Panorama Setting: Widening Perspectives at The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture

POSTED ON: August 29, 2022

Nader Tehrani

Photo: Mersiha Veledar

In 2016, Dean Nader Tehrani told an interviewer at Interior Design magazine his goal as dean of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture: “I want to open up the doors of [T]he Cooper Union to the world, to a variety of debates and the challenges of our time.” That tall order was one he has fulfilled systematically—a reconsidered and expanded curriculum, the hiring of four new full-time faculty, new opportunities for study abroad and collaborations with other institutions, countless exciting guest lecturers and visiting faculty—and with extraordinary heart as a figure ever participating in the life of the school. Lydia Kallipoliti, assistant professor of architecture, sums up the breadth of his commitment: “Dean Tehrani showed us that to be a leader and a caring human are not contradictory. It is rare, at best, to witness in a person unwavering generosity, yet filtered with a critical insight.”

This past spring, Tehrani stepped down from his post as dean of Cooper’s architecture school, a position he’d held since July 2015. A highly regarded figure of the art and architecture firmament, Tehrani, who was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in May 2021, has worked to instill a global sensibility to students, faculty, and the Cooper community at large. That effort has above all entailed questioning architecture’s civic and public role, often pushing for a wider view than the scale of individual building sites and city blocks. As he wrote in a 2016 blog post, “the urban impact is no longer about the study of cities, but the study of the globe, the earth.” With the school of architecture now looking ahead to a new administrative chapter, it seems clear the changes stewarded under Tehrani’s deanship have, as President Laura Sparks puts it, “marked a significant step forward, positioning Cooper to support its architecture students in their pursuit of critical, interdisciplinary work that addresses pressing universal concerns, from racial equity to affordable housing to climate change.”

Evolving Curriculum & the Arc of Leadership

For Tehrani, the evolution of Cooper’s architecture curriculum has meant moving forward without losing sight of the past. Before becoming dean, he was well aware of the august history of that position first filled by John Hejduk A’50 from 1975 to 2000. Besides being an architect and educator of great merit and renown, Hejduk developed a pedagogy that has been central to architecture education. Following Hejduk from 2002 to 2013, the architecture historian Anthony Vidler served as the school’s second dean. Vidler, an expert on French architecture, launched initiatives to re-invigorate exhibition programs and engage students in current social issues—initiatives that have continued to gain momentum. Tehrani notes that when he joined Cooper, Vidler, along with Professor Elizabeth O’Donnell, then associate dean, provided “infinite support” as he fashioned ways to build on the work of his two predecessors. He discovered that “while Hejduk’s legacy still loomed monumental, his immediate presence was long enough in the past that it came to serve as important ‘historical’ matter to be researched rather than mythicized.”

At the same time, Tehrani understood his role as being one of advocate for discourses once thought to be outside of the architectural canon. Notably, he hired four new full-time faculty (there were three when he arrived), bringing with them a breadth of research interests: climate change and the environment; design and fabrication; social justice; and design and digital technologies. Facilitating ongoing discussion among faculty and students has also been instrumental to Tehrani’s championing of non-canonical perspectives. Alumna Chloe Fan AR’18, co-founder of Design with FRANK, a digital platform for people to design their own houses, says that Tehrani and the atmosphere he created at Cooper made for rich dialogue pertinent to the field: “Those discussions ranged from the tools of architecture, technology, representation, and conceptual urban ideology, and in those discussions, I learned more about architecture professionally and academically than ever before.”

Like the deans who preceded him, Tehrani eschewed the teaching of architecture as reducible to a set of technical skills. Instead, he and his faculty have approached architectural pedagogy as one that encourages students to get comfortable with uncertainty, to avoid simplistic, either-or solutions, and to seek answers through dialogue. Tehrani himself was often an active interlocutor for students, particularly in design critiques and studio visits.

“One of the key highlights of my teaching under his leadership,” Professor Mersiha Veledar AR’03 says, “includes the first summer we spent preparing—and rigorously reworking—the details of the new first-year studio sequence.” That work, she explains, was accomplished “through the development of novel concepts, tools, and techniques in architectonics in tandem with all concurrent first-year courses and a deep care towards our incoming students. This undertaking resulted in the receipt of the prestigious Studio Prize from Architect Magazine for a top studio in North America.” Cooper’s was the only first-year undergraduate studio to be awarded the prize that year. She notes that what she called the dean’s “brilliance and rigorous dedication” to the school’s curriculum has had visible results. “Our students’ work has never looked stronger,” she says.

In part, that may be a result of Tehrani’s changes to curriculum, which gave students the chance to explore the relationship between design decisions and the social contract, and his obvious respect for his students and their quest to align the field of architecture with social justice. In a 2021 interview with the journal PLAT, he said, “What is interesting about the way that the students have fashioned this discussion is that they have formed a much broader conversation about decolonization, absorbing themes into it which often do not necessarily focus on the formal, spatial, and material aspects of the built environment. They have articulated that it is not just about race: it is about multiculturalism, climate equity, gender, and a range of other social issues that impact the world today.”

According to Professor Michael Young, Tehrani’s investigations into the pedagogy of architecture proved to be particularly meaningful with respect to digital technology, which he regarded not as an end in itself, but as a potential tool to aid students as they develop their understanding, techniques, and aesthetics. Students have explored those possibilities by way of the IDC Foundation AACE Lab, which opened during Tehrani’s tenure, gallery exhibitions of cutting-edge uses of digital tools, and lectures given by contemporary practitioners using innovative materials and technology. “As important as these instances are to the culture of the school,” says Young, “equally important has been the constant inclusion of seminars and studios that focus on the digital impacts on architecture from a multitude of directions, be they socially, politically, ecologically, materially, or aesthetically directed. Dean Tehrani’s support for bringing these courses into the school has opened many new ways for our students to explore and find their own voices in relation to the ever intersecting virtual and physical environment.”

Looking Further Afield

To nurture a more global curriculum, Tehrani set out to provide students with ample opportunities to study outside of the Cooper studio setting. In 2016, students traveled to Mexico City for 10 days as part of their third-year studio. It was the first time in Cooper’s recent history that the school of architecture had offered students a chance to travel in conjunction with their studio course, which required them to conduct analyses of a building from myriad perspectives: relation to street grid, materials, history, and other aspects of its architecture. A student at the time, Kevin Savillon AR’19 asked Tehrani if a site visit abroad could be part of the curriculum. He found that the dean showed “immediate interest in having an ‘on the ground’ research component.” While there, the group, which included Tehrani himself, was able to explore buildings normally off limits to the public and meet with scholars versed in the architecture under study, such as the campus of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), the Museo de Antropología, and Casa Barragáns.

At the time, Professor Elizabeth O’Donnell AR’83 told the student newspaper, The Pioneer, “To study something abstractly—through photographs and structural concepts—is one thing, but to actually climb the shell and feel the curvature in your bones and walk the scale yourself is another thing entirely.”

Tehrani continued to give students that invaluable experience by arranging collaborations with other schools and nonprofits for the new third-year housing studio, which was introduced while he was dean. One year, for instance, students worked with HelpUSA while it designed and built affordable housing in East New York. Veledar, who coordinated that year’s integrated building studio, credits Tehrani with providing an opportunity “where our students learned to develop design experiments in collective housing ideas that directly helped reduce homelessness in New York.”

Other collaborative opportunities came in the form of studios that brought students to Kansas, Hong Kong, Chicago, and Vicenza. Some of that work was also aimed at large exhibitions at the Shenzhen Biennale, Festival des Architectures Vives in Montepellier, and the Venice Biennale. Tehrani and his team ensured that students were exposed to as many experiences as possible on campus as well, including a joint event with Public Art Fund that brought Ai Wei Wei to the Great Hall and a 2017 partnership with the City of New York to install two structures by John Hejduk in front of the Foundation Building. All of that, Tehrani notes, was undertaken in service of a larger academic goal: to learn from the world while also giving back to it.

A Multitude of Voices & Viewpoints

A similar effort to expose students to the world beyond Cooper has hinged on bringing a greater variety of ideas and viewpoints to campus, aligning with an institution-wide emphasis on advancing diversity of thought. To that end, Tehrani invited some of the most renowned practitioners in architecture and adjacent fields—Eva Franch I Gilabert, Lesley Lokko, Joshua Ramus, Deborah Mesa—to teach as visiting professors. Guest speakers were equally diverse in their perspectives: Samia Henni, Mario Gooden, Mpho Matsipa, and Anooradha Siddiqi in collaboration on the topic of (anti/post/de)-colonial practices; Andrew Freer and Rusty Smith, who run the famed Rural Studio, considered the economic and environmental costs of architecture; Ilze and Heinrich Wolff of Wolff Architects, based in Cape Town, South Africa, discussed their work investigating the inequity of the city’s history and how their practice brings light to those injustices.

While some of Tehrani’s invited speakers focused on materials and technology, they always also asked social questions, contextualizing architecture in relation to global crises of environment, politics, and war. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, for instance, Tehrani interviewed Tim Slade, an Australian filmmaker whose work documents the ways that combatants target architecture in an attempt to erase competing cultures. (Tehrani himself wrote eloquently on the subject in January 2020 for The Architect’s Newspaper.) Placing architecture in conversation with a plurality of voices reflects the dean’s refusal to “essentialize” Cooper education and his goal of instead building what he calls “a space of convergence” where “necessary frictions can be absorbed by the collegiality of opposing views.”

A Legacy of Giving

Tehrani recently summed up his legacy: “I created platforms for others to be heard.” To keep those platforms accessible for the foreseeable future, he put effort into creating new endowments and building existing funds. With the help of recent alumni, the Sue Gussow Scholarship Fund and the Diane Lewis Memorial Travel Fellowship were created to provide resources for students in the School of Architecture in honor of current and past faculty. He also established the Tehrani Endowment Fund to support the annual Fariba Tehrani Lecture, and the NADAAA Endowment, which brings visiting critics to the school. Under his leadership, the William Cooper Mack Fellowship, established in 2008 to afford a thesis-year student to engage deeply in research, has grown to be awarded on an annual basis, and the student lecture series will be fully funded thanks to the generosity of Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown. In his final year, he has also focused on efforts to establish a fund to support programs at the intersection of architecture and the humanities, led by alumni Jesse Reiser AR’81 and Nanako Umemoto AR’83, and lent his own support toward fundraising in honor of John Hejduk to focus on underrepresented, early-career faculty voices in architecture. With all these new funding opportunities, Tehrani’s goal is to further engage and encourage alumni to keep supporting The Cooper Union, especially as the college continues to advance its plan toward a more sustainable fiscal future and increasing scholarship support for undergraduates. Tehrani himself has already been exceptionally generous to the school via personal donations and those given from his firm, and through these gifts, he has committed further funds to promote a return to full-tuition scholarships and to draw the best professors and practitioners in the field to the school of architecture.

Associate Dean Hayley Eber AR’01 says that Tehrani “has been a transformational leader with a deep love for our students and passion for The Cooper Union.” And with all Tehrani has brought to Cooper—from hiring new faculty to revising the curriculum to greatly expanding opportunities for students and the donors who would like to support them—the next dean will step into a well-equipped architecture school, able to work from a strong foundation to shape their own vision and further advance what it means for students to be immersed in an architecture education at Cooper.

As he prepared to step down, Tehrani reflected on the support given to him by deans Vidler and O’Donnell during his early days at Cooper: “I hope to be able to do the same for the next dean. As for the future of The Cooper Union, I have created key opportunities for the incoming dean to make radical transformations and expansions in support of their conception of this place. I see Cooper Union as a dynamic pedagogical platform with the capacity of incorporating many other critical issues that our generation was unable to address.”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.