The creative moment in architecture has been conceived of in many ways: in the personal struggles of the author as well as the collective processes that invite discursive dialogue. The question being posed can be taken in both ways, but maybe the most interesting aspect of the architectural process is how the personal process is lodged within larger cultural debates, where the architect as protagonist is not isolated in her or his alleged genius, but serves instead as an interlocutor with history—engaging other architects, building, arguments and debates not only of one’s time, but across eras. In this sense, the challenge of editing, correcting, transforming and advancing others’ projects is a mainstay of the architectural practice, and indeed part of its educational process. Even eschewing questions of plagiarism, theoretical differentiations have been made between the idea of ‘model’ and ‘type’, the former referring to a more mimetic process, while the latter leaving much more latitude to operate within the framework of conventional organizations and configurations.
One instance where I dealt with this process of ‘admiration’ and ‘amelioration’ was for the occasion of the Issam Fares Institute Building at the American University of Beirut. Pitted in competition against Zaha Hadid, an alumna of the University and a significant architect of our time, it offered us the freedom to address the competition not so much with the aim to win–since we had tabulated the political probabilities—but to advance a notion that could only have conceptual and academic value. In a location close to the heart of campus, we discovered that the building site was set in a dense bosk of trees, making its context more in dialogue with nature rather than other buildings of the campus. Our project set out to acknowledge that context in a figurative way, and place itself as a stealth signifier, a cameleonic organization amongst the trees. In studying Toyo Ito’s iconic Tod’s Omotesando project, we came to the realization that the arboreal figuration of its facades were only just that, skin deep. For this reason, we set out to transform what we understood to be an incomplete project, embedding in his organizational system the possibility of structural, spatial, and programmatic contingencies. In doing so, we could essentially project that icon into the third dimension, but more importantly to thicken its conceptual plot and, in turn, advance it’s architectural argument.
Rendering for the Issam Fares Institute Building at the American University of Beirut, Zaha Hadid Architects, photo: Projekt Cyan
— Nader Tehrani is a Professor and Head of the Department of Architecture at MIT SA+P. He is also Principal and Founder of NADAAA, a practice dedicated to the advancement of design innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, and an intensive dialogue with the construction industry.