he had to invent a building industry here that would work with him.

I think we were fascinated by the idea that the architect could lay claim, once again, to an area where they had become completely impotent. Architects, at least in the US, cannot determine the means and methods of construction, that’s a legal statute, and architects cannot determine the pricing and the value of construction, because contractors do that. Those two things alone render the architect effectively obsolete in the context of a terrain that is debatably the most important area of our concern. At Mantra, the restaurant, the Hookah Den was bid out at $200,000 – that was the budget of half of the restaurant. You can’t spend half of the budget on some stupid installation in the corner. So we realise, OK, we’re not going to be able to build this unless we build it ourselves. It was built with a drawing that was suspended on the ceiling with plum lines that identified each intersection of the stacked loops, relatively simple. You work with string and gravity. The point is that no matter how well we did our math, we came out to $30,000, so we basically took it out of the contractor’s scope. We built it ourselves. Now there are problems with that because you expose yourself to liability, but basically it gives you ownership over something that you were robbed of. So in short, you get people like us taking the industry on by just building it ourselves or taking it over, or you get the good traditional architects who understand so much about pricing they can sit around the conference table with clients and contractors and know exactly where to target the questions so that the contractors can’t get away with certain shenanigans.

DN: Australian architects tend to talk about the skins of their buildings as functioning in a way which is performative and complex, while in fact they’re generally very simple things made out of sliding screens or louvres, whereas your buildings are elaborate, problematised constructions. They’re not easy pieces of construction, they’re bristling with problems. You’ve challenged the perceptions of budgetary restrictions in your work, and I think the same possibilities are available to Australian architects here should they wish to pursue them.

NT: We went through a range of experiments where slowly we realised that we were compressing the structure and skin together, and finally structure became the morphological and parametric envelope for the entire development, where the entire building, skin, structure, envelope, is operating synchronically together. And then there are actual structural experiments that we have done, like some of our installations, the ICA one was a failed structural experiment, which is why the China one was a successful structural experiment. After this meeting, we’re going to go over to Monash University, and we’re going to have discussions about research. It’s very evident what historical research is to historians, because they know what they’re debating about: archival research, primary, secondary sources, theoretical overlays on those sources and so forth. Engineering research is prototype testing and so forth, when you talk about biomedical research, there are lab studies, but nobody knows what research is in a design context, and how you get tenure or what’s valid as fundable. It appears that Australia is going through that same kind of discussion also that we go through in the States. So part of it is to determine what can Monash do that others cannot do here? What are certain research platforms that they could embark on, and what is different about constructing a curriculum today as compared to 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago?

The bigger question to all of us is, as we look down the road, how much are architects going to dirty their hands with the processes that pre-empt architecture; architects who have become developers, architects who have become client consultants for patronage purposes, architects who get involved in the building industry who change the way things are built, whether it’s through digital fabrication or otherwise? Architects who change the way schools work as a foundation for the way that the discipline is practised, architects who are involved in new conceptualisations of software, BIM models and things like that, that change the way people work with each other on- and off-site. All of this for me is a significant restructuring of the foundations of power, usually there’s a conventional triangulation between client, contractor and architect, so there’s redistribution of responsibilities that can possibly give us more control or give us more say in the dialogue. And, at the same time, give us access to building possibilities we lost over the last 30, 40 years.

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