On Writing: Nader Tehrani and Katie Faulkner

Modern Usage (modernuseage.org) is a new interview publication previewing here at v.1. We carry one theme across multiple disciplines, inviting professionals in art and design fields to speak frankly about how their practices contribute to conversations surrounding theory, pedagogy, and professional methodologies. In Fall 2016–Spring 2017, our interviews focused on the role of writing in design practice.

Nader Tehrani is founder and principal and Katie Faulkner is principal of the Boston- and New York-based architecture firm NADAA. Tehrani is Dean of the Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture.

MU: The issue we’re interested in this semester is the role of writing in architecture. Your upcoming lecture will consider how domestic spaces function as a sort of amuse-bouche, a testing ground for ideas that can be applied to larger projects. Building on that notion, what kinds of architectural qualities or ideas can be tested out in writing and later applied in practice?

NT: Not everything translates across media. On the one hand, there are the instruments that produce forms, spaces, and materials, and on the other hand, there are ideas whose main presence comes in the form of words. Certainly ideas and words have a role, but not in the same way as techniques of drawing, representation, or construction, whose agency can be argued to contain ideas beyond their actual utterance through language. Whether ideas come through an essay, through prose, or poetry, there is a shared medium: words, whose grammar and syntax produce a different framework for the medium to evolve. Likewise, small houses function as amuse-bouche for larger projects because they involve the same raw matter as a foundation for thinking. So, understanding the instrumentality of a certain domain, a medium, is the first step to coming to terms with your question.

I think the more difficult question that constantly amuses and escapes us is the delicate relationship between words and images. You know the painting by Magritte, Ceci n’est pas un pipe? It’s all about that slippery relationship between the word and the image, between what is uttered and how it relates—or doesn’t relate—to a picture. As architects, we are constantly forced to negotiate this relationship when we describe our architecture in relation to our intentions. There’s never a tight fit between the two.

KF: You remind me of particular tomes that were often referenced when I was in school. There were certain books that architects were drawn to—think of Invisible Cities by Calvino—that whole studios could be taught around, and they spawned a tremendous body of work. Drawings, perspectives, and models—all things of the imagination, but this literature was almost image-like in its provocative nature. It’s something that I don’t see very much anymore, but it was quite common when I was in school in the early ’90s. One could actually found a thesis on a body of literature, and then build a project from it. I was recently on studio reviews at the University of Toronto, and we talked about the legitimacy of one’s thesis being founded on something so imaginative. Was that really on the same level as a serious tectonic and buildable endeavor? The answer was yes; it’s no less difficult and no less challenging, but I think it’s less fashionable. I think that if you had come to me twenty years ago we could have pointed to a number of famous pieces of music, literature, and fine art that have inspired architects and studios. So I think it’s a very important question, and if you blew the dust off of it you would actually find that there’s a great deal there.

NT: Maybe you provoked a larger question about the connection between design and the humanities. The more technically advanced the means and methods of representation have become in the last twenty years, particularly through innovations in software, the more the humanities have retreated in the context of architecture schools. At a very young age, students are able to single-handedly deploy such a vast array of tools that it would seem that they do not need a broader cultural framework. But arguably a deeper foundation in philosophy, critical thinking, and literature, for instance, would only stand to expand the ways in which to make connections across media. This is a timely moment to reconsider how we restructure curricula and pedagogies to address this question.

—Interview conducted and edited by Kevin Crouse (MArch 2018) and Giacomo Sartorelli (BArch 2019) in Spring 2017